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“Stories Have Begun To Travel, The Audience Is Bringing Down Barriers”

The President of Junglee Pictures, Priti Shahani, shares her insight with team Box Office India on her back-to-back successes Talvar, Bareilly Ki Barfi and Raazi, the goal of her production house and her upcoming film

You have not given many interviews before this one, even after the success of your previous films.

Rather than making announcements, I think the better way to do it is to release your film and then speak about your work. So we’ve never made grand announcements at Junglee Pictures. We have never said that this is our line-up, watch out for us. We have announced them as we have gone on the floors and then allowed our stories to do the talking.

And Raazi has done some amazing talking in the industry. What a fabulous start to the year!

Actually, we’ve had a great year so far. Film-wise, this has been a really good year. For Raazi, it has been an exceptional year. Very rarely do you have a combination of critical acclaim, lot of love and appreciation, coupled with great success. That’s what makes Raazi so unique. There has been a lot of conversation and chatter about it being a female-oriented subject, breaking the 100-crore mark. And to be really honest, that makes it all the more special.

We had Tanu Weds Manu, the second part, it was a franchise with Kangana (Ranaut) that reached the 100-crore mark at the box office. All this is just proof that characters and stories travel. That’s what resonates with the audience and the stories too.

Let’s go back to when Junglee Pictures came on board for Raazi. Can you take us through that journey?

Calling Sehmat, the book, was introduced to me by Rahul Nanda even before Talvar released. It was not available in the market. The author had gotten it back from the publishers, and I read the book. After Talvar, Meghna (Gulzar) and I were sitting over lunch and I talked to her because I had been in a long discussion with the author. In the next couple of weeks, I had this conversation with Meghna, saying that this is the book, this is the story, and would you be keen?

Coincidently, she had already heard about it. The author had met Gulzar sahab, because five or seven years ago, he wanted Gulzar sahab to direct the film. So she was aware of the story. In a heartbeat, she was like ‘get me the rights we will make the film.’ And then, as things turned out, I was waiting for Mr (Harinder) Sikka to arrive and he did. Four weeks later, I hear that the rights were with somebody else. The rights had moved on to another producer.

I called up Meghna and said let’s work on something else. But, in our business, we believe that stories have a destiny and they attract people. Those producers got in touch with Meghna, to say, ‘would you like to direct this?’ Both of us laughed over a glass of wine and I was like, it’s a great story and you must do it. It doesn’t matter who gets the rights because, eventually, we all believe that this is a story that needs to be told.

Clearly, she was going to be the director of it because it didn’t matter who had the book and the rights to the book, they were going to her. But, as destiny would have it, even that didn’t work out and Meghna brought the story back to us in Junglee Pictures. And that’s how we’ve been involved for a really long time with this story. By which time Meghna and Bhavani (Iyer) had developed it already, adapted the story. We read it and there was no turning back from there.

And how did the collaboration with Dharma Productions work out?

It’s been an amazing collaboration with Dharma. When you read the story, you kind of knew that, and Alia (Bhatt) had already heard the story in that perspective. In that period of time that Meghna and we were discussing another story, obviously Karan (Johar) and she had also talked about collaborating and we’ve been in the business for a really long time. So it was one of those conversations that just worked out perfectly. They made amazing partners to tell the story. Alia was just tailor-made for this role, so it was like building blocks that were falling into place seamlessly. That was really where the journey of Raazi began for the three of us. 

As a production house, what criteria do you tick off on your checklist before green-lighting a project?

We read a lot. This is the one thing that everybody is involved in. In fact, when we have a lull period, when we are not releasing our films, we make even our finance team read! The number one thing that we are always looking for is relatability and resonance. Is that a story that everybody can relate to? Do the characters resonate with people? And is it engaging and entertaining? It sounds very scientific, it sounds like an Excel sheet, but it doesn’t actually work like this for us. It is in the seed, the thought of the story.

Bareilly Ki Barfi was an out-and-out family, rom-com entertainer. We were not trying to send out a message with it; all we were trying to do was entertain. When we heard the script; it was narrated to us by Shreyas Jain who is the co-writer with Nitesh Tiwari; we cracked up. We laughed through the script. It’s actually one of those few moments in our career where a script was narrated to us and we shut the company down at 4-4:30. We agreed that never have we heard something before that we knew instantly that we were going to make. There has to be the high relatability factor.

