Shoojit Sircar and Ronnie Lahiri of Rising Sun Films in conversation with team Box office India
Shoojit Sircar (SS): Ronnie (Lahiri) and I were into ad films and we had a different company then. In 2007, we formed Rising Sun Films together, and the first film we shot was Shoebite with Mr Bachchan. Then we started making documentaries. We became partners and that’s how the journey began.
BOI: Shoebite faced a lot of challenges. It must have been a disappointing time for you.
Ronnie Lahiri (RL): Absolutely! It was a tough shoot and everyone worked so hard. It was very disappointing that the film faced the problems it did.
SS: It was very disheartening and we were all very depressed. We didn’t know what to do. That’s why it took us so long to make our third film.
RL: It took us seven years.
SS: Films are our passion and we earn our bread and butter through ads. Cinema is not our bread and butter. For a producer who produced Shoebite, I understand that is a business proposition. But we are technicians and a technician simply gets a fee and he wants his film to be up on the screen. That’s his dream. So, when a film doesn’t screen, it hurts, especially when you have an artiste of Mr Bachchan’s calibre. A film is canned because the producer is incompetent. There’s little you can do about it.
BOI: How did you guys keep busy back then?
SS: The only way we survived that period was because of ads. We did lots of ads with Mr Bachchan.
RL: We kept ourselves busy. We did many ads and threw ourselves into it.
SS: We did the Titan ad with Aamir, Cadbury commercials and Nokia ad with Shah Rukh.
RL: Another ad, which was more like a mini-feature with Saif Ali Khan, Priyanka Chopra and Neha Dhupia. We kept ideating and writing and then Vicky Donor happened.
SS: Ronnie and I had already started production by then. We couldn’t find a producer for Vicky Donor because everyone thought I was trying to make a living out of a C-grade film as a lot of producers didn’t understand the subject. But we both felt we had to make the project happen and invested all the money we had made from ad films into the film. When we were about to start shooting, John (Abraham) came in and things turned around.
RL: With John’s coming in, we also got a studio on board. Otherwise, we were planning to make the film ourselves and take it to studios.
SS: That’s how we started learning about the film industry. I still consider myself an outsider. We are not from the ‘family’ of the Mumbai film industry.
SS: We did, after Vicky Donor. We did Bengali cinema because we are both Bongs and we boh wanted to do something for Bengali cinema. Ideally, I would have liked to direct a Bengali film and produce it too but there is a pool of talent out there who doesn’t have the means to make a film. So we wanted to explore that.
BOI: Vicky Donor was a sleeper hit as it came out of nowhere. Were you expecting that kind of success?
RL: We very confident of our product and knew it was really good. But we were not sure how much business it would earn.
SS: Everyone in the industry had advised us to make a ‘mass-appeal’ film. But I cannot make films for everyone and it bothered us that this film was not meant for the masses as 99 per cent of people in the country didn’t know what ‘sperm’ meant. The perception that only mass films work changed with Vicky Donor. Vicky Donor was a universal hit. It was made for the audience in the metros but it penetrated small towns as well.
Also, I never dreamt that families would sit together and watch the film. I thought it would appeal to youngsters only. Attracting families was one of our biggest achievements with that film.
BOI: Even though Vicky Donor dealt with the subject of sperm donation, it was a very clean film.
SS: Yes, that was intentional. You see, if I saw a film poster that read ‘I am a sperm donor’, my first reaction would be that this is a sleazy film. We were able to battle that.
BOI: What kind of acceptance did you get from the industry once the film became a hit?
SS: There was a change in perception towards us because the industry works on success rate. There are good films which don’t work but the fact is, you make a successful film and you are up there. If the film falls the next Friday, I will be back to square one. So the good thing was Shoojit brand got established. Rising Sun came to the forefront and Ronnie and I started gaining recognition. Now whenever Ronnie and I approach people, we have some credibility.
SS: Also, let’s accept the fact that cinema is changing and the audience accepts the kind of cinema I believe in. I think that’s also a key factor where studios are concerned. Now we know that there is space for filmmakers like us.
BOI: Do you think you have played a part in changing the audience’s perceptions?
SS: How can we take credit for that? There were others who had make films like this before. Ram Gopal Varma started the trend. Aaj koi kuch bhi kahe, I don’t know him and I have never worked with him, but I know he is the one who changed the perception of cinema. He deserves credit for films like Satya and Company, and he gave so many directors a platform. Rituporno was doing it in Kolkata, Mani Ratnam was doing it, Shekhar Kapur was doing it.
BOI: After Vicky Donor, you made a diametrically opposite film in Madras Café. Were you tempted to make another comedy instead?
