Episode 205 / February 20, 2023

Manish Mundra on Life-Changing Investing Habits and Pursuing Dreams in the most Unconventional Way

01 hr 02 min

Episode 205 / February 20, 2023

Manish Mundra on Life-Changing Investing Habits and Pursuing Dreams in the most Unconventional Way

01 hr 02 min
Listen on

Manish Mundra is an Investor, a film producer, and a man whose story is an inspiration for all the small-town people with big dreams.

Manish was born in a Marwadi family based in Deoghar, Jharkhand. He along with his family experienced a difficult time when his father’s business suffered a setback. From selling sarees to cold drinks, he had done it all to support his family. Manish later on focused on his education and did his MBA from a college in Jodhpur. He, later on, moved to Nigeria to join a multinational Petrochemicals firm and rose up to become its CEO.

In 2013, Manish responded to a tweet by actor-director Rajat Kapoor, offering to produce a movie based on his script—Ankhon Dekhi (2014). After that, Manish founded Drishyam Films to back socially relevant films like Masaan, Newton, Ankhon Dekhi and more becoming one of the most promising filmmakers of Indian cinema. Recently, he also released his first movie Siya as a director. In our conversation with Manish, he shares his journey from his early days in Deoghar to moving to Nigeria and then finding a way to produce and direct movies.

He also opens up about his passion for promoting diversity and inclusivity in cinema and why it’s so important to give a voice to underrepresented communities. Manish’s infectious energy and inspiring story that he has will definitely make you think that when it comes to dreams, the sky’s the limit for him.

Notes –

02:08 – Intro to Manish Mundra

05:48 – Moving out of India

10:33 – Initial life in Middle-class families

20:34 – Working hard early in career to scale faster

23:50 – His experience with his first film – “Ankhon Dekhi” with Rajat Kapoor

35:33 – Slow compounding throughout his journey

39:18 – Being a filmmaker who has no background of movies

42:47 – More screens for independent film-makers

52:02 – Dealing with your inferiority complex?

56:35 – More evolved and More Spiritual

57:14 – What’s the purpose that’s driving Manish at the age of 49?

Read the transcript here:

Manish 0:00


“In that whole process, I realized that without capital, nothing works. And since we don’t have capital, it’s better to create your own knowledge capital. So you study, the only way to change your life is to study, get the professional qualification, and move.”


“Taking a loan is a very sophisticated word of speculation. Because you speculate that, okay, if I have one crore, and if I take a loan of four, I’ll have a capital of five now to invest and I’ll make money to repay my loan, repay my interest and also save money for me. And that’s a very sophisticated form of speculation.”


“That shook me, I felt like what is this? What if I would have died? And what am I doing? Like it’s been five years now I’ve been working hard and I don’t know what would happen to my life if one second I fall. “


“My rough calculation was that if I have 500,000 viewers who are ready to watch Drishyam Films, so if I have those consistently then at least I’ll have a five crore box office, and that’s good enough.”


“When we were kids, “Arey kalu, arey chotu, arey motu” you know those get inside your head and they push you towards that inferiority complex where you feel, am I good enough?”


Siddhartha 1:11

Even today, you can’t work with Rajkumar Rao because at that time he would have taken 20 lakhs, today he’s taking two-three crores.


Manish 1:16

Yes, more than that. So we are good friends, he will love my story, but he will say look, I have ten different projects.


And if somebody is earning 10 times more than me, I wish him all the luck if somebody is looking better than me, all the best to him. If somebody is more confident than me, all the best to him. I am good enough. And that I’m happy. And I always thank God in full gratitude. Whatever journey I’ve taken is mesmerizing.


“One interesting thing was, when we connected on Twitter and he (Rajat Kapoor) said, are you sure? I said yes, I’m sure. And then during our talk when he realized that I’m working in Nigeria,


Siddhartha 1:57

It was one of the Nigeria Scams.


Manish 2:00

So he said I can’t believe this can happen from Nigeria, is that scam mail and all?


Siddhartha 2:09

Welcome to the 100x Entrepreneur Podcast. This is your host Siddhartha Ahluwalia, I have a very interesting guest with me today. Manish Mundra, a dear friend and Manish is a diverse person, I would place Manish in the category of Leonardo da Vinci, because multifaceted personality, doing commercial work at one side doing creative work at other side, completely opposite ends, and the other part of his life and nobody knows about it, it’s all about giving. Welcome Manish.


Manish 2:41

Thank you so much.


Siddhartha 2:42

Glad to host you, just before we dive into our conversation, to share some facts about you. You were born and brought up in a village. You saw early richness in your life, which your father had built in and suddenly his business collapsed. So I saw something similar in my life. My father was always into the business of automobiles. He had an automobile sales shop. Back in the 1990s, Bajaj was really popular. So he was selling two wheeler, Bajaj Chetak scooters, it was really popular, and then some government scheme changed. And then he couldn’t do it. But I think in third class, we lost our business. And in fourth class, I could see that the dry fruits in my house were replaced by peanuts.


Manish 3:29

It’s the same story.


Siddhartha 3:30

And earlier, we used to have at least one meal ordered from outside. Now, it was only one Curry a month ordered from outside. It was very hard for the family of four to share, so my mother used to keep only one piece of Paneer with her. Paneer was a favorite in our family. And then, when I was in class five, I thought, let me do something. So I started selling cricket cards, WWF cards. In a six months’ span, I could sell thousand cards for 50 paise profit on each and make 500 rupees total. I thought this was not worth my time. Let me dedicate myself to study, maybe education could lead to a better outcome for my family.


Then some fortune turned again, in 11th class when my father got a license for a beer shop and he entered into the liquor business. That business also was short lived for five years. And just six months before graduating, the business stopped because of a policy in the Uttar Pradesh government to give all the licenses to a single contractor. And then I had to support my family through the last six months of the stipend of my masters. And then it was all about how I can pursue entrepreneurship, not compromise on my dream and still support my family. So I could really relate with your journey like how I think around the same time in fourth or fifth class, your father’s business collapsed because of loss in tobacco. And then till 12th class, you had to see poverty in your house. And then you decided that you don’t want to see this again.


