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Punjab Express

After the big success of their first regional release Zapatlela 2, Viacom18 Motion Pictures is gearing up for their forthcoming regional movies 72 Miles, Bhaji In Problem, and many more. Here’s Jayesh Muzumdar, Head, Regional Films and AVP, Commercials, Viacom18 and the leading man of Bhajji In Problem, Gippy Grewal, in conversation with the Box Office India team

BOI: Viacom18 Motion Pictures’ first regional release Zapatlela 2 has drawn a phenomenal response. Tell us about it.

Jayesh Muzumdar (JM): Yes, it is a huge hit. It has become one of the biggest Marathi blockbusters of this year and we hope it will eventually become the biggest Marathi earner to date. We entered into the regional business with Zapatlela 2 because the movie business is now driven by the regional markets. The vision of Viacom18 Motion Pictures is to cater to all kinds of audiences and we do that by taking up the regional talents fand making them go national.

Before we ventured into Zapatlela 2, we thoroughly researched the projects we should acquire, which creative talents to associate with, and what type of movies we do. We needed to be sure that we associate with the right people and cater to all the diverse tastes, whether Moving Pictures and Mahesh Kothare for Zapatlela 2, Gippy Grewal for Bhaji In Problem or Jeet for Bhitu. Zapatlela 2 was the beginning of our success.

BOI: And will we also see Zapatlela 3?

JM: Yes, very soon. We need to have a good germ to work on because the audience is very evolved these days. You need to serve them the best content and the packaging needs to be great too, or else they don’t enjoy it.

BOI: How did Akshay Kumar, Gippy Grewal and Viacom18 Motion Pictures come together for Bhaji In Problem?

JM: Actually, our association happened by accident. Akshay Kumar came to us with this project and we lapped it up immediately. The only reason was Gippy Grewal. He is the biggest superstar in the Punjabi diaspora. His fan following in India, the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand… Am I missing out anything, Gippy?

Gippy Grewal (GG): You have left out a very big country – Canada. (Laughs)

JM: Of course! He has been consistently delivering hit after hit and it was logical for us to associate with someone of his stature. And, of course, Akshay is like family for us. We are doing a lot of movies with him, like our next Marathi film 72 Miles, another Punjabi film Bauji, Hindi films like Boss and Gabbar. We have also had a great working relationship with him in the past with Special 26, OMG - Oh My God!

GG: It is a big boon for the Punjabi industry that a corporate house like Viacom18 is entering the Punjabi film market. There was no way I would say no to such a big opportunity. When Akshay told me he wanted me to work in his home production, I was not quite sure whether he himself would feature in the film or not and that was very important for me.

There are some geographies for Punjabi films where I have a huge fan following but not in places like Mumbai. But this time, I am quite positive because Akshay is part of this project. It is a good film and Viacom18 will release it well and promote it too. So, for me, it can’t get bigger than this.

The Punjabi film market has developed rapidly in only the last two years. Thanks to corporate studios coming in, the next two years will only be bigger and better.

BOI: Did Viacom18 bank on a star like Gippy due to his past successes?

JM: Not many are aware that Gippy was instrumental in the changing scenario of the Punjabi film industry. His movie Carry On Jatta helped a lot of films turn around because of the kind of monies it generated. It was an incentive for a lot of guys in the industry to actually wake up and notice that that’s the kind of opportunity they had in Punjabi films.

Earlier, only small films were made in Punjab and the recoveries would also be small. But the kind of production qualities he has introduced in his films is tremendous. For instance, if you watch Mirza even on mute, you will realise that it is no less than a Hindi film. He was key to bringing about that change.

BOI: Gippy, how did that change come about in the Punjabi film industry?

GG: Earlier, there was just one concept in Punjabi films. Films were connected to their roots and stories usually revolved around farmers and land problems in Punjab. Those films were not being watched by the youth, especially the overseas audience, which is an important market for Punjabi films. The young audience there had not even visited Punjab, so it was difficult for them to connect with these stories.

We gave a serious thought to concepts and we made sure the youth could relate to them. We also started focusing on stories, regardless of where they would be told. That’s when we came up with fresh concepts which clicked with the audience. Post Mirza, I approached director Smeep Kang, who is also the director of Bhaji In Problem, to make an out-and-out comedy and he asked me why I wanted to do it?

