She’s stood like a rock behind young directors like Amit Kumar (Monsoon Shootout), Ritesh Batra (Dabba - The Lunchbox) and Vasan Bala (Peddlers). Guneet Monga and these three talented filmmakers speak to the Box Office India team about their initial journey and their upcoming Cannes adventure
Box Office India (BOI): Let’s start with each one of you. Tell us about your journey and where Guneet Monga stepped in?
Amit Kumar (AK): My journey into films began when I was just seven. My family had just moved to Africa, where my brother and I would enact scenes from Sholay for other Indian families. I would play Amitabh Bachchan and my brother was Dharmendra. Later, we kept the characters the same but made up new scenes.When I returned to India, I began working in a hotel as I had studied hotel management. That’s when I read about an ad script competition by NFDC. So I decided to send in an entry. I didn’t really write a full script; only the main points but sent it to NFDC anyway. I didn’t win. But when I went to FTII for an interview, KG George asked me what I had done so far. I told him about the script I had written for NFDC ‘about a boy’. He added, ‘Yeah, climbing the mountain’. We connected and I got into FTII. After my course there, I worked with British director Asif Kapadia, who had made films like The Warrior and The Sheep Thief. Kapadia was in India to make his graduation film. He liked my film and I liked his, so we started working together. Then I worked with a German filmmaker. But while working with Asif, the idea of Monsoon Shootout dawned. I shot Bypass, a short film, and won many awards. But I wanted to make a feature film, so I pitched Monsoon Shootout to producers. The UK Film Council was supposed to co-produce it.
Guneet Monga (GM): (Cuts in) The UK and Indian film councils were to partner with each other and the first film they chose was Monsoon Shootout. But the recession hit in 2009 and it was difficult. That’s when I met Amit. I loved the script. We got money from France; the TV rights were sold to them; and we got one-third of the budget. Then I was trying to put together the balance amount. Finally, Rajiv Ravi shot the film and things began to fall in place, and we raised the money we needed and shot the film. When Anurag Kashyap saw his work Rajiv has been DOP with Kashyap since Gulaal),
BOI: Were you frustrated that the film was taking so long to get off the ground?
AK: No. When the UK Film Council shut down, everyone was sympathetic. But I figured something else would come up. I don’t remember feeling frustrated or depressed.
Ritesh Batra (RB): I too belong to a middle class family, where you’re not expected to make a career of films. Still, I went to the US and joined the New York Film School. It was very expensive and I also figured film school is not for everyone. So I started doing my own work and was writing a script called the Story Of Ram, that’s when I happened to meet Guneet. We decided to work on the project together.
GK: (Cuts in) Ritesh and I met at the Film Bazaar in Goa. Subsequently, we were selected for a film lab in Rotterdam. That’s where our journey began and we started applying to various festivals and labs. Finally, we got a couple of co-production offers. That’s when Ritesh came up with the idea of The Lunchbox. We were in the middle of working on the Story Of Ram, when he proposed The Lunchbox. We already had co-producers from around the world and we had to tell them that we were changing our project.We found producers who had to raise money in their respective countries. We have just finished the shoot and now we’re off to Cannes. The film has also been sold at an exceptional price in Switzerland, Italy, Benelux and France. Collectively, the money exceeds the film’s budget, and that’s just pre-sale. It’s purely the result of the journey of the film and its story. Who knows, we will do major sales to buyers world over at Cannes.
RB: The international co-producers came across our project at Film Bazaar, then at Cinemart in Rotterdam and the Berlin co-production market. Many people wanted to come on board because they felt the script was specific and local yet universal. It is a simple love story. We raised so much funding purely by travelling to film festivals.
BOI: Now, over to Vasan Bala.
