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High Five

The young and budding production house, Ellipsis Entertainment, already has two hits in its kitty, with Neerja and Tumhari Sulu. While preparing for their next film, Cheat India, the partners – Tanuj Garg, Atul Kasbekar, Shanti Sivaram Maini, Swati Iyer and Piya Sawhney talk to Team Box Office India about their journey with their latest movie and their ethos as a team

Box Office India (BOI): A huge welcome to the team of Ellipsis Entertainment.

Tanuj Garg (TG): A big thank you to Box Office India for having us here. We are the very proud and happy partners of Ellipsis Entertainment, which is a young and new production house in the business. Everyone says they are different, but we are genuinely different, and you will find out why in the course of the conversation. We are, perhaps, the only production house with five partners, which is a great number. It means more creativity and more creative minds are involved. We are also more business savvy.

Atul Kasbekar (AK): We have more options at lunch time (Laughs)!

TG: The credit for our first film Neerja largely goes to all four of them here. It is their brainchild. Somewhere during the course of the film being made, we decided to join forces and set up an independent production company.

Tumhari Sulu followed Neerja. We are very happy that both films produced by the team have been box office hits. They have also been clutter-breaking. They both represented two very unique genres. It is a coincidence that both are female-driven films. We are very proud of that but that does not mean that as a company, we will only produce female-driven films. It is a question we are often asked.

We want to do films of all shapes and sizes. In fact, our third film is male-driven. That should bust a lot of myths. We hope to continue creating more sensible, clutter-breaking and educated cinema, within the commercial realm. We are not claiming to be art house or alternative. We only want to make commercial films with alternative sensibilities. That’s the focus.

Importantly enough, deep beneath the veneer of entertainment, we want a subtle takeaway for every film. It does not have be a loud, preachy and solemnising sort of takeaway but something you chuckle at, take home and are happy about.

AK: Ellipsis is the set of three dots that people use when writing. ‘To be continued’ is really what ellipses are all about. That is where the name came from. We were talking about making content-driven films and content being king… these seem to be buzz words today. When we think of making a movie, we think in terms of the written word first. If it is exciting at the script level, that is the only reason we take it further. There is a certain process we use.

After we are happy about what is written, we look at it from a directorial point of view. When the director is happy, the last thing we do is talk to talent, because the talent comes in right at the end as far as we are concerned. Even if we say so, it required a fair amount of guts to launch someone like Jim Sarbh in Neerja. Everybody thought we were deranged to give Manav Kaul a leading role with Vidya Balan in Tumhari Sulu. Our belief is that if the subject is strong enough, people will come to theatres and buy tickets and watch the film. 

Our logo greatly respects writers who come together and inspire you to put visuals to words. In my head, at least, I would like to think of us, Ellipsis as ‘entertain’, ‘enlighten’ and ‘energise’. I ask these questions to myself every time something is written. First, it has to entertain. We are not trying to make a movie that 2,000 people will watch and say that it is amazing. 

Today, the nice thing is, lots of interesting films are making money. The boxes to tick would be: first, it is an entertaining film; second, it makes money, which is the most important thing, and we greatly respect whoever is putting in the capital; and third, it is a film we are proud of and it gets critical acclaim, gets appreciated and brings awards. So far, we have managed to tick all the boxes with two films. We hope this continues with all our films.

BOI: Are there any elements that you consciously look at where you want to improve? Is there any pressure to do better than you did before?

AK: Both Neerja and Tumhari Sulu were under-budget. This is a term that has been very rarely used in our industry. We go out of our way to demonstrate that we take great care of someone else’s money in making a motion picture. First of all, it has to turn you on at the script level. The second stage necessarily needs to be that it is a viable proposition to at least be a zero-sum game, if not render a profit. You can have a flight of fantasies that might require 80-90 crore as the cost of production. Then it might turn out that you cannot put it together.

