Producer-director Harry Baweja and Nandu Ahuja, Senior Vice-President, India Theatrical, Eros International, in conversation with Team Box Office India about their upcoming Punjabi animated feature film, Chaar Sahibzaade: Rise of Banda Singh Bahadur
Box Office India (BOI): You used only a picture of Guru Gobind Singh ji in the first instalment, no animation. Was that a deliberate choice? What kind of precautions have you taken in this part as well?
Harry Baweja (HB): Almost the same. Depicting Guru Gobind Singh ji in still form was not a precaution but a necessity. It is not within the sanctity of our religion to have our Guru’s images animated. Hence we have used only still images. So that is the basic requirement if you want to exhibit Guruji in a film.
But that stillness in both films, camera movement and shots are designed in such a way that the viewer feels least part of the stillness in those scenes. The narrative doesn’t stand still, it moves on.
In the last film, we had a scene – on YouTube, it is called the ‘most popular scene’ in the film – where Mughal General Painde Khan challenges Guru saab to a duel. He says, ‘Why let the army fight and people die, why not you and I flight and the winner takes all?’ Guru saab, after consulting his panj pyare, decides to have a one-on-one with him.
But how can you show a duel sequence between a still image and an animated figure? How can the former protect himself and knock down his opponent and win? Yet that scene is on YouTube as the most popular scene and yet Guru saab doesn’t move. This is where your creativity comes in. It took me nearly a month to conceive that sequence.
BOI: Did you always plan on making a sequel to Chaar Sahibzaade or did the film’s success trigger that thought?
HB: I honestly didn’t know what would happen to the first part. It was a path-breaking route I had taken and it could have gone either way. People would have either rejected it completely or accepted it wholeheartedly. When the film released, we wondered what we would do next. We kept our fingers crossed and hoped that all went well.
Maybe if I had met someone like Nandu (Ahuja) back then and told him I was making an animation film, he would have said, ‘Okay, fine.’ And the moment I had turned away, he would have said, ‘This guy has gone mad.’ And that’s what everybody thought. So it is my conviction that carried me through.
BOI: Why has animation as a genre not found takers in India?
Nandu Ahuja (NA): Hindi (animated) content does not really connect at the box office. Let’s go back to time of Hanuman, the first one. I was involved with the film’s release on a personal level back then and the film had done really well. No animation film has since lived up to the box-office numbers vis-à-vis its cost, except Chaar Sahibzaade, which broke all those barriers by leaps and bounds. Now, with this film, we are expecting a similar response because it is a sequel and a different story.
We are only a week away from its release but we are already witnessing tremendous demand from not only the North circuits, which is definitely the most important market for this film, but pan-India as well, places where even the Hindi markets are very excited to play the film. For the Hindi version of the film too, we are planning a very big release. So it could be a combination of Hindi and Punjabi and obviously there are English subtitles for viewers to avail that benefit.
BOI: What about the overseas market?
NA: Harry sir will tell you about that.
HB: Overseas, we are targeting about 150 screens and there are very elaborate plans for the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, along with South East Asia like Singapore and Bangkok. We also have the support we had last time and we penetrated Europe. As Nandu was saying, we are getting calls from a lot of places, like Austria and Poland. They probably have been barely any Hindi releases in these countries, yet they want us to give them this film. There is audience for a film like this in those regions and they probably couldn’t access it the last time. Last time, I was receiving calls asking us to give them the film for just two shows or four shows but this time they want the film for weeks. It is exciting when people demand a film for their centre. It is exciting as well as satisfying.
BOI: How would you map the change in the overseas market over the years?
HB: I think for a really long time, we producers were dumb as far as the overseas market is concerned. We looked at what the overseas distributors were giving us as a lottery. We took the lottery, put it in our pocket and didn’t look back. Turns out, they were making a killing on our movies. It’s an open secret today.
I think Yashji (Chopra) sensed it. His films used to do way better than any other film in the overseas market. It was a time when action films were popular and Yashji had a knack of reading the market much quicker than any of us. That’s when he opened a distribution office overseas and started to distribute his films himself. That’s when everyone realised that we were being taken for a ride all these years. That was the first turning point. Now, in the digital era, access is instant.
I won’t name the territory or name people but there is a centre in South East Asia where a Shah Rukh Khan film… I am saying Shah Rukh Khan because his films travel to the largest number of foreign territories as he is the most sought-after actor overseas. His films would go for 4,000 to 5,000 dollars and would run for about three to four shows.
In contrast, Chaar Sahibzaade had 22 shows and did business worth 40,000 dollars. The fact is that the legal population who watched the film was only 30 per cent while the illegal immigrants constituted 70 per cent of the audience, who would come for the night shows. That’s the kind of audience that is untapped and unknown to us. Wherever our film released, there was a Gurudwara connect and that is how these figures came in. That’s how I would get feedback.
