Ritesh Sidhwani (RS): Vikesh is the Executive Producer (EP) and has been in charge of production along with a team of line producers for four and a half years. We do have a different EP for every film but right now Vikesh is handling two films. Kassim is in charge of the script department. This department has four people and they read every script that comes our way. Vishal handles marketing… every aspect of marketing a film.
BOI: He is a new entrant to your production house?
Vishal Ramchandani (VR): Not really. I have been working with Excel for five years.
BOI: Take us through Excel’s journey…
Farhan Akhtar (FA): I think it’s important to creatively connect with people as you keep working. As far as the mainstream is concerned, I think mainstream is redefining itself. I don’t think there is a fixed concept of what mainstream is and what it’s not any more. What we consider mainstream today was not viable eight years ago. And the definition will keep changing. It’s nice to be part of this change and redefine what I think is mainstream... and to work with people who have the ability, interest and curiosity to keep redefining the way films are structured, the way stories are told… how production can be handled, how marketing tie-ups can work differently, how out-of-the-box ideas can work for a larger audience.
Most people we talk to, whether from production houses or filmmakers, have a fear of their concept… the story getting outdated. But what is ‘outdated’? We have an extremely young audience going to cinemas now, and to cater to them, you have to get into ground zero. Since just Ritesh and I can’t do all this, there are many other people involved. We are looking for talent who can do it, managing that talent, conveying what the film is about in the most exciting way to people who want to come and see our work. It’s a combination of different kinds of skills that goes into making a film.
(RS): As Farhan said, with every film, we discover that the audience is evolving. When you go ahead with a story, especially when Dil Chahta Hai released, people thought the movie was ahead of its time. I come from a family where I can identify with Akash’s character played by Aamir Khan. You identify yourself with the characters and you know who those people are.
Back then, I thought the audience would be able to easily identify with these characters. And that’s what we do till today whenever a script comes to us. I think you can relate to the characters by simply reading the script. By being able to believe in their world is where the sensibilities come in. That’s what we do here at Excel. Here, people with the same sensibilities work together to make a film.
BOI: What are the criteria Excel follows while zeroing in on a script?
Kassim Jagmagia (KJ): There are no specific criteria. Any story that has a soul and talks about hope attracts us.
BOI: In real life, we all live with some hope. Do you also look at that when it comes to the characters in any given script – people with hope?
(KJ): Now-a-days, everyone is abreast of what’s happening in society, our country and even globally. If a true story can motivate somebody or just talk about hope and a better tomorrow, why not? That’s what we all work on.
(VR): We all need to stay abreast of trends, like identifying the correct medium and how you go about it using it best. The most important thing about a film is to project it correctly and the accessibility of the medium to the target audience.
(RS): We released Don in 2006, and at that point, there were some changes in the number of screens and the number of movies being produced. Suddenly, the audience had so many more options to watch movies. So it is important to draw everyone’s attention to your film; you have to make it an event for them; you have to convince them that your film is the best. I think this was the strategy of multiplexes, thereby making them an expensive experience. Going to the movies with family was suddenly all-round entertainment.
So, with so much of choice on TV, of films and different forms of entertainment like the Internet, how do you grab people’s attention? How do you bring them to cinemas? And how do you make them enjoy your film? I think that’s where marketing comes in, promoting and positioning your film. In fact, audience is so savvy that they make up their mind regardless of how and how much you shout or promote your film. If there is no connect, no matter how much you spend and what you do, they will not watch your film.
BOI: Do you believe the first trailer and first look of a film makes a difference?
FA: I give due credit to the person who said, ‘the first appearance is the last appearance’. I think that applies to films as well. Of course, there are films whose first look does not attract but the audience changes their opinion after watching them. But that’s rare. I think, when you see the first trailer of a film, there’s a part of you that decides whether you want to watch it or not. It would take a tremendous amount of convincing to get to watch such a film. So, yes, the first look is very crucial.
BOI: It has often happened that the best bits of a movie are in the trailer and there’s very little left to look forward to in the film itself. What do you do under those circumstances?