TG: That is, at a commercial level. At the script level, we are looking for genres that are compelling enough to draw the audience into theatres. For example, Neerja was a hijack film. It is a genre that has not been attempted for a very long time in cinema. Therefore, Neerja happened. When Tumhari Sulu was born, it was a very happy, slice-of-life, Hrishikesh Mukherjee-esque genre, which was also relatively under-tried in the industry. Nobody had really done it in a long time. 

AK: All those who are blessed enough to see Suresh Triveni’s narration… he was mental and that was great fun. He brought the film to life. He had these music pieces and he would play background scores when he would narrate certain sections. He had songs worked out. We knew this guy knew what he was going to do and the film came alive in front of us. It was like Hrishikesh revisited 2.0.

TG: This is also the case with Cheat India, which is our next film. The education genre, essentially, has a huge youth connect. The youth, today, forms a chunk of the movie-going audience. Education is a burning issue in India right now. We read about education scams and education-related sagas practically every day in the newspapers. Of course, a lot of films have been attempted on the education system in the past, like 3 Idiots, Chalk And Duster and Aarakshan. But I don’t think we really have a film that talks about the real crimes that take place in the Indian education system. That is what really drew us to the subject when Soumik (Sen) gave us a one-liner a year back.

We consciously worked on it and we developed it. We were not very happy with the initial draft. We reworked it. It has been almost 8 months since we started working on the script of Cheat India. As Atul said, it is important that we live in an era where scripts should not be chasing actors, but actors should be chasing scripts. I have to be honest and say that Emraan (Hashmi) heard about the script and then he happened to meet Soumik somewhere, and he told him about the script.

Emraan said he wanted to do it. He asked why we had not spoken to him earlier. That is how it happened. He wanted to produce it, and Cheat India happens to be his first home production with Ellipses and T-Series.

BOI: What is the process of green-lighting a project?

Shanti Sivaram Maini (SSM): Each of us has different sensibilities, which is why it is great to have five partners. We all get scripts and we meet writers, day in and out. We read a lot of stuff. If we like something, we bring it into the circle. For green-lighting something internally, we all have to like it. We are very critical of each other as well. Luckily, we are all very secure. Hence, we can agree to disagree and it is taken in a very positive manner as a team. If we absolutely love it, we internally green-light it. Then we look for a director. Thereafter, we look for the actor.

AK: One of us in this group watches films only to see if the protagonist has a six pack, is ideally Punjabi and very fair (Laughs).

TG: I watch films with a tiny budget so that it is commercially viable.

AK: Tanuj has more knowledge than most people I know about the nuts and bolts of production. So he is fully immersed in the commercial aspect. When directors come in, they don’t give a damn about the commerce; they are only interested in the art. I have to be the bridge between art and commerce. I manage to sit at both tables and get whacked on each side (Laughs). That is fun.

Swati Iyer (SI): Another thing we look for any script is… does it excite us, do we keep thinking about it? Will you buy a ticket? Sometimes when we hear a story we also take a day to just think about it and see whether it stays with us till the next day. Are we curious about the movie? Then we are suddenly discussing that we should definitely do it. Sometimes it takes time for you to absorb it. And if it excites all of us, then we are definitely on it.

AK: Oddly, our next script is again with a debut director. She narrated a script that we thought had potential, and after the third narration of the script, she said ‘by the way I have something else, I thought I should sound you out.’ She did and all of us were, like, this is the one! Let’s make this one. It’s almost ready and we should hopefully be on floors by February. But when we did the first film, everybody said, what is your next biopic?

SSM: Oh yes! We got so many scripts of biopics.

AK: Then we did the next one they said, ‘what is your next female-oriented film?’ So I was like whatever happens we have to do the male-oriented film. (Laughs).

BOI: Speaking of strength, this year specially has seen a lot of movies that have worked and which did not follow a trend. When one kind of movie works, there is a barrage of similar movies. But this year has broken these trends by delivering different kinds of films. Why do you think this shift has taken place now?

TG: I think what has happened in the last couple of years is that the youth has become the largest portion of our movie-going audience. Thankfully, today’s youth is extremely exposed to Western cinema, to art-house cinema. They are very well-read and very well-informed. There is a lot of digital media that is being consumed, so I think the audience has become increasingly receptive to new forms and formats of cinema.

