Who says content-driven cinema can’t be commercially viable?
It’s his passion for the art that made him venture into film production. Having backed laudable films like Aankhon Dekhi, Dhanak, Umrika and the highly – awaited Masaan, Manish Mundra has struck all the right chords.
In a freewheeling chat with Pandolin, Manish talks about his journey, his vision for Drishyam Films, collaboration with Sundance Screenwriters Lab and much more.
Please tell us about your love for cinema, something that made you venture into film production while working full-time as a business executive in Nigeria.
In India, films and cricket are a part of your growing up years. The aura of films has touched almost all of us. And I have always been passionate about this form of art. It was clear in my mind, heart, soul (whatever one wishes to call it), that I have to do something in it. But before taking the plunge I needed to create a base for myself. The medium not only fascinated me, it also made me dream and I would always think – it would be such a wonderful thing if I could be a part of it, ever. I thought whenever the time is right and I get an opportunity, I would grab it. I kept looking for one actually. And then Aankhon Dekhi happened.
It was more of an accident, in the sense that I never knew about this film but I always wanted to make such good films. I followed actors and directors whose work, work method and stories I admired. So when I came to know that Rajat Kapoor isn’t getting good producers for his films and is thinking of going back to theatre, I decided to take a foot forward because I knew he is a wonderful actor and I love his films. So we got in touch. I read and loved the script. Primarily because I could connect to the script on a personal basis. It’s about a joint family, the issues that crop up and how they cope with it, realizing their love and bonding. How small misunderstandings affect a family and all that. I found myself in the story’s character. And I said yes, let’s do this. I had no idea how far I will travel with the film but I trusted the content and said yes. I became sure about taking up my passion with this film. It wasn’t planned but a superb and a beautiful accident.
What was the core objective of establishing Drishyam Films?
We released Aankhon Dekhi and in the process, the most important thing I learned was that there is an audience looking for contemplating cinema. Also that there is enough scope and space for doing an organized business, as most of the approach was unorganized. I felt there is a need to set up an organized place for instigating good stories, good writers, to pin down fresh ideas and help filmmakers unfold their vision on-screen. And then develop a channel to exhibit these stories. I found the need to set up Drishyam Films to give new filmmakers and independent cinema an organized structure where a film is made from start to finish. Through the collaboration with Sundance Lab we happened to select some good scripts from all over India and then pick a couple of them and fund them. So to answer your question in a straight way, after my learning with Aankhon Dekhi, I found that there is space for such cinema and Drishyam Films will be an answer, a concrete, organized effort to build a commercially viable scenario for cinema.
You have selectively backed directors who had good scripts but no finance to bring them to the market. Don’t mainstream/ commercial films interest you?
I have two answers to this – one, who says content – driven cinema can’t be commercially viable? There is an audience for it. You have to make an organized effort to make them at the lowest possible cost and to help exhibit it at maximum no. of screens. This is the organized thing I was talking about. So, it’s completely false that independent films aren’t commercially viable. Two, there are so many people out there in the so-called mainstream commercial space, that they don’t need my little funds to make their films. There are many production houses and big studios who are backing them. And I don’t feel the need to go out there and do something. In Drishyam Films we are trying to make around 4-5 films a year, films which we can look back at with pride and appreciate. And that itself is quite satisfying. So the ‘commercial’ cinema you are mentioning, doesn’t attract me as there are many players out there doing it efficiently and better and have more money to invest. I am happy down here in this small little space of independent cinema, making films like Masaan, Dhanak and Umrika. That’s more fun to me and I am happy in the space.
On the one hand you have worked with renowned directors like Rajat Kapoor & Nagesh Kukunoor who have proved their mettle while on the other you are also backing emerging talents like Neeraj Ghaywan & Prashant Nair. How do you decide which scripts to back? And how has the experience been?
I have a very clear decision-making part. I don’t go with the names, I go with the scripts. If I like the script, we are making it, it doesn’t matter how new or known the director is. In fact, there are almost 15 new directors we are backing. If the story is convincing, then we look at who the director is, if he is new we certainly look at his short films and his other work and based on which we decide to go ahead. So the point is, it’s not the name, but the story, the content, which is the key to decision-making. The good thing about newcomers is that they are so professionally qualified, have consumed so much of world cinema and are a force to reckon with. They are so confident, so sure about their ideas and concepts that you start believing in them too.
What is the financing model you follow for the films? How difficult is it to get a theatrical release for small budget films?
Releasing them isn’t difficult anymore. What I have seen in the last one year or say in the past 14-15 months, from the time Aankhon Dekhi released in 2014 to Masaan releasing this month, is that things have changed. I am so happy that I have been a part of it, however small or big it is, part of that whole process of change. A lot of films including Umrika, Dhanak, Masaan, Court, have gone to international film festivals, won awards and are now ‘coming back home’, in the sense of getting released here. People have turned their heads to look at them and say – wow! Not only that but they have won the hearts of people too. The cost of production of these films is in the range of what it should be. And then the promotions, marketing strategies are largely covered through digital and soft mediums which makes it more viable as compared to commercial cinema which has huge advertising budgets behind each film.
