Nikkhil Advani, Madhu Bhojwani and Monisha Advani of Emmay Entertainment talk to Box Office India about their latest release Batla House, the eight-year journey of their production house and their ambitions over the next five years
Box Office India (BOI): Batla House has gotten a positive response from the audience and it has done well collection-wise too. What makes it a victory for you?
Nikkhil Advani (NA): (Smiles). You defined it. I think it is a big cornerstone for Emmay Entertainment. We had Arilift, which did very well and so did Satyameva Jayate. Then there was Baazaar which got a lot of critical acclaim. And of course, D-Day, which started us off on this journey; it got a lot of critical acclaim but it did not have a good run at box office. With Batla House, that has been done. Rest assured, and I am speaking for Monisha (Advani) and Madhu (Bhojwani), for us it was very important that a film directed by me also does the numbers and gets critical acclaim because they were of the opinion that they just don’t want my film to only get the latter. That has finally been put to rest now.
BOI: Emmay Entertainment just completed eight years. Monisha and Madhu, you both were not involved in the entertainment business earlier so what prompted all three of you to team up for this company?
Monisha Advani (MA): Madhu, should I give the humourous answer and then you can give the serious one?
Madhu Bhojwani (MB): No, no. There is only one answer so you should say it.
MA: Honestly, Nikkhil had come to us with the idea of starting this company. Both, me and Monisha, had sold our previous company, which had nothing to do with the movie business. We were very relaxed, enjoying ourselves and retiring before we turned 40. Nikkhil came to the two of us and said that a producer’s life is a great life. He told us that he has shot movies at such amazing places like New York, London, China, etc. We could be travelling the world and just relaxing. Since then, the most exotic location that I have shot in is Ras Al Khaima, UAE. (Laughs). When you think about it, for Madhu and me, jokes apart, she asked me a question when I called her and told her that Nick (Nikkhil Advani) wants to start this business. We have grown up with each other, had fights over dabba ice-spice and that was our childhood, who is going to beat whom? She asked me the question that both of us have been business partners for so long but is Nikkhil going to be able to work with us? Will we all be able to work together? The first thing we decided is that as business partners, it is going to be the three of us together. Whatever is going to be will be equal but we are also going to have our own voices. One thing that everybody takes happily is the projected returns, depending on what it will be. But the projected risk, the projected heartburn and the heartache, that is the most important. If you ask me what helps us and what helps us build our company, it is that.
BOI: Did you all have any criteria to select scripts when your company started? Has it changed or evolved over these eight years?
MB: I think the one thing that we are clear about is that we want to tell compelling stories. Nikkhil said this in an interview recently that we like to push the envelope and do things which are not easy to do. One of the first scripts that we green lit was D-Day. I remember that Nikkhil brought the two-pager and I read it and said that it was a great idea, a very good thought but can we make this film because it would put us in a very difficult spot. And he said that this is what is exciting. I told him that from my side, I love it but this will be in the back of my mind through the whole process, which means that now we will have to sleep with both our eyes open. That’s where the journey started. And till date, even if we agree to disagree on many points, but when we green light a film, we are very clear that if all three of us are not on board for different reasons, because we come from very different perspectives when we look at a film, but if all three of us are not on board, we give it a pass. Till this date, all the films that you have seen coming out from Emmay, we have done about eight films so far and have a ninth one coming out this year too, the short films, the digital projects, they all have this thing in common.
BOI: Nikkhil, how do you determine which film you will direct and which you will be part of as a producer only?
NA: As Madhu said, it has to be a compelling story. I did not look at it any other way but maybe now, I will start thinking more about it. I will start restricting myself to a particular genre because films like D-Day, Batla House, Airlift, the TV show POW, these are the things that appeal to me. I spoke to someone recently and they said that they saw Batla House and they love the human story in it more than just the encounter. That is the most important thing, can I tell a human story? Even in something like Delhi Safari, it is animals who are teaching you humanity. I still don’t believe that I want to stick to a particular genre. But now that I have tasted some level of success, it has been playing at the back of my head for a few days now, that should I be thinking about the same genre. Thankfully, the digital show that we are doing is very much in the same zone as it is about the 26/11 attacks.
BOI: So, taking Batla House as an example, the human story is something that compels you the most?
NA: In the second half of the film, you see the perspective of the five boys who are from the Indian Mujahideen. Actually, this second perspective is there from the first scene onwards. In that first scene, you can hear voices from a loudspeaker saying, ‘Har baar Delhi Police yahan aati hai aur humaare bachchon ko uthati hai, humaare Musalmaan bachchon ko uthati hai.’ So, it’s there. There is also a scene where John Abraham’s character is telling his team member on the phone, ‘Aapko verify karne ka order diya tha, goliyaan barsaane ka nahin.’ You can see there that a cover-up is happening. Then the Commissioner of Police is asking him if he is sure that this is how it panned out, the Home Minister is asking the same thing, doubting the story. Every step of the way in the film, we have tried to show both sides. Of course, you are rooting for the John Abraham character, you feel that everybody is wrong. You feel that it is because they are just trying to do their jobs. A lot of people asked me about the scene where Sanjay Kumar shuts the camera off while interrogating the boy from Indian Mujahideen whom they had captured. It was because Sanjay Kumar thought that he might have to push the envelope there and he didn’t want to record it. So, at every level I have told you that the cops are doing something dubious. Then I show you, point blank, the perspectives from both sides in the second half.
