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“We believe ‘hit’ and ‘flop’ are transitory terms”

The biggest film company in Bengal gears up for even bigger growth. In a free-wheeling chat, Mahendra Soni, the man behind SVF Entertainment, shares with Vajir Singh, his business philosophy and the reason the company has been rebranded

This seems to be a great time for regional filmmakers. On one hand, Baahubali: The Conlcusion has shattered box-office records, on the other, South producers are investing more than ever in making their directors’ dreams come true. Gujarati cinema made a return a few months ago. Punjabi filmmakers are raising the bar with each release. And Bengali filmmakers are investing more in their movies too.

One cannot speak of Bengali cinema without mentioning Mahendra Soni, the man who has changed the face of that regional film industry. So it’s not every day that you get a call from Soni, who says with excitement, “Come to Kolkata and visit my office. You’ll be proud of me, my friend.”

And so it was I landed in Kolkata and, yes, I was awestruck to see the office of this ‘regional’ filmmaker, a palace atop a highrise in the heart of the city. In his office, Soni explained that every visual element had been thought out carefully. “The idea was to feel happy while working. The idea was for each one of us to feel proud of ourselves the moment we step into our office premises,” Soni said.

The window offers a sprawling view of all of Kolkata. One room has been dedicated to the late filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh, made to resemble his living room, complete with some of his kurtas. “We owe a lot of our success to Rituda. We have achieved more than we deserve because of his blessings and guidance. We miss him. This place is a sacred part of our office, so all the pujas takes place here,” Soni explained.

Over to Mahendra Soni-

What was the reason behind rebranding of Shree Venkatesh Films as SVF Entertainment?

We started our company almost 20 years ago. We were distributors and, while distributing, we learnt that to grow in this market, we needed to produce local content, because in the suburbs, Bengali films still do better business than Hindi films.

Distribution is generally about, aapne kisika movie liya, paise kamaye aur de diya. Nothing stays with you. We realised that film production was the business to be in. From 1995 to 2005, we made two or three films a year and realised that, to move forward, we need new verticals. Then we got into television, broadcasting, exhibition… and Shree Venkatesh Films became a big company with all these different parts.

We realised that we were no film company, we are an entertainment group. So much is changing now. We want to be contemporary and young and still keep the value of regional cinema intact. We started with two people and now have more than 250 people directly employed, apart from the technicians and artists who work closely with us and are also part of SVF’s journey.

A lot of people used to call us ‘SVF’ anyway. Initially, people also used to say, Shree Venkatesh Films… is it owned by a South Indian? So that did not go down well with our local image. Now, as SVF Entertainment, we have set out on a new journey.

Your office is very lavish. Usually, regional filmmakers don’t believe in spending so much on an office…

This is not our work space; it is our home. We spend more time here than in our houses, so why not invest and make it like a house?

Also, we believe that the family we are working with needs a space they can be proud of. They need to feel like they are working for someone who can set standards. When I visit Mumbai, as I do often, and see the offices there, except for a couple of studios, I feel, ‘Woh bas film banate hai aur kaam chalate hai.’ We wanted to put our signature on our space and show that regional cinema is not lagging behind anyone. Our message was, ‘Come here and see for yourself. We are as big as, if not bigger than, all of you.’

Bengal is a market that has been growing in the last 10 years; in the next five years, it’s going to be huge. Bengali is the sixth-most-widely-spoken language in the world. The total population we’re talking about, including Bangladesh, is nearly 227 million people – that’s nearly 30 crore. It’s a big market and if you are serving so many people, you need to set the bar high.

 Do you think Bangla audiences prefer to go to a cinema to enjoy a movie?

For the last five years, we have seen a downward trend in terms of people going to cinemas, mainly because 

infrastructure is bad. Exhibitors have not invested much in the suburbs. We need huge investments to bring back that audience and we have taken the initiative there. In the next three years, we will try to open at least 100 more screens. We have already opened eight and the next four will open in the next two or three months.

There is a market, because Bengalis want to watch films and they want to watch all types of films. We have made successful world-class cinema as well as commercial cinema here. So the market is there. We, at SVF, make 12 or 13 films a year and going forward plan to make about 20 films a year. So cinemas are going to be a very key market.

