Hands-on producers – Gunbir and Manmord of Sardaarji 2 fame
In most cases, striking a conversation with a producer whose moolah is backing a Punjabi film and for him to have complete knowledge of filmmaking, production and distribution is a distant dream. In such a scenario, a freewheeling chat with Producer Gunbir Singh Sidhu who has a Masters Degree in Chip Designing from Imperial College, London, along with his cousin brother cum partner Manmord Sidhu who is an alumnus of Vancouver Film School says a lot about their knowledge and experience. Here’s an unplugged conversation with the duo who are known for their banner White Hill Production that has produced films like Jatt & Juliet, Jatt & Juliet 2, Punjab 1984, Sardaarji and the recently released Sardaarji 2.
Sardaarji created a record of having the biggest opening ever for a film in Pollywood. How have you approached the planning and promotion of Sardaarji 2 to live up to the expectations?
Gunbir: When it came to the conceptualization of the film, we were sure of the fact that Sardaarji is a very strong title. We knew we had to project the protagonist in such a way that it is appealing and is not similar to what we did in Sardaarji, which was in a fiction zone. But Sardaarji 2 is a romantic comedy with a message pertaining to farmers. We have portrayed what is happening to farmers in Punjab in a lighter way and they’ll identify with it. The second challenge was meeting the expectations of people, which we knew were going to be higher. Therefore we took the making to a bigger level by shooting the songs in a grand way.
We have mostly shot in Australia, which is a new location for a Punjabi film. We have tried every bit to increase the canvas to a bigger level. Creatively I’m very sure that Sardaarji 2 is a better product. Whether it’ll break the opening record or not, also depends on the line-up of other films. We have stiff competition from Udta Punjab, Raman Raghav 2.0 etc. I’m not hell bent on breaking our previous record but I definitely want people to appreciate it from what we made last time.
Manmord: Sardaarji was made on a budget of 12 crore and made an opening record of 2.50 crore in India. Overall it did business worth 42 crore (gross) in India and overseas. We have more expectations from Sardaarji 2. We’ve put more efforts in digital promotions as people are more active on social networking sites than TV, radio or newspapers.
Whenever you plan a sequel, you have to definitely make sure that the second part is better than the first one, which made us put a lot of effort in the storyline this time. It is made on a budget of 14.5 crore, which makes it the highest budget Punjabi film.
Tell us about the journey of White Hill Production.
Manmord: I have a degree in film production and was already working in a couple of Hollywood studios. Initially we were just the line producers for Jatt & Juliet. It was when the producers ran out of money that we came on board as producers.
Gunbir: White Hill came into being when Jatt & Juliet was being made and was originally formed by Manmord as a line producing company. At that time Jatt & Juliet was being produced by Darshan Singh Grewal but I joined the film as the second producer. Post that Jatt & Juliet 2 was solely produced by White Hill. It was followed by films like Punjab 1984, Romeo Ranjha, Sardaarji, Best of Luck (directed by Manmord). Tu Mera 22 Mein Tera 22 was the only film that I produced independently.
At the time of Jatt & Juliet, we couldn’t find any responsible distributor overseas, therefore, we broke the barriers by releasing it ourselves and realized that there is a lot of scope in international distribution. We decided that it is one thing that we can exploit. People then started approaching us for international distribution of other films too.
Whenever you plan a sequel, you have to definitely make sure that the second part is better than the first one
What factors would you credit to the success of your films?
Gunbir: All the films have been blockbusters, breaking their own records, other than Romeo Ranjha, which was a flop and Best of Luck being an average film. I feel the credit goes to the luck. One’s success depends a lot on one’s luck. Luck plays a 50% role at the end of the day, as there is no guarantee in filmmaking. I’m lucky that our team has been blessed by God.
White Hill has been able to bring Punjabi films to an international canvas. If people in the Hindi industry know about Punjabi cinema today, it is through films like Jatt & Juliet or Punjabi 1984 for which we won a National award. The remake rights of Jatt & Juliet have been bought by Salman Khan. We are proud to have brought the Punjabi industry to a level where it’s not just respected in Bollywood but overseas too. I’m confident that we’ll take it to an even bigger level. If a Marathi movie like Sairat can cross 100 crore, then why not a Punjabi film? I’m quite confident that the Punjabi industry is going to shape up into a very mature and established industry.
