BOI: Can you share something about your technical team?
SM: I mentioned roadblocks… Just a few days before our shoot, my cinematographer, art director and costume designer pulled out of the project. Then I went back and started looking homewards. I have a set team in Bengal, so I took a cinematographer, art director and costume designer from my team. I got Rick Roy from Mumbai as a costume designer and also Shabuni Dash from Bengal. Gopi Bhagat is my cinematographer from Bengal and I also took Mridul, Sashwat, Shibaji with these guys, one was a production designer and the rest are art directors. So I essentially went back to my team in Bengal. One of the big reasons was not only that I was fighting obstacles but also the awareness of the terrain in which we were going to shoot. They were aware of the terrain and they were also aware of my working style. In Bengal, we are perpetually under resource constraints and are therefore used to turning things around on low budgets with very high efficiency and quality. And that is exactly why we could pull this off. We were shooting in peak monsoon weather. It called for that level of preparation. After you wake up in the morning, you should look at the sky and be able to decide exactly which scene you would shoot that day. The entire unit including the actors had to be prepared at least for three to four scenes.Preparation of this kind is possible only if you are totally in sync and I banked on this with the technicians.
BOI: As you just explained, there were so many issues with the weather and also key players backed out. As a producer, how stressful was this film?
VB: Before Begum Jaan, we had never done a period drama at Vishesh Films. I think Srijit is aware of this and that is why we got him on board. He was the captain of the ship and we knew he was committed emotionally and morally. That gives you a sense of confidence. Difficulties come in when you are making a film for other reasons. I think it’s part of the business to face obstacles. It is this understanding and commitment from your key players and then giving it everything from your side that makes projects like this one happen.
We have had our share of success and failures, we have been hit by roadblocks, but in every situation, whether it was the investor or the people who are behind the film, they always got the privilege of a Friday. That is why a lot of creative people like to work with us; they know we bring in all our resources so that this film becomes available to the audience on a Friday. And that commitment takes even the creative force and the actors to another level.
BOI: From the trade perspective, what is the USP of the film?
VB: Like I said, we didn’t wait when we saw his film for the first time. We obviously had a certain understanding of our own, of certain trends that we put in. But I think from the trade perspective all the so-called franchises which are now formulae films, were disruptive when they first released, they were looked upon as underdogs, and as their release date approached, they were not even mentioned as upcoming films of the year in most trade magazines. From the trade perspective, we have been very disciplined with this film. We have managed our economics very well. I think the commitment to the trade remains intact.
SM: If you ask me about the USP, it is phenomenally budgeted. I was talking to Mukeshji, who said often films do not, not work because of what they earn but it’s because of the way they are budgeted. There is a certain kind of market for all types of films and you need to understand what the market for your film is and budget it accordingly. If you look at it from that perspective, there is a method to the madness. If you understand the reach for your film, and if you work backwards and work out a budget that is less than that, then you are always in the green.
VB: You can budget a film correctly but what is your skill in the game? Whether financially or creatively, you have to have a set of skills to get the rewards you are looking for. There is nothing such as a completely safe project. In the last few years, we have seen the downfall of so called completely safe projects. And all the trade pundits had been wrong. This is a time when the audience is talking to you differently. And as makers of content, are you willing to put your neck on the line and talk to them directly and say… You know what? I am going to ignore this part of the trade. If you don’t make that journey, how will you take away any learnings from this new audience that is waking up to us?
BOI: Numbers-wise, what are your expectations?
VB: To be very honest, we do not have expectations for any of our films. When you do, you start changing the marketing because of that. You start becoming dishonest to the film while chasing that number and that number is just an illusion. Any statistics or any sampling is still a small part of the audience. If you start following certain numbers on trends, then you might not get that Friday and you will be dishonest to the audience in the way you have positioned the film. There is a constant battle when there are partners on board… about not chasing that Friday, let’s chase the reward that the audience has to give us.
SM: The moment that love comes in, it will automatically translate and before you know it, you will break even.
VB: And once you are on that journey of making a film, then you have to be… you can’t start diluting why you made this film. You have to stay totally committed and be a little strong-headed because I think when you are seeing a big match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, in the end it comes down to nerves. You have to keep your nerves intact. I don’t think looking at the scoreboard constantly does any good. Concentrate on the game.
BOI: Still, looking at the scoreboard of Vishesh Films, over these 30 years, where does Begum Jaan stand?
VB: We will see on April 14, since you are discussing the elements of the scoreboard.
SM: April 21, to be precise. The release is on April 14 and the first week will end on April 21. But that is in terms of numbers. There is more to cinema than just that.
VB: Where does Begum Jaan stand? After 30 years, it is the new seeding of content, the first seed that will be put into our next journey.
SM: No, it doesn’t. I am always up for challenges and I think it is a great film to seed a new journey with. The story is also about seeding a new journey. And we leave the film with that thought. I can’t reveal any more right now. The message is very clear… we will have to be the change that we want to see in the world.
VB: In many ways, it is representing the thought… how we are feeling in various forms today, how we are interacting with the world, how we are interacting with the content. We are being very honest with our conversation in every way. That’s the seed we are planting as our next step. I think that is the only way to go about this business. The whole world is in flux and no one knows where things are moving. I think the only thing you can do is be honest to yourself and have honest interactions with your work. I believe this will be a new journey for the trade, for the industry, of building new institutions and new relationships with people and the audiences.
BOI: What’s next?
SM: Nothing concrete right now but Vishesh Films is the kind of place that is throbbing with stories and ideas and possible projects, spinoffs… it has a life of its own. So if you are in that environment, it takes only a few hours for a project to get finanlised.
VB: When we are seeding a new journey, there are a lot of conversations, and a lot of conversations are built on certain understandings. They will be built post the release of Begum Jaan. We are not completely in the wait-and watch game. We have never been but I think Begum Jaan will be an interesting interaction at large, for us to show how we should position the next slate of content.