There was a time when if a comedy worked, five producers would jump onto the comedy bandwagon and list five comedies. That’s not the case any more. Today, a comedy works one week, a thriller works in the second week and a biopic works in the third week, which I think is symbolic of the fact that the audience has grown, they have become far more educated and receptive than they were earlier.

They have also become very story-conscious. When we interact with people who are not from our industry, when we informally ask them what they are watching, what they like, what they want to consume, not surprisingly they say we want to watch a film whose trailer communicates the promise of a good story. If the story at the thematic level is compelling enough, then they want to give it a shot. But if the movie ends up seeming mundane or routine or repetitive and stale, I think that’s not in vogue any more. Unless it’s driven by one or two of the top stars and is kind of ‘box office proof’.

BOI: Today, we have seen many production houses venturing into the digital space. Do you have any plans to follow suit?

AK: For sure, yes, there are two-three things in the pipeline that we are trying to develop.

TG: Also because the digital space is so relatively new in India, there are a lot of platforms out in the market that are trying to find their bearings. A lot of platforms right now are also trying to research their audience and their tastes. Right now, I think there is not enough clarity in terms of creativity, in terms of what every platform wants. Everyone is sort of taking a bit of a blind step, to see where their audience lies and what’s getting them hits and then chalking out their creative path accordingly.

The one thing we hear all the time from web platforms is ‘give us something that is not for TV’. Now that’s a pretty wide brief. It means give us something that is not ‘sanitised’ or give us something that has sex, which has action and which has swear words and just really cutting-edge in the true sense of the phrase.  Everyone is gambling with that, so if you see some of the stuff that has come out recently, it’s pretty much all of that. But is that the only stuff that the web audience wants? 

Also, I think nobody is conscious of the fact that you are doing a web series with 10 episodes, approximately 30 minutes per episode, it’s almost equivalent to making two and a half movies, which is extremely time consuming. It’s a huge commitment. We also wanted to be sure we don’t take up something at the expense of our movies. So we would rather focus on doing one big web show a year or every 18 months, which justifies our time and effort rather than wiping three films off our slate because everybody else is jumping onto the web bandwagon.

We are in it, we are developing stuff, we’ll look at the market closely and we are going with the flow.    

BOI: Coming back to films, when a film is a hit, producers tend to make multiple films after that. You have given two hits, your upcoming is Cheat India, which is releasing next year, and you also said you will be making another announcement soon. Why is the process so slow for you?

AK: We have our hands on everything. We would like to have a slate of say five releases over a period of two years. This means that at some point something is in production, something is in promotion, something is in development, etc. Also it is very important to set a certain benchmark in our reputation. We made Neerja and everybody said maybe it was a fluke. For the second one (Tumhari Sulu), it is again a debut director but with a completely different genre of story, different studio, different acting talent, completely different HODs and everybody on board except the sound guy. Now everybody said, okay it wasn’t a fluke. It is really very important that we solidify a certain base and reputation.

TG: The other important thing is the mentality within the industry, maybe a small section, appears to be let’s make a film like a mass production factory, where you sort of enter one, exit and move into the next one. I think it’s important for us to be present across every point in the value chain of filmmaking.

Right from pre-production to production to marketing to distribution, honestly not that we interfere beyond a point in marketing and distribution but we definitely are involved in everything and add value. Therefore those three or four months go into planning the marketing and distribution campaign when may be others would be planning their next film. But we would rather give those three or four months into aggressively marketing the film because eventually that’s what makes your film stand out in a crowd.

We sort of like to work very collaboratively with our studio partners on everything on the marketing front. Our partners don’t merely look at us as content producers, they look at us as people who will not only produce good content but also be able to add marketing muscle.

AK: For example, for a female-oriented film, Tumhari Sulu, we had 11 brands collaborating with us, which is unheard of. Of these, seven were in-film, which is pretty incredible.