FA: I don’t know. We have never been in such a situation.
RS: We started with the first look but after that, you have to keep putting your material out there to keep the audience hooked with your first look and promos, to draw them into the film. The whole idea is to feed them the right info at the right time. Even the posters which Rahul (Nanda) designed… We send them to distributors and exhibitors to seek their feedback. It’s an entire strategy. One needs to look at the edit and then decide how to position one’s film.
FA: Every film has its own culture and so you promote it accordingly. For instance, the Don 2 promo and Fukrey promo followed very different approaches. With Don 2, the audience already knows the character and they are expecting a lot of action. And they want to see that in the trailer.
But with Fukrey, if we didn’t show the characters and their backdrop, the audience would not want to watch the film because they wouldn’t know who these people are. The interesting thing about Fukrey was the behind-the-scenes story… you know, the back stories. They introduced the audience not just to the characters but also to the people who were playing them, their families, where they come from… that kind of connect. We are very interested in people.
When we talk about a person who is a big star, whether it’s his acting or direction or production or music or a singer, you connect with them beyond what is visible on screen. You become part of their life, you know about their families, you know with whom they hang out, you know where they vacation, you know all these things about them. And that creates a bond beyond the cinematic bond you share with them.
In Fukrey, we felt it would be nice to approach it this way, to introduce the people to the audience so that the characters are not merely two-dimensional. It was especially important because this film is about four people who come from somewhere else and have dreams and aspirations, and they want you to accept them for having those dreams. So every film has its own culture.
BOI: How do you keep budgets in check when they (Ritesh and Farhan) decide to make a big-budget film? Is it tough?
VB: Once you decide on a script you like, you check the viability of the project. Together we analyse whether the film is viable as a product. Once we decide on how much to spend, we analyse how to monetise it. The good thing is we all believe in quality.
As an EP, if I feel I need more money to deliver that quality and also the freedom to the director, I have always approached the producers and they have been very understanding. That’s how the equation works for us. Yes, we have to fix on a budget but it’s not set in stone. Of course, we try to stick to the budget because monetisation is very important.
BOI: How important is it to have a star on board for your films? Many of your out-of-the-box films have had known faces. Is a star a selling point for the film?
FA: I guess so. A huge cast is always an asset in your production as are your director and music composer. These are your biggest star elements in a film from the audience’s point of view. When you have someone they like, they appreciate it and it automatically helps.
BOI: Is it important to carry these stories on the back of big stars when your production house is still building its reputation, and later make a film like Fukrey with smaller names?
FA: No! I mean we had films like Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. and also Rock On!! where apart from Arjun Rampal everyone was relatively new. So we have done this before. But the thing is, you cannot cast a film before you’ve written what it is going to be like. Again, I cannot make a film like Don with a newcomer because the budget would not allow me to make the film the way I want to make it. I have to go to someone who assures me, ‘I can give the best to the film’. Otherwise, what’s the point?
RS: When we read the script, all of us thought it would be better for the film to have new people. It needed characters who had just graduated from college. It needed actors who didn’t have any baggage, whom people didn’t know. The other thing is, when you work with newcomers, you also work with stars like our cinematographer KU Mohanan, who had shot Talaash with us and also Don. We had music director Ram Sampath on board, so we made sure the music would be an added advantage.
I think Honeymoon Travels worked perfectly according to the characters. So it depends on the film because we cast according to the demands of the script. For Talaash, the film definitely benefited from who was featured in it. We wanted a certain audience too. Besides, the genre was supernatural and so it had to be Aamir Khan. Then, obviously, the film opens to certain numbers. The story was good but you can’t ignore the fact that it had Aamir Khan.
FA: And Kareena Kapoor and Rani Mukerji too.
BOI: Three youth films – Dil Chahta Hai, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Fukrey – two had established names while Fukrey had newcomers…
FA: (Cuts in) That’s the director’s vision. Zoya Akhtar had worked with Hrithik (Roshan) in Luck By Chance and even I acted in it and when she wrote it, she was categorical about whom she wanted to cast. As producers, we believe in our director’s vision because while writing the film, you have actors transforming in your head for each character you’re penning on the page.
