Berlin: Producer Manish Mundra Talks Indian Film Trends, Connecting With Creatives via Twitter

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

He also discusses juggling festival work with his career as CEO of a petrochemicals company

Producer Manish Mundra, 41, made his first two films after connecting with creatives via Twitter. Moreover, Ankhon Dekhi and Umrika won accolades both in India and abroad. The producer, who has been in the business for just over a year, now juggles his passion for film with his career as CEO of a petrochemicals company in Nigeria, shuttling to India's film capital Mumbai and various festivals.

Last year, Mundra was in the spotlight with his $83,000 contribution for the Mumbai Film Festival, which was facing a financial crunch due to a lack of sponsorships.

In Berlin, Mundra's latest production, Dhanak, premieres on Sunday, Feb. 8 in the Generation Kplus section vying for a Crystal Bear award.

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In a conversation with THR, Mundra explained what kind of films he backs and how Indian cinema is expanding beyond mainstream Bollywood.

You have just started out in the film business and have made quite an impact. How did your journey start?

Films have always been my passion, but I always knew that you have to be realistic about having your own financing – otherwise it’s difficult to get into the industry as an outsider. After my professional qualifications (MBA in finance and marketing from University of Jodhpur in Rajasthan), I pursued a corporate career spanning over 15 years, which has helped develop my business skills. Currently, I am employed as the CEO of petrochemicals company Indorama Eleme, based in Nigeria. My career has enabled me to use my spare earnings to invest in films. While I was always interested in films, I wanted to invest my own money and not depend on anybody. I also want to be totally independent and take decisions based on the content of the film without worrying too much about financial viability.

Your first production was last year's award-winning Ankhon Dekhi. How did that come about?

Being an outsider in the industry, one of the first things I did was to start following people whose work I admired. That included (actor-director) Rajat Kapoor (Monsoon Wedding) whom I also started following on Twitter. One day, he posted a message expressing his frustration at not being able to raise money for his film Ankhon Dekhi. I responded to his tweet and offered to finance his film. He sent me the script, which I liked, and that's how I produced the film.

You seem to have a magic touch when it comes to winning awards. Ankhon Dekhi picked up three Filmfare critics awards in India the same weekend your latest project Umrika won an audience award at Sundance.

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It’s great to see your work being honored. Umrika was already in production, and they had shot for about 30 days when they ran into financing problems. The film's co-producer Swati Shetty (a former Walt Disney India executive who runs her banner Samosa Stories) connected with me, also via Twitter, and sent me the script. I loved the story, and I decided to invest in the project. For Umrika, we have Beta Cinema from Germany handling world sales except North America, which is being handled by ICM Partners. After Sundance, we are now working out the release strategy for Umrika.

In Berlin, you have Dhanak (Rainbow) from director Nagesh Kukunoor. Tell us about the film!

Dhanak is a magical journey about a brother and a sister. The brother is blind, and his older sister promises him that he will be able to see again when he turns nine. It’s a lovely kids film with lots of emotion. It’s filmed in Rajasthan and has great songs as well. We have two versions – one with songs for the Indian market and the other without songs for the world market. Dhanak was selected for the Generation Kplus section, which focuses on children's cinema. (Last year, India had a winner in this section with Killa (The Fort), which won the Crystal Bear award.) We will be looking at European sales for Dhanak at Berlin and then take things forward from there.

You have set up your banner Drishyam. What kind of slate have you planned?

Drishyam is a new banner since, earlier, I was financing films under my name. Drishyam is co-producing writer-director Neeraj Ghaywan's Masan (an Indo-French co-production with director Anurag Kashyap-backed banner Phantom Films) and director Anu Menon's Waiting (starring actor Naseeruddin Shah and actress Kalki Koelchin). Also included in the slate is the experimental X - The Film, directed by 11 filmmakers.

How important are festivals for this new genre of Indian cinema?

For Umrika, Dhanak and Masan and other projects, my strategy is to first try and explore how they travel at festivals and markets since these are content-driven films. The idea is to make a breakthrough in various markets and then use that experience and advantage when we market the films back in India.

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How was your experience at Sundance with Umrika?

We were in the world cinema section with a sub-titled Hindi film. I attended three screenings which were packed. My barometer of a festival audience's interest in a film is in how many people stay back for the post-screening Q&A with the filmmakers. And for Umrika we had a good crowd asking us many questions which was very encouraging. I had faith in the film and that was also reconfirmed with positive reviews.

Indian cinema is going through a change with a new sensibility. What is your view on this trend?

This is real cinema. Today both filmmakers and audiences in India are getting increasingly exposed to world cinema and international trends. It’s quite common to now see day-and-date releases of major foreign films in India. And importantly, the international market and industry are also looking at India for a new kind of cinema, which can be universal. That's why this is the right time to work on the right kind of content.

Once people see a film like Ankhon Dekhi, they would also be interested in seeing Umrika. And that's how audiences can expand. I am actually inspired by how the Indian film industry is changing and exploring new forms beyond mainstream Bollywood. India has so many great stories to offer to the world. All the films that I back have a unique Indianness about them, which actually depicts the real India.