SI: I want to add that the gestation time for a script is quite long. Even if we like a subject, the kind and number of alterations we do on the script is ridiculous. Our average time per script is eight months to a year, unless it’s come at a stage where it is almost ready, when we live with it. Sometimes we work with a one-pager and make it a whole screenplay. All of us are always available to spend a lot of time with the writers, directors, and actually work through the whole process. Because like Atul said earlier, even our logo talks about how the word is the most important thing. So the script remains primary.

BOI: The regional sector is booming right now and many production houses are venturing into that space. Do you have similar plans?

AK: We will do a Marathi movie for sure. And that will happen soon. Basically, there is a lot of pressure on me because I am Maharashtrian. On social media, I get a lot of messages where people are asking me when I am going to do a Marathi movie.

TG: He’s Maharashtrian, Shanti and Swati are Tamilians and Piya and I are half-Punjabis. So, we are going to cover a lot of regional cinema space.

AK: But, in my opinion, the most evolved cinema, on the script level, is the Marathi movie industry, without a doubt. It is outstanding. The kind of subjects they pick up are amazing and especially when these films become commercial successes. It is unbelievable that there is an audience out there who will pay and watch a movie like this today.

It is very gratifying and I think therein lies the challenge because when you see Marathi cinema, it is not like it is a compromise. It is very good at the script level, the technical level, and the performances are first rate. It is very challenging to pull off something like that. We are in the process of working on one Marathi film right now which Swati is spearheading.

TG: Having said that, very often, we are asked about why we don’t do movies in the South film industry. I just want to say that there are enough people, and more, in that market who are doing extremely well. There are established production houses that have been making movies for 20-30 years. We don’t want to get into a market just for the sake of it. There are many stalwarts in those industries that are doing a commendable job. It’s not like we are saying ‘no’ to it; it’s just that Marathi is close to home and close to us.

AK: Really… why don’t you say something in Marathi then?

Piya Sawhney (PS): Tanuj, you have to say something.

TG: Well, we live in Mumbai… that is the closest we get to Marathi (Laughs). Also, I might sound a little biased when I say this but I think of all the regional industries, Marathi is the most evolved and educated one. So, I think it is the closest to sensibilities and ethos.

BOI: Your original content has been lauded by the audience but as filmmakers, where do you stand on sequels/franchises? Do we see a sequel to Tumhari Sulu in the pipeline?

TG: About five or six years back, there was a spate of sequels and none of them worked. I have actually been a part of two sequels that didn’t do very well or as well as anticipated. Those were times when people thought that sequels were a readymade formula for success. People would blindly come to watch a sequel because the original was a hit.

But a lot of myths were busted because people realised that a sequel doesn’t necessarily have to be a good film. There was this entire period between 2009 and 2014-2015 where a bundle of sequels came out and except for a couple of them, none worked.

What happened was that, at that time, filmmakers were taking the audience for granted.

But, yes, having a brand definitely helps, it adds value to the film, there is no doubt about that. That is something we consciously look at when we identify a script. Not that it is a criterion but we do see if it has franchise potential or a sequel value. That could be one of the many criteria that we look at but it is definitely not the deciding criterion.

SI: Also, the story has to lend itself naturally to a sequel or a prequel.

TG: The other thing is that people don’t understand the difference between a sequel and an instalment. A sequel is very different from an addition of an instalment. A sequel, true to its literal meaning, has to be the continuation of a story in the second film, whereas an instalment is using the same and building a different story around the following parts.

I think making an instalment is relatively easier than making a sequel. Very often people ask us whether we will do a sequel to Tumhari Sulu. We discussed that and concluded that a sequel for Tumhari Sulu would not be possible but maybe we can take it forward as an instalment.

AK: Yes, we would like to work on it.

BOI: Being a well-known banner, what is something that other upcoming filmmakers can learn from you?

AK: You’ll have to ask them (Laughs). But, honestly, what we do is that we put blinkers on, are least bothered about what anyone else is doing, and focus on what we are doing.

PS: We have a lot to learn ourselves. We are very young.