Even in this world of changing landscapes, people will watch on mobile phones and on TV but unless you get your film out in the cinemas, the perception is not there. If you release a film directly to satellite or on the digital platform, you will never get the same kind of eyeballs because the perception of it is missing.

So cinema will survive and for that we are building cinemas as well. We want to show our films on big screens. That remains the first level. Only then can it move to other windows.

 If movies are not doing well in cinemas, why would you decide to invest in the cinema business?    

(Laughs) The best period to invest in a business is when it is not doing well. When we started making Bengali films, I think the total number of films being released here was not more than 20 a year. That has since gone up to 100 films. Last year, the Bengali market released 120 films.

It’s not just local cinema either. The Fate Of The Furious was released in Bengal and it got huge numbers. It was the same with The Jungle Book and Life Of Pi. People are still coming to cinemas. We strongly believe that they will continue to, in even larger numbers, because there aren’t many other avenues of leisure and recreation available.

For so long, regional cinema has competed with Hindi cinema. Now it must compete with Hollywood films too. Is that alarming to you?

In a way, yes and no. Bengali, as a language, is unique and Bengalis are proud of that heritage. There is so much literature, so much music, so many legendary writers associated with it. Even Bengalis in Virginia will speak to their kids in Bengali. Others may have started speaking in Hindi or English at home, but in Bengal you will still find people talking in Bengali. They love their language and they love to watch anything made in Bengali. Bengal, as a market, has unending potential.

Our latest success was Chander Pahar and we are releasing a sequel this year. That again is an urban film but everybody watched it. This is a market where a masala film will work if you get it right. And if you do an urban film, it will work too.

Over the last few years, there have been a lot of changes in the tastes of the Bengali audience. They have started liking masala films too. What do you think is the reason for this?

Earlier, Bengali films were made for the cities. Now, the suburbs have come into the picture and there is the influence of Hindi films too. Ever since television entered their homes, people have experienced emotions that we call the mainstream ronahasna. Once you start liking that, films become the best medium for those emotions. I think masala is working hugely in Bengal. And the best part is that there is niche and urban cinema too, the cinema of Srijit Mukherji, Kaushik Ganguly and Arindam Sil, who are doing great films every year, films like Byomkesh Pawrbo.

Our latest success was Chander Pahar and we are releasing a sequel this year. That again is an urban film but everybody watched it. This is a market where a masala film will work if you get it right. And if you do an urban film, it will work too.

Over the last few years, Bengali filmmakers have also begun remaking South Indian films. Why is that?

I would first accept that there is a dearth of good commercial film writers in Bengali. South Indian films have developed some great commercial content and there is no way a Bengali can watch those films without a dubbed version on some channel. So if there is a story that has done well in its respective market, why can’t I just remake that story in our language? That is a risk-free formula. I think from Wanted or something, Hindi cinema too changed…

Yes, in 2009…

We changed in 2002, when we started remaking films from the South. A film called Sathi was a remake and it did huge business. That was when we realised the power of great South Indian content. We just released one movie that is doing great too, a remake of Dhruva, which was originally made in Tamil and Telugu.

Also, when you started film production, your budgets were very low…

Yes! Our first film was made on a budget of 40 lakhs or 50 lakhs, with a small set-up. We realised right then that if we didn’t offer the kind of production values that Hindi and South Indian films did, the audience would not come.

There is a cinema hall that used to run Hindi films and they used to charge Rs 50 per ticket and people used to watch big cinema and songs shot in London. And around here was another cinema that used to charge Rs 30 and show old-world films. We had to match that, and, slowly, not only from the production point of view but from the talent point of view as well, we got a lot of people from Mumbai and the South in, to work on our cameras, choreography and costumes.

It’s a cycle, you know. Once you start investing, you get money. Right now, our songs are as good as Hindi cinema’s. My friends in Mumbai ask me, ‘How do you do it in 4 or 5 crore, something that takes us 40 crore to make?’ The biggest film we are doing now is the sequel to Chander Pahar, which will cost us 18 to 20 crore. The VFX took about a year and a half and we are still struggling to complete it. 

The first part earned us about 25 crore at the box office. The market is there, so why not invest? We believe ‘hit’ and ‘flop’ are transitory terms. Whoever says ‘Maine film banayee aur woh nahi chali’, aise film ka business nahi hota. A film I made in 1998 still earns me money.

