Excel Entertainment delivered not one but two success stories in 2017. It gave us Raees in the beginning of the year, and a money-spinner in Fukrey Returns, which released recently. Here’s the co-founder of the production house, Ritesh Sidhwani, in conversation with Bhakti Mehta
Starting with Raees in January to Fukrey Returns in December, 2017 has been a really good year for Excel Entertainment.
I am on top of the world right now. It is always gratifying to see that the work you do is appreciated. Raees was a very different kind of film and it got its due appreciation. We started the year with that film. Then, for the first time, we created content for a digital platform with Inside Edge. It was new for us, with a different format, and a different audience. This risk paid off as the show turned out to be a huge success. We ended the year with a small film. Fukrey Returns is a part of a franchise that people loved but we were not expecting this kind of crazy response.
We thought the lifetime collections of the film would be what has turned out to be a week’s collections. At a time when everyone is saying it is difficult to get people into theatres and footfalls are decreasing, you don’t know if people will come to watch a film which does not have any so-called stars but is an interesting film. So, when you see people come in with their families, it is very gratifying. At the end of the day, the content is really interesting. It is a fun film, which you can enjoy with friends and family. It is a comedy, which doesn’t make you feel, like, ‘Oh, I can’t watch it with my parents’ or it doesn’t make you cringe. It’s not slapstick, its wholesome entertainment. It is really great to see how well it works with the audience.
Was there any pressure when you decided to come out with a sequel, especially after four long years?
The thing is that we get a sense of what the people want out of a particular project. When Fukrey first came out in 2013, it was a very tiny film. It had a new cast and a new director. Despite that, it got so much of love and appreciation that it collected around `37-38 crores, which was a huge challenge. And when the film started airing on television, I started getting a lot of messages on social media platforms from people who wanted to see more of all the characters – Hunny, Choocha, Bholi, Lali and Zafar. These characters grew on everyone, so we thought why not take this forward?
We then spoke to the writers and to Mrighdeep (Singh Lamba), and they came back with a script which did justice to what would happen to these characters. What would happen if Bholi came out of jail and caught hold of these guys? When we heard the narration, we were very sure there was justice being done to the characters, and the story was talking about a world that had remained the same.
These guys had got some more money but, still, they had no sophistication or class. They were still very innocent. They may have had money, they may have had the means but their world, their ambitions, their desires were still small. We picked up the story a year after we had left it, which showed Bholi coming out of jail and what she intended to do these poor Fukras.
We resonated with it, we identified with it in the narration, and we felt that our hunger for these characters was being satisfied with what we were seeing. But none of us expected a response like this.
Do you think that being a solo release helped Fukrey Returns increase its business?
Fortunately for me, I have always believed that I have a monopoly over the Friday that my movie comes out on. When Raees released, it was an altogether different genre and so was Fukrey Returns. My idea is to make the movie-going experience an event for the audience. I want to make it an event, make people reach out and pull out a thousand rupees from their pockets to watch my film. I want them to spend that money to come as a family to the multiplex because it costs so much to do this, it is expensive. So my idea along with my marketing, PR and advertising team, is to answer the question: why should people pay to watch this?
For me, it is not about competition, it is about how to make it an event so that people come out and enjoy it. Nobody wants to go into a dark theatre and get depressed. We have to make them happy even when we are making them cry. They are supposed to enjoy themselves. We have to make the audience identify with the story.
So, yes, I believe I have a monopoly; I feel nobody else has what I have. Hence there is no competition. Nobody else has Fukrey Returns. If Golmaal Again was coming out in the same week, then I would think about it because it was of a similar genre. But if there was, say, an action film releasing with Fukrey Returns, or any other film which is of a different genre than my film, it wouldn’t bother me. I think the kind of story, actors and concept we have is very different to what others have.
What prompted you to enter the digital platform?