How would you define yourself as producers? What is your creative involvement in the films that you’ll produce?
Gunbir: A factor that adds to the success of our films, which I’m extremely proud of, is that we are hands-on producers. When we are producing any film, we’ll either be on the shoot or in Mumbai, handling the post production.
In Sardaarji 2, there was a major chunk that was boring and needed to be edited. Had that not been done, I’m sure the film would have lost the entire crispness. As producers, you need to be involved in each and every aspect so that you can support the director whenever he requires it. We give complete independence to the director but then we also make sure that the production is handled properly and the canvas is bigger. As distributors we know what is going to work and what won’t.
I’m more inclined towards the development of the film and creative side while Manmord is more inclined towards the business and distribution side. This is just a 20-25% difference but overall we are responsible for handling everything.
Manmord: My creative contribution is in every single aspect – be it script, production, costumes, editing. We saw the film and didn’t like some parts of it and edited 15 minutes out of it. 99% of the schedules are made by me since I have a background in filmmaking so I know all the softwares and technical aspects too. I don’t think any other Punjabi film producer knows that. These factors always give you an edge. For instance, when someone demands any equipment and if you have the knowledge, you’d know whether it is necessary or not and that can help the team in adding and subtracting stuff and keeping things in budget.
Describe the production process of a Punjabi film – what should be the minimum budget for a Punjabi film to at least recover its money and not go in losses?
Gunbir: The budget depends on the kind of star cast you have. If you have an actor like Diljit (Dosanjh) or Amrinder (Gill) who can provide you a very strong opening, then you can have the luxury to spend a little more on the film. But the thumb rule for a first time producer is that he should not spend more than 3-4 crore, where the packaging should be correct, only then will he be able to recover the money. These days Punjabi films, under our banner and some other banners too, are made at par with Bollywood. Even Punjabi films release in all the countries where a Hindi would release. The only difference is that in India we have a smaller territory for a Punjabi film whereas a Hindi film goes into the entire country. The cost of promotions is also huge in Hindi. But when it comes to the making of the film, we also spend 10-12 crore, which is similar to the budget of any decent Hindi film.
The Punjabi industry is growing now. Last year people thought that the industry might run down as many films flopped, but I think that it’s now blooming into a serious and bigger industry. In most of the cases when films don’t work, the reason clearly is that they aren’t made in the proper way. When a particular business happens on your creative hunch, there is always a risk involved. Also the producers are mostly approached with a glossy picture. Some of them either don’t have enough knowledge and some are not even bothered as they have enough money.
Manmord: The producers should know what they are doing. And in 99% cases the producers here don’t know what they are making. The Punjabi industry needs professional people who know their job. Presently there is a lack of technical people but it is still a growing industry. Even people from Bollywood want to make Punjabi films, but it’s tough for them because there are very few good directors and technicians. That is the main reason why the Punjabi industry is losing a lot of money. More than 200 crore is spent in a year, and just 15-20 crore is what comes back.
First time producers should spend some time with a production house in Mumbai and understand how things work. It is a big business and if you don’t know about its working, you’ll end up losing the entire money. Secondly, spending 14.50 crore is way too much for a Punjabi film. We ended up spending that because shooting in Australia was expensive. But without known faces, a film shouldn’t go beyond 3-4 crore. It is very hard to recover money beyond that. And to recover that much, also depends on your content. Films like Ambarsariya or Mukhtiar Chadda, which featured Diljit in the lead, prove that a great star cast can bring you business only on the first day but after that if the content isn’t good, it won’t do well.
Which areas do you’ll focus on to help in limiting your budget and not wasting money?
Manmord: In our process of working, we have a command on our director. If you are experienced, people will listen to you, but there are times when you just can’t help. For instance in the case of Sardaarji that we shot in three countries – India, Canada and London, our budget increased from 10 to 12 crore due to VFX, which demands a lot of money.
Also, when the writer is writing the script, there are ways in which you can guide him. For instance, if there is a scene which he has penned to be shot at an airport, but it doesn’t make sense and will also demand a lot of money, you can suggest that he place it somewhere else. Again your background comes handy here. If you have a good profile, the director and writer will listen and agree with you.
