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Dharma Productions In Conversation With Team Box Office India

BOI: Can you take us through the journey of Dharma Productions?

Karan Johar (KJ): Dharma was formed with my father’s first production venture Dostana, which released in 1980. But, effectively, work on the film started in 1977. At that time, he was a production controller or manager and was actually one of the few men in the country to get front credit for being the first production controller in those days.

Back then, the terminology was ‘production manager’ or ‘controller’. Today, if you call someone a ‘controller’ or a ‘manager’, they will refuse to come on board! Nowadays, they prefer being called ‘Executive Producer’, which is exactly what my father did in Guide, Reshma Aur Shera or Hare Rama Hare Krishna and any of the films he later did with Navketan.

Later, he took a sabbatical for a few years and then turned producer. He was actually supposed to make a film with Gulzar saab and it was actually Nanu’s (Shrishti Behl-Arya) father Ramesh Behl who convinced my father to become a producer. He tried to set up projects with Gulzar saab that didn’t happen. One thing led to another and Raj Khosla, whom my father knew, and my father set up Dostana. Ironically, my mother and Amit uncle (Amitabh Bachchan) attended the same school. They were college friends, and it was a coincidence how all of them came together and Dostana happened. My father collaborated with the Hindujas, and it was the Hinduja family that named the company ‘Dharma’.

Post Dostana, my father kept making films and then I joined in with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Simultaneously, my father had an export company called Yashwant Exports, which is where he made all his money and lost all of it in the movies. Ghar girwi rakhna pada, bechna pada, flop film ke liye high-interest financer ko piase dene pade – I have seen it all! I have seen the way the old school operated.

Today, of course, things are completely different. So Dharma is a product of my father wanting to remain in the industry but somewhere also, strangely, kept carving the way for me.

BOI: You have been a prolific production house over the last decade or so. How do you manage quality control on your various projects?

KJ: We have a really clear divide at Dharma. Apoorva takes care of the administration and finances and I am purely creative. I don’t get into the financials. We can’t compare ourselves with anyone else. Internationally, we can’t draw a parallel. Effectively, we could be like a Jerry Bruckheimer as a producing firm, in the sense that some of our operations are studio-esque and some are production house-like. So we are walking the path between a studio and a production house.

However, we have control over the creative process, and with finance, I think we have trust and delegation. No, actually, instinct, trust and delegation are the three things that I have built a career on. Instinct in spotting the right kind of human resource, whether a director, actor or technicians. Delegation is once you spot them and delegate to them, then you step out. You cannot afford to be a control freak because I don’t think you can control too much creatively. We have done that effectively.

So with Vinil Mathew, who is directing Hasee Toh Phasee, we have launched 13 directorial careers and done tremendously well with first-time directors. We have never worked with an established director except on our project with Rohit Shetty, which hopefully will go on the floors next year. Actually, including myself, it’s a company built on debut directors. I allow them to create a world of their own.

Once I green-light a script, I step out and Apoorva gets into the economics. Next, we lock on a budget. Recently, we have been trying to be budget savvy because, thanks to my overindulgence, we are trying to get our act together. We have been off by 5 per cent, as opposed to 50 per cent, with my track record. Frankly, I have never been in it for the money. I am not here to fly a private jet or own a yacht in the South of France or a mansion anywhere in the world.

I am here to make movies and I love movies. That’s why I co-produced a venture like The Lunchbox. I simply wanted to do it. It wouldn’t make a difference if we don’t make a single rupee on that film because it also has multiple collaborations. But I want to put my name to a good film.

If I had to choose between making a great Hindi film and not making a single rupee out of it or making a big film which earned Rs 50 crore, I would go for the former option. That’s the ethos of the company.

BOI: Apoorva, how do you keep Karan from over-spending?

Apoorva Mehta (AM): I haven’t done any such thing.

KJ: (Laughs) Apoorva is great at policing. Without him, we would fall apart. He is really the fulcrum of the organisation. He holds all of us together. But what can he do when he is dealing with a mad man like me?

You can deal with sanity, you can’t deal with insanity. My decisions are emotional or they are absolutely non-financial. But that’s what I choose and he understands that. So he adjusts his vision according to my temperament and nature. We understand each other.

