John Abraham (JA): Jism was our first film. We bonded over a game of chess. I think I defeated him the first time and he refused to give up till he beat me. So we became friends over a game of chess and that pretty much remained the philosophy for the rest of the time we have spent together. After 10 years, we have come full circle, where we treat our lives like a game of chess. We say. ‘Let’s think five moves ahead, be ready to be checkmated, be ready to face failure in the form of risks.’ And those risks have been paid back in the form of Vicky Donor and Madras Cafe.
Sheel Kumar (SK): I too was new at the time and was learning to make films. We didn’t have a plan for production or our association. We simply wanted to make new-concept films like Jism. Vicky Donor, in its own way, was a new genre which we set out to experiment.
JA: Bhatt saab (Mahesh Bhatt) told us during Jism that if people accept the film, then they would be ready to accept what is happening in society today. If they don’t accept Jism, then we are ahead of our time. Fortunately for us, people accepted Jism and it became a trend-setter in its own way. After that, both of us kept in touch.
SK: We did Paap together after that.
JA: Yes, we did Paap together and we kept in touch because I always wanted to produce but we didn’t know when things would materialise. Then, one day, we decided to produce films together since I am an actor and Sheel had hands-on experience of being a producer. It seemed like a win-win situation. I am glad he is my partner because I don’t think there is anyone else in the industry who knows how to control costs and deliver a quality product while also making the canvas look large. A case in point is Madras Cafe. The film looks so vast that it looks like a Rs 50-crore film. But we know how we made it.
Also, I believe the most important thing is trust and we trust each other completely. Sheel has a stronger commercial mind than I do. So of the six or seven films I have made, only one of them has failed, I, Me Aur Main.
He asked me just one question when I picked up that film – why I was doing it. He understands commercial cinema. I am very passionate about films like No Smoking, Kabul Express and others in that space. So between the two of us, we try and marry content and commerce. Madras Cafe is actually Shoojit’s brainchild with me seven years ago.
BOI: Seven years ago?
JA: Yes, seven years ago. Madras Cafe was supposed to be our first production. And Shoojit said, ‘John let’s give it some more time, let the script mature.’ I agreed. But I was adamant about doing the film. Then Sheel and I got together and Vicky Donor happened. We got back to Madras Cafe and began discussing how we could make a film that was so content-driven, how to make it at least a little commercial.
SK: I would like to add that Shoojit Sircar’s team, Ronnie and everyone were a great help. They understood the same language that we spoke. Rising Sun Films also functions exactly like we do.
BOI: Why did the film take so long to materialise?
SK: We approved the film a long time ago but the market was not ready for it then. It was also in several stages of development, and when we were about to start work on the film, Vicky Donor happened.
JA: I wanted to give the audience the cinema I believed in. But I wanted to marry it with commerce. What is commerce? Commerce is a commercial film, simple. So the first thing we discussed about Madras Cafe was how we could control the costs. Second, we made sure the political drama element aligned with the thriller element. So, even if the young audience could not exactly relate to what happened on May 21, 1991, they would still look at this film as a grey, political thriller.
Although Shoojit (Sircar) and I had concerns about how the young audience would relate to an event they did not really live through, we were stunned to see how they lapped up the film. This experience has taught me to never take the audience for granted or underestimate them.
SK: The audience has matured. We need not worry any more whether they understand these films or not. They are ready to accept a good story, regardless.
BOI: Is it a good idea to team up with a friend, since making movies also means dealing with money, and sometimes that could be tricky.
JA: Sheel and I associated with each other when I was an actor and he was a producer. So the association started on the right note because I knew his skill sets, I knew everything about him and I liked his honesty and I trust him blindly. He negotiates money for me and he finalises and discusses budgets. The give-and-take relationship we share is amazing and it has been there for so many years.
SK: We are very clear about what each one of us has to do.