Manish 5:04

That’s what drives.


Siddhartha 5:08

And again, you always kept the principle you made in your life as you always wanted to work hard. So after 12th class you shifted to Jodhpur and did your Bachelor’s and Master’s from Jodhpur. And went to Aditya Birla Group after doing your masters in 1997. In 2002, you were in Aditya Birla group, you got five promotions during a very short period of time. Very hard in a corporation, where people get lost. I want to know the secret to it in our conversation. Then 2002, you realize that you have no savings working in a large Indian company. One of the largest enterprises possibly in India? That’s why you decided that you want to shift outside India. The US would have been a first preference for you?


Manish 6:00

No, it was Indonesia. Because again, when you look back and you always realize why it was. There’s always a master plan. And, of course, I knew the US was a destination where I always dreamt of studying. I wanted to do my MBA from Stanford. That was my dream. But then I knew myself that the qualifications that I have, the experience I have wouldn’t take me there. And the point was that let’s get out wherever I can. And that was the reason I said, Let me step out. And once I step out, I will probably find my way. And probably now when I look back, I thought it was a great decision, which God made me do.


Siddhartha 6:40

How did you choose Indonesia at that point in time?


Manish 6:42

It was not me. In fact, one of my bosses, Mr. Ashok Majhi, was working in the Indorama group in Indonesia. And when I decided to move out of the country, I messaged him, I sent him a mail and I said, Look, this is my CV, and I want to somehow work outside and see if you have any chance in your organization. And he knew me exactly how I was. So he recommended to the bosses, the owners, Mr. S. P. Lohia wanted somebody at that point of time, who can work in strategy and business growth.


And as fate would have it, he was in India when he got that mail. And he said that I’m in Bombay, and if he can meet me, that’s how we met. And that’s how the whole thing started. So it’s like, I did not choose Indonesia. In fact, my fate, my energy chose that and it all happened. I never felt Indonesia was a great city, because we were looking east at that point of time. And I always thought Singapore or Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur would be great. But when I landed in Jakarta, it was different. It was very well, and it was a good city. And I felt happy about that decision.


Siddhartha 7:46

And I think within three years, you became the CEO of a division.


Manish 7:50

Yes, so there my job was business strategy and growth. And what I felt was that we started working on petrochemicals. I felt that being a company in textiles, in polyester, we need to move backwards and integrate backwards. And that’s where I started attending seminars and conferences in petrochemicals, Olefins and other things in which I felt that these are going to be the new molecule, which should bring value to the organization. And then when I looked through the globe, I felt Africa is the place which is not exploited very well, in terms of raw material in terms of hydrocarbons and reserves, whatever we have. And in all that process. Nigeria was specifically a country, which is rich in hydrocarbons, in terms of gas reserves, in terms of oil reserves, and there were not great facilities out there. Most of the international oil companies were just taking out crude and exporting it out to their own facilities outside Nigeria.


So that’s why I felt that this is a place where if we find something to set it up, we’ll get cheap raw material in terms of gasses and exploit it and create value. And that’s how I landed up in Nigeria. I worked hard there for one year, and then we could get a breakthrough, where we could acquire a petrochemical company which was closed, which was owned by the state. And then through the privatization process, we acquired it and then worked on that petrochemical plant. And from there, we started, I’m talking about 2005-2006. And then we started growing, we grew in fertilizers. We grew up in another country called Senegal, which is also in West Africa. We did rock phosphate mines there and then phosphoric acid. And now we are doing methanol, which is a huge project and we’re doing the third expansion of fertilizer.


So we’ve invested more than seven $8 billion across the last 15 years and we’ve grown. So yes, that journey from Indonesia to Africa within two to three years was very interesting. And it was very rewarding in terms of accomplishment, being 29 years old, 30 years and by 32 you become a CEO. It’s very exciting and was very challenging in a different terrain, but something that gave me wings to dream more.


Nansi 10:02

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Manish 10:33

Siddhartha, I’ll take you back to our initial life, when you were narrating your experience, and it was like I was mirror imaging yourself. I just thank God, at that point of time, we were very young, very small kids and middle class families where we come from, it’s very difficult to announce that we are poor, you have to make it up. You can’t just hold the bankruptcy board saying that we are bankrupt. So you have to maintain the standards, you have to act as if everything is okay. And you have to go to the functions you have to behave as if everything is normal. But then internally, you have a lot of problems and you face whatever we talked about, with the same food or basics. You sell your own house and move to the rented house. And then you have to find reasons for doing that and all.


So during that period, that phase, you always ask God, why me? Why is this happening to us? And then when you grow up and look back, you know I always thank God now. What he did, or what the energy did, was at the right time, when you walk with a patch on your back that look, I had a hardship. And that patch was fixed on the right time, it makes a lot of difference. If the same hard times or tough times do come at the age of 30-32 it is very difficult to take over from there and survive and grow. But if you have gone through those hard times at right age, when you are like 10-11-12-13-14-15 basic building years of your life, you feel the fear, that whole idea of shame, that idea of how to pretend that everything is normal, the idea of struggling to pay the fees, the idea of having no money in the family, and all those things drive you to work hard.


Like you gave an example of selling cards, I also did the same thing. Instead of cards, I was selling handkerchiefs, I was selling sarees, I was doing a lot of other things. And in that whole process, I realized that without capital, nothing works. And since we don’t have capital, it’s better to create your own knowledge capital. So you study, the only way to change your life is to study, to get professional qualification and move. So the point I want to drive is when these hardships happen at the right time in life, it becomes blessings as you grow up. Because you’re rooted, you know the reality from where you’re coming. You’re sure about your actions, because you don’t speculate in life ever. Because you know that you don’t want to go back. And also, when you’re growing, you create rings of safety net of investments, you make sure that you invest properly, you make sure that whatever you’re earning, you are investing in a way that if any such things happen again, you have nets to cross, you have your own safety, and this is up that if things go wrong, then you know where to put the pedestal on.


