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Project Profile: Chenu by Manjeet Singh, Cinefondation L’Atelier,Cannes 2013

By Nandita Dutta • Published on May 10, 2013

Mumbai Cha Raja director Manjeet Singh takes his next project Chenu to L’ Atelier of the Cinefondation at Cannes film festival. L’Atelier hand picks projects from all over the world and invites the directors and their producers to meet potential partners during the festival. Manjeet Singh talks about his upcoming project:

What was the starting point for “Chenu”?

Chenu Poster Manjeet Singh compressed During my college days, I found it baffling that genocides were happening in Bihar because of the ongoing caste war. I was puzzled: Would someone kill a human, just because he belongs to another caste? I was puzzled even further when a close friend of mine proudly acknowledged, “My uncle belongs to a landlord gang that kills dalits”. It made me wonder, how come this friend of mine, who grew up in Bombay-far away from Bihar- can have such a feudal mindset.

My stay in the USA also gave me a different perspective of looking at things, which we in India take for granted. We believe that the poor labour force will live in slums; their kids will not go to school or will go to municipal schools. In short, we think that the poor do not deserve the life that we do. That mindset is also evident when our planning commission announces the poverty line. It’s ironical that the people setting this poverty line cannot live on that income for even a day. So how can they expect others to live on that?

I feel that the poverty line is reverse engineered and calculated, so that we can show that India has progressed and now less number of people are poor. On the other hand, the Parsi community in Bombay defines a ‘poor parsi’ as one who makes upto Rs. 90,000 (~2000USD) a month, which is so sensible. That’s a realistic number for someone to have a peaceful existence in a city like Bombay, covering his family’s bare minimum needs. But suppose if we were to set this number as the poverty line, 99.99% of India will be poor, which will look bad for the government’s claim of high growth rate.

I am so much interested in understanding the other India where nobody wants to go. Some call it the dark and some call it Bharat.  Mumbai cha Raja was also part of that puzzle solving spectrum in an urban setting whereas Chenu is the same attempt in a rural setting, which is more intense and dramatic. These are the stories which the world really wants to know and not the escapist stories. Unfortunately the pseudo-intellectuals have a label of poverty porn for the stories coming out of the dark, the real India, which is screaming to be heard, but ignored by the media to politicians to filmmakers! Chenu also happens to be my first attempt at Screenplay writing!

L’Atelier selection is by invitation. How did they get interested in your project?

Manjeet Singh

Manjeet Singh

L’Atelier is a very special program as they do not have a formal application process.  I do not even know Cinefondation officials personally. Chenu was selected previously for the ‘Produire au Sud’ program, in the ’3 Continent film festival’, Nantes, France. They sent the DVD of Mumbai Cha Raja and my script to the Cinefondation team. Similarly all the major co-production events such as Cinemart, Rotterdam; FilmMart, HongKong; Asian project Market, Busan; Berlinale Co-Production Market must be recommending their projects to the Cinefondation.  I think the Cinefondation also keeps an eye on filmmakers who have made a commendable Independent film and look out for their next projects. They travel to important festivals, meet film-makers and discuss their projects. To get selected, the previous work has to be outstanding and also your forthcoming project should be impressive.

Do you have any international/Indian co-producers attached to the project?

Yes. At the moment Marc Almon from Story Engine Pictures, Canada is a co-producer. We hope to raise considerable amount of money in Canada.

What stage of development is it in?

The current draft version is three. I think it will need couple of more drafts to get us into the shooting mode.

The film is set in rural India, among landlords and naxalites. How did you research for the story?

I travelled to Bihar for the research work. The first hand information was mind boggling. There was so much more to the internet research I had done. I even made a short film Dhaba on the research trip, with a handy cam meant for recording interviews, using real location, non-actors, and without any preparation.

How do you think Chenu will benefit from L’Atelier?

Getting selected in Cannes makes it a prestigious project. So top producers, distributors, sales agents want to be part of it. The top festivals also keep a close watch on how the film is shaping up. So a good world Premiere can be expected.

Have you tried raising finance for the film domestically? How has the response been?

The studios seem to be afraid of the intensity of the film. Some investors would invest if we could get known stars. Some investors want the film to be made in lower budget without stars.

Are there any plans to release Mumbai Cha Raja?

Yes, we are trying to release the film around the Ganesh festival, which is in September.

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