Vasan Bala (VB): I too come from a middle-class family but was secretly in love with films. I had a maid who was an Amitabh Bachchan fan and she would take me to watch Bachchan’s films. I became a die hard fan but didn’t have the courage to tell my parents that I wanted to pursue a career in films.I ended up working in the banking and software industries but, whenever I came home in the afternoon three months after I got a job, they knew I had quit my job. Next, I told my parents I wanted to do something creative. So I started working in the advertising field. Finally, I told them I wanted to join the film industry. They said that since I was a Brahmin boy, I should work with Mani Ratnam. I went to the South and hung around there for a while but nothing came up. When I returned to Mumbai, I came across this blog for cinema which was mentored by Anurag Kashyap. I started posting on the blog and got in touch with Anurag Kashyap. One day, he invited me to his house and gave me some DVDs to watch. That’s how it all started. I began assisting him in his films but when I finished my own script, we had a major falling-out because he was not happy with the script. Then I met Guneet and told her that Anurag was not going to produce my film. Next thing I know, she’s put up a post on Facebook.
VB: That’s how it started. Finally, Anurag Kashyap watched the film.
Anurag loved it and asked us if he could come on board. We said obviously! Anurag is our mentor. We argue a lot but we love him just as much. Without him, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
VB: He used to keep tabs on where I was shooting and what scene I was shooting. We had this thing… He had fought with his first director Ramu (Ram Gopal Varma) and I had fought with him.
BOI: Vasan, if you were to watch their films as a member of the audience, what would you think of Ritesh and Amit’s films?
VB: I loved Ritesh’s film. I am a big fan of Sai Paranjpye and the way she captures a city and portrays a simple love story. I hadn’t watched something like this for a while and I saw it in The Lunchbox. I simply loved Irrfan Khan’s character. His 10-second pause after every line is fantastic. Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s character is superb too. The film is about a very simple relationship. There are so many small moments that you enjoy. In fact, while watching the film, I kept thinking, ‘Shucks, why I didn’t come up with this idea?’ With Monsoon Shootout, since I was born and raised in Mumbai, naturally the monsoon plays a very important role in my life. The scent of the monsoon has always been special to me. Amit has portrayed this very well in his film, its fast paced and keeps you glued. I will explore many things from his film in future movies of mine.
BOI: Ritesh, what’s your take on their films?
RB: I have watched Peddlers but I haven’t watched Monsoon Shootout, which I loved. We were seated quite close to each other at the screening and I wrote him an email, telling him how much I loved his film. As Vasan said, I too felt envious of some of his ideas. Khushwant Singh had always wanted to become a writer, and when he read RK Narayan’s stories, he thought, ‘If he can write, why can’t I? We belong to the same country and almost the same social class.’ So, when I was watching Peddlers, I too thought, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ I will watch Monsoon Shootout now.
AK: I watched Peddlers with my wife at home. She too is an FTII graduate. We felt he had made a great film considering the budget. It made me wonder what the heck I was making on such a large budget!
For The Lunchbox, I was chatting with Guneet and was wondering what the story was all about. She told me it was about this dabba that accidentally gets exchanged between two people and a love story that blossoms from it. I was, like, why didn’t I come up with this idea? I watched a rough cut, Ritesh. I don’t know how much you changed it after that.RB: I haven’t changed it very much.
AK: I thought it was amazing, Irrfan especially. It’s a brilliant film. There are these ‘wow’ moments interspersed. I think he has captured it very nicely. But I think it’s fun to be surrounded by little bits of jealousy. You know, like when you walk into the office and wonder why Guneet is sitting there with Vasan. I wonder what they are discussing.RB: We were probably just arguing.
BOI: Was it, like, three men fighting over one woman?
GM: I wish my life was that exciting! (Laughs)
VB: There are five more directors and many more lining up outside her office for her attention! (Laughs)
GM: But, Vasan, I have to ask you this. Tell us about your Cannes trip last year. Because we made the film like rebels and then Cannes suddenly happened.VB: I just wanted to be there and see what it was all about. I was really happy I didn’t need to buy a pass to watch the films there! (Laughs)
AK: It’s free, kya?
VB: Yes. That was the main motivation to go there. The second was to meet first-time filmmakers from all over the world. I realised it’s actually not all that different. I met this guy called Antonio Mendez, who had also won the Best Film award at the Mumbai Film Festival. He was there at Critics Week as well. I saw him and his team and I felt we were very similar. The way he dealt with his producers, his people…When you feel like bragging about how you made your film, how gutsy you were, you realise that everyone else has already been there, done that, and probably much better. It’s really great to be in that space.