The thumb rule for a first time producer is that he should not spend more than 3-4 crore, only then will he be able to recover the money
White Hill has so far only produced films with established names. Would we see it launching new faces too?
Gunbir: You will soon get to know about the remake of a film, where we’ll launch new faces. So far our association with Diljit has been so successful that we’re doing back-to-back films with him. We’ve plans of producing at least one smaller film every year with upcoming actors.
Manmord: Sometimes it is really hard to find actors. We took auditions of around 200 girls in Chandigarh and Mumbai to find the female lead for Sardaarji 2 but it was very hard to find one and ultimately we cast Monica Gill. There is a lack of acting talent in Punjabi cinema. Now we definitely need to get at least two to three new male and female actors. In September we’ll start a film with singer Ammy Virk that’s being directed by Amrit Chadda who has been Anurag’s assistant since Jatt & Juliet. We are looking for female lead for the same.
While Bollywood is picking up interesting and offbeat stories about the North such as Neerja, Sarbjit, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Udta Punjab & so on, why are Punjabi producers still stuck in the commercial web?
Gunbir: If a great subject comes to me, I’m ready to make it. But it is very hard to find a subject. We really wanted to make a film on drugs but we knew that as Punjabi filmmakers, even if we make it, it will never see a release. The kind of opposition Udta Punjab faced, had a Punjabi film faced it, they would have killed the entire film. But from this year, we are going to come up with things that are really different. I’m thinking of a biopic and have some subjects in mind.
Manmord: Punjabi cinema is very new and the first thing that we have to give them is entertainment. From my experience in distribution, I can say that entertainment is the first thing that the audience wants. Punjab 1984 did way less business as compared to Sardaarji. Sarbjit too, despite being a powerful subject, didn’t grab the audience. People want to go for Sardaarji or a Housefull. That is why it is hard for us to pick diverse subjects. We are creative people but at the same time, we’re businessmen too.
The only difference between distributing a Hindi and a Punjabi film is that the former will get a large number of screens
White Hill has also distributed important films like Sarbjit, Airlift, Drishyam etc overseas. How do you’ll choose the films you’ll wish to distribute? And is the distribution process any different as compared to that in Bollywood?
Gunbir: We see the kind of production house that is backing the project. The only difference between distributing a Hindi and a Punjabi film is that the former will get a large number of screens. Otherwise, the technical process is the same. If a Punjabi film will release in 50 screens then an Akshay Kumar starrer like Airlift will release in 170 screens in North America.
Manmord: A film is mostly chosen on the basis of the star cast and storyline. But sometimes you like the trailer or have faith in the production house making it.
Would we also see you producing Bollywood films?
Manmord: As soon as we get a good script, we will produce one. In Punjab, we’re going to make Jatt & Juliet 3 soon. We haven’t finalized the director as yet since Anurag is busy with his Hindi film. I would surely want him to direct it but if he is not available, we’ll have to find another director. Diljit will continue but I’m not sure about the female lead.
Tell us about the bond that you both share. And how do you deal with moments of differences?
Gunbir: He is more of a best buddy. We have our independent strong opinions but when it comes to a film related decision, we go by whoever is making a strong logic. Also, the good thing is that since he is more of a friend, I can spend 24 hours with him and simultaneously have fun. Everybody in our team is more like brothers. Be it Param Oberoi, the CEO, Tej Gobind and Jasneet who are general managers and Shreeya Prabhu who is the production manager; we’ve all been working together since five years but know each other since school days. Therefore the camaraderie, honesty and trust is so deep.
Manmord: We are brothers from another mother. We discuss every single creative aspect. Even when we are not together, we are always in touch through the phone. We like each other’s personalities and have a strong bond because we both are very hardworking. We’ll always have each other’s back because we know that whatever we do is for the sake of White Hill.
Where do you see yourself in the coming years?
Gunbir: I used to think a lot about the future but last year both my kidneys failed and I was on dialysis for 6-7 months. Then I got a transplant done and I’m on one kidney now. Future planning is important but only to the point that you don’t start losing what you have in the present. One should work hard, enjoy the present life and leave everything else on God and destiny. There is a supreme power that is going to look after everything.