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Looking East

Veteran producer, distributor and exhibitor Mahendra Soni, who is Executive Director at Shree Venkatesh Films (SVF), reflects on his journey of two decades in the industry. Apart from producing and distributing Bengali films, SVF distributes Hindi and Hollywood films in Eastern India. Here’s Soni in conversation with Rohini Nag, talking about the journey so far, the future and upcoming film Cinemawala

Shree Venkatesh Films completes two decades this year. What has the journey been like? What made you take up film distribution?

It has been a great journey. When both of us, my brother Shrikant (Mohta) and I started out, we didn’t dream we would go this far. We started as a distribution company and our first film was Bombay, which we distributed for the Eastern circuit. We soon realised that if you have to sail on, you have to create your own content. Hence we started making Bengali films. That’s how it all began.

We had only just graduated from college and had no idea that a business like this even existed. There was this company that was into distribution and they had taken a couple of films for distribution. We had visited their office, which is when we realised that there was scope in this business. At the time, the entire distribution network was run by people with old school thoughts, who had been doing business for decades then. We felt there was scope for the newer generation, who could look at content differently.

Which was the first Hindi film you distributed?

It was Bombay. Everyone said we had gone mad as Bombay was not an all-out Hindi film but a dubbed film. But from our point of view, it was a new-age film with great music by AR Rahman, who had just done Roja. We just saw the film from a young and new perspective and I think that paid off. We experimented again, and bought Khamoshi The Musical.So after the huge success of Bombay, we had Khamoshi, a disaster on our hands. (Laughs)

Khamoshi with a big star cast (Salman Khan, Manisha Koirala, Nana Patekar) and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s first film and the combination was great. It seemed like the perfect new-age film but on the very day the film released, we realised we had lost all the money we had invested in it! We had bought the film from Universal. That’s how we realised that it was not going to be an easy journey in distribution.

After that, we did some research on the local Bengali industry and discovered that it was not in good shape. We also knew that, at one point in time, Bengali cinema was one of the best film industries in India. So we decided that the best way forward was to create content.

We are essentially producers of Bengali films; we don’t distribute many Bengali films. We distribute only Hindi and Hollywood films. Our slate is so full with Bengali film production and that makes it very difficult to accommodate other films.

Which was your first Bengali film and what was the response like?

We started with a film called Bhai Amar Bhai. Back then, Bengali films were made on a very small budget and on 16 mm. At the time, we learnt of Swapan Saha. We met him, and after a couple of meetings, we planned to make the biggest Bengali film of that time. We created massive sets, roped in the biggest names and made the film in 35 mm. Shrikant and I gave it all we had. We did everything on the film, from pre-production meetings to going on the sets, even attending all the music sessions and post-production work. The film went on to become a big hit.

The success of our first Bengali production gave us a lot of courage. Most importantly, it assured us that we could survive. We started to make one or two films each year till we approached the year 2000. A couple of our films then bombed, which told us we needed a new formula to move forward.

Then we made a film with Prosenjit Chatterjee called Sasur Bari Zindabad in 2000. This was our 10th film. By then, we had gained some experience on how the industry worked and what kind of films we should produce. We realised that we needed to make films that had good production values, quality music and great story. For this film, we got a music director from Mumbai, and a dance director and a cinematographer from Chennai. The film became the biggest grosser in the last 10 years. Now we could see the way forward.

Your first Hollywood film?

When the multiplex business started booming around 2008-09, we realised that there was a market for Hollywood films. We started tying up with studios. We tied up with Fox initially and started distributing their films. We still distribute their films in Eastern India and that is how it all started.

How did you get into broadcasting?

Prashant Chothani (from Mumbai) proposed us to start satellite channels and we founded Media Worldwide together, which has now four music channels. It also has a Hindi music channel Music India and the most popular Bengali music channel Sangeet Bangla.

And your journey in television shows?

In 2008, when the Star Network wanted to launch operations in Bengal, there were very few Bengali television shows. There weren’t many opportunities in television. We had started eight years ago with our first TV projects – DurgaBandhan and I Love Yousimultaneously on Star Network. With our content and the channel support, Star Jalsha became the number one channel within a year of operations, and we became the number one producer too. Right now, the number one shows running across all the channels (that includes Jalsha, Zee Bangla and Colors Bangla) is ours.

What about your first Hindi production?

We did only one Hindi film called Raincoat, starring Ajay Devgn and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Before Raincoat, we had done Bengali film Chokher Bali with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. It became one of the most talked-about films of that time and travelled to many international film festivals. Next, we made Raincoat, which won a National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi.

Our next Hindi production is a remake of our Bengali film Srijit Mukherji’sRajkahini and will be co-produced with Vishesh Films. The film will be directed by Mukherji and features Vidya Balan, but we are not taking an active part in its production. Going forward, we are keen to start operations in Mumbai as well.

How have you seen the Bengali industry evolve over the last 20 years?

Commercially, the Bengali industry has seen the best phase in regional centres in 2000 to 2015, and now even urban centers are working out very well. Audience are coming to watch Bengali films in multiplexes, and directors like Kaushik Ganguly, Kamaleswar Mukherjee, Srijit Mukherji, Arindam Sil are bringing newer content to Bengali cinema. Our film- Chander Pahar, is the biggest blockbuster ever in Bengali cinema and we are doing Part 2 with a budget of `15 crore, a far cry from the time when we had budgets of `30-35 lakh.

If you look at Mumbai, directors like Shoojit Sircar, Anurag Basu, Sujoy Ghosh and Dibakar Banerjee are doing great works and have a Bengali touch in their films, so I see Bengali films playing a major role there. In fact, Srijit is doing the remake with Vidya Balan and that is the way forward. I believe there is a great future for Bengali cinema coming.

Your films have received several National Awards. What did you feel when you got your first National Award?

It was a great feeling when we got our first National Award for Chokher Bali as we made that film with a lot of passion and courage. Our second National Award was for Raincoat and third was for Memories In March. So we had three National Awards in three languages (Best Feature in Bengali, Hindi and English respectively). The fourth National Award we received was for Chotoder Chobi, which fetched the Best Film award on social issue in 2015.

Your film Cinemawala is a tribute to single screens in India and it is your fifth film with Kaushik Ganguly.

(Laughs) We keep doing experimental stuff with Kaushik (Ganguly) da. We have been through this journey of standalone theaters to multiplexes, which made it very difficult for the single screens to survive. This film is a kind of cinematic tribute to our community and maybe this will inspire people not to sell the cinema hall space for shopping malls but and revive the cinemas instead. We hope this film will strike a chord with all the single screen owners.

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