So it’s very important to have that whole idea of struggle, the idea of so-called bad times at the right time. And that’s why I also talk to my kids and say that you should also go through that tough time at the right time. Because if you go through that right time, it makes you so strong and so humble and so rooted that you can never go wrong in life again. What I learned from my father was never to speculate in life. And what I also learned from him is to always invest in savings, whether it is real estate, whether it’s FDs, don’t touch it, don’t look back to them. And that helped me a lot in my life to accomplish a lot of other dreams which I had. And it helped me to go through that whole process.


Whenever I get an opportunity to talk to people I always tell them that to get a professional degree, work harder than what a normal person can do, earn more than what a normal salaried person at your age at your experience can do. And save that additional money and invest somewhere to grow it more. If you don’t do that you will not be above normal. You will be living a good life. But if you do more than what others do, you can create a life which people will not be able to think about. How can a salaried person do this?


And it makes you so courageous in life because one thing we also learn during that process is when you’ve seen bad days, when you’ve seen tough days, you get this whole value system of courage in your mind, what could be worse than this? Nothing bad can happen, nothing bad can go from this. So you have that sense of courage. And when you get a job, when you earn, let’s say, 10,000-20,000, 30,000-40,000 rupees as your starting salary, you work hard to create another additional income of 30-40,000, which is equivalent to your salary. You have so much courage in you that you don’t care about the job, what you care about is the result. And that helps you to make important decisions as an entrepreneur.


As you grow in your job, you also grow in terms of income. And that helped me a lot, having that courage to take decisions and look at that job as an entrepreneur, and not as somebody who’s a nine to five job or something, because I was not very concerned about losing my job, because I knew I have supporting income to support me. And that made me very courageous in terms of taking decisions, of course, calculated risk. But then you see a lot of people who are very capable, very intelligent, but what stops them is they don’t have the courage to take that step. And that helps us to take that step, because we come from that background, where we have seen it all we have gone through it at the right edge. And those fears, those shames, those ideas stick around us, they become part of our DNA. And we don’t change intrinsically. So we will never do something which will look beyond some level. But that also adds that courage to take those calculated risks can do something more than the normal people.


Siddhartha 16:33

So one example I can share is that my father suffered business losses at the second or third point anytime, mainly because of the loans that he had taken. Till now in my life, I’ve never taken a loan, whatever happened. We just bought our first house, a small two BHK, this place is rented. But it was the insistence of my wife, Nansi, that we needed to create a safety net. So we just took that house, we haven’t bought a car yet. And we have invested in across two funds and personal investments across 40 Startups. So I don’t think that normal people would do this, they will first buy a house and buy a car and then think about any other form.


Manish 17:16

It’s true. There’s no point in buying something on loan, and you’re doing exactly what a person should do. When you’re starting from zero, when you don’t have the luxury to play around with your money, then you are very cautious in terms of investments and usage of the money. When you earn money, even if you own 100 rupees, you have an option in terms of your purchase power, or in terms of your spent power, whatever you can call it, to use that 100 rupees, either to satisfy your requirements immediately, and get that off your bank account. Or you wisely invest in a point where you forgo some of the things which could be done at 100 rupees. And rather invest in your future to build a capital, which helps you to do a lot of things. Slow and steady, you create that capital. And then money grows in itself, money actually earns more money, money works for you.


So if you invest and it grows and you invest more, you grow, there will be a point in time where you will have enough to announce to the world that you have arrived. Otherwise, there’s so many people out there, you don’t have to prove anything. No matter how much you achieve or do, there will be someone better, there’ll be someone who will be bigger than you and someone will have a better house and better car, better clothes to wear. So there’s no point in just proving that thing. So that whole idea which I was talking about is pretending that we are not poor, or pretending that I’m rich. It never happens to us, it just doesn’t happen. It’s not there, because we come from the point where we’ve seen it all.


Siddhartha 18:58

Everything was taken away from us and we survived that.


Manish 19:01

So it doesn’t happen. And that’s where the whole speculation idea, that taking a loan is a very sophisticated word of speculation. Because you speculate that, okay, if I have, let’s say, one crore and if I take a loan of four, I’ll have a capital of five now I invest and I’ll make money to repay my loan, repay my interest and also save money for me. That’s a very sophisticated form of speculation. And don’t do that. I think it’s not a good idea to do it. One in 100,000 may be lucky, Whose story we read. But there are also 999,000 people who would have lost it. It’s another form of speculation I would say, if you have a capital of one crore and if you feel you need to invest, invest on the basis of that one crore and see if you can make something. Don’t invest on the basis of leveraging it three times and then you create something bigger than what you can chew if things go wrong. And that’s what comes from where we come from.


Nansi 19:54

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Sidhhartha 20:33

So Manish, moving fast forward in your life, till 2002 you were in Aditya Birla. You were earning 50-60,000 rupees a month. But all was getting spent.


Manish 20:42

37,000 plus accommodation.


Siddhartha 20:45

All was getting spent, but then you move to Indonesian Indorama. And there, instantly as you move, you were saving 50-60,000 rupees that was a huge change in your life.


Manish 20:56

Yes, and that was the reason why I moved. Actually, it’s a very interesting story. I’ll tell you, as you mentioned in Aditya Birla group, I went as a management trainee and really worked hard in the sense that I knew that I didn’t belong to this place, but I needed to work hard to reach that place where I wanted to be. And the only way you could do it is to work hard. So when I worked hard, the executive president of the company noticed me and he observed me because I remember that incident where a version of PowerPoint in Lotus, I’d forgotten the name that had been launched. And he wanted to make a presentation to the board in Bombay in that, and nobody knew about it.


So they asked me do you know? And I said, Yes. I never knew about it. So they said okay boss has called you in the morning. So the whole night I spent learning that thing, experimenting and drawing those graphs and presentations and all those things. By time the morning when he called and he created those sheets on white paper. I went back and I created it. And that’s how I was attached to him. He observed me and then he said, Okay, come with me and be my executive assistant. And from there, when we went for the presentation, and we went a couple of times more in a year, his boss noticed me, Dev Bhattacharya was his boss. He was the vice chairman of the Birla group. He noticed me and he said, Come, I need you to work with me. And that’s how I traveled.