JA: I think a lot of problems arise when people are selfish. Fortunately, Sheel and I understand each other. Sheel would sometimes say, ‘John, tu yeh le le,’ and I am, like, ‘Sheel, tu yeh le le.’ We both want to do that extra bit and that’s the kind of relationship that we have.
BOI: As a producer, why did you cast newcomers in both your projects?
JA: Most actors come with a lot of baggage. And, for Madras Cafe, the only actor who came with baggage was me. I had to lose all that and gel with a new cast. When you have a new cast and when the casting is right, as it was in Vicky Donor (the mother was new, the daughter was new, Yami’s father was new), 90 per cent of the battle is won. Anna Bhaskaran in Madras Cafe was the best casting we did.
I think casting was the most difficult part. If we had used established actors in those roles in the film, the audience would have been imagining him or her in five other roles they have done! Also, newcomers absorb instructions like a sponge. As for me, I had to deconstruct myself. I don’t know if people noticed this but I was told that there is a certain look that a RAW agent has; the way he walks and sits. So my body language was not typical in the film.
So we will always look for new faces. If Ayushmann (Khurrana), Yami (Gautam)and Rashi (Khanna) have made their debut to the industry, there will be ten more newcomers keen on doing our next two or three films.
JA: If that was our approach, I don’t think Ayushmann would have done a Nautanki Saala!. We don’t believe in keeping people bound to us. If we did that, they would let it would go to their head. Hai na, Sheel babu?
SK: Yes! (Laughs)
JA: After one film, they go mad. So we let them go mad, and after they are back on the ground, we let them back in.
BOI: Did your first film go to your head?
JA: No, never.
SK: I can vouch for that. He has not changed one bit.
BOI: Sheel, Madras Cafe and Vicky Donor were made to satisfy John’s creative appetite. Did you believe these films would be profitable?
SK: Every decision is tough, and both Vicky Donor and Madras Cafe were difficult decisions. I was a little reluctant to do Madras Cafe and we had several discussions. I told you how it’s a fair game between John and me.
Our next project is Banana and we keep looking for the right kinds of scripts. We also decide on budgets together. John has worked with thousands of producers and that’s an advantage. It’s a give and take.
JA: Perhaps. But at the time, UTV backed out. I was too new and they didn’t have faith in the film. I think our way of repaying Imitaz was to sign his brother Sajid. (Smiles)
Imtiaz is like family to me and we are working with Sajid on two films. We are also working with Imtiaz’s cousin Arif. I am sure, one day, Imtiaz will seize the bait too. We are not opportunists, definitely not with Imtiaz. He is like family.
SK: He is very talented.
JA: We call him Imtiaz ka baap! (Laughs)
SK: When we find a subject in common, we will work together.
BOI: You have signed him for Banana?
JA: Yes, and at the risk of sounding presumptuous, Banana wil be another Vicky Donor.
SK: The best part about Banana is the oldest cast member is 17 years old. It is a completely new concept.
JA: And the older generation will watch it because it will bring back memories.
BOI: You just talked about how a production house backed out of a project that featured you. Was launching your own production house, sort of, a message to them?
JA: If there’s one thing I have learnt from the industry it is that everyone is an opportunist. A very veteran producer always says, ‘Sab actor kabootar hote hai.’ So I guess a studio has to justify its budgets and minimise its risks. That’s where producers like us come in, and say, let’s drive content and let us take the risk. As for actors being like a kabootar when they don’t see a profit in any project, woh bhi udd jaate hain.
SK: We have not taken the route where chaar gaane daal do…
JA: (Cuts In) Ek kabootar ko daal do aur picture hit hai. We don’t function like that. If we make a proposal, you will get an opening and studios are very excited about that kind of model. We have had some good experiences with certain studios, like Viacom18. So according to Sheel and me, some studios are very myopic and they only target a certain distance.
SK: I think, the point we are trying to make is that money is not our sole objective in making films.
SK: Yes, as an actor, he has plenty of opportunities and there’s no risk factor involved. It’s all about making more and more money. But we are all coming from the same place, which is a passion to make films, much like producers who used to use their own money to make films.
