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Manish Mundra’s double role

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Image Credit: Chetan Singh

The managing director of a company in Nigeria lives out his childhood dream by starting a film studio in Mumbai that produces non-Bollywood cinema.

The moment someone suggests that the managing director of a petrochem company in Nigeria is the saviour of India’s independent cinema, it evokes incredulity. But then you may not have heard of Manish Mundra.

The 43-year-old, who helms Indorama Eleme Petrochemicals and is also the founder of Drishyam Films, doesn’t care for such plaudits. Nonetheless, his profile on the production house’s website describes him as “indie saviour”. But during our interview, Shiladitya Bora, Drishyam’s Mumbai-based CEO, asks me if I could steer clear of that label. “We’re not here to rescue anyone. We want to make good films commercially viable,” he says.

Mundra came under the spotlight in early 2015, a few months after his first two films Ankhon Dekhi and Umrika had made rounds of major film festivals and garnered critical praise. Both the small-budget films, with no big stars, went on to win awards at prestigious film festivals, including the Berlin International Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival. “I’m passionate about good films. If you give a film the right budget, it will do well,” says Mundra.

Stories about him often begin with the same anecdote—how he responded to a tweet by director Rajat Kapoor, who was frustrated that Bollywood producers refused to touch his “non-formulaic” script about an old man who decides he will believe only what he sees. “This was 2013-14, and I was looking to fund films,” says Mundra. He replied to Kapoor, asking for the script and promising to finance the film. In late 2014, Ankhon Dekhi was released to great reviews, although it didn’t recover its investment.

Soon enough, the media had declared Mundra the “messiah” and “patron saint” of indie filmmakers. As more scripts showed up, he realised that he needed to set up a full-fledged studio to manage the business. So, Drishyam Films was born in April last year. Its current annual turnover is around Rs 35 crore. But more on that in a bit.

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Ankhon Dekhi: The humdrum life of Old Delhi resident Raje Bauji gets a jolt when he discovers that his daughter is seeing a man of doubtful character. But when Raje Bauji meets the man, he takes an instant liking to him. Then on, he decides that he will believe only what he can see.

During our interview, conducted on Skype from his Nigeria office, Mundra is sitting at his desk, with a framed photograph of Singapore-based Indorama Corporation’s founder-chairman Sri Prakash Lohia on the wall behind him. When I ask him about his corporate career, he is reticent. “I don’t want to talk about my job at Indorama,” he says firmly. It takes some coaxing to get details of his professional life, which he’s been reluctant to share so far.

In 1997, he joined the Aditya Birla Group as a mid-level manager at its textile and building materials company Grasim. He then moved to other group companies such as Indian Rayon, Indo-Gulf Fertilisers, and finally to the aluminium manufacturer Hindalco. “I worked with [then managing director] Debu Bhattacharya as the head of Hindalco’s strategy division in 2000,” he says. Tasked with identifying businesses and geographies that Hindalco should move to, Mundra zeroed in on metals and fertilisers, which led to a series of mergers and acquisitions.

In 2003-04, Mundra moved to Jakarta to work with Indorama Corporation, which has businesses ranging from polyester and fabrics to medical gloves and fertilisers. Mundra started out as an independent strategist reporting to Lohia. His job was to identify potential lines of petrochemical business outside Indonesia. “I figured that Africa would see a growth in business and demand. Nigeria, the most populated and with the most hydrocarbon resources, was the perfect choice [as the base],” he says.

In 2004, Indorama acquired Nigeria’s state-owned Eleme Petrochemicals for $225 million (Rs 1,421 crore). According to a 2012 report in Forbes Africa, the company had been “underperforming for years”. After supervising the acquisition, Mundra went on to become managing director.

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Masaan: Two parallel narratives on the search for liberation run through this film set in Varanasi. One is about a girl trying to overcome her guilt when her boyfriend is driven to suicide after the police find them together in a hotel room during a raid and blackmail them. The other is about a youth pursuing an engineering degree to unshackle himself from his low-caste experience.  

Eleme has since commissioned large-scale fertiliser projects, making use of its access to Nigeria’s huge gas reserves (natural gas is a raw material for ammonia production, which is used to make nitrogen fertilisers). In 2013, it commissioned a $1.5 billion fertiliser project, the largest facility of its kind in West Africa. “We’re also the world’s largest urea manufacturer, producing 1.5 million tonnes every year,” says Mundra.

However, in February, Nigeria’s House of Representatives announced that it would conduct a probe into Eleme’s sale to Indorama. According to the Nigerian newspaper The Guardian, the house accepted allegations from a member that compared to the $2.4 billion the Nigerian government had invested in Eleme, it was sold for a throwaway price of $215 million. Mundra declined to comment on the issue.

Born in Deoghar, Bihar (now in Jharkhand), Mundra went to school in the pilgrimage town, and rounded off his formal education with an MBA from Jodhpur University. “The childhood in Deoghar was a bad phase,” he says. “I had to earn while continuing my education.” He finished school doing odd jobs on the side through the ’70s.