GM: (Cuts in) And feel the world is really united and coming together. Being here, you may get bogged down, ki yeh kaise banega… But when you just step out, you feel the world is out there together with you.
VB: Going to Cannes is a good experience because you know your work is being watched. It helps when you make your next film.
GM: It is a very big world market for films and there are more than 5,000 buyers tracking you. They might not do business with you today; they might do it two years down the line. We are there now but our journey began with Udaan way back in 2009. At the time, buyers sensed that something was changing in Indian cinema. Then That Girl In Yellow Boots happened and it went to Venice and Toronto. We cashed in on it with Gangs Of Wasseypur. This year, we will do even better than last year in terms of sales, territories and markets.
BOI: Conversely, has that worked against indie filmmakers in India because they view these films as ‘festival films’?
RB: A festival like Cannes can only benefit filmmakers. There is no downside to showcasing your film at Cannes although we had no idea how the festival audience would react to our film, whether they would boo our work or like it. This happens at Venice. Filmmakers are scared stiff of showing their work in Venice because the audience there is ruthless. There is no difference between a festival that shows Indian films and a festival like Cannes. It is an education and it is an education you need to provide. When you start asking questions about whether we are scared, I am amused. People need to know about festivals and what festivals do for filmmakers. Festivals help to get films made. There is no reason why a market has to be restricted to a population of 1.2 billion Indians. A film should be watched by 6 million people across the world. And festivals provide that platform. So the danger you refer to does not exist.
GM: It is also a matter of pride for your film to be showcased alongside masterpieces from renowned filmmakers. And the world media talks about these films. People take note of things like, who is making these films? Who is financing them? Who is selling them? Who is the point person for the sale of the film? How do you acquire it? If you want all that, it is there. We have publicists doing our meetings there, so there is a perception that we are welcome there. It is really sad to be judged back home.
GM: It is extremely important. It is home! But all we want is for the world to be there.
RB: If I was an American filmmaker, I would premiere my film at Sundance and then go to Cannes for my world premiere. Indian filmmakers don’t have a platform like that in India, and I don’t have that kind of film. So I would have to go to Cannes to grab attention. I have to go overseas to grab attention and then bring my film here, since they say there is no market for films of this kind here. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Since there aren’t any avenues here for these films, there is no hope for them here because the market is filled with ‘commercial’ films. We are making these films against the odds.
GM: No, things are not all that bad today. There are producers here with whom we are constantly aligning and there are people now who are taking interest in these films. These films may go to a festival but there is this constant work the whole year round. And that goes for everyone. It is only now that studios are taking notice. Now we have a very big Indian presence at Cannes. All the studios are going there. Like Ritesh said, there has been an education problem. But we are at a stage where we can lap up these things. And we will make it work here and there. And it’s all about merit.
VB: In the last few years, the films going to festivals have largely been regional language films. This has made these films superior to what we are doing here in Bollywood, both in content and technique. They are still a little commercial in their story telling but they are definitely more superior. That’s because Tamil and Malayalam filmmakers have done the festival circuit.
Hindi films have been doing the festival circuit more recently. It will all come back and circulate into the art and technicalities of filmmaking. We will see the results in the next five years. So what Ritesh is saying is true. We go round about and come back with our films, and the media here then perceives them as we perceive them. We thus avoid fighting that first battle and get straight into the second round, to get it exhibited.
BOI: But what about films like Peddlers that have been to Cannes? Does it impact on the theatrical release of these films in India? Your film went to Cannes last year but it has still not released in India.
VB: Every film deserves a release but every film doesn’t get the release it deserves. Many films make it to Cannes but they all are different. Every film has its own market, its own flavour. There are films made on a budget of Rs 1 crore, which are marketed with an additional Rs 5 crore, and we have to recover Rs 12 crore to make a profit.
VB: It’s not going to happen. Why put that kind of pressure on a film that doesn’t require that sort of attention just because there is a certain template to popularising a film? I think it is a glitch in the system. We try to market films that don’t fit that template of marketing and viewing. I think we need to understand the present scenario before we present the film for theatrical viewing.
GM: There was a studio that bought Peddlers. It was publicised everywhere. Then the film got into this whole debate of how we would recover the Rs 5 crore of P&A.