RL: We are careful to not get typecast. In fact, we had the Madras Café script even before we had the Vicky Donor script. We resisted the temptation that comedy worked for us.
BOI: Weren’t you under pressure to make another comedy?
SS: Every single day! Almost every day, I still have my mailbox flooded with requests for a sequel to Vicky Donor and many have elaborate story ideas for that too! I started the film with Juhi (Chaturvedi), Ronnie and John. It was Juhi’s brainchild. So if she finds it exciting, I will do it. There has always been pressure to make another comedy film, but I am trying to create a space for myself.
SS: We both have a background in the Armed Forces. His father was in the Army and mine in the Air Force. We are both from Delhi. I have a background in theatre that dealt with social issues. But making this film meant we had to tread very carefully and, honestly, we wondered if we could successfully attempt something like this. Madras Café dealt with a political subject that is still banned in many countries. So the question was also whether we would be able to release the film? Most of the research was done by Ronnie and written by Shubhendu Bhattacharya. It was he who encouraged me to do the film.
RL: We thought we had to make something like a JFK. This is a story based in our country and is recent history.
SS: But we couldn’t do a real story because unfortunately hamare yaha itna freedom aya nahi hai.
RL: That was the trade-off. If we wanted to make this film, it would have to be a work of fiction. John’s character was fictitious.
BOI: Did you have any issues with the Censors to tone down the film?
SS: Fortunately, both Vicky Donor and Madras Café dealt with sensitive issues, and Vicky Donor was more sensitive than Madras Café. I appreciate the Censor Board for assigning Vicky Donor U/A certification. With Madras Café, we were very lucky to have got no cuts. I was surprised when they gave it a clean chit.
SS: (Cuts in) Considering the Chennai Express promotions, we had to actually look for our film ki where were our promotions? My worry was not whether the film would work. My fear was whether it would be able to release.
BOI: Did word-of-mouth play a huge role for Vicky Donor and Madras Café?
SS: Yes, our films have always picked up on a Sunday.
RL: Our films haven’t got an opening.
SS: Also, Madras Café had no songs. How do you promote a film without songs, no love story, no heroine, the Tamil problem, no one know about the problem. Credit goes to John and Vikram (Malhotra), who had the vision to see the film when he was with Viacom 18. A day before the release, many trade people thought it wouldn’t cross even Rs 10 crore.
BOI: What’s next?
SS: We have Running Shaadi.com directed by Amit Roy. We thought there was something fresh about the name. He narrated the idea and I liked it. I don’t spend too much thought on a film. Once I okay it, I just make it. If you think about it too much and dissect it, it never gets made properly. We also have a few Bengali films and another film.
RL: One is Imtiaz Ali’s youngest brother Sajid Ali and it’s tentatively titled Banana. It is almost ready. Then there’s a film with a writer called Arshad Sayed, who is making his debut as a director. It’s called Double Agent J-39, an action comedy. We are making it with JA Entertainment.
SS: I don’t know what the speculation is all about. It’s a simple, father-daughter film. Juhi (Chaturvedi) and I are collaborating on this film. We are only just finishing our first draft. We shared the story with Mr Bachchan and he liked it. I am trying to get him and Irrfan to act together. Irrfan also likes the idea.
BOI: And Hamara Bajaj?
SS: I am still not satisfied with the script of Hamara Bajaj and we are working on it. Right now, I am working on two scripts – one is Peeku and the other is called 1911. We are both football fanatics and we have been wanting to do a sports film for a long time. John himself is a footballer and he loves the game too.
BOI: How do you guys choose a story? Is it a long-drawn process or an instinctive thing?
SS: It’s instinctive.
RL: You can make out, the moment an idea hits you. You know there is something we can do with it. And then there are ideas which just don’t affect you.
SS: A little out-of-the-box is a key element we look for. After Vicky Donor, everyone has been after us to make films on a budget of ` 4.5-5 crore. Vicky Donor cost around ` 4.2 crore before publicity and promotions. So, if like us, you are making films on a very tight budget, it would have to be a high-concept story, not just any love story.
RL: If they want to watch a love story, they would rather watch Shah Rukh Khan doing a love story. So why would they watch our film? That’s where the challenge comes in, to make a new-concept film.
BOI: But when you instinctively like a concept, do you keep in mind its commercial prospects, and hence its budget?
RL: Of course. Those calculations have to be done. At the end of the day, when we set out to make a film, our foremost decision is that our partner who has invested in our project should not lose money. So we make the film as viable as possible. One can’t tell just how much a film will earn but nobody should lose money.