MA: It is so good to see how passionately Nikkhil feels about this. When a director follows his conviction, you see the results on the screen. It is the most amazing thing. The audience can sense it. They can sense when somebody is playing a formula to them as opposed to somebody who is actually interested in telling them a story. He has done such a fab job.
NA: I think the formula is that there is no formula. I have had the pleasure of working with people like Yash Chopra, Yash Johar, Karan (Johar), Adi (Aditya Chopra) and even Sudhir Mishra, I don’t think when Yash Chopra was making Chandni, he knew that was going to be life-changing for him. He was just excited about the prospect of that script, the story that he wanted to tell. Similarly Lamhe, everyone said that it was 25 years ahead of its time, and it probably was, but at that time, he had the conviction of telling that story. I asked him once about how post Darr he did not make a film like that and he said that there was enough violence in the world and he did not want to show it through his films. That was his belief. So, there is absolutely no formula. People call Yash Chopra king of romance but he is not. He has also made films like Deewar, Trishul, Kaala Patthar and Mashaal, just look at the films he has made, it is great stuff. It doesn’t work on formula. I sat in front of an actor once who said that his next film needs to be a `300 crore film and I said best of luck to him. I don’t think any director can tell you which will film will work and which won’t.
BOI: Monisha and Madhu, Nikkhil would now want to concentrate on one kind of genre for his films, but as a production house, do you plan to tap into other genres?
MA: We are already doing that. On the one side of the spectrum we have Milap (Milan Zaveri) and on the other side we have Nikkhil and we have so many other fresh, budding filmmakers including Abir Sengupta who is doing Indoo Ki Jawani. We have got Vishal Puri who is going to go into the psychological thriller genre.
MB: We have never leaned towards one particular school or ideology. But yes, whether it is comedy or horror, those are the two genres that we have not tapped till now. They are very interesting and I certainly think that we want to be able to tell stories from every genre.
BOI: Almost all your upcoming films except 1911 are with new directors. What motivates you to bring this fresh energy to the table?
MA: It is a combination. Madhu and I have always believed in nurturing talent. We love doing that. But I can tell you that it is not easy. One is what we have to put outside in convincing our partners that they trust these guys, these young talents. But the other side is the uncertainties that they have and keeping their confidence up in that scenario. They may be directors and they may be creators, but they have such a heightened sense of whether it is positive energy or negative energy or ambivalent energy coming in their direction. One has to steady them at that time. It is an understated role at that time that we have to play, whether it Nick or Madhu or me. If it is their first or second film or if they are shifting genres, they can become rudderless. It is like telling the captain of the ship that don’t worry I will show you the way. So if you want to nurture directors you have to become selfless. It takes a lot of courage for a guy like Nick to look at every subject and be selfless. Baazaar was his film, but he was magnanimous enough to say that Gauravv (Chawla) has the right vision on it, let’s give it to him. And we are pleased with those decisions.
BOI: Nikkhil, how do you mentor? Is it different for different directors?
NA: Raja (Krishna Menon, director) was the first person we worked with from outside. Milap I have known since 2003. I produced his first film. He has more or less been part of our journey. You take Abir and Vishal out, everyone else has assisted me. They know my work ethic. I was thinking while Monisha and Madhu were talking if we have a formula. And we do. It is preparation. We will prep for one year or two years. For the web show that we are doing, we have written for two years. Of course, we could have done Batla House any time after 2013 when it happened. Ritesh (Shah) came to me in 2015 with the script. Why did it happen in 2019? Because we needed to get it right. Even if it is a completely fictional piece, we want to do a lot of prep. The production team knows the questions that Madhu and I will ask as we expect them to be hands-on. We already have a group of first ADs who are working on these films who we are saying are going to do films for us in 2021 and thereon.
BOI: We remember Milap telling us how convinced you were with Satyameva Jayate.
NA: I wasn’t convinced. I am not convinced about anything. Let’s talk about Milap and me. He likes to start from a note of positivity and I like to start from a position of negativity.
BOI: But you meet in the middle…
NA: I am not interested in anybody telling me my film is good. I want them to tell me what is bad in my film. I just want to hear that. That is why I never watch my film again. I have never watched any of my films after it released. When people called and asked can we watch Batla House with you, I said no. I will stand outside and we can discuss the film later. Once releases, it is gone. It is no longer my film.
BOI: What do the next five years look like for Emmay Entertainment?
MA: We would like continue the journey we have embarked on. We would like to support fresh, young talent. And we love being underdogs and I don’t want that to change. Just when we thought that we got this movie that would take us ahead, the universe turns around and puts a court case and says no, you have to fight. And we are fine. We have resigned to it. We even say the word success with nervousness. And that is not going to change in the next three to five years. We are still going to be the nervous bunch we are.
MB: In terms of the next five years, I think for any business or any new venture it takes time to establish. We have taken our time. Eight years is a long time but it has gone by in the blink of an eye for us. The three of us never stopped to smell the roses. We are expanding our capacity. You have seen the lineup of directors we have. And every time I complain to Nikkhil that I have so much on my desk, he says that is a good problem. Problem of plenty is a good problem to have and I hope that we have it for the next five years. Digital is the new kid on the block. All our young talent, even Nikkhil, they are all so excited by the medium. It gives them the opportunity to tell interesting stories and push the envelope. We are trying our hand at so many new things. We are trying new formats. Over the next five years you will see a lot more content coming out of Emmay Entertainment. After five years we will have a bigger family of technicians and directors in-house. Exciting times up ahead, I think. It is important to dream big!