You can’t design a viral video, it just happens
From having directed nothing at all to making a debut that clocked over 7.8 million views on YouTube, Navjot Gulati has surprised everyone, including himself. His latest venture, a 3-part web series called Local Girlfriend is inspired by a real-life incident much like his hit short film, Best Girlfriend. In a freewheeling chat with Pandolin, the filmmaker talks about the making of Local Girlfriend, catering to the Internet audience and the formula for making successful viral content, among other things.
Going back a little, how did your short film Best Girlfriend happen?
It was around the same time last year that I was in the process of pitching my feature film to a studio. I had never directed anything before. So the idea to make Best Girlfriend was for me to understand whether I could direct or not and whether I enjoy the whole process. I was fishing for a lot of ideas, talking to people and reading to come up with an idea. I was not in tune with the short film world, so to say, or with short form ideas. I’ve always been a big idea or film idea person. One day I was casually talking to a friend of mine, Amit Roy, who has written the story for Best Girlfriend, and is also the director of Runningshaddi.com, a film that I’ve written. Amit told me an incident about this guy who was in a relationship with a girl, who he thought was his ‘best girlfriend’. The guy was on the seventh heaven; his girlfriend would cook for him, pay his bills and everything was perfect for him. Until one day, the guy discovers that the girl he is living-in with is a prostitute. I liked the idea and wrote a screenplay on it. And it just happened thereon.
So was it the popularity of Best Girlfriend that inspired you to convert it into a web series – Local Girlfriend?
To be honest, in the last one year everybody related to films wants to make content for the digital medium. All big filmmakers have also started making content for the Internet. There were a lot of people who were chasing me to make something for the Internet for them. I did not really know what that ‘something’ was. And Best Girlfriend was doing really well. I was surprised when it crossed a million views. Never in my wildest dreams had I thought that it would get this kind of a response. I did have a popular actress (Kritika Kamra) and she has a certain fan following, so I knew that a certain number of people would definitely see the product, no matter how it is. But none of us ever predicted that it would reach a point where it has 7.8 million views.
Local Girlfriend is also inspired from a real life incident. And I happened to be part of that incident. So that worked as a trigger. Once I had the story, I went to Dice Creator Network that wanted me to create something for them. They liked the story and we made it.
Barring the format, is there a difference in approach or treatment between Best Girlfriend and Local Girlfriend?
Best Girlfriend is more like a drama while Local Girlfriend is a quirky comedy. There are a lot of illogical and random things happening in the series, which is by design. That is something I wanted to do. I have treated it like a sit-com, which is why you have a different character coming in every episode and doing some nonsense or the other. So the format and genre is completely different from Best Girlfriend. The only similarity is that Vikrant Massey (actor) has been common to both the formats.
And how has the response to the web series been so far?
Best Girlfriend took a lot of time to pick up. So I would like to give this time and see where it goes. Till now the feedback has been 60 per cent positive and 40 per cent negative. In terms of numbers I think we should have a look at them around a month down the line as it has just been a week or so. Also I don’t have the machinery like a big studio where they constantly pump money and have celebrities promoting their stuff. That will surely get a different reception from what I have made. To be honest in hindsight, there are a lot of things that I would have done differently; especially on the script.
Differently? Please elaborate.
I would have definitely pitched the character of Dhawal differently. The way I wrote him and the way we played him and got it done was different. I would like to retain the way I wrote him – as the good guy stuck in a bad situation and then ending up with two girls. But the way we played it, which was a conscious decision is that Dhawal plays an all out mean guy. This I believe has not connected with a lot of people. So I would definitely like to change that, given a chance. And also add a little more drama in certain situations. But we made this series in a very minuscule budget, so I had a lot of limitations when it came to locations etc. Maybe if I had more money I would’ve been more ambitious with the writing. But I did the best I could.
Given the budget constraints, how did you visually treat Local Girlfriend?
I treated it almost like a stage show where there are a lot of people coming and going, a lot of entries and exits. It is shot in small parts and there are no big scenes, apart from one or two. Also to be honest I followed the vision of my DOP Santosh Vasandi. If you like the camera work you can give credit to him and if you don’t like it, then blame him. (laughs)
Coming to the casting, while Vikrant Massey continues to be part of it, didn’t you wish to cast a more known female lead?