We have known each other since we were 10 years old. So, as I said, it is a very open-door policy. It is a very warm atmosphere. It’s very casual in its demeanour and its approach and yet thanks to Apoorva and his team, there is a kind of corporate approach as well. It’s just like my birth sign which is Gemini. We can be casual when we have to and formal and legal when we need to. We have a split personality.

BOI: Apoorva, can you take us through the organisation?

AM: Karan is pretty much at the helm. In terms of deciding on a project, he has great acumen, and he is great in guiding us. He understands the big picture and chooses not to get into the small picture of the finances. He guides the team through his vision and we follow his guidance. Whether marketing, production or any other vertical, he always has a solution. So, everything creative is driven by him, and I oversee everything that’s non-creative. We also have a set of people who look into other things.

BOI: How large is the team?

AM: We have 60-70 people but this includes a lot of production people. There is the regular team of marketing, finance and production, and all of them are great at what they do.

BOI: Karan, you mentioned earlier that the company has worked with a lot of first-time directors. Why do you have this penchant for debut directors?

KJ: I like people who are hungry to tell stories and hungry to achieve something. And I think you get that hunger only in new talent, whether a director or actor. They so want to prove a point in their lives and careers that it’s an emotion I completely feed off. When you bring on an established director, there is always a conflict of interest.

I am an ego freak, I know, but I don’t know whether they will take everything I say in the right context. So if there are two directors, it might get into an altogether different zone. If I were only a producer, it would be an altogether different ball game but I am also a director. So there is a dichotomy, which becomes a problem. With first-time directors, the irony is that while I can throw my weight around, I don’t because I feel it works in the reverse. Since without your intervention, they are free and on their own, and they create a product that is unique. I only step in when there is a crisis.

You will never see me step onto the sets of first-time directors. I never tell them how to shoot a scene. If I green-light a film, I never tell them how to plan the film or visualise the film. The only thing I insist on is running their music through me. I believe music is a very commercial and important point of mainstream movies and I don’t want to go wrong with that.

We have gone wrong a couple of times with that. So, I more or less keep track of the music. Sometimes, weak films can pass with great music and we have seen that in the past.

BOI: If you don’t interfere creatively, at what point do you step in?

KJ: During the edit. The final cut is again effectively with us. So, once again, I don’t push that. I believe filmmaking is a collaborative process and is an exceptionally democratic process. And that’s how I like to keep it, even with our first-time directors. I sometimes argue and fight over a scene but it’s always healthy. I encourage a film to be shown to various multitudes of demographics. We do a lot of things like testament screenings.

BOI: And focused screenings?

KJ: Yeah, we do have screenings for focused groups. We call people who are not from the film fraternity including the young lot, 16 to 20-year-olds, a family audience, a more mass audience. We didn’t do this for Kurbaan and I wish I had. But we were so late with its release and didn’t have the time for a focused screening. I realised it was a mistake. If I had, so many things would have cropped up that we could have changed structurally and improved.

When a song of ours is ready, I make the whole office listen to it, and everyone is honest about each work. We don’t have ‘yes men’. If I only had people who praised me, it would be ridiculous. I believe the only way to grow is if you acknowledge the brilliance of others, correct your own weaknesses and try and add to your strengths by getting effective feedback.

BOI: During the edit, if you’re not entirely happy with the film, what do you do?

KJ: You go into a re-edit, you do add-ons. And if all else fails, then you pray.

BOI: How do you take a call on directing a film as opposed to letting someone else helm it?

AM: He usually directs films that he writes.

KJ: Yes, and I know which films I don’t want to direct. Usually, the germ comes from me and I write my own stuff. But I also don’t hold on to anything very dramatically. Like yeh film main hi banaoonga, yeh film meri hai. Often, I have given my ideas to other directors to make into a film. Like if you like it, you do it. If you develop it and like it, then do it. I don’t hold on to anything directly.

BOI: Does it also work the other way around, where you’ve found a script that you want to direct?

KJ: No. I have never read anything which I have liked because I don’t think there’s anything like a perfect script that comes to my table. I am willing to pay anything for a watertight script. I have seen great films and directors invariably being a part of the writing. I think it’s a great thing that people are asking for copyright to be given to writers but, first, get it right!