I was inspired by watching some great series. Whether it was House of Cards, Bloodline or The Man In The High Castle. I wondered why can’t we think about original shows with content that you cannot put onto the big screen? The audience for digital content is very different. I don’t watch shows on TV and the current generation who are in their 20’s and 30s are not consuming the content on TV either. So we need to give them things that they can watch at their convenience and in their comfort zone.
This is what we kept in mind when we developed our content. It feels good to see that the content we made with Inside Edge went across to almost a hundred and ten countries and people loved it. It became one of the most watchable shows. In fact I was told by Amazon that it features among the top two or three, binge-watching shows. People have started with an episode and ended up completing the entire season at a stretch. It is wonderful that they (Amazon) have commissioned seasons two and three. It is a big thing for us and this shows that we have received a huge appreciation for our efforts. We will be shooting both seasons next year. They will take time to come out because there are a couple of months in between both of them, but we are going to shoot them together.
What are your thoughts on the growing digital consumption in India?
I feel it is definitely going to grow. Digital is growing rapidly and in a couple of years, people will watch it in their cars and on their devices. Today, when I enter a gym, people are walking on treadmills and watching shows. TVs have been built in with these apps of Amazon and Netflix, and I feel obviously there is a huge demand. Content like this can’t go into TV or theatrical because it is more episodic and it has a longer format and it is around 200-300 minutes long. It is clutter-breaking because we don’t have ads in between and we are not bound to the conventional story-telling structure like we are bound to an Act I, Act II or Act III or any kind of interval. This format is very challenging because you have to write it for a completely different medium and you write it knowing that every episode has to have a larger hook at the end of the show. I think it’s exciting and it will grow very well.
Excel, as a production house, and you as a producer, what do you look for when you decide to back a script?
I need to find an emotional connect and I need to be connected to the characters. I need to feel that their pain is my pain and their joy is my joy. Are they making me laugh or are they making me cry? I need to feel connected to them and identify with them. Can I convince a million people to relate to what I am relating to? If I cannot identify with or relate to the story, then I am not the right producer for it. We should feel very strongly connected to and identify with the story, with the characters, and with their world.
Looking beyond Excel Entertainment, how do you think 2017 has been for the industry?
Every year, we talk about this, but it is the same ratio of films that works every year, the same ratio of films that don’t work every year. But I feel that last year was a little more difficult. Also, demonetisation hit us at the end of 2016. By the time people got accustomed to it, we had already lost a couple of months in the beginning. During that time, people were not thinking about films, so demonetisation affected a lot of us, obviously. The entire economy went downhill and it took some time to come back. Till April, people were still figuring out what was going on.
We lost a few months of the year but coming back to Fukrey Returns, nobody expected it would do well, but people came to watch it. Good content will always bring in people. I can’t deny that the footfalls have dropped in cinemas but it is also becoming more and more difficult for people to go and watch movies. Earlier, it would take me 20 minutes to go to Bandra to watch a movie but the traffic between Juhu and Bandra has made it difficult, almost 45 minutes now. It is not convenient to go out.
We are under-screened and that is another problem. I think it is a two-sided thing – we have to bring prices down, and the base is to make good content. Like it happened in China almost ten years ago, we had the same screen average. In 11 to 12 years, they have opened 35,000 screens and we have opened nothing close to that. In the last 10 years, we have opened nothing as per the population. It is almost one screen to 98,000 people. Whereas China; has one screen to 48,000 people. Obviously, screens need to be increased; content needs to be made carefully and prices need to come down. Going to the cinema needs to be convenient. It should be a 15-minute drive or a 35-minute walk.
What about your future prospects? What does Excel have in store for us?
In 2018, we will start with 3 Storeys. It is a different story, tiny and beautiful, nothing preachy. It has an interesting narrative. I am quite excited about it, it is different from what we had in 2017 i.e. humour. One of our most ambitious and amazing stories is coming up, which is Gold, releasing on August 15. Then there will be Gully Boy and all our other shows that are being filmed. We have our digital stuff too in 2018.