SS: People talk about ‘100 crore’ but my target is ‘99 crore’. No one would believe that Vicky Donor was made on a budget of ` 4.2 crore. And when you watch Madras Café, you can compare it to any big-budget film.
RL: (Cuts in) That’s the expertise we have after making so many commercials. We know how to squeeze budgets.
SS: We have made it our motto to not let our producer lose money. Besides, only if my film makes money will I get to do another film!
RL: Producers don’t get enough credit. Far from only investing in a film, a producer gets into the entire film. He is part of the planning, every little detail. At the end of the day, it should still look like a big film. It doesn’t matter how much you spend, it has to look big and look good because that is what people see. Secondly, film is all about passion. We don’t want to take on so much that we will have to delegate to our staff. We would rather spend on quality films. When you’re able to rein in your budget, you’re in a good space.
SS: No, we are still new to the business. It’s been just two to three years. We don’t want to take on too much.
RL: We will take on only as much as we can handle.
SS: We are doing Running Shaadi.com, where we have partnered with Vikram Malhotra. He is very good with marketing and will handle that entirely. Our job is to make the film.
RL: When you’re not hands-on, things begin to spin out of control. So whether it’s a small film or a big one, we are totally involved. That’s how you make sure of quality control.
SS: It’s too early as we have made only two films. We will have a tag line in place after we make 10 films.
BOI: How do you divide the work between the two of you? Like, one will look into the creative process and the other budgeting?
SS: Yes, there is a division for sure. Like, Ronnie looks at production and budgeting and I look at the creative aspect. But before we green-light a project, we look into everything together. As I mentioned earlier, for Madras Café, most of the research was done by him, so he was creatively involved in the process. Suggestions on how to do the film, how to prevent the scenes from going overboard... But once the film starts rolling, we look after our respective departments.
RL: When you’re involved with a script, you can make suggestions. It is easy for budgeting as well as for the film.
BOI: As a creative person, how do you do balance expense against creativity? You might want 100 helicopters for the climax scene of Madras Café but you know it’s not possible.
SS: Doing ads has taught us a lot of techniques. The last 10 years in advertising has taught us how to do it without compromising. And when we do compromise, the audience should not be able to tell.
RL: I always say, if we have less money, we have more challenge because we have to achieve quality without killing the creativity.
SS: (Cuts in) And then we both get into it. Like, in Madras Café, he got someone else to direct a few of the international shots. We gave them the story board and they shot those scenes. If we hadn’t done that, we would have had to take our entire crew there to shot those scenes. But not every film can be shot on a budget like this. If I am making a pre-Independence film, we would need that kind of budget. But we would still spend less than the rest of the Hindi film industry does.
SS: (Laughs) Cinema bechne aur aloo pyaaj bechne mein farak hai. That’s the debate that’s raging. How do you green-light a film like Madras Cafe? I had been fielding this script for six years. Everyone had read the script and liked it but nobody was ready to invest in it. Somehow, Vikram Malhotra from Viacom 18 liked the idea and came on board but only after Vicky Donor. So my argument with corporates is, on what basis do they green-light a film? If there is a formula, then every star-based film should be a super hit. But then, there is no such formula.
And nowadays, there is a new system. After a film is complete, a core group and a research group watches the film. You ask them a few questions and they say this was missing or that was missing. You make those changes and show it to them once again.
I believe that when making a film, you need a gut feeling. Tell me, who visualised a film like Gravity? You need a studio like Warner Bros. They know, yeh aadmi pagal hai isko de do paise. I think that’s how Alfonso Cuarón made the film. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street was a mad film, mad screenplay. If I give a narration like that to anyone, they would die of boredom. So that’s my argument, on what basis do they green-light a film?
BOI: What’s your take on stars? From the time of Yahaan, you haven’t worked with big stars.
SS: You need them because of their audience. But I chase them to a certain extent only. If they are not available, I move on. That’s what we did with Vicky Donor. Initially, we thought we should have a star in it. I tried once but then when it was not working, I moved on with newcomers. If someone is interested, I think they too have to invest their time in us. So if he or she is in doubt, we simply move on.
RL: There is a good balance. In 2003, people use to say the multiplex industry was a ` 2-crore industry. Today, the same multiplex industry is a ` 60-80 crore business as it gives space to all kinds of cinema, from small-budget films to big blockbusters. The change I see is people are looking for content, not just stars.
SS: My take on this is that people are simply enjoying the movie-watching experience. Most people have LED screens at home. So how do you draw them out to watch a film in cinemas? So the bar has been raised and even songs are shot beautifully. The audience is ready to spend money on tickets and they have a wide choice of films. We are experiencing the best of times.