AK: In the first film we made with Ram (Madhavani), we learnt that everybody is a pundit. When someone gives some advice and you look at their track record, it will not be unblemished. It is not 100 per cent perfect. So, Ram and I decided over many drinks and conversations that we would make our own mistakes. For Tumhari Sulu too, we did the same thing. You have to follow your gut and self-belief.

TG: I think ‘gut’ is the operative word here. What I have learned in all these years, working on various assignments, is that you can try applying as much science as you want to apply, but eventually, this is a creative business. This is a business driven by passion. You have to follow your inner voice and instincts. Not every day is going to be a Sunday. It’s not that we won’t have a bad Friday and we are completely prepared for that. But you have to follow your inner voice.

AK: In Tumhari Sulu, the problem that one is really addressing is the modern, urban marriage which is a dual-income scenario. The husband will come home and say, where is my dinner? But what he needs to understand is that she has worked as hard as he has. Are you contributing to that process? It’s a discussion, a fight, a process that the evolution of the modern, urban marriage is going through. We thought it would be interesting to address this. We felt that it would be relatable to a lot of people. The women in the room are already smiling, so I suppose we did strike a chord.

TG: I want to add – and I think it is extremely crucial to all of us – that the directors we work with, Ram in Neerja, Suresh Triveni in Tumhari Sulu and now Soumik Sen, who is just one film old, in Cheat India, shows that we don’t necessarily fall into the trap of getting directors who have done 10 or 20 films. While that is great and it is a fabulous body of experience that one can have, what is important is to find tomorrow’s big directors.

It is important to be a magnet for talent. It is important to pick up directors from the world of advertising and other such fields to launch them. I think that also builds loyalty.

And, yes, the director should be hungry and passionate about telling a good story. If we are convinced about that as a team, we are quite happy with our choice of directors, whether they have done a film 5 years back or 10 years back, not directed a film for 20 years, it doesn’t matter.

AK: One thing that is important to us in the directorial choice is that the person has spent the Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule working on their craft. We want them to really know their craft. And I mean this with no disrespect but a lot of people in the industry do not know the craft or the engineering of making a movie. 

For a film like Neerja, we had a star who did not have a track record of giving solo hits, everybody knows that the girl dies in the end, so a section of the audience will say that it is depressing, there is no song per se to promote the film and there is no love interest. We calculated that it would take a Rs 21-crore budget but we didn’t have Rs 21 crore. We brought it down to Rs 16 crore and told Ram that we had 32 days to shoot it. This included making a 747 jumbo aircraft for the shoot, which cost us Rs 5 crore.

Ram calculated that we had 32 days, and he re-crafted the schedule to make the film without compromise. It was the same thing with Suresh Triveni. He is technically brilliant and knows his craft. Hence, for Tumhari Sulu, with all the issues, he retrofitted it to make the film on a schedule and budget without compromise. No director would turn around and say that if I had Rs 1 crore more, I could make a better film.

We spent the money that was needed to make the movie the best it could be. And that’s been our attempt all along, to make sure that the man behind the camera and whose name comes last in the credits, is given all the support and we trust his or her ability at the technical level.

SI: We are very a young banner. We are in the process of in fact being keen students of cinema so it’s a little presumptuous to assume what other people will learn from us.

BOI: Lastly, a few years down the line, how would you want the audience to recognise Ellipsis Entertainment?

AK: I would like to think that if there comes a time when people see that we, Ellipsis Entertainment, have produced a film, that should be reason enough for them to go watch a film. If we manage to do that, we would have achieved something. Two or three production houses in India have that kind of reputation. And in a dream scenario, it should be irrelevant who the actors and directors are… then we would have done something. 

SI: A few years down the line we would like Ellipsis to be seen as a production house that is synonymous with commercially successful quality cinema which is entertaining and high- content. If we can get people keen to watch a motion picture only thanks to some gravitas the banner brings we would’ve achieved something. We certainly aspire to bring a certain level of storytelling and freshness to everything we do.

 

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