BOI: How do you choose your directors? You have launched new directors like Reema Kagti and Mrighdeep Lamba, who had done only one film by then. And what is your involvement with their projects, since you are also a director?
FA: All the new directors we have worked with have come with scripts that they have either written themselves or co-written, like in Mrigh’s case. So, you already form an opinion of what they would be like as directors. So whether it’s Vijay Lalwani with Karthik Calling Karthik or Zoya who wrote Luck By Chance, Reema who wrote Honeymoon Travels…
Sometimes, they talk to you about their ideas or the world they want to create out there, they are very sure. They take you through the whole process of putting it down and that gives you the confidence to go ahead and do it. It’s very enjoyable to work with new talent. To start with, they are hungry to go out there and do something. For instance, if Vikesh tells them the script needs to be reworked, they themselves figure out a way to make it work because they want to make the film so badly. The more films they do, and the more successful they get, it will probably get more difficult for Vikesh, because then they’d want what they want and that’s how it is but maybe Vikesh has a different take. (Laughs)
VB: No, it’s not difficult. On the contrary, it’s easy when you have creative people like Farhan working with you.
BOI: But aren’t you the first filter?
VB: Fortunately, our sensibilities are very similar.
BOI: Vishal, are you involved with the film from the moment it is narrated or when it goes on the floors?
VR: I do read the story initially. That’s the first step of marketing and distribution… to read a script and formulate a plan for marketing the film. But I don’t get involved creatively.
BOI: So you step in only as the release date approaches?
RS: He is also in charge of the focused screenings. After the edit, he is also in charge of making sure there are people...
FA: (Cuts in) Apart from people-characters, every film also has product-characters. So whether it’s a bike or cereal, every film has something to market. The idea is to identify the best possible organic fit with the film’s theme in a seamless way. He does liaison with brands to get the perfect fit.
BOI: Vikesh, you are involved in decisions relating to the money spent on a film. Do you also look into recovery?
VB: Not directly but indirectly, because ultimately I need to also understand the recovery aspect. After you finish the product, you realise its worth. At present, I am not directly involved in it but am in the process of understanding the recovery aspect.
RS: Once the script is done and Farhan and I have decided whom to cast and who the director will be, we sit with the EP and try to minimise the budget without compromising on the quality of the film. It is very important to have the EP and the director on the same page.
FA: Let me share something hilarious with you. I had written the first draft of Don 2 and we met Shah Rukh in London and I took him through this insane opening sequence. There was this speedboat chase, these water scooters flying across the river, and then finally there is this waterfall and Shah Rukh jumps from the boat and grabs the chopper. Then the titles appear on screen. And then Shah Rukh said, ‘Accha, iske baad budget bachne wali hai?’ (Laughs)
RS: Yeah, he was, like, where is the budget for the rest of the film going to come from? (Laughs)
FA: When you’re writing, you have to let go of all your inhibitions. Later, everyone gets involved and you scale down things. So, from there, we went to a hand-to-hand fight. (Laughs)
VB: Yes and no. Because, like Farhan said, they are very hungry and the current crop is also very aware of the numbers. So if you tell them this is what we can get or this is what we can recover, let’s make it on a certain budget otherwise it won’t sell, they understand that and get involved right from the beginning. These days, numbers are out in the open, people read Box Office India and that’s how they analyse their product.
RS: Numbers have suddenly become very important and everyone is discussing them.
BOI: Do you think people are more interested in numbers than gossip about actors?
FA: Yes! Absolutely.
RS: It’s very sad, because people are now watching films on the basis of whether they have earned Rs 100 crore rather than judging by content.
BOI: Fukrey has released and Excel Entertainment is going to lie low for a few months. Doesn’t the lean period worry you? You have a company to run and there are no films under production.
RS: No, I don’t think we are in that space where we have to constantly feed the system. It’s a very small organisation and we are not forcing ourselves to make anything unless we find the right story and the right script. We don’t have to feed ourselves because we don’t have a distribution machinery or anyone dependent on the software of the films we produce. I think the writing process – and most of the directors we have are writer-directors – is very important. At one point, our production house was shooting three films in one go – Game, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Don.
