Basking in the glorious success of Baahubali: The Conclusion, the Hindi version of which was marketed and distributed by Dharma Productions, Dharma’s CEO Apoorva Mehta in an in-depth conversation with Shweta Kulkarni, talks about how the film has not only become the biggest Indian film ever but has also inspired other filmmakers and producers to dream big. Read on
It is not only raking in money at the Indian box office but internationally too. We were expecting it to be special but not to the extent that it has worked. I think everybody is stunned at the business of the film. After so many years, you see a film with pan-India appeal. People are comparing it to a Mughal-e-Azam and Sholay in terms of just the love for the film. I think the beauty of this is that it has actually broken all the stereotypes. It’s made by a South director who nobody knows. Its lead cast is not big in Hindi cinema; they are big in the South. It did not release on a holiday; it released during the IPL. We have done very limited marketing for the film. It was just the immense faith we had in the project, in terms of seeing the first one and learning about the second one that was being made. Everything kind of fell in place. It’s amazing. I mean, every stereotype has been broken, in that sense.
What would you say were Dharma’s learnings from Baahubali?
Like I said, it breaks all stereotypes. I think the biggest learning is that if you have a beautiful story to tell and it requires a certain budget to be made, recovery is possible. I think it’s the biggest learning for everybody. It’s inspiring in more ways than one because the film allows you to dream big. At one point, we are always worried that the business of Indian films is measured by the most successful Hindi film, which obviously at this point is Dangal. But, really, this film has proved to be language-agnostic, in the sense that it’s been lapped up across cultures and in different languages, which is very very unique. It’s performing exceptionally well in Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam and Hindi. The appeal is pan-India, so the point is if you have great content and if you are dreaming about something spectacular, you can dream. There is a country that is waiting to receive something amazing.
Do you think the Indian film industry has the potential to make more Baahubalis in future, or is this a rare phenomenon?
Absolutely! I can say that all our Dharma directors are very inspired and I am sure so are other directors. When you see something that’s so successful and appreciated, you are in a way motivated and inspired to go on that path and make a film that has probably the same appeal. So, definitely, it has been inspirational and more than anything else it allows us to dream big. That’s what this film has done. It has inspired every producer and filmmaker to dream big.
That’s a big takeaway, setting aside everything else… the business and all that. The very fact that we are capable of making something that even the Western world could look up to is empowering. And we are able to dream as big as they can. The overall film business too needed something like this. Your faith is reaffirmed because you know that the business is there, you just have to put out stuff to achieve that. Of course, credit goes to the director Rajamouli, who has brought to life all those characters in such a way that it doesn’t bother you from which era they are and who are they and which actors are playing those characters, the characters are so powerful.
Of course, even the actors have done a tremendous job in bringing the characters to the big screen. Even the producers are remarkable for toiling for 5 years with this film. It’s just so inspiring to see what they have made.
Well, even before this inspiration, Dharma had managed to strike a perfect balance between contemporary and massy content in the last few years, whether in terms of collaborations, distribution or production. Moving forward, what is the vision you have for Dharma in the next few years?
This has been a watershed year for the industry, and we have released multiple films across multiple genres. It is very heartening to see that the content that we have put out has been backed by the audience and is also loved by the audience. I think that is the biggest indicator that people are now willing to accept good content and content rises above everything else, that’s very very clear. Content is king now. And as more and more people are exposed to different kinds of films, you are motivated to make different things. The youth today is exposed to various other platforms and they are willing to see something that is different but interesting, you have an audience that is more accepting, so you are charged up to deliver more.
There was a time when we were making so many remakes, I think that phase has now kind of slowed because people are realising that they need to put out original content. That is why there is so much acceptance for biopics, films based on real-life incidents; and of course, entertaining big dreams. People are looking forward to seeing something new, so it’s an exciting time because, as producers and filmmakers, you are able to experiment and put out new genres.
For example, Baahubali is a fictional, mythological film. It’s amazing. Even Kapoor & Sons broke the stereotype of family entertainers. It’s basically a dysfunctional family but that is still entertaining. People are enjoying it and are lapping up different content. That’s great as it allows you to keep experimenting and put out different stories, and that is what we plan to do in future too.