If you keep the content interesting then you should keep the production budget to the level the project needs, like 4-5 crores. Then if you divide and take it out in the international circuit, you find people in international territories who are looking out for such films, and you find a platform for these films as well. When you come back home and if you back it with a proper P&A budget which Drishyam does, there are exhibitors who want to show these films. Then you can expect it to release in 400-500 screens. Now one thing I am sure of with the release of Masaan and Umrika is that these films will make the independent scene very commercially viable. The scope will be enhanced. More and more audience are ready to watch these films. One should see the viewership of Masaan’s trailer to believe me, people have loved it. So it’s a big thing for such cinema. People who went and watched small budget films like Aankhon Dekhi or even Dum Laga Ke Haisha are also ready to watch Masaan. And I think that’s our audience. Once, Masaan touches the hearts of the audience, they will come back to watch Umrika after it. That’s the change. Films will bring change for themselves and other content-driven films will follow suit. So we need to be consistent. We need to be very cost-effective and we need to make world-class cinema to make it commercially viable. And it is possible.
With Masaan, Umrika and Dhanak having won awards internationally, do you think it gives a boost to Indian Indie culture?
Yes, films like Masaan and Umrika will definitely help the Indian indie culture. Umrika has already won audience awards. Even before winning an award, when we were just selected, we got an international sales agency on board. They were interested and wanted to represent us. We sold the film in 50 territories all across the world and it will get a release in 50 different countries. That boosts the image. And as we are talking, Masaan is already sold in 16-18 countries. This way, you make waves with your films in Taiwan, China, Israel, Australia and European countries. Small films are looked into critically, bought and watched by people who aren’t Indians. This helps boost the Indian film image in the world. The trend started with The Lunchbox. And then people have looked into Umrika, Masaan, Court etc. At Drishyam we not only commit for the production cost, but we also commit for release and other details. So when we make a film, we release the film as well. We are not waiting for other studio/ production houses to come on board for the releases and sales.
Drishyam Films partnered with Sundance Institute for the Drishyam | Sundance Institute Screenwriters’ Lab in India. What was the core objective of this collaboration & how does Drishyam benefit from this initiative? How will it give an impetus to Indian Cinema?
We collaborated for the same organized effort I was talking about earlier, and world-class script writing in India. We invite new, first time screenwriters. Around 100 scripts are submitted, from which we select approx 5-7 and then we conduct a 6-7 day lab. Each script is mentored by eminent national and international film professionals. Writers get a chance to go back home and redevelop their scripts. During this whole process they keep interacting with their mentors on mail, calls etc. So what happens with all these discourses is that you end up having a world-class script which is minutely studied and looked into. For e.g. Masaan is a Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab product. It was picked from there. Same is the case with Margarita, With A Straw. So the purpose is that we find out, generate and curate 5-7 beautiful scripts, every year from India. Drishyam internally makes sure that it picks 2-3 scripts out of the lot and produces them. We are already producing two films from this year’s lab. The rest is still being worked on, we are in a developing stage.
The panel of the Drishyam Sundance Lab boasts of national and international quality filmmakers who help young talents develop their scripts. What was the criteria while putting together the panel?
We have Mr. Srinivasan Narayanan heading the Screenwriters Lab from Drishyam’s side. With his experience of 30-40 years in the industry, he knows people in and around and handles it all. He along with the Sundance Lab people in America decides the panel. I don’t have a role to play in the selection. They decide with their experience, availability of people and all criteria before the panel is fixed. The invitation goes to many filmmakers, but then some are available, some are not. And it’s not necessary that the panel will be the same next year. It will change. As Mr. Narayanan says, we try to bring as much diversity as possible in the panel.
Can you share your future plans/ projects you are working on?
We are working on a couple of international projects; we have produced one Iranian film. We will start the production of an Arabic film soon. Here in India we are producing at least three projects. We already have Waiting starring Naseeruddin Shah and Kalki Koechlin ready. All is looking good for now, and I am really excited about all these projects.
Anurag Kashyap thinks you deserve a Padma Shri. Your comments.
There are many people out there who deserve it. I am happy following my passion. Films are my passion. And I have realized I have become more passionate about them in recent years.
You are also inclined towards writing and painting. Do you dream of writing a script, directing and producing it, in future?
I actually don’t know. I’m busy doing a lot of things right now. There is no inclination as such to direct. I will still prefer the ‘indirect’ roles for the next couple of years. Of course, there are some thoughts in my mind. I do have ideas for a script. But personally I really don’t have time. I have to make money outside somewhere to be able to keep doing what I am doing. So nothing in the near future.