When I told my producers about trying out a new concept, they backed out even though I was a big star. They thought I would spoil the prospects of the film. So since my financers backed out, I had to launch my own production house that’s how we produced Carry On Jatta. In hindsight, it was a good thing that the guys backed out as Punjabi films not only got a new producer and director but also a new genre.

BOI: What genres work well in Punjabi films nowadays?

GG: Comedy is ruling the roost but action will soon open up. Mirza and Singh Vs Kaur had some action in them. But more genres will open up now that corporate houses are coming into the picture. Sometimes, we cannot afford reputed technicians and so some high-concept films cannot be made due to lack of funds. Now with corporates pumping in money, new genres will open up and the big stars will also do more Punjabi films. I will be doing a film with Dharam paaji soon.

BOI: Will there be similar cross-pollinations in films that Viacom18 will produce?

JM: Absolutely. We will cross-pollinate across industries so that talent that was not aware of newer markets will be optimally exploited. That’s where Viacom18 can facilitate these things, like getting a guy from the South to work in the Punjabi industry. That would benefit both industries.

GG: Also, in some places like Delhi where there is a Punjabi audience, Punjabi films don’t do well but once there is a big company like Viacom18 that exhibitors have faith in, regional films produced by them are allotted a greater number of shows.

BOI: Do these Punjabi films also have the potential to be dubbed and showcased to a larger audience?

GG: I have told the guys at Viacom18 that I have many more plots and stories that we would like them to produce. If they agree, we will make Hindi films too. Why dub Punjabi films alone? (Laughs)

JM: The market is expanding in a very big way. Literally there is no satellite market for Punjabi movies. But this is gradually changing and the satellite market is evolving. Also, as Gippy said, it is very important to market films in the right way. We need to have movies that would have a universal appeal. So why not exploit it as well?

BOI: Which overseas markets are opening up for Punjabi films?

GG: A few years ago, Australia was a very weak market for our Punjabi films but now it is one of the biggest markets for us. I think my recent films grossed more than Hindi films did in Australia. And I am talking about big Hindi films. Many small Hindi films don’t even release in overseas sectors where Punjabi films have a strong hold. But at the same time, Punjabi films have no scope in some international markets like Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Dubai, where Hindi films have a strong hold. Even Europe was a very weak market earlier. We had tapped only into the UK market and not other sectors like France, Italy and Germany. There are takers for Punjabi films in these markets and I have many stage shows in these sectors so that adds to the hype of these films too.

With the last one or two films, we had planned to tap into these markets as well. We faced many roadblocks financially. It was hard to cover print costs but we were ready for these challenges just so that we could open these international markets to our films. In Canada, at present one of the strongest overseas markets of Punjabi films, my films use to release with only four prints. This has changed and my upcoming film Best Of Luck, which is releasing on July 26, is set to release with 40 prints in Canada.

JM: Not only internationally but in India as well. For instance, there is potential for growth in Delhi and Haryana and the rest of India. Earlier, Delhi and Haryana were very small markets for Punjabi movies but now it has grown a whole lot. Now you see Punjabi movies releasing in Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore as well, and that too, in a big way.

BOI: Does a film’s reach also depend on the way it is promoted?

GG: Yes. For instance, Carry On Jatta rang in good but not impressive collections in Delhi. The audience that is keen on watching our films is unaware of new releases. My film Singh Vs Kaur released in Pune and we failed to get any output from its release. So with my last film Lucky Di Unlucky Story, we made an effort to create awareness about it. We placed advertisements in newspapers and had some posters as well. It made a difference when the film hit cinemas. With Bhaji In Problem, we will go all out to raise awareness of the film.

BOI: Were there any creative inputs from Akshay Kumar?

GG: Definitely! We shot for a song with him. My kind of music is very different from the kind of music his audience likes. So for that one song, I asked him what kind of expectations he thinks his audience has from him and we brainstormed for the perfect song, where neither my Punjabi audience nor his Hindi audience would disapprove. So after a couple of references from his famous songs that did well with both the Hindi and Punjabi audience, I came up with nearly 15 songs. He was happy with every song.

He has even done a cameo in the film. His scenes are specially conceived and executed to suit the perception of his Hindi fans as well as our Punjabi viewers. I had not expected him to take such keen interest in the making of our film. He has gone through the script more than 10 times. Being the main lead, even I have not heard the script or read it so many times.