During those tough times, Hindi films were his only window to the outside world. “My friends and I would spend hours discussing movie scenes, analysing characters, and debating endings”. He discovered that what he really wanted to do was tell stories through film. He decided that if he ever made films, they would be low-budget, realistic, and based on human relationships. His premise was that there is “a value system beyond the Hindi film sanskaar [the ethos that Bollywood films often dwell on]”. That thinking was reinforced as Mundra gained more exposure to global cinema when he began to travel abroad in 2004-05. (When I ask him to name a film or a filmmaker that stayed with him, he promises to e-mail a list to me, but I didn’t get one.)

But how did he pull off an arrangement to live his dream of making films by dividing his time as he wishes, especially in a family-owned business? “I’ve worked the company [Indorama] to a position where it’s stable,” he says. “I don’t have an agreement, but I have an understanding with Mr Lohia that I can go ahead and pursue my passion [for films].”

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Dhanak: Ten-year-old Pari makes a promise to restore her blind brother Chotu’s eyesight within a year. When she comes across a poster of Shahrukh Khan making a eye-donation appeal, she sets off on a road trip with Chotu to see if the superstar can help fulfil her promise.

Mundra keeps a hectic schedule across three countries. On weekdays he is at work at Eleme. During weekends, Mundra flies to Dubai to be with his family. He says he chose Dubai for home as it is the closest place from Nigeria which has good schools that follow the Indian school system. To keep track of his film business, he makes short monthly trips to Mumbai. Mundra says he’s not too involved in the business side of Drishyam. “I have a team that runs it. I barely spend a day in a month in Mumbai doing this.”

Bollywood producers and financiers are often a shadowy bunch, dogged by allegations of money laundering and links to vague businesses. But Mundra refuses to let that deter him. He’s put in around Rs 20 crore of his own money so far, he says, and counting contributions from his “associates”, Drishyam has about Rs 30 crore as of now.

He is convinced that he, along with CEO Bora, is building a sustainable business, turning a profit on movies that have neither the stars nor the big promotion budgets of Bollywood hits. “We’ll create an ecosystem that self-sustains,” Mundra says. “It’s possible with a tight commercial regime. We’re producing three to four films a year that should make enough money to fund the next three to four.”

Drishyam is a sole proprietorship business, with Mumbai-based Bora running the day-to-day activities. “Shila [Bora] and I got to know one another during [the filming of] Ankhon Dekhi [which PVR distributed],” says Mundra. After a stint at PVR, with the multiplex chain and film distributor’s Director’s Rare platform for alternative cinema, Bora found his dream of running a studio fall on his lap when Mundra asked him to run Drishyam.

He has entrusted Bora with sourcing scripts, getting them approved, and finalising the budgets for each project.  He has also put in place compensation methods that are different from Bollywood’s. For example, writers, directors, and actors get a share of the profits from their film instead of a lumpsum fee, which is the Bollywood norm. That way, the producers save money on fees in case the film tanks, but it also encourages the cast and the crew to put in their best. Think of it as ESOPs for the team. Mundra also says he’s hoping that digital platforms such as Netflix and YouTube will make distribution cheaper and help smaller films make profits.

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In the meantime, Mundra has given Drishyam a cash cow—a visual effects studio called Drishyam VFX. Big-budget Bollywood films are constantly in need of visual effects and Mundra says this will bring in a steady income to hedge against films that may not do well. “We will feed on high-budget commercial cinema, and use the profit to make our small films,” says Mundra.

Clearly, the idea of producing indie films that make money has driven studios like Drishyam to figure out how to make them viable. Another production house, JAR Pictures, has even used private equity to fund the Marathi film Killa. Alan McAlex, who founded JAR along with Ajay G. Rai, says that almost all their films (such as Liar’s Dice in 2013 and Nil Battey Sannata in 2016) are indie, but they are clear that “the investment has to make sense... Every film has to be made so that it can recover the money.”

To curb costs, JAR often gets crew members who are willing to work for less just to be part of a challenging project. It is also using platforms such as Netflix and film festivals to open up new revenue streams. “Nil Battey Sannata did well at the box office, but we also earned from digital platforms,” says McAlex. “Liar’s Dice got revenue from iTunes and other SVOD [streaming and video on demand] platforms.”

Bora is taking a similar route and keeps adding his own bits along the way. He sold the satellite and online broadcast rights of Drishyam’s latest release, Dhanak, at a premium on Netflix. He also roped in children’s fiction writer Anushka Ravishankar to write a novel based on the film’s screenplay. Besides getting a share of the royalties from the book, it will help market the film among children, who are a chunk of its target audience. Dhanak, which cost around Rs 7 crore, had recovered Rs 3.9 crore till June.

Bora has also found cash in film festivals, where Bollywood is more likely to look for publicity and support. “Nowadays, film festivals are like IIT coaching centres—there’s one in every corner,” he says. “We work hard to get to category A festivals such as Cannes. But for other lesser-known festivals that want to show our films, we ask for a fee. I made Rs 23 lakh in six months this way,” Bora says, “Not bad, eh?”

Bora tells me in passing that he wants to turn Drishyam into a Miramax, the American studio famous for distributing indie films. But when I ask Mundra why he doesn’t move to Mumbai and make films full-time, he says he’s not interested. “I have a problem. I want to be the best wherever I am. If I end up in Mumbai, I know I will compete. And I don’t want to get into that [shady] world of producers. It can become a problem.” He seems to know his lines.