NA: The audience is very mixed. It is not only the youngsters, kids, middle-aged or older people but our film caters to people of all ages. That is the biggest USP of the film.
BOI: When you have a film that has no big stars for promotion, how do you go about marketing it?
NA: Well, we have been marketing the film for the last month and we are having great fun. Harry sir will tell you more.
HB: We came up with an innovative idea, which we tried here at the PVR Icon property in Andheri, Mumbai. Next, we are going to do it at malls all over Punjab. We have developed a virtual reality game. The villain of the last film is the villain in this film as well and the protagonist finally overcomes the villain in this film. The villain is very dominant and he is responsible for the Chaar Sahibzaade’s martyrdom. Banda Bahadur, the protagonist in this sequel, knocks him down and rules Punjab for a number of years.
The video game makes you feel as if you are on the battlefield with a sword in your hand. There are four soldiers who are ready to fight you and you have to knock them down. Wazir Khan, the villain, comes across you and you have to literally cross swords with him and knock him down. Publicity like this does not require a star, yet it attracts more people than a star can.
NA: We also have special standees at many multiplexes.
BOI: The first part of the film was a success and it ran for many weeks. Was there any pressure or challenge while working on the sequel?
HB: Whenever you make a sequel to a film that has done well, the challenge is making sure the audience likes it more than the first part. We tried our best and now it is up to the audience.
NA: A sequel definitely comes with added responsibility as people have accepted and liked the first part.
HB: Obviously, you always want to make a film better than your last one. Last time, our budgets were very tight, knowing that animation has never worked here. We knew that every penny we invested in the film would probably not come back if something went wrong.
This time, we could afford to focus on quality and we have made a better film than our last one. This means the experience for the audience will also be better. Besides, this instalment has more music, nine songs, which don’t interrupt the story but enhance it. So, we have done all we can.
NA: The 3D is going to be much more effective. Recently, someone who watched the trailer told me that the emotions come across beautifully in the animation. And that says it all.
BOI: Do you think this is where our animation films are lacking… emotion?
NA: Yes, the emotional connect has to be there and I believe that will help
HB: The last film drew a lot of criticism, that the animation was not as good as Pixar’s. My reply to that was, give me 300 million dollars and I will make you a better film than Pixar’s as my overheads are far lower than theirs. My film’s budget isn’t even 1 per cent of theirs. If I can still keep the audience engrossed, believe, emote and react to my film, and come out satisfied, I think we have done our job.
BOI: In future, will we see a franchise out of Chaar Sahibzaade?
HB: We are already working on the production of a prequel to the first part.
BOI: What are Eros’s expectations from the film’s release?
NA: In a word: huge! We are very excited to be associated with Harry sir and the film. We have Rock On 2 also releasing next week, so we are going to have the time of our life releasing both films together.
HB: I am lucky, because last time, we had assorted distributors for India and, for overseas, I got the best I could. This time, we have Eros, who are masters in the overseas market.
NA: The feedback to the trailers and songs of the film are an indication of the pulse of the film. And it has been tremendous. I am waiting for Monday and how we are going to strategise the film’s release and decide on how to place the shows and cinemas. It is going to be one fantastic journey.
BOI: What’s your target screen number for the film?
NA: Well, for Hindi and Punjabi, we could touch about 650 to 700. And, from Monday, I wouldn’t be surprised if we cross this number. For overseas, it could be 150 or more. These numbers are for cinemas, screens would be much more.
BOI: Last time, the film ran for many weeks.
NA: Yes and we have a huge period coming up too. So it will enjoy a good run in the next month or two.
HB: Well, Friday is a holiday in Punjab as it is Baba Namdev’s birthday; Monday is a holiday as it is Guru Nanak Sahib’s birthday. So we have a good long weekend to start with. Even the first film released during the same period, two weeks after Diwali.
NA: There is a holiday during the second weekend too.
BOI: Can we expect the prequel to release in November 2017?
HB: Maybe not November 2017 as I have another film coming out in July-August 2017. So the prequel would probably release in 2018 as I cannot handle so much. (Laughs)
BOI: You talked about changes you have witnessed in the overseas market over the years.
What Marketing changes you have seen?
HB: Change!!! You will be shocked. We would put posters on the streets three days before the release of a film and we would have a full house because we would start publishing articles in the few magazines that were there at the time, a year in advance. Then, we would maybe play a song on Doordarshan on a Wednesday, just before the film released on Friday. With that and a few posters on the streets, we would have full house. Today, regardless of the kind of publicity you do, you still do not get a full house. That’s the difference!
NA: Now digital marketing has turned things around. We are focusing on that, considering the way the digital platform has taken over.