The director talks about his debut feature Mumbai’s King, about slum kids in India.

Mumbai-based filmmaker Manjeet Singh was aware that making a film about slum kids might be risky, given that it’s not exactly new material. But his debut feature Mumbai’s King (Mumbai Cha Raja) deals with the subject in a much more naturalistic manner than we’ve perhaps seen before.

The film follows Rahul and his balloon-seller friend Arbaaz as they roam the streets of Mumbai - their pranks and hijinx disguising the fact that life is less than rosy at home. Most of the action takes place during the colourful Ganesha Chaturthi festival, devoted to Lord Ganesh. The children are played by non-professional actors.

Singh was inspired to make the film when researching a documentary about child musicians working on the local trains in Mumbai. The doc stalled in pre-production, but Singh managed to complete his self-financed narrative feature, which received its world premiere in the City to City programme at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It screens in Abu Dhabi in the New Horizons competition.

Why was it about the kids you met that inspired you to make this film?

I was exposed to their challenges and lives and observed that in spite of their problems they were very high spirited and enjoyed their life. So it was a desire to capture that spirit. I also wanted to share my childhood memories and the pranks I played with my friends, along with the desire to capture the Ganesh festival, which has not been done so much before. So many films have been made in Mumbai, but not many focus on this event.

How did you finance the film?

When I started I had no money - my family helped me with buying the equipment needed and other costs. That’s how it started and when we needed more money duringpost-production we started crowd-funding on This was quite recently as we’d been selected for Toronto and needed to complete the film. We’re still looking for funds to do the songs - the background score is done, but when you come to do the promotion in India, you have to have songs.

Can you tell us more about Mathias Duplessey who wrote the score of the film?

Duplessey is a French musician who is into the world music scene and has collaborated with many musicians, particularly from India and Africa. He’s made seven or eight songs based on collaborations with the kids from the Mumbai local trains, and he’s willing to share that music with me, but we’re still not sure about clearance of the rights. We’ll probably have to re-record those songs. 

Did you have to rush to get the film finished for Toronto?

In a way yes, because we only finished the music in the last few days and had to mix it, but we’re pretty pleased with the results. It’s difficult to say this is good enough, but with no deadline you could just keep on editing and mixing for ever. You have to stop at some point. The Toronto cut is finished but we need some songs and I may shoot some song montages for the Indian theatrical release. You need to get your songs on YouTube and if they’re popular it will help with the release of your film.

Have you found a distributor in India for the film?

We’re planning to invite the [Indian film] corporates to the screening at the Mumbai film festival next week. Distribution is a huge problem in India because we don’t have exhibition space for art movies. Also you have to spend on publicity in papers and television to get noticed, which is very expensive.

What are you planning to do next?

I’ve been writing scripts for the past six years and one of my scripts, Chenu, has been selected by the Three Continents Film Festival in Nantes for their co-production workshop in November.

The story is about a Dalit [untouchable] boy living in Northern India who gets engulfed in the ongoing war between the upper caste military and extreme leftists. I have four stories based on caste discrimination and caste violence. That’s not an issue in Mumbai Cha Raja but it is based on the marginalised society of India where filmmakers don’t normally go. Their stories are not told and no-one in India wants to watch their lives - they want to watch escapist cinema to feel good.