Some people invest in the share market, others in gold. I am investing in films, which are earning me more than what most investments would. If you create good content, even if it’s a flop at the time, if you keep it in your library, you will get your money back. Obviously you have to do things right and get the budget right. You can’t keep making flops one after another. But we don’t calculate based on one Friday or another. We calculate after seven years or more. We might do eight films a year and still our balance sheet is growing.

Also, very importantly, you have to manage your assets. All our films have been restored digitally and uploaded to the Amazon Cloud service. If I need to deliver a film of mine to Netflix, I can do it from my laptop. So that management, that maintenance, that meta data is crucial.

If you’ve done a Diwali song 10 years ago and you upload that song to YouTube just before Diwali, you will make

money. Music people have given everything to the labels and the labels are earning more than you can imagine. We have decided that we will not sign over our music or even our videos to anyone. People have offered us huge sums, but we say, ‘No, we want to keep it.’ And thus we benefit.

Some people sign over video and Internet rights together! If you keep your intellectual property protected and you retain the rights to all your assets, and you have made decent films with good star casts, you will eventually make money.   

It’s about being smart…

It’s about learning. If you make a film for 100 crore and get box-office returns of two crore, then you are going to fail. But if you make a 100-crore film and manage to get 75 crore, then you can manage in due course of time. You need to support your library and keep making films, and you have to invest at the right time. If you have singed a director at 20 crore, you need to give a break to a director who takes five lakhs. So your budget is managed in two films rather than one.

It’s all planned…

Yes, it’s all planned. One, we will do an 8-crore film and the other will be a 75-lakh film. The 8-crore film might flop but the 75-lakh film might work. Somewhere it will balance out.

When you started a production company, did you ever think you would spend 18 crore and make a Bengali film?

Agar uss samay mein bolte toh people would have thought we were mad. Still, people think we are crazy to invest that kind of money. No, we never thought that, we learnt along the way. We cannot say we were so passionate about films; it grew on us. We used to spend the entire day on film sets and arrive before call time and leave after pack-up. During the post-production, we used to sit on all the edits. Right now, we don’t even go to the floors of any of the films.

But we understood that if you do it right, the money will come back. You should never do a budget for films. Of course, we do have budgets but you can’t shoot a rain sequence in the sun to bring down the budget. You have to shoot it in the rain.

You come across as a pure businessman but, today, I’ve seen a different side of you. You have dedicated an entire room to a director you have worked with closely.

Rituparno Ghosh was a great inspiration for us. We always used to make masala films. One day, he called me and said he wanted to narrate a script. This was in the year 2000. Between 1995 and 2000, we made only masala movies with hardcore songs, dance, falana dhinkana, and we were happy doing that. He used to say, ‘Make a film with us,’ and we would say, ‘No, we are not in that zone.’ Eventually, he would say, ‘Boss, you are doing great films but you need to give back something to the industry. I may not make you money but whatever I give will be with you forever.’

We were moved by his words and we heard the script of Chokher Bali. At the time, he gave us a budget of `2.2 crore and Aishwarya Rai (Bachchan) was not finalised, nor Nandita Das. I said, ‘No, we will do it because it’s a dream project and we want to be a part of it. We like to be a part of and back people with a great passionate team.’

Then Aishwarya came in and still the film did not make money. But it opened a new world for us and we realised that films are not just about entertainment, they are also about archival history. It’s a medium that helps you pass on a lot of information. A child can learn how to behave and dream, while a young man can decide how to spend the rest of his life.  I think we made four to five films with him and he shaped us in many ways. He died in a very unfortunate situation. If you look at the work we do, he inspires us a lot. I and especially Shrikant (Mohta) are very inspired by him.

You are into distribution, exhibition, production, television and music but not on radio. Why?

With all the mediums you mentioned, there is a space where you can go out and say, ‘Boss, I am the best. I can deliver something you have not seen, I can create something you have not seen and we are contributing.’ Radio is a business. Number one, growth is limited; and, number two, everybody does the same thing. Take the music from some company and play it. It’s a medium which is like paise de do aur maal le lo

Is it true that the music industry is dying?