JA: I think studios now trust us with their money as they know it is well spent and that it doesn’t go into our own pockets. Sometimes, we spend more than the funds we receive from studios. That happened with both our films.
SK: We did that with Vicky Donor and Madras Cafe as well.
JA: And we have no problem with that. Our greatest advantage is the studios know they are dealing with honest people. When Vicky Donor worked, a lot of people said it was a fluke but when Madras Cafe worked, people were impressed. People would have expected a Vicky Donor 2 from us but we chose a Madras Cafe, which was diametrically opposite to that film. When that worked, everyone was, like, wait a second… they mean business.
BOI: So it was a strategic decision to do Madras Cafe after Vicky Donor?
JA: Strategic decision on whose part?
BOI: To prove to studios that you guys could take risks.
JA: No, we just liked the subject and we took the plunge.
SK: Now we are doing Hamara Bajaj too. So, as John said, Madras Cafe was seven years ago and there were a lot of changes in the script.
JA: By the way, Shoojit’s team Rising Sun Films, and my team JA Entertainment, are already starting our research for films 18 months to two years down the line. Imagine the kind of research that is going into each film. So if you ask us what our USP is, as a team and as a production house, I would say it is our focus on content. We think, let’s go back to basics and let’s forget there are A-list actors; let’s go back and create content. If an A-lister suits the casting, we will cast them; if a newcomer fits the bill, will cast them. And we also want to give newcomers a break.
SK: That’s why our first production was with newcomers and we didn’t cast John in it.
JA: It’s ironic, really. When I was dying for appreciation as an actor, I didn’t get it. It came gradually with New York, Force and Shootout At Wadala. But with Madras Cafe, I was so involved as a producer that I forgot that I was also an actor in it. The acknowledgement I have now received as an actor came as a shock to me.
BOI: Did it hurt a lot?
JA: Heath Ledger, who played the Joker in Batman, died before he won the Academy Award for Actor In A Negative Role. When his parents accepted the award on his behalf, his father said a very interesting thing. He said, ‘Heath would have been very happy today to accept this as he was dying to be accepted by all of you.’ You want the trade to accept you because you are part of the community. I wanted the trade to accept me first, hold me, embrace me… But I never got this from my own people. I was pushed away by my own family and I felt like a stepchild. So, today, I am proud that I am part of this industry. Mr Bachchan recently complimented me on Madras Cafe, saying, ‘Hey, what a good film!’ That was a huge compliment for me. It makes me feel complete.
BOI: You went all out to promote Vicky Donor. But with Madras Cafe, we saw barely any promotions. Is that because you already had faith in the content?
JA: There was no point spending money on Madras Cafe initially. We knew the film was based on the Rajiv Gandhi assassination; we knew Rajiv Gandhi’s birthday is on August 20; we knew the film was releasing on August 23. So we focused on marketing our film in that one week. There was no point in dancing in a Delhi mall four weeks in advance to promote Madras Cafe. We would have lost credibility.
It was very important that people knew it was an intelligent film and we needed to be sensible about it. So we didn’t see any sense in spending a whole lot on marketing this film. Shockingly, our P&A budget for Madras Cafe was half of what is usually spent on a film.
BOI: You showed faith in Shoojit Sircar despite the fact that his first film did only above-average business and his second film was not releasing.
JA: (Cuts in) Not many people know that I went to LA for his film (Shoebite) even though the studio heads were not allowing it to release. Although I had no commercial interest in the film, I saw his passion for filmmaking. So I approached Fox and requested them to release his film. But there were some issues between Fox and the studio which had funded the film. So Shoojit and I decided to make Vicky Donor, to deliver his second ‘baby’.
BOI: As a production house, what plans do you have to scale up?
