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Shariq Patel, CEO of Zee Studios, talks to Padma Iyer about the production house’s plans for regional and Bollywood films and the upcoming slate

First and foremost, congratulations on The Tashkent Files.

Thank you. When Vivek (Agnihotri) showed it to us in December or January, we knew we had to be part of it. It had the potential to go somewhere. And it has exceeded all our expectations. It is very heartening to know that the third week’s figures were better than the first week’s figures. We are in the fifth-to-sixth week and the demand is still there.

What is very gratifying is that there has been demand-pull. Theatres have been asking for it and our small film has withstood the onslaught of Kalank, Avengers: Endgame and Student Of The Year 2.

Has the success of The Tashkent Files changed the kind of films that Zee Studios wants to be associated with?

Now, we have become mindful of smaller films. If they are marketed correctly, released in the right number of screens and are targeted properly, then they have the potential to do well. So, as part of our strategy, besides the biggies, we are looking at smaller films. These could be films that have already been shot or on the verge of being completed. We are cherry-picking films like that, apart from in-house development. We have signed up with four-to-five directors and there is a whole bunch of writers working on scripts for us.

Regional content and regional films have always been another USP of Zee Studios, especially in the recent past, especially Marathi. What are your plans for this space?

We are pioneers in the Marathi space. And I am happy to report that this year too we will maintain our leadership position. We have signed or are on the verge of signing five to six films. Rampaat and our first Haryanvi film, which Satishji (Kaushik) is part of, came on May 17. As a studio, we truly believe we need to be pan-India.

We started with Marathi because we had a very strong Marathi TV channel. Haryanvi is an experiment, which we are hoping will work. We are now looking at Punjabi, and the network is on the verge of launching a channel. We are hoping to replicate the success of Marathi over there. Earlier this year, we had Kala Shah Kala. We have two-to-three films that we are at advanced stages of discussions for releasing, producing, co-producing. We have various other producers and talent that we are talking with to line up the Punjabi slate for this financial year.

We have also started looking at the South seriously. As a network, we have presence in all the languages. On the film studio side, we have not been very active there. However, there is no specific reason for that, just that the South is a unique market. And as a studio, it is our strategy to not get in there just as a hit-and-miss. We want to enter that market with a foolproof plan.

There are already well-entrenched players, networks and distribution systems and producers there. So, we have started conversations and we are hopeful that they will be fruitful. We are not looking at just producing in those languages but also at releasing the Hindi dubbed versions of South films here. We are talking to some Malayalam filmmakers, as it is an easier market to get into.

In-house content has always been at the core of Zee. What is the main reason for this particular strategy? Has the approach changed in recent years?

The shift we have seen in the last couple of years is that it is not about the packaging, it is not about the project making but it is about how much effort has been put into the script. Coming from Zee, we have been basically content creators. The television space for the last 25 years has been in-house. So it has been at the core of the DNA of Zee. Ever since I joined, a year ago, we have been looking at talking to the talent itself. So we have reduced our interaction with producers, brokers. Of course, we need everyone but the idea was to engage more with creative talent. So the creative process is the engine of Zee Studios. And, of course, we have our partnerships. Like, with Dharma, we did Kesari and we have Good News with them. Then we have Pal Pal Dil Ke Paas that Sunny sir (Deol) is directing for us. So we will have these co-productions which we will partner with the right producers for the right scripts for the tent poles that all of us need.

What does the upcoming slate look like for Zee Studios?

We ended the financial year of 2019 on a bit of a high. So we delivered some of the biggest numbers in terms of a studio, between Manikarnika, Kesari, Kala Shah Kala and Anandi Gopal. In Q1, in this financial year, we had Tashkent…, then we have the Marathi film and the Haryanvi film. After that, we have Pal Pal Dil Ke Paas, which we are hoping to release in July. There are some other films that we are on the verge of signing. Then there is Good News that will happen later in the year. Overall, it is exciting times ahead. 

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