No larger-than-life cinema for Junglee Pictures?

Yes, we do want to be a part of it. In fact, over the last two years, we have been developing a story with Anurag Singh, who is currently making Kesari. It was his one line idea to bring in a superhero story that is rooted in Indian mythology. At least it gets its inspiration from Indian mythology. It’s been two years since we have been developing it. We are hoping that within the next six months we can announce its cast as well. So we want to tell larger-than-life stories. It’s just that these kind of really massive films that require large pre-production and production, they take longer in the development cycle.

How do you balance the relatability factor in these larger-than-life films?

For example, when we are telling the story of a superhero, it is a character that you have grown up in your childhood hearing stories about, when you were inspired by that character. We are not introducing a new character in your life that you have no idea about and then explaining what the powers of this character are. We are saying that in Amar Chitra Katha, in stories that have been told by your grandmother, you’ve heard of him. That is the resonance. Even if you see films like say Baahubali, it’s a new mythology that has been created. Why does it work? Because, intrinsically, in India we relate to these kind of larger-than-life, mythological characters. It’s just a new world that has been created and we don’t question that world because that’s in our books.

Given the commercial acceptance of your last three films and how they have grown, do you think it is because the audience is more accepting of smaller-budget films due to their content?

I think it is within our business that we categorise into small, medium and large films. And we feed our audience so much information on the costs and revenue of our films. And that’s true, there are budgets. But those budgets are tailor-made for the story that you are about to tell. I don’t think that we have made any conscious effort to fall into any bracket, to say, oh we want to be in the small or medium budget bracket.

I think we have been conscious of being very physically responsible to the stories that we are telling. From an audience perspective, it’s uncanny. And this is that X factor that we will never be able to explain. It’s inexplicable. Once the trailer is out, the audience understands the pulse of that story and decides in that moment whether it’s a film they must watch, maybe could watch, or definitely will not watch.

It’s our belief that a trailer is a subset of the film. I have heard so many times that marketing failed, the trailer was not good enough, and my counter to that has been that the marketing is only selling that what is in the film. We cannot create a trailer that does not exist in your film. Think about films like Sairat. Where would you have expected that a regional film, a Marathi film that is so rooted in the core of our state, was going to break away and find its audience across? There is no language barrier. Nobody questioned even for a minute and it did very well in Delhi as well. So it wasn’t a Bombay phenomenon.

Stories are beginning to travel. The audience does not create language barriers; they are not placing barriers to consuming content on a certain platform. I know because I hear this a lot. It’s not unexpected to hear somebody talk about a Netflix show that comes from Israel, for example. And we all have heard about Fauda. Why are we consuming that? Because the story is compelling us to. So that change has happened. It has been brought about due to many factors. It’s because of our exposure to content from across the world.

A lot of production houses, even Dharma, have entered the regional space. Does Junglee have any plans to follow suit?

In this business, you can never say never. But I think that our focus has been to first consolidate and make a mark in the business that we understand, which is telling stories in the Hindi feature space. We are just a four-year-old company and we have a long way to go. The other is that you have to depend very strongly on your partner in regional cinema because there is a cultural context, there are language nuances. Understanding a story and reading the translation of the story is not the same thing as understanding that story for that audience in that language. And we have not geared ourselves to do that.

You have quite an interesting project coming up from your production house, which is also a namesake… Junglee.

Every once in a while, we sit in our office and work on an Excel sheet and ask ourselves, what is the story that we can tell that is commercially flexible? The genre is commercially flexible. And almost always you will get the answer ‘action’. The action genre in this country travels. So we set out trying to make an action film. But we wanted a subject that was a little different from the kind of stories that are being told right now. We didn’t want to go into the army space or the space of agents. We wanted to create a new world.

In the last three years, there has been a lot of conversations on saving the elephants. The United Nations has also moved on this. Our movie is on elephant poaching and creating elephant corridors. We hear about many elephants dying on train tracks in places like Assam, and that is because we haven’t created enough corridors for them. They are massive animals and there is a need to protect them. So, this is a story of a protagonist who comes home one day and his home is an elephant reservation. Part of his extended family are the elephants themselves. The film touches on the subject of poaching but it is an entertaining, adventure-action, family film.