So that’s how we got promoted. We got different jobs and all those things. But in Bombay, after working for five years, when I was in Aditya Birla group, and was getting a salary of 37-38,000 rupees and accommodation, still taking that local train and going and you have to hang around and go, we won’t get seats for certain. And when you do that on local trains, one afternoon, it was Sunday, I remember, you become so habitual that even though the trains had seats, you would like to hang around.


So I was holding the thing and was traveling from Nariman Point to Andheri. And I somehow fell asleep in the sense that I was so tired, I just fell asleep. And as I was about to fall, somebody caught me. That shook me, I felt like what is this? What if I would have died? And what am I doing? It’s been five years now and I’ve been working hard. And I don’t know what would happen to my life, if one second I fall. And that’s why I realized that I can’t save, I’m working hard. I’ve got a good designation. Now I was promoted to AGM at that age, and it was very interesting. Everybody liked my work. In fact, I was doing presentations with Kumar Mangalam Birla and was participating in the strategy discussions and all. I said, no, this can’t happen.


And that’s why I decided to move and at that point also, I realized that nobody would give any value to what I do here in India. I’m talking about 2002. It’s time for me to move out and see if I can earn dollars and make my living. And that’s why the decision that made me move, that train incident was something which I came back home and told my wife that look, I need to get out. That’s how it all happened.


You create your own boxes, okay I’ll do this, I’ll do that. So filmmaking was one important aspect of my dream, I always dreamt of it. And so in 2011-12 I said, Okay, everything’s done. I’ve saved enough and now I need to tick that box. But obviously, when you’re not from that industry. You don’t know anybody. But then social media came to my rescue. That’s where in 2009-10 Twitter started. And I was one of the first ones to follow it. And I was there on Twitter and very active and then in 2011, September something, Rajat Kapoor tweeted that I’m not going to make films because nobody’s there to produce. I would rather go to the theaters and do my work. That’s why I responded saying, Okay, let me produce it. That’s how “Ankhon Dekhi” happened.


An interesting thing was when we connected on Twitter and he said, Are you sure? I said, yes I’m sure. And then during our talk when he realized I’m from Nigeria and working here, He said, I can’t believe this can happen from Nigeria. Is that scam mail? I said, No, no, no, I am an Indian. I’ve worked in India, my family is in India, I’m working here and I’m very sure about this thing and let me come down to Bombay to meet you and discuss. So when we were conversing, I said, Okay, send the script. I read the script, and I liked it. And it was exactly what I wanted to make. Because my idea was to make one film and move out. And when I read the script, it resonated like our family story.


So I said, Okay, let’s do this. I’m coming down to Bombay and I came to Bombay, I was super excited meeting the first celebrity, Rajat Kapoor. And I was like, Okay, we met, we talked, and we signed a piece of paper, saying, Okay, done, let’s do this. He was super excited. I was super excited, so I called my parents to tell them that I’ve signed a Film. It was just something which I wanted to do and I was super excited that I did it.


So after two three days I returned back and I received a call from Rajat. Actually, then also he never carried a mobile phone, till today he doesn’t carry a mobile phone. So he called from the landline and said, Look, I have a problem. So I said, what the problem is, he said, all these things are good, you’re good. I liked you. But I can’t sleep. I can’t commit to people because I don’t know whether you’ll be able to fund it or not. And the Nigeria thing is very disturbing. So I said, Okay, what will make you sleep? What will make you okay that the film is being made? He said, please transfer at least, there was a budget as well, I think around four crores or something, he said transfer at least 50%. That will actually assure me that I should go ahead and lock people, lock technicians and do my Reiki and all. I said Okay, fine. If that will assure you of everything, I’ll do that.


So the next day, I transferred two crores straightaway in his bank account. Mithya Talkies was his bank. He called me to say, Wow. So he finally said, Now we are going to be doing it. So that’s how the whole funding thing came in. But when we met one interesting thing he told me is that look Manish, I want to tell you one thing: I only know how to make a film, I don’t know how to sell it. I said I don’t even know how to make a film, so let’s just make it. We’ll see how it goes. Because I was very damn sure that I have to make just one film. I’ll tell you it was like a dream come true, even now.


So when the film was shot, I took all of my family to see it and some family kids acted in some scenes. It was like a festival for us for 3,4,5 days. And then when the film was released, I invited almost like 30-35 family members to Bombay, booked them to Bombay, made them stay in a hotel, and for that reason to make it a family affair I actually paid almost 25-30 lakhs for newspapers front page ad so when they wake up in the morning in the hotel they get the Times of India in which there would be poster of “Ankhon Dekhi”, and it’s releasing and I just enjoyed the whole process knowing that it’s not going to take anywhere.


And then we had a premiere show and then in the premiere the name appeared, produced by Manish Mundra and blah blah blah, every buddy hooted and clapped and that was it, like I said, Okay, it’s done it’s okay. Then after two three days people’s reaction started coming and people started praising it and I was reading the critics and as people were mad about the film, critically claiming it and all. I said wow, we made a good film, but then audiences don’t watch such movies in theaters. So as I said, I was taking it as fun. But in the advertisement promotion, I spent another three crores, 35-40 lakhs the same day I did that. So the total expenditure on that whole thing was almost seven to eight crores.


Siddhartha 29:00

How much percentage of your wealth do you put in that?


Manish 29:03

It was a good amount. I don’t think I had more than 30-40 crores.


Siddhartha 29:08

Almost 25% Of your wealth was wiped out.


Manish 29:11

And my net box office check was 27 lakhs. I was like, did I do a good thing? Like, what did I do? But everybody was appreciating the film. The appreciation came was huge, but nothing was there in the box office. So I said, I can’t go like this, okay, it was a dream come true. But I can’t suffer a loss and go back. I need to do something. I need to learn what mistakes I made. And let me try. So I set up an office in Mumbai. And I bought the office. I won’t rent it out, I bought the office, set up a team of four or five people and said okay, let me go in a very structured way. One thing I realized was we need to Bring the production of the film to a minimum level. Instead of four crores, I should make a film in two crores.