JA: We have made only two films so far and I believe we are allowed to make mistakes. Fortunately, we haven’t made any to date. Our plan is to create content for the next seven years at least. I don’t think we have any high-flying dreams to hire staff and expand a whole lot. We have three people right now, to handle pre-production, production and post-production. And the five of us are managing fine.
The only area where we want to scale up is quality of content. So, hopefully, our next release will be even better than Madras Cafe. When we released Madras Cafe, we had the pressure to live up to Vicky Donor. Now we have two films that have set a benchmark for us.
BOI: They say ‘whatever happens, happens for the best’. You wanted to turn producer for a long time and now that you have, you can make the kind of films you have always wanted to make. Do you think it’s a blessing in disguise?
JA: The blessing is we are working together. I am blessed with Sheel as partner. As you said, the timing is right and we are making the kind of films we believe in. Everything has fallen into place beautifully. The biggest blessing is our audience. Since I have a non-filmy background, I have always looked to my audience. After both our films, they have walked out of the auditorium, saying ‘Kuch alag dikha yaar, kuch naya kar.’ They are superb, intelligent, smart and support good films. The audience is king!
BOI: Sheel, John did Madras Cafe under JA Entertainment but he acted in commercial films like Shootout At Wadala outside the banner. Was it your advice that he do out-an-out commercial cinema outside his banner and meaningful-commercial cinema under his banner?
SB: (Laughs) Nothing like that. The term ‘commercial’ is open to interpretation. As an actor, he should find his own feet. As a production house, we are doing our job, and whenever we need John, we approach him.
JA: But I always run all my films by Sheel. Whenever I am approached for a film, I ask him, ‘Sheel babu, yeh aaya hai. Karu kya?’
SB: I go through that.
JA: Then he says, ‘Tu yeh kar, yeh chalegi.’ Or, ‘Yeh mat kar, yeh shayad theek nahin hai.’
SB: We are having a buffet of stuff like that. But I don’t force him to do anything; he chooses his own scripts. I believe he should do different genres.
JA: Our next home production is with Nishikant Kamat and it’s an action film with intensity and emotion. However, our decisions are never made on the basis of what I am doing or have been doing. Jo hamein achcha lagta hai, we do that. It’s mutual.
BOI: After working with Eros on Vicky Donor, you’re working with Viacom18 now. Why aren’t you working with other corporate studios?
JA: Yes, we are doing two films with Viacom18 now. And we are open to other partners for our next bouquet of films. After we are certain of our content, then we can approach others.
SK: We will approach studios only after we are ready with our content.
JA: We are completely self-sustaining. We don’t go to them and say, ‘Let’s do three or four films and make some money.’ We approach people only after our pre-production is complete.
BOI: Don’t you allow any ‘interference’ and inputs from your partners?
SK: If they come to us, they should have faith in us. We will give them the final copy.
BOI: How do you decide with which corporate studio you would like to make a film?
JA: That’s a decision collectively taken by Rising Sun Films and JA Entertainment as we are doing about seven or eight more films together. Fortunately, we have corporates approaching us. We also look at their marketing team; whether they are honest in their approach and vision, etc. We have been taken for a ride before so we have to make sure of a lot of things before we actually commit. We have had a good experience for both our films with Eros and with Viacom18 for Hamara Bajaj. After that, we will look at other studios for collaborations.
BOI: John, in future, will we see you more as a producer or an actor?
SK: (Cuts in) Producer.
JA: I think a mix of both but I will devote more time to production as I enjoy the process.
JA: I think as a producer, you own the film and as an actor, you’re just part of a film. As an actor, you’re just a means to an end but as a producer, you’re the end in itself. I like the idea of controlling the project and the product.
SK: He really enjoys being in the office. He comes in before me and leaves after me.
JA: We are a team of just four or five and it’s fun working together. I also love our office, which recently won the award for Best Commercial Space by the Indian Institute of Architecture Design. We enjoy sipping chaai, we wear chappals to office. It’s a very homey space.
BOI: Is this also the attitude you look for in the directors you work with?