If a known face becomes the parameter in this (web series) also, then it will become as corrupt as films. My funda was simple; cast your best available actor. When I made Best Girlfriend, Kritika Kamra was available, she is a friend and wanted to work on it, so we made it. Now when I was making the web series, I was looking for people again and I chose the best available ones. I would never want to cast a person because he or she is a star. Then it would be like a film. What would the difference be?
True. But now that you have written a feature film, directed a short and a web series, what would you say is the difference between these formats – content wise?
I don’t think there is any guidebook that you need to follow for any medium. The only thing is that the story that you want to tell should be from your heat. I have a thought that I follow – dil se jo nikli kahaani wahi sahi, baaki sab bemaani. The medium does not matter. Having said that, nobody has yet cracked the formula of what works on the Internet. The themes for the Internet have to be in tune with people in the age group of 18 to 35. But some years down the line, somebody could make a love story between an old couple and that could work on the Internet. The choice is with the audience and content that is good will somehow find its audience. And of course its for free, so that works well.
The audience for the Internet is relatively young. How do you go write content that can hook them?
I think the theme needs to be relatable to people between 18 and 35. A lot of people asked me how Best Girlfriend worked so much and I told them that the theme was highly relatable. Best Girlfriend is from a guy’s perspective, that all girls are prostitutes. It’s a very misogynist thing to say but sorry to say, that is the feedback and comments that I got on YouTube from a lot of guys. Maybe Internet has got more guys. (laughs)
But nobody sees the fact that the boy was also sleeping around and was ready to call a prostitute to his house. He is as guilty as the girl and that was my point. But people took out whatever meaning they wanted to like “Sab ladkiyan aisi hi hoti hai.” With Local Girlfriend, my theme, intentionally, was that all guys are the same.
Like you’d mentioned earlier, people kept asking you what worked for Best Girlfriend. My question is – do you think there is a formula to create viral worthy content?
I’ll give you an example that can be a lesson in point. I’ve produced a video for Dice Creator Network called ‘Ban Ban’. It was a very small video that we made for just a lakh of rupees. It was around the theme of ban and how the government is just interested in banning things. The producers wanted to release it immediately but I told them to wait till the next ban is announced. So we waited and put the video online a day after the government banned something. And the video went viral. It got over 2 million views on Facebook. Taking that as a case in point, if you put something online when the public mandates or when the mindset is in line with your theme, it can go viral. But you can’t really plan it. It’s just about the timing. You can’t design a viral video. Like a good film, it just happens.
Overall, what has worked for the success of online videos?
It’s the success of TVF, to be honest. The fact that a guy came from nowhere, struggled to make films and one day he decided to make online content. And people were like “yeh kaun dekhne wala hai”. But from there, that guy, Arunabh Kumar has reached a point where today everybody wants to work with him. And you have big corporations trying to ape him.
There are many people trying to enter the digital space. But eventually only 4-5 people will sustain. You need to invest a lot of time and money before you get branded content. Also when you make branded content, it is easy to make it for the brand but common people may not see it. It’s very difficult to strike that balance. And whoever is able to successfully do that, will sustain. Most of the online content is driven by brands. If new players are entering the market, they are putting in their own money hoping that their content will be noticed by brands. Brands can potentially become the future producers of online content, which is the scary part because everything will then be the way it is in films.
What’s next for Local Girlfriend?
Local Girlfriend was a 3 part series and I’m done with it. The next thing that I would surely like to make is called “Mogambo Khush Hua”. More details on that later.
You’ve also written the script for the upcoming film, Runningshaadi.com. Any other projects that you’re currently working on?
I am writing 2-3 other films for different producers. That’s all in process. There’s a feature film that I want to direct and there are two production houses that would like to come on board. I’ll go with whoever green lights the project first. I definitely want to direct a feature film next year. As of now I also have 2-3 different web offers from some production houses. I’m in the process of writing and pitching ideas to them.