GM: Right now, I am asking them to give us an NOC, saying there is no point. But they told me they could not release a film with a Rs 2-crore budget. I don’t understand what that means. So I said, ‘Fine, I will release the film.’ Today we are in a position where we can get a digital release, a theatrical release, and I will speak to people to get a satellite release. So, it is an inevitable debate and it delays a film.
AK: When I look back at the parallel art movement, I tend to categorise things into ‘commercial’ cinema and ‘art’ films. We have been conditioned to believe that ‘art’ films were boring. And if something is boring, we won’t distribute it because it will be a commercial disaster. And I am not saying that those films were not indulgent. There were some great films like Mirch Masala. But there are only a few people who are willing to take that risk. When I met Guneet and Anurag, they said they would do it since they understand that kind of cinema. I have met many people who asked me why it took 50 days, not less, to shoot the film. But these guys understood that the film needed to be shot in a certain way and it was not indulgent. It’s not like they were doing us a favour. It’s business.
GM: I have no idea what a ‘festival film’ is because people have watched these films and have loved them. They are as commercial as they can get.
RB: If there is a certain amount of creativity that goes into making a film, it requires the same amount of creativity to distribute it. There was this film called Beast Of The Southern Wild. It is not a mainstream film but a mainstream studio like Fox picked it up and distributed it in a very creative way. They had a limited number of screenings; there was great word-of-mouth publicity and they expanded from 400 to 800 screens. And it’s a hit!
GM: Everything is opening up. Maybe when directors like Kaizad (Gustad) and Nagesh (Kukunoor) were trying things in the early 2000s, things were not possible. Today we have mainstream actors in this film. Money from around the world is being invested in it and we have had the best festival in the world showcasing it. And we are out here judging who will distribute it and who will watch it. It’s not like that. I think it should be tested and it will fly.
BOI: Udaan did very well at festivals and was commercially successful too. But now Vikramaditya Motwane is making a film with Balaji and with mainstream actors. Is this a stepping stone to get into commercial cinema?
VB: Vikram was an AD to Sanjay Leela Bhansali and was a sound designer on Devdas. So he has always been an industry boy. He should have made his debut 12 years ago. But he chose to make it now with Anurag. He has always had grand plans. He was planning to make Lootera five years ago with John Abraham and Vidya Balan. But speaking of Amit, Ritesh and me… our schooling has been very different. We are not industry boys. It is not about making an ambitious film or adhering to a template. And I am sure even Vikram is not doing that. Despite having these actors and Balaji in the picture, it will break the mould of the kind of films Balaji has been making. I’m sure he will leave his stamp on it. GM: Our film, like Tigers or Bambai Fairytale, has mainstream actors in it and these will be stepping stones for good content to audiences around the world and in India. I think that comes with actors coming in, with corporate studios coming in and talent coming in.
BOI: As far as marketing goes, does promotion on Facebook and Twitter fit into the model you are trying to evolve?
VB: Ever since platforms like Facebook and Twitter have evolved, if a film is not accessible through a theatrical release, it becomes a very laptop-driven experience. This is one space that has really evolved and we cannot ignore it. For a film like mine, I would like to go to every space that is possible, to get in a bigger audience and buyers for a second film, so that I don’t depend purely on theatrical. That’s how I go about my third film and fourth and so on.
GM: Vasan’s next is with a big actor but it does not fit into your regular mould of films you have been used to seeing.
VB: I think there are a lot of ways to create and grow an audience. For instance, if you can’t watch Peddlers at a cinema hall, you watch it at home but on a laptop. That way, it is at least consumed. If the audience likes what they see, there’s hope for my second film. And even if he misses that one, and hopefully watches it on an iPad or a laptop, he will go to the cinema to watch my third film. So there is that promise from the viewer. Five of Anurag’s films were consumed on laptops before Dev D happened.GM: A similar thing happened in South America, when Amores Perros, City Of God, happened, and in Korea too. Times are changing here too. In Mexico, people don’t watch their own films; they watch Hollywood films. But here in India, we have a market that loves cinema. We have an audience for films and we must exploit it.