No doubt, content is king. However, if the product is not packaged and marketed well, it might not reach its target audience. What kind of strategies does Dharma believe in to make certain you connect with the right audience?
I think marketing is very critical and marketing makes a big difference to the opening of a film. But one needs to understand that the audience has become very discerning. They are able to sense what they like and what they don’t like. So you can’t fool the audience any more, so even your marketing strategies have to be true to the film. A lot of people forget that. They try and put out stuff through the trailer or promos, thinking we will put this out as it is emotional, we will put this out because that’s funny. But, eventually, the whole content has to make sense, which is why the trailer is of supreme importance to any film. Movie-goers today can smell a film. Just by looking at the trailer, they often decide whether or not they want to see the film. So the content that you put out is very critical and marketing of course adds to that effort by making it available on various platforms and amplifying the content through various mediums.
When you are not creatively involved with a film but are engaged with it on various other levels, how badly does its failure impact you personally?
It affects me tremendously. Everybody who says it doesn’t affect them is lying, because, eventually, it is your baby. At the end of the day, you have nurtured that baby, you have put it out there for the world to see, appreciate and enjoy, so its failure is bound to affect you.
Over time, we have also had our share of films that didn’t do well or exceedingly well. So you go through that phase individually also. All of us get upset, there is a certain sadness that creeps in but then you have to be resilient, get over it and carry on because that is the nature of the business and the law of averages will always kick in. There will be some films that won’t work and that’s how it will be. All you can do is try your best. But it impacts you, you get dejected. And, as you grow older and wiser, you learn to cope faster.
Of late, we have been hearing of many companies pulling the plug on their Hindi film production business. Clearly, the Hindi film industry is in a crisis of sorts. What, according to you, is the reason and what do we have to do to take the business forward?
We are seeing that footfalls are not really increasing all that rapidly. Baahubali has been a big exception, but the graph of previous years shows that footfalls have been pretty much growing at a very modest rate or there has been no growth at all, when you look at the last 4-5 years.
This stems from numerous factors. I think it stems from the fact that maybe we are not putting out enough stuff that the audiences likes. Obviously, they are rushing in to watch the stuff that they like, we have seen that with Baahubali. We have to put out stuff that appeals to audiences’ sensibilities, that’s the first step.
The second point is, if you still want to make stuff that works for you creatively or the stories that you believe in, then your budget has to reflect that. There is a saying, and we already abide by it — ‘The film never fails, the budget fails.’ You know there is an audience for every kind of film that you dream of but you have to be wise enough to understand what that audience is. You can’t make a niche film with a 100-crore budget and expect to get returns, that’s not going to happen.
You need to have that basic sense that, ‘Ok, this film is going to earn so much, so I need to make it in so much, so that I am safe and everyone else is also not losing money.’ I think that’s the most important thing and as a company we are very careful about that. We are very careful about the fact that our distributors earn money and we earn money. That’s something that Karan has learnt from his father (Yash Johar) and we have been all lucky that we could all imbibe it and carry it forward. Well, of course, there are instances when some films go wrong because they don’t work the way you want them to… But, essentially the starting point should be the budgeting and sanctioning of a project. You need to be clear that, ‘Ok this is what I am going to make, and in so and so budget and if it does this kind of business, we are still going to be okay and if it does well then, great, we all make money.’ That math has to be done correctly and that is critical.
This is the main reason lots of studios are in a difficult situation today. Very often, you buy a film at a price that makes recovery not possible. There is a reality of what the Khans can recover, there is a reality of what younger actors can recover, there is a reality of what genres work and what doesn’t work, and you have to do that math correctly before you embark on a project.
Then, at least, you are starting from a secure position. Whatever happens after that is out of your control. But you can at least make sure that you are doing everything you can to ensure that the project is successful for every stakeholder — whether your actors, your distributors, your cast, crew and producers. There are 200-300 people working on a project and you have the responsibility, and you need to ensure that you do it correctly, or at least attempt to do it correctly.
What are the future plans of Dharma Productions?
This is a very exciting time, you see lots of new genres being accepted, like Baahubali. I think you are enthused now because you can dream bigger, you can dream bolder, and there is an audience to support you. You just have to have the vision and work hard to make it come true.