And then we should have a great script so that it also has some commercial aspect even though it’s going to be a film from the heart and soul, it should have some commercial aspect. And also let me have a couple of people who are on advertising marketing fronts, who can start talking about the film and get into those who controlled the exhibition and all. So, the idea was to make it a very structured effort to control the cost of production, take production in our own hand, develop the concept and make the film. My back calculation was that if I could have done this whole film in 2.5 crores including all or three crores maximum, and I would have done it properly, I would have actually recovered my money.


And that was the formula which fit into me that let me make a movie in 2- 2.5 crores and see how it goes. And I thought that I cannot go out like this. And by that time I had also enjoyed the process. I felt that this is something which I always wanted to do: tell stories and create a string of films that would live forever. And that’s the reason why I set up this whole thing and I felt that now that so much money has sunk, I have to recover it too. And that’s how I started looking for good scripts.


The next film we did was Masaan, and then we did Dhanak. And then the story started rolling in. And as luck would have it, we did Umrika and all our films went into the top international festivals, we won and we got critically acclaimed and people now started recognising our effort. And we started making money, it made it self-sustaining. And I felt that it was the right decision to stay back, structure it and do it. Then came Newton in 2017. We were in Berlin. We were selected for the Berlin Film Festival. We won award there we came back home, people started talking about it and Rajkumar Rao and Pankaj Tripathi were there in that film and then they have released I think just 22nd September, 23 September, India announced that as an Oscar entry, so we had a great box office and I think we did some 20 crores in terms of box office.


So that day I wrote in social media I think from 27 lakhs to 22 crores or something in the box office in four years was quite a journey. And, probably that made us do more and more such films and over the period if you leave out the corona period, but we did almost 15 films and we have more than five national awards. And almost all international film festivals, we have gone and we have been in fact incidentally, we did our first Marathi film and now it is in Berlinale. 22nd February we have the world premiere there. In the first Marathi film we did “Ghaath”. So it’s interesting journey which I have taken and then I thought we should create a niche in terms of Indian cinema, make those films which will stay there for longer time and probably 10 years down the line 15 years down the line when somebody asks this question that how can I know India, then somebody can point out that watch these 30 films made by Drishyam, you will understand what India is and a story about India. So that’s the objective which I have taken in mind while working.


Siddhartha 33:31

And during this process also, you wanted to express your creative freedom and you became a director also.


Manish 33:37

Yeah, So when I met directors, when I would meet the storytellers, I would go on shoots. One thing I brought into cinema making is, I demystified the whole thing that I told people that nothing like a magic, it’s normal work, if really planned well, it’s easy to make films, too easy to make inroads, easy to meet celebrities, easy to sign them and talk to them and so I demystified. And actually, I’m motivated a lot of people to start making films. The other thing which I realized was when I met these directors, writers and all I would say they are normal people, like sometimes I would talk better than them in terms of a scene and discuss with them. And that’s where I realized that I can also tell my story, but then there is always a fear of what people will say, you sometimes feel that.


So it took me two, three years to come out of that fear that what would people do? So I said, Okay, what I’ll do is I’ll make a film, enjoy the process, and watch the film. If it is worth it, then I’ll announce to the world that I made a film. And that’s how “Siya” came into picture and I got the confidence, I got a great team. Of course, without team you can’t make a film that I have realized. Though we give too much of weightage to the actors when the film comes on screen and too much of weightage to the director when the film is on the screen and otherwise, but the fact is, there’s a huge team that works and it all depends on how you create your team and how you galvanize with them and show the path, I was lucky enough to select a good team. And it was a fun journey. I couldn’t believe I wrote “Siya”, I produced it. And I directed it. And it’s something which I always wanted to make. And I’m so happy that I did it.


Siddhartha 35:16

But you never wanted to act in it?


Manish 35:18

I’m not yet prepared. I want to act. That was always the dream. But I don’t think I’m still prepared for it in another 2,3,4 years. I want to act, I want to act in a film, I want to write a role for myself and see if that film is interesting, I really want to act.


Siddhartha 35:33

One thing, which I see throughout your journey is slow compounding in all forms, wherever you’re operating. So in 2002, if we just stick to a timeline, you had a great job but zero savings. And from there 2002 to 2012, where you had a corpus of 30-40 crores. Similarly, when you started in 2012, you made one movie. And in the last 10 or 11 years, you have made 15 movies slow and steady, kept on a very tight budget, but now, things are going places. And I think this is the moment that I believe we will see more films from Drishyam every year.


Manish 36:12

Yes, what happened was that I knew that it would not be enough for me alone to do it because of my learning. We need partners who can take the film to the next level. So we created partners, and we will make a film, we will produce it in a way through a shoestring budget and make it a very soulful film, and then we’ll get a partner on board, who will then pay for the promotions and advertisements. And then we make the film Big. And we created our own brand of audience. My rough calculation was that if I have 500,000 viewers who are ready to watch Drishyam films, then if I have those consistently then at least I’ll have a five crore box office. And that’s good enough. So even if the net is 50% of that 2.5 crores, if I make a film in three 3.5-2.5 crores on box office, it’s good enough, because then there are digital rights and other rights.


That was a calculation that I should continue persistently to make such films where I have a clientele base, who will believe in Drishyam brand of cinema and would give me a chance, give our film a chance to watch without being talked about or promoted in a manner. So that was the reason why we believed to do that consistently, and find partners who can also help us and partner with us to take the films to that. And as I said, Newton helped me to fund the next 10, six, seven films, and that’s how we made the rest of the films. And then it’s on a self sustaining basis.


Siddhartha 37:38

And let’s say with “Siya”, how much box office you were able to reach?


Manish 37:41

To tell you, frankly when I decided to make “Siya”, you have seen the film, and it was a tough subject and knew nobody will make that film because audiences generally don’t like to come and watch painful films, because we all suffer from painful realities. And we would like to escape from there when we go to the cinema. So I knew exactly that nobody would like to seriously go and watch such a film. But it was something as you said, calling from your heart that no, if at all, I want to make a film, I would like to choose a subject, which is very difficult, very close to my heart, which needs to be told. Because one, I’m not answerable to anybody. And second, I want to go to that level and feel that whole idea of making a tough film, an emotional film.