I have never found one great screenplay that is ready to be made and shot, like internationally, where some great scripts are making the rounds and directors are dying to make it into a film. I would pay anything for such a script. I would even share a percentage of the profit with the writer. Like if someone gave me Lage Raho Munna Bhai, I would do it – 20 per cent or 50 per cent… I would pay anything to get that script.

BOI: Student Of The Year (SOTY) was different from Agneepath, which was different from Gippi. Yet they were all Dharma films. What does the banner stand for?

KJ: There is no strategy, no grand methodology, no great mind; it is absolutely up to me. I read Gippi, I liked it. I wanted to do a high-school film. Like I felt SOTY was very good for a youth connect. I wanted to go into a zone which immediately connected me to the kids. I didn’t want to go into the 20-pluses; I wanted to go into the 10-20s. I wanted them also to grow up with the Dharma brand in their minds.

I knew Karan (Malhotra) wanted to make Agneepath, and it was a film that was ours. I never just give a director a film.

I go by their strengths. Like Punit (Malhotra) and Tarun (Mansukhani) are more Dharma organic; Karan is again Dharma grade but he works beautifully in his zone. Ayan (Mukerji) has an alternative voice and yet wanted to make a Dharma Production movie in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (YJHD), whereas Wake Up Sid was not. Wake Up Sid was more in the Excel (Entertainment) zone. So I don’t mind working on any kind of film. The only genre I will not touch is horror because I personally can’t watch horror films. I tried that genre in Kaal but it was horror-ful in other ways.

I would love to do an edge-of-the seat film but I have never found a great script. Science fiction is not my thing.

BOI: Speaking of collaborations… You have worked with Balaji, Phantom and UTV. How do you balance your own productions while keeping relationships going?

KJ: The audience already knows Dharma Productions and Karan Johar. So if there are three names attached to a name, what difference does it make, as long as the film is good? Like there are 20 names on The Lunchbox but it doesn’t take away that the film is great.

There is a reason why Gippi opens to less than a crore and YJHD opens to over ` 20 crore. It’s because of the film. If it was just about the banner, then Gippi should have also done ` 20 crore. I am not retarded to think that just because it’s my banner, it will do well. They tell me my banner will get people but there is so much more to a film than just a banner. I want to attach my name to a film I believe in. Today, we have a release every month and it’s great for us. That’s my eventual aspiration… to have a release every month or two. We are already heading there.

BOI: Apoorva, how much do these collaborations help you in your financial management?

AM: Our current strength is we don’t essentially collaborate with just one partner because everyone brings something to the table. If we were to live in our own little kingdom, we would never know what other people were doing. It’s because we interacted with corporate houses like UTV and Fox and producers like Balaji that we got to know a lot about them. It’s tremendous because Balaji makes their films with a certain kind of discipline that I would like to imbibe, and Fox and UTV have a great distribution team.

It also gives you the power to talk to more people and learn from them. There are so many things these guys do and processes that they follow that we may not do. So we see them and say, ‘Maybe we can do something like this.’ I don’t think the strength is in financial planning; I think it is in management, governance, resource exploitation and marketing.

BOI: Do you feel there is still a lot you can learn?

KJ: Apart from production, we don’t have all that many verticals. We don’t have a music label, we don’t have our own distribution network. We are still understanding, still evolving. Things like, if your film releases on a national holiday, your Thursday becomes a Monday. We found that out during Agneepath, no one realised that. Everyone from the trade told me there was a drop in collections. It wasn’t a drop; it was a regular Friday, which became a Monday.

We still didn’t know this and this is 2013. Now we know that things work differently if there is a national holiday. The Friday audience went to watch the film on a Thursday and Friday become like a Monday. It’s always a learning curve. I learnt that, traditionally, October is not a great month to release a film. Unless Diwali falls in that month, it’s a very bizarre month. Films don’t work in October. April works only for certain slow-growth films. There was a time when Lagaan and Gadar released on the same date and went on to become success stories.

BOI: Bade Miyan Chote Miyan and Kuch Kuch… could release together.

KJ: Yes, they could. I have learnt something from every distributor who has worked with me.

AM: I want to add that like Karan just mentioned about film releases… Chennai Express had paid previews on Thursday and I told him it wasn’t a good idea. But he felt it was a great idea. They actually got that extra bit on a Thursday and still managed to top that in later days. So it’s an opportunity for us to learn.