I think this is the best period for the music industry because the kind of revenue music gives us… I’ll give you just an idea, we make an almost 20-per cent profit from music. We don’t invest in music. Music is part of the film. And there are almost 40 streams from where you can make money. Usually, with every medium, if you make a film you have one satellite, one digital, one music, with music there are multiple players in each platform–Telco (both domestic and international), OTT operators, digital stores like the Apple store and so many more…wherever you can download it.

Then you go to licensing, which is a broadcast licence, then to sync such as Sa Re Ga Ma PaIndian Idol and all. Then you go to publishing, which is IPL (Indian Premier League), then you go to shop rights, then you go to radio stations. Toh ek gaana hit ho gaya toh kitne paise milte hai? It’s such a big market but you need to deliver a hit.

We have around 800 songs in our library and we intend to take that to 2,000 in the next three years. It is going to grow and the music industry can sustain the losses of the entire year. You have good years and you have bad years. How do you sustain yourself through your bad years? Then, there’s revenue from YouTube. So many people do cover versions of songs, and everything comes under music. 

Looking forward… you are going to launch an app too.

Yes, we are excited to launch an app. We haven’t gone out in public and said this but it is going to be our first B2C app, Bengali. Through all our businesses, the money has been coming from a partner, whether films or television. We have never interacted with the consumer directly. This is the first time we will be interacting with consumers and we are going to deliver what they want. When the satellite market opened, it started with Doordarshan, a Hindi satellite channel and, seven years down the line, Marathi, Bengali and Gujarati came in.

This time, we decided we wouldn’t wait that long, for the time Amazon and Netflix took to think about the regional market. We have the diaspora knowledge, we have huge talent with us, we have a huge bank of fresh talent who wants to do something which cannot be done on television or in films. So there is going to be a bank of content and I think it is going to be a big market because, right now, in Bengal we are serving 7 to 8 million people and if we add Bangladesh and international, it’s a market of 27 million. So it’s going to be huge.

Also, another unique thing about your company is, like in Bollywood, actors are being signed for three to four films but you lock the years of actors…  

Yeah, we have an output deal which we signed before Salman Khan did it with the Star network a few years ago. For that, we need to plan all day and that actually helps in many ways. We can crack our marketing, music and distribution deals. If you know the line-up for, let’s say the next one month, one year or one and a half years, it makes the planning much easier, not only with actors but with technicians and directors too.

We are not the kind of company that does a paper signing contract; that’s happening because this world is moving towards corporates. We tell them we are going to do five films and we give them the release dates. We pay them well and they work less and we take good care of them. It’s more like a studio model, where we also structure their payments on a monthly basis; they don’t have to worry about their EMIs either. We also have non-exclusive artistes and we work with them on a project-to-project basis.

Another thing about your company is consistency… you consistently make and deliver films.

Correct! As I said, we don’t get depressed if a film flops; instead, we learn from it and make sure we do not repeat our mistakes. A flop film is more important to us than a hit film. In that sense, I think our films have taught us a lot and we always keep our eyes open for fresh talent, new stories and new avenues to make money, and not only in film production.

If you look at the distribution scene in India, you will rarely find a company sustaining for 20 to 25 years but we have been distributing more than 1,000-odd films in the market, the eastern market. That’s a huge number. There are no complaints and everything is systematic, everything is planned and transparent, and we believe in relationships.

Where do you see your company five years from now?

At least five times what we are. We are planning to grow in multiples, not by percentage points. And we have a plan to grow in that direction. Bangladesh is an important market and we have opened an office there. Also, we are planning to launch a Hindi film production company. We have been thinking about this for a long time but we wanted to streamline the Bengali movie business first… we are looking for the right partners.

You are looking for partners from the Hindi film industry?

That varies from film-to-film, like Begum Jaan was based on our subject and we co-produced there. We have worked with Madhu (Mantena) and with his company Phantom. We have been friends for the last 15 years and we are seriously thinking of doing our first Hindi film next year, which will be our own production. We will do a partnership and we have people on board. It will be our film and we want to make it the way we want to. Right now, in Mumbai, it is dominated by the partner module (joint ventures) but we want to make one film, at least one film if not more, and also start our television operations in Mumbai.

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