So I knew it from the very beginning. But then I also knew that it would have a great digital audience. So in terms of box office it did not do great, I think, hardly 1.5 crores or something. But then again, we’ve been quite unlucky in terms of film release, right from Masaan to everywhere except Newton as we would always be hit by some commercially successful film and that the screen space always becomes a problem for short films or small films like us. So that’s the biggest challenge of independent cinema that they don’t get a screen space so that people will actually come and see the film because by the time they share about it, by the time they decide the film has gone from the theater. But when we made Siya, that’s how it happened that we got a great digital deal. And now it’s going to be on OTT and we could make money out of it.


Siddhartha 39:18

And during this whole process of making 15 films, do you realize that you could be a full time filmmaker in the next few years?


Manish 39:26

I always felt, but I believed that that’s not my journey. One I wanted to always stick to sensible films. I never took filmmaking as a business idea because I felt that the day I decide to be a filmmaker 100% that all my energies go here, I would like to make money out of it. And the moment your mind gets into a business model where you start seeking returns out of the investment, creativity takes a back step, then you start compromising from point one because you back calculate that if I’m investing five crores or eight crores, what am I getting in two years.


And I always wanted to get out of that whole vicious circle and be out that when I make a film or when I make a decision to make a film, I would make it because the story is compelling, I feel from my heart that the story needs to be told. And if I can do justice to it, sometimes you come across some stories, which you think that need to be told, but then the budget is too high for you. So then you don’t touch it, you say, okay, that’s beyond my control. So again, that idea of not speculating and being very careful in terms of what’s the limit where you can do it. So I was running my salary and making those films. So I was very sure about the films which needed to be told. And a definite budget was always in mind, I don’t think I’ve made a film, which is more than four crores or five crores.


Siddhartha 40:52

Including marketing expenditure?


Manish 40:54

Yes, that’s how I worked upon it. And that whole thing of creating those stories which are true to itself, the film stands the tide of the time when people will talk about it, and about the sincerity of the film and the storytelling. I thought that I needed to earn money somewhere else. I need to make my money somewhere else. So that I can be clear about that whole commercial cycle, the risk return formula, and can be very prudent and sincere in storytelling. And that’s how I said no, I would never take that as a full time profession. I’ll do it just as a part of a passion, something that you want to create a legacy and create a set of cinema which will stay there forever. Even if we walk away.


And the reality is, I’ll just give you an example of “Ankhon Dekhi” it was released alongside Ragini MMS. But today, if you talk about Ragini MMS, 2,3,4 would have come. But if you ask them, What was the box office of Ragini mms In 2014, nobody knows. And so will nobody know how much the box office of “Ankhon Dekhi” was. But people will always remember “Ankhon Dekhi” always. The hundreds of people I’ve met, they feel that’s one of the best films. So that’s how these films, whether it’s Masaan, whether it’s Newton, or Dhanak, or Waiting or Umrika or even Ramprasad ki Tehrvi, or Kaamyaab, they stay there, they are there, people talk about it, people watch it, people keep them as one of their favorite films. So that’s what helped me. So that thought process helped me that it’s not box office that will matter in the long term, the purity of the storytelling, the sincerity of the filmmaking, and the soulful story will stay longer. And that is what matters.


Siddhartha 42:46

And I think that’s where one more thing that comes from your heart is the idea that you want to build more screens for independent filmmakers. Tell us more about it.


Manish 42:56

As we discussed, one of the biggest problems as a filmmaker that I face is when you make these films, because you have to work on a shoestring budget. And when you work on a shoestring budget, you can’t work with stars, you can’t work with those faces that will bring the audience to the screen.


Siddhartha 43:12

Even today, you can’t work with Rajkumar Rao because at that time, he would have taken 20 lakhs, today he’s taking two three crores.


Manish 43:17

Yeah, more than that. So, we are good friends. He will love my story. But he will say look, I have 10 different projects. And so if you have to make these films on a shoestring budget, then you have to work with actors who don’t drive that crazy fees. And of course, because they don’t drive the crazy fees, they don’t have that catchment of the audience that we are looking for. So it’s a catch 22 situation where we don’t know what to do whether to take a star and make the budget to 10-12 crores and then there’s no surety if that star works. That’s how it is. So one thing important for independent filmmakers like us is to have that space where we can get our time, shelf life of the film, for people to watch and talk about it. And then more and more audiences come, because word of mouth is important for us.


And that’s where the screen space becomes very critical. If you compare China and India in terms of population we are the same, in fact, we have crossed now, while China has more than 80,000 screens, India has 5000, hardly 6,000 screens and if you further divide it into regional cinema and Hindi cinema, I don’t think hardly 3000-4000 screens are left. That means if you have one big release every week, you don’t have space for small films. And if you have space they’ll give you morning shows or very late night shows. Nobody will come in and if nobody comes in and if nobody turns in they remove the film. So your film is gone.


So it’s that situation where I felt that these independent cinema, these films need time. They need space to grow and flourish, which we expected the OTT would do it and it really didn’t turn that way because they also took that same path of stardom and star value to create commercial cinema, because their objective was to create more subscription than the content, there’s a commercial sense out of it and they may talk about content, but the objective is to get more subscription, more people to follow and star has a value.


So I felt there is a need, where we can create a mechanism by which we take this screens to the people, the real audience, because the basic problems are the cost when a family now goes to a theater, family of four or five, they go to theater, it would cost them almost 3,4,5 thousand rupees, then the distance they have to travel and parking hassles, tickets and all, then the suitability of the show timing you don’t know what time is suitable for. And the content, sometimes you want to watch film X, but there is film Y and you don’t know how to do it. So you don’t have the flexibility, you don’t have power in your hand as an audience to choose the film, choose the time you want to see, the price you want to see and with whom you want to see. So all these freedoms, I think the audience doesn’t have as far as cinema is concerned.