KJ: It is also because your paid preview audience is very different from your Friday movie-going audience. It’s the eager beaver audience which will not come out on a Friday. They are not the Friday morning audience.

We are also behaving like a funding studio on several collaborations; sometimes we behave like a funded studio. Like on our Balaji film, they are line producing it. We have different funding formulas. On Hasee Toh Phasee, we are the funding studio. So it depends on the scale and nature of the film, where we are at financially and what kind of a partnership it is.

We don’t get into a project where I have less or equal control over the project and that I will collaborate creatively only with Ekta who I think is creatively similar. I will never work with any other studio that doesn’t have similar sensibilities. Like with Phantom. Again, the collaboration worked very organically, and this is the first time I am working with them. So it really depends on what my vibe is with them.

BOI: Apoorva, how do you stop him?

AM: Once I was at this party and he was talking to a filmmaker. And the filmmaker wanted a lot of money. I kept saying, ‘I can’t do it,’ and ‘I can’t stretch the budget’. And I see Karan at a party with this filmmaker and Karan decided to allot him some more money. I was, like, ‘What are you doing?’

KJ: Sometimes, Apoorva tells me, ‘I hope you know this is your money!’ (Laughs)

AM: Yes, I have to keep running behind him and I am made out to be this monster, which I am not.

KJ: Sometimes, I feel bad for Apoorva because he has to play the bad cop, and he has to always deliver the bad news. I am the one bringing the good news. And now we have made sure that after the budgeting is done, no one will have access to me. For me, it’s like, ‘Oh. It’s just Rs 10 lakh more.’ But every Rs 10 lakh adds up to a crore or more. And then we are over-budget. That’s why I have to make sure I am in control. I am much better at it now.

BOI: Apoorva, what has your journey with Dharma been like since you joined the company?

AM: When I came in, Karan’s father was not well. At that time, Karan was very busy directing some of the biggest stars. We all knew it would be a successful film. The scale of success would vary but we all knew it would be a successful film. But as we started producing more and more films, challenges started emerging. Then we began budgeting and we realised we could not be so lavish with all our films. Other directors cannot work like Karan because they are not Karan. They think they are like Karan but they are not. They may become like that only if they achieve success like he has.

You can’t get that kind of money and resources when you are starting out. That was a great learning experience. He has so much experience and intuition that things never go wrong.

BOI: Going forward, do you have any plans to increase the verticals of the company?

KJ: I never say never. If I say I will make only two films a year, I end up making four. If I say I will never do this, I always end up doing it. I had once said that I would never make a remake but I made one. So I never say never any more. But in terms of scaling up, I plan to do that internally, to build a strong catapult for us to take big decisions.

I need to strengthen our capital base and make it really strong. One thing I will never do – and, who knows, I might – I will never go public. That was the only thing my father told me not to do. He told me not to be answerable to anyone but myself. So, even if someone buys into our company, I will make sure I am not answerable to anyone. I am not prepared to be questioned on the costs in my company. I am not ready to do that. I am happy now, even if the downside is what it is. I am happy.

BOI: In terms of a co-production, how actively is Dharma involved in the marketing of these films?

KJ: We market our own films. I am very clear about that.

AM: Besides, most producers want Karan to market these films because that’s one of his strengths.

BOI: What is that one opportunity and one threat you think we have in our industry?

KJ: Opportunities are tremendous; the threat is we don’t make the most of those opportunities. There is a whole world waiting for us out there and we are not doing anything about it. We are not a fraternity, we are an industry, we are not together, we don’t stand together, we only come together at funerals. We are in total denial of who we are and that’s a threat. We should be building up our exhibition, yet we are fighting for screens every week. Then we go to the government to ask them to give us more cinemas. At the end of the day, it’s going to be a free ride for the multiplex guys. They will be in a win-win situation and we will find ourselves in a pretty bads situation.

We keep saying the music industry is dead, yet they make ` 10-12 crore with every film. How is it dead? They have spread rumours and we have bought into them. They also say satellite has dipped. How is that possible? There are more people watching TV today than ever before. We are on a growth path. But we will only believe what suits us. Every music composer, every music company complains of losses. Then why are they announcing movies? Obviously, I am making movies because I am making money. Similarly with satellite. Everything is on a growth path.

We don’t fight a battle; that’s why we don’t win any wars.

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