FA: And Talaash.
RS: And Talaash, except that Talaash was filmed in India. The rest were filmed abroad and it took a huge toll on us. Now we want to work on really good scripts and want to achieve more than three releases a year. Also, since we are not a studio, it is all right for us to have a gap between releases. This cooling off period of two to three months between each film is very important. I don’t think, creatively, you can do more than that.
BOI: Farhan, how do you cope with working outside your studio as an actor, as a producer, and with people waiting for your next film as a director?
FA: To be honest, Ritesh and Vikesh handle the production aspects of the company, so I don’t need to be involved on a day-to-day basis. But when we discuss scripts, I have to get involved, regardless of where I am shooting or who I am filming with. Of course, for a film like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, that would be really difficult because it involved a lot of travelling and I was scarcely in Mumbai. And, due to the kind of film it was, I didn’t want to get distracted. Also, everyone understood that it was an important film for me. Every film is important but this one required a special effort.
But we are back to discussing scripts and going through 11 pending scripts that need to be put into production. This gives us a chance to re-group and recharge, because like Ritesh said, we had a very hectic year.
FA: There’s no difference. My biggest concern when working outside Excel is whether they are going to deliver on what they promised when you were discussing the project with them. It’s a space you don’t want to be in because bad production affects output, creativity and mood. I am very happy at Excel and no one has ever complained about having a bad experience working with our company. I am very proud of that. This is what matters most. It is really not important where else I work and with whom I work and in what capacity I work with them.
BOI: Excel has not looked at regional films so far. Do you have any plans to foray into that space?
RS: Again, it all depends on the script. If we get a script we like, it doesn’t have to be Hindi. All we need is a great story, one we are excited to tell, regardless of language. As far as expansion goes, like Farhan said, we already have 11 to 12 scripts, there are a few directors on board, and we are talking to one or two more.
The other area we are thinking of going into is TV but we will have to take the time to really think about it. We think there is a TV audience that is not getting the kind of shows they want.
BOI: Vikesh, how easy or difficult is it for a director to walk into Excel and approach you to make his film?
VB: It is very easy. He doesn’t even have to be from the industry or an AD. We have set up an e-mail account, where we get 10 or 15 scripts and synopses a day. We also have a set of readers who read each script. It may take time but we make it a point to respond to every script.
RS: Actually, after Dil Chahta Hai, we did a tie-up with distributor Anil Thadani, where we set up a partnership between Excel and AA Films. Accordingly, we distributed some of our films and some films of other producers. But we realised that, at the time, the system had 14 distributors and it was very difficult. When you are dealing with 14 distributors during your release, you want the information that goes down to them to be similar, and that was not happening.
I think to get into distribution, we might have to come out with more and more films to feed the system, and I don’t think that’s something we are looking at. I think there are sufficient distribution chains today. So we are enabling ourselves where we don’t need to start selling our films. We tried it with Talaash, we did it with Fukrey and we tried it with Don. Actually, even with Don, we gave Reliance only the distribution rights of the film and also for Talaash, where the risk was all ours. It was the same with the satellite rights. We didn’t want to burden the film with a studio. And we have tried to make sure nobody loses their money because of our film. That’s why we never have a co-producer on board.
BOI: Is it also because you don’t want creative interference and you get to make the film the way you want to?
FA: No, your work gives you the platform and enables you to say that your work will be of a certain quality. No one in the world can predict whether a film will work or not. So once someone has read your script and decided to back your film… I mean, you have a reputation behind you. It’s about people taking you seriously, about who you are and the work you bring to the table. As long as that reputation is maintained, it will always be one of the better weekends.
BOI: What’s in store from Excel?
FA: The project we can talk about for sure is Zoya’s film, which is going to start next year. We also have two new directors and we hope their films get going by next year. One of them is Rahul Dholakia and Nitya Mehra, who has been an assistant with us on some films. She will be making her first feature with us.