And then the important part of feedback, the filmmakers don’t have any connection with the audience in terms of feedback, so you don’t improvise, you don’t work on what’s the real feedback whether they like the film or not, they only have one litmus test of box office, the box office good, the film is good, but you don’t know why the box office is there. There may be 10 Other reasons for that box office. So my idea is to create a system by which we crack the way by which we stream these films into smaller screens, which can be developed in 10-15-20 lakhs and we create an audience where each audience becomes a member of that and can create their own shows. They can book their shows, let’s say for example, I want to watch “Ankhon Dekhi” even after 10 years, I create a show of “Ankhon Dekhi” and there will be hundreds of others who’ll be watching that who has created that show and if they are interested, they can book a seat and we can create those shows and we can create a library through which we can create your own shows and your own films and choose the timing, choose at a lower cost almost 1/5 of the cost, what it happens and same experience as our theater, and in a way which is very personalized for you because we are talking about 20-25 seaters, 30 seaters. And yet you save time for one and a half hours film or two hours film you don’t have to waste five hours.


So giving this and empowering the audience, the customers with these powers, I think we can create a world or create a base through which we can have a whole parallel set of audience, whole parallel set of market which caters independent cinema and even the commercial cinema for that matter and create a market through which independent cinema including the regional cinema can find the market, create audience and also have a multiple feedback mechanism by which if I’ve seen a film, I can give them a feedback of what did I like about the film and what I didn’t like. Furthermore, you can even have feedback through what actors you’d like to see more and all those things. That AI based feedback will create the whole idea of making better films and better for the audience. And that’s what I feel somebody should work upon. And I’ve been thinking about it for years. But I don’t have the intention or propensity or that fire to do this. But I would certainly like somebody to pick up this.


Siddhartha 48:15

Do you like to Team?


Manish 48:16

Yes, who can handle this. We’re ready to fund, We’re ready to work upon it, by feel it’s a need of the day by which we can increase screen size to 20-30-40,000 screens in India, where we have time very quickly, and create a robust independent market of viewers, where producers like us can make films at lower cost and also sell the film’s or make the film available at a very low level of advertisement and promotion costs, which is huge chunk. So, suppose you make a film for three crores and you have an ad budget of four crores which is almost 100%, more than 120% of the film cost. So it becomes very difficult in terms of ratio. So at a very low cost, if you can find a market and connect with the audience and get a feedback. I mean, it would be absolutely fantastic.


As like what Uber or Ola has done in terms of taxi, I think this whole thing can be done in terms of cinema viewing and creating an audience of massive value, we’re not talking of advertisement revenues yet, or launched revenues yet or funding your own content yet. And also, of course, a lot of independent houses are being built. They also would like to have such theaters in their home where they can stream films of their choice. And the important thing is the shelf life of the film is for six years, seven years, eight years, you’re there, and people can watch it. So it’s something which should be looked upon. And I’m very interested to find a team who can work upon it.


A thing which has evolved over the period of time and I evolved the last 8-10 years more is that I’m not available for any sort of examination, any sort of judgment, any sort of Medallia, any sort of ranking to anyone. I am what I am, I’m answerable to one energy who has always guided me, put me at right places, you know most of the time you are at right places and right time, that’s what happens. It’s not that we have extra gray matter, it’s the same, but what changes is that you are at the right time, right opportunity and that you become successful and when you become successful confidence comes in. Rest all is the same, it’s the same 20 years back and now, so, once the confidence comes in, when you see through life, you realize a lot of things and you change, you evolve and you realize the realities of life.


So, when you stop from this whole idea of presenting myself that people should be impressed or that whole idea of that if I do this, they will think like this if I do that, they will think like this, it relieves you from a lot of stress. And a person like me, who has gone through a lot of inferiority complex throughout his life, I remember till 30-35-36 I struggled a lot in terms of inferiority complex. One from the background from which I used to come, the struggles we did, the way I look, the color of the skin, my pedigree from the village background that we come from and all those things, those all like when we were kids, “ arey Kalu, arey chotu, arey motu” those get inside your head, and they push you towards that inferiority complex, where you feel, am I good enough?


So it takes a lot of time to come off that shell, and it did. When you come out, you breathe. And that’s why I talk to my kids also. And I always talk about the inferiority complex I talk about, don’t try to prove your point to the society, prove to yourself, you’re answerable to yourself and all those things. So when you come out of that inferiority complex, and when you stop being a part of that rat race where you want to say that I’m the best or I did well, it relieves you, it makes you easy, life is less stressed. And you calm down.


Siddhartha 52:01

At which point did this transformation happen to you?

Manish 52:04

It took me a while. The biggest problem with me was my inferiority complex. And I would have those anxious moments. If I have to go and present myself somewhere, I have to talk about something, even if I have done it all, or achieved it all. But it would be very difficult for me to come to the shell and talk, but it was around 10-12 years ahead. I’m talking about when I decided to make films and all, that was a point of break, where I broke my shell and came out saying, Okay, it’s time for me to tick box my dreams. It is the point moment, I think 10-12 years back when I started getting out of it, I started realizing that I’m good enough, I started realizing that I’m answerable to me, and only me, the kid in me, which was 13-14 years old, who had a lot of dreams and no money, and I used to cry in the night. I’m answerable to him. And I’m going to be answerable to me at the age of 75 or 80 when I’m on my deathbed, that I did well, none else matters.


So all this evolution happened. It’s still continuing. I’m not saying that I’ve evolved, I’m growing every day. But that has relieved me a lot in terms of my anxiety, in terms of my stress, in terms of putting myself every time in that competitive arc or in that race that I need to do better because I need to prove, I need to do more to show that I’m good. I pulled out of it. And it started almost 10-12 years ago and slowly, steadily, I reached a point where I didn’t care. I don’t care what people think about me. I don’t care what people will say about me. What I know is I’m a good soul. I won’t break laws. I won’t hurt anybody intentionally, unintentionally, you don’t know what happens, unconsciously whatever happens, but I’m ready to apologize immediately if I’ve done wrong, and I won’t intentionally harm anybody in any matter whatsoever. And that I learned to say no, is very important, which thing I learned in my life. That has pulled me out of that whole shell and made me a person who doesn’t have any problem with anybody. Because I don’t have any problem with anybody anymore.


