Manish Pandey's doc "Senna" heads for Sundance

Manish Pandey, the driving force behind Universal’s first feature documentary “Senna,” is a rare kind of multihyphenate — a writer, producer and orthopedic surgeon.

Born in India but raised in England, Pandey worked as a doctor for 10 years before his screenwriting ambitions overtook his medical career. Now 43, he still runs a clinic one day a week at London’s Mount Vernon hospital, but these days his main focus is on making movies.

His debut film, produced by Working Title, about the life and death of the legendary Brazilian Formula One racing champion Ayrton Senna, was a labor of love that took six years to complete. Senna and cinema were Pandey’s two great passions as a teenager, but family expectations led him first into medicine.

“I was always insane about movies, but when you’re a vaguely academic Indian whose father and stepmother are both doctors, that’s the way you end up going,” he laughs.

While training as a surgeon, Pandey wrote scripts in his spare time and managed to get an agent. An Indian twist on “Pride and Prejudice” caught the attention of Shekhar Kapur and got him through the door at Working Title, but was spiked when Gurinder Chadha announced her rival “Bride and Prejudice” project.

Working Title commissioned Pandey to work on a couple of other projects, which also didn’t get made. But his dealings with the company weren’t entirely unproductive, since he ended up marrying head of development Natascha Wharton.

In 2004, Wharton introduced Pandey to producer James Gay-Rees, who wanted to make a documentary about the death of Senna at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

“Senna was my absolute hero, a guy from a Third World country coming to Europe and showing he was as good as them. His death was one of the most traumatic events of my life; it was like losing an older brother,” Pandey recalls. “But I didn’t want to do a film on his death, because that was missing the point. I wanted to make a film about his life.”

So began an intense six-year journey for Pandey, working alongside Gay-Rees and director Asif Kapadia. This culminated in October with the world premiere of “Senna” in Tokyo to coincide with the Japanese Grand Prix. The film has since been released in Brazil, and will get its North American premiere at Sundance in January.

Pandey’s role went far beyond that of a mere screenwriter, reflected in his producer credit. He won the trust of Senna’s family and gained unprecedented access to the Formula One vaults. He pitched Universal to get the greenlight, and edited intensively with Kapadia to shape an emotional narrative using archive footage alone, letting the images speak for themselves without talking heads or a conventional narrator.

His next project is a drama, though also based on a true story from the world of Formula One. Titled “Figlio,” it’s about automaker Enzo Ferrari and his paternal relationship with his drivers. “It’s the only other motor racing story I’ve ever wanted to tell,” says Pandey, who’s writing it on spec with another surgeon friend, and wants to produce it himself.

“I’ve got the bug for producing. Writing has never been enough for me,” he says.

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