By Subhash K. Jha, Bollywood Hungama News Network
The guru of techno-savvy cinema, Mani Shankar, is ready with his fourth Hindi film Mukhbiir. Mani discusses his cinema with Subhash K Jha
From the outside it seems Mukhbiir enters a world we've never seen before...
The world of Indian espionage is a very grey zone. No one knows much about it. When I did my other film 16 December about the Indian Intelligence services I had taken the active support of the intelligence departments. Again for Mukhbiir, I went into rigorous research. When you make a film about verifiable branches of the government service you had better get your facts right. In Mukhbiir, we've actually used information about the Indian espionage service from the fields.
You started your Hindi film career with a bang…
You could say that. Business Today ranked 16 December among the Top 10 grossers of 2002. It grossed Rs. 14.2 crores when it was made at a budget of Rs 2 crores. In fact, my two subsequent films Rudraksh and Tango Charlie also economized way beyond what people saw on screen. It's a filmmaker's biggest concern to deliver the biggest bang for the buck. So the producer can laugh all the way to the 'bang'. I generally cut out all that's not being seen in the film. Until I hand over the film to the producer, I'm the producer. And I make sure I use the resources to the optimum. That's true of Mukhbiir as well.
You're the guru of techno-savvy cinema. How did that happen?
I'm a qualified engineer. In fact, a filmmaker should be knowledgeable about every department of filmmaking. For many of my music videos I was the cinematographer. Now, I know in one glance if a frame needs correction. Such across-the-board knowledge speeds the process of filmmaking. If, for instance, you bring on the special effects guys from outside they slow down the process. When I'm in charge I can take instant decisions. This certainly helps economize. According to me there're two aspects to filmmaking. The art and the craft. One without the other is useless. I felt I needed to get a better grasp on my art. I've done so in Mukhbiir.
How did Mukhbiir originate?
The story started in my mind in 1996 when I was in Kashmir shooting for an anti-militancy music video for the Intelligence Bureau. I encountered a young Intelligence recruit who had been captured by militants and tortured non-stop-he had cigarette burn- marks all over his back and shoulder. This boy was left on the streets by our government because it had no more use for him. This boy wandered on the streets of Kashmir waiting to be shot. That's where my story for Mukhbiir originated. I wanted to make a film about a boy standing in the last line in the game of politics that never gets the credit but finally gets the bullet...the so-called expendables whose life span in Intelligence work is 2-3 years. The facts that I found out about these boys all below the age of 20, all looking for thrills, who die in anonymity were stunning. Do you know they're sometimes finally killed by the government Intelligence when these boys are no longer useful? Sometimes they are traded off, other times they're bumped off. In Mukhbiir, Sammir Dattani plays one such government informer. Om Puri plays the 'handler' employed to training motivating and de-briefing the trainee. The emotional relationship between Om and Sammir is also a key to the film's theme. The emotion and pace go hand in hand. Mukhbiir is an honest commercial film. Though I've broken all formula my ticket-paying audience won't feel cheated.
Your earlier films were guilty of too much research too little emotions.
I admit to this. There was an overt focus on plot. One lives and learns. I like my other films too, though audiences couldn't follow Rudraksh. But in Mukhbiir I've been able to create a fine blend of plot and characters, and research and emotions. Mukhbiir is a biographical story of a boy's journey. All that Sammir's characters wants is to have an identity, have a girlfriend…a simple normal life. But he can't do these things.
What prompted you to sign Sammir Dattani for the central role?
We chose him after a massive hunt. He then underwent a rigorous training. It was basically the right face. I feel that's half the battle of casting. You may be a phenomenal actor. But you don't have to be right for every role. If you've the correct face you can move the audience to tears with a silent expression. That was the case with Sammir. Though he has done only a handful of films, he's a very competent actor. Sammir has given a sterling performance. After Mukhbiir people will look at him and say, 'Wow we didn't know he's this good.' The women in the audience will just want to hug him to their bosom.
I believe cultural and religious identities are crucial to the hero's character in Mukhbiir.
Yes. Sammir's character holds the Mother Goddess close to his heart and yet he has to convert himself totally to Islam. The character even undergoes a circumcision. He finally believes in the one-ness of God and dies a Muslim. When he converts, he converts with his whole heart.
Do you foresee a controversy?
Sammir's character does what has to be done…just as I made the film that had to be made. I'm totally excited by the journey into the unknown. Tomorrow I don't want to make what someone, including me, made yesterday. I like to go to the unexplored territory, like Ulysses.