BOI: Jayesh, what has Akshay Kumar’s involvement been in the other regional projects he is doing with you, for instance, the Marathi film 72 Miles?

JM: It has been tremendous. 72 Miles is based on a Marathi novel by Ashok Vatkar. It’s an award-winning novel and the challenge was that the book is based in the ’50s. Converting the book into a film was the biggest challenge and Akshay Kumar’s expertise in getting that done was very important.

He is fluent in Marathi and Punjabi and will be involved in the promotional aspect as well. His level of involvement is on a day-to-day basis. He is well aware of what the movie is and how it’s shaping up, how the promotional plan is going to roll out and so on. He is updated on the minutest details of the film.

BOI: Tell us about cricketer Harbhajan Singh’s role in Bhaji In Problem.

GG: He is a very dear friend and we had a specific role of a police officer who is a good-looking sardar. He was accompanying me for the music release of one of my films and our director Smeep Kang casually said that the role would suit Harbhajan. We asked Harbhajan if he was interested and he gladly agreed.

JM: This film has all the right ingredients, right from Gippy, to Akshay, to Harbhajan to Viacom18, and of course, the director of the film Smeep Kang. So it’s the perfect combination for a super hit!

BOI: Gippy, you began your acting career with Jimmy Sheirgill, who’s also an established actor. Now you have Akshay Kumar backing this film. Are you playing safe?

GG: Since the last year and a half, I have been getting offers for Hindi films but nothing interesting has come my way. Many big filmmakers have approached me too but I turned them down because those roles were not meant for me. If I choose to do a Hindi film, it should appeal to my Punjabi fans as well as other fans too. For my Punjabi film debut, I chose Mel Karade Rabba, which featured Jimmy in the lead but I had a grey character and I didn’t play safe there. It was a small yet powerful role. I did it only because the character appealed to me. I didn’t make my debut as the lead, so I have not really played safe.

Now I am working with Akshay Kumar and isn’t it a good thing that I am working with such a big star? Woh apne level ke hain, main chhote level ka Akshay Kumar hoon. You get scared when you have to do a small role in someone else’s film; but this is totally our own film. Akshay is the producer, I am the actor. Thanks to Akshay paaji, he has also acted in our film.

JM: It’s basically about complementing each other. He (Gippy) is a superstar in his own right and has his fan following. So when he is working with Dharamji or Akshay Kumar, it’s about their set of fans. Akshay paaji has his own fans, he has his own fans. But of course, Dharamji is above all.

BOI: What’s the difference between working with a corporate house and a solo producer?

GG: There is a big difference when a corporate house backs a project. I will cite an example. We composed the song Angrezi beat two years ago but no channel was ready to play it. We tried really hard but in vain. But when a big producer used the song in a film like Cocktail without changing a single note, it suddenly became a chartbuster. That’s why you need a big name. With Viacom18, we are aware of their strengths while we need a platform to show off our talent. I guess that’s the difference between a corporate house and a solo producer.

BOI: Will you make your Hindi film debut with Viacom18?

GG: If they agree, I would! (Laughs) Special 26, OMG - Oh My God! We are waiting for the right concept. We don’t want to launch him in just about any film. He doesn’t need a launch vehicle but his first Hindi film has to be unique.

GG: Exactly, I don’t want to upset my fans by doing a random Hindi film. They should be happy with my Hindi project.

BOI: Festive periods are considered a great time to release Hindi films. Does a similar rule apply to regional films?

JM: With Viacom18, we believe festive periods are good. Marathi films actually wrestle with Hindi movies, so we will take any clean week we get, whether it’s the IPL or any other season. Most of the big windows are taken by big Hindi films so it doesn’t matter.

We have been releasing our Hollywood films from Paramount Pictures with Hindi and regional films as well. Hollywood and Hindi films have separate audiences. Sometimes regional and Hindi films clash but there are 52 weeks in a year and we have so many films releasing every year in Hindi, Hollywood and regional that if we get a clean week, we go for it.

GG: Punjabi films do much better during the Baisakhi season. But in Punjab, if a big Punjabi film is releasing, the business of a Hindi film gets affected. We do have to take into account that Punjabi films have a market overseas too, and in places like Vancouver and Toronto, it snows in the winters and people do not venture out of their homes to watch films. So it’s not a favourable time to release films between November and January.


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