As far as Chuck (director Chuck Russell) is concerned, once we decided what the subject was, we looked back and realised that we haven’t told a film with animals in it, especially elephants, since the last 25 years. In our business, it has been that long. It was a clean slate for us. We tend to say that a particular director will tell a particular story very well. But we didn’t have that.

That clean slate meant that we could go anywhere in the world and get a new lens. And Chuck, if you have ever watched his previous films, has an animal in it and he has done action in his films. The Mask is still a benchmark for CGI work. That CGI work, which came out 25 years ago, was unbelievable. Plus, that was a musical. He leans towards music. We looked at it and saw that out of five boxes he ticks four. The only one left was language. That was a little iffy in the beginning. But we con-called him and I think it was the best decision we ever made. It is the lens. It is a mix of two worlds coming together to tell a story which is so rooted in our country, in our language. Just a different lens.

After delivering a successful film, people tend to feel the weight of that responsibility when they are choosing future projects. Is that something you are feeling after Raazi?

The pressure has come because of exactly these conversations, and I think we are going to stick to what we have been doing. We have only been focused on picking up stories that excite us and then we make it happen. We put our belief in it. We have been very fortunate to have worked with great filmmakers.

I don’t think there is any formula to this. Everybody in this business works on instinct. Once you have decided that you want to back a story and a story teller, then I think that is what we do. What has been our learning, is to support them, to give them the infrastructure they need to be able to tell a story. But we make them in budgets that are reasonable to the stories we want to tell.

One of the things we try and do is we enter our Fridays without feeling the fear of a ‘Friday’, which means that the art and the science of our business need to be married together very well. The art comes from the creative side; the science comes from the budgeting side.

Earlier, you had said that your focus is on the Hindi film industry. What about the digital space?

We have made an announcement already. We are going to shift. I don’t think every story can be told in a two-hour format. The fact is we can believe it is only going to be feature films, but our audience has shifted and we have found stories that don’t fit the two-hour format, which we would like to explore in the digital space. 

Our mandate for the next two years is to shift from being simply a features company to being a content company. Features will remain our mainstay. We will never move away from being a features company. But we have a focus to move into the digital platform. Our own mandate for ourselves is to maintain the kind of creative quality as much as possible in our storytelling. We have already announced one series by Srijit Mukerji. It is based on a book called The Mahabharat Murders. We are going to make another announcement next week with one of our directors. These are stories that organically fit into the digital platform.                             

You have many years of marketing experience. How exactly does that come in handy as the studio head?

I was very fortunate that I was involved in distribution at a very early stage. I think it is that marketing-distribution combination, and more of the distribution understanding, that helps in green-lighting films, because you have an understanding of where your films can travel.

I hope we can see a change because distribution reports will tell you a story and will teach you about content like nobody else can. And I am hoping we get to a stage of great transparency among producers, where we openly share our distribution reports. That will give us an understanding of content and genre, where it is best received. It will help us reduce our marketing expense as well and we can have focused marketing.

Marketing trends have changed. Today, we are looking at micro-marketing. When we talk about the regional space, our communication has to be different. When we green-light films, we actually do this as an exercise: we pick up the phone on distribution teams and ask them to give us an understanding of where films of a similar kind of  genre did best. What were those markets? What were their top ten cities? And then, we design our release.

A year ago, there was a bunch of high-profile, big-budget films that flopped. It was dubbed ‘Hindi cinema’s doomsday’. In stark contrast, this has been a great year so far. What do you think changed?

It is cyclical. I don’t think there is a single producer, actor, director or even the hundred people on your set who sit down to think that they are really going to make the most boring film that is going to be a massive commercial loss and they are going to spend one and a half years doing that with a lot of focus.

I think the audience’s taste is now very varied. We are competing for mind space and that is the reality of being in our business. For my film to stand out, I am competing with Hollywood, regional cinema, digital platforms and sometimes even television. How do I get you to spend 250 rupees to buy my ticket?

Every bad year we have tells us a story of the things we cannot do in the future. Either the stories have failed or the combination of stories with their budgets has failed. I don’t think there is a doomsday for the Hindi film industry. This is a nation that loves being entertained in a theatre. I think we are learning very quickly that our audience has become very judicious and now asks the right questions before spending money on ticket and popcorn.

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