If somebody is earning 10 times more than me, I wish him all the luck. If somebody is looking better than me, all the best to him. If somebody is more confident, all the best to him. I am good enough, and that I’m happy. And I always thank God in full gratitude. Whatever journey I’ve taken, is mesmerizing. From selling cold drinks on footpaths, having no money to pay the fees, to now paying fees for hundreds of schoolchildren, the journey that I had and I’m having is fantastic. It was great. And that makes me very happy from inside not to prove anything, but to be very happy from inside that God was so kind to make him go through this whole process, even taking me through that inferiority complex and then bringing me out is also a sense of so much contentment and relief. Because if you don’t know what poverty is, you will not enjoy the richness, if you don’t know what hate is, you won’t enjoy or give love.


So when you go through that whole process, you always think that it was a great journey, which God made me do. And I’m very happy about this whole thing of realization and taking care of myself, my mental health and telling myself that it’s good, you’ve done well, and it’s okay what you have gone through. This is very important. I want to tell all the audience that it’s very important to find space to pat yourself because we do good from wherever we come from, because each one has his own story of struggles. It’s not that I have struggled or you have struggled or none others are struggling, everybody struggles, everybody has a story. And wherever you are standing today, you’ve done well, irrespective of the hurdles or bottlenecks or problems you’ve faced, and let’s take time out of this whole thing and pat ourselves, thank God, with the gratitude that okay, whatever we have achieved, we have done well. And we should all do that. And we should pull ourselves from that whole rat race of proving that I’m the smartest, the moment we realize that, that we are not the smartest, we are just the luckiest or to be at the right time, at the right opportune time, at the right place. I think we will have a better life in terms of everything.


Siddhartha 56:34

And you started being spiritual at the same time you started making films?


Manish 56:38

Yes, that was a breakthrough. I was not spiritual then. But I’m more evolved and more spiritual now. But I remember the point when you asked me question, what do you think was exactly the point where I felt I had done well, I think that was a point where I felt that I have done well, in terms of my responsibility as a son, responsibility as a father, responsibility as a friend, family member, everybody, I have done it well, with the help of God, of course, and that now it’s time to evolve in terms of fulfilling my own personal dreams. So that one time I think, was my breakthrough time where I felt that it’s time for me to come out of the shell.


Siddhartha 57:14

What is the purpose of driving Manish at the age of 49 now?


Manish 57:17

It’s a journey, which I am taking, as we talked on the sidelines of this, that my purpose now is to understand who I am, what I am for? So far, so good. But what next, like in terms of my journey, as a person, Manish as a person, when you see Manish as a CEO, you have had a journey, you built a billion dollar company and you created this. But Manish as a person, as an individual, what am I for now for the next 10-15, 20-25 years whichever is left for me. And that’s what right now I’m studying by myself, I’m very spiritual to the point that I meditate a lot. I think about it. While doing it all, it’s not that I’ve left my job or left my passion. All those are there along with me, but taking myself away from that whole thing and observing myself.


So one thing which drives me as of now is that I need to rigorously follow my passion in terms of creativity. Maybe it’s making films, writing films, painting, photography, talking, talking to young minds, and meeting more people. These are my passionate things, which I do. And one way or the other I need to be somewhere in terms of giving back to society, whichever way it is, and we found our ways how to do it. These are the two important purposes, which are there.


In terms of finance, in terms of returns, in terms of objectivity, career wise, I think I’ve done it all, seen it all. And then there is no end to it. Like you can make a million dollars, $10 million or 10 billion. If you go through that rat race, there’s never enough. But for me, I think I’ve done it all. In terms of financial goals, in terms of commercial and in terms of professional goals, I’ve done it all. Now it’s in terms of how I manage myself as a human being on this earth. Have I served my purpose for what God did create me or why I’ve come to this world? I’m working on that.


Siddhartha 59:08

So it’s a daily process of questioning yourself, looking at a man in the mirror? Are you doing enough?


Manish 59:15

I don’t think I’ve got my answers yet. One important thing, which I always talk to people and say is that you get what you deserve, in terms of whatever it is, you work hard, you deserve, you get the reward, but that doesn’t mean that what you got as a reward is for you, you may need a limited part of it, actually. So what you deserve and what you got is something else. What you need is maybe a portion of it. So suppose if you’ve got 100 rupees and you may actually need 10 rupees, there is a 90 which is there. That 90 Probably God has made you the conduit to get that 90 rupees to someone who is more needy, someone who wants to grow, someone with whom you can work. And if that is one of the purposes why God will give you more than what you require. Because God gives us a dream to deserve more, to work hard more, and then you get it. And when you get it, there must be a purpose.


The purpose is not to have that bank balance and die. I don’t think there’s a purpose there. If you have $1,000,000.10 million and $100 million in your bank, and die at the age of 70. After all those appreciations and medals and all, I don’t think that’s the purpose why God would give you those resources. So you need to give back to society, you need to create 10 More such individuals who can follow your path and give back to society and fulfill your purpose.


So God has a reason why he gives more than what you need as resources. It is God who feeds that dream into you. It’s not that everybody dreams. Not everybody visualizes that you create a fund after six months of engineering or you do your first entrepreneurship and sell your company and then create funds and work on funds. It’s a dream that seeds into you and then you grow and then you grow bigger and then you grow more. But then the need doesn’t expand as much because we all come from that society where we don’t need Rolls Royces or we don’t need seven storied bungalows or we don’t need to have charter flights or jets. There is a purpose why you get those extra resources and if you can create 10 Siddhartha or 10 Nansi with your resources, and help people to fulfill their dream, I think you’ll find some purpose.


Siddhartha 1:01:34

Thank you so much Manish, this conversation is so enriching that I can continue on it for long.


Manish 1:01:40

Thanks for this, it’s always good to talk to the right soul. You don’t come out and talk to anybody like this. It’s always the aura, the energy which makes you talk from the heart. Thank you, Siddhartha for this opportunity. I appreciate this and I thoroughly loved the whole process. Thank you so much.



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