JA: Yes, Shoojit is a complete home boy. He loves going back to Kolkata, where his family lives. He is also very shy, especially when complimented. There is a certain innocence about him. He loves playing football. Imtiaz is also a regular here, so is Sajid. We don’t have people walking in wearing dark glasses and accompanied by bodyguards. There is no concept of a superstar here.
BOI: Can you share your future projects with us?
JA: We are backing Sajid Ali’s film Banana and we are also producing a film for Arshad Sayyal. Arshad has written Gori Tere Pyaar Mein, Gutkha and Shaadi Ke Side Effects. He is a brilliant writer. He came here to narrate a subject to us and we will be producing the film. It’s called Double Agent J-39, an action comedy.
We also asked him to bring in another element and he came up with a beautiful idea of a wedding. So we asked him to direct the film and he agreed. So we are backing new directors and new faces.
SK: Well, we did Madras Cafe around 18 months after Vicky Donor. We don’t really have a watertight plan.
JA: We bite only as much as we can chew. Sometimes, we don’t have any work. It’s good to also sit around and chill.
SK: We want to create quality content and that’s hard to plan. Often, when you have a plan, things don’t go as expected.
JA: And we don’t want to be bound by a studio and its deadlines. We want to create content which is so special that studios will feel proud to co-produce with us. Like when Viacom18 said ‘Thank you for allowing us to be part of Vicky Donor/Madras Cafe’ or Eros said ‘Thank you for making us part of Vicky Donor’… It was a huge deal for us, especially when we know we have not cheated anyone.
SK: He tells me. ‘You’re too simple for this business.’ I say, ‘You too!’
JA: We don’t cheat anyone and that’s a principle we hold dear. Credibility before career.
BOI: With successes one after another, not just as an actor but also as producer, the perception of the audience has changed towards you. Has that happened with the industry too?
JA: Yes, people actually listen to me now. Now, they want to discuss work with me and turning producer has opened up a whole new world for me. Now, I meet talented directors and they say they want to work with me or our production house.
As I mentioned earlier, actors including myself are byproduct or ‘kabootars’. Actors will come and go, actors look young today and old tomorrow. But how important is one’s filmography? If Vicky Donor is always on someone’s DVD shelf, that’s all that matters. When we were in the midst of making Madras Cafe, we thought ‘if people don’t watch our film today, they will watch it on DVD some day.’ Thank God, it worked.
I used to work with hairstylist Sapna Bhavnani, who used to do John’s hair. I soon became his hairstylist and, one day, I told him I would like to become a part of his production team. My mother works as an EP on films and I wanted to do something similar. The guys here were convinced of my skills and I soon began handling John’s dates. I am John’s manager now.
I have been with the company since its inception and it’s been a very fulfilling journey. We did have a few teething troubles as we are a nascent company but all of that is part of our learning curve. In the last few years, we have handled a lot of challenges, with precision, and that was only possible only because we are a close-knit team. We have grown from strength to strength in the last few years and we hope that continues. Every day presents new experiences and there’s a lot I look forward to, when I come to work every day.
I have been with the company for 15 months. I graduated from LSR College in Delhi and secured a post-graduate degree from MICA in Ahmedabad. I then joined the Times of India. But I knew these guys here, so I approached them because I wanted to work at a production house. I landed the job and have been working at a managerial level. I look after documentation and handle pretty much everything at the pre-production stage including things like budgeting etc.
It’s been a great year and a very valuable experience because I have a very detailed understanding of the industry. Also, we enjoy a lot of leeway in the decision-making process. We work more like a cohesive family rather than a formal organization. The going’s been really great.
I am the most recent entrant to the team as I joined just two months after Richa. I have a bit of an acting background and I look after the creative aspect of the company. I am in charge of script evaluation and creative aspects of the films we do. So while Richa manages the pre-production work, I take care of post-production. It has been a roller-coaster ride for me as I have to meet a great cross-section of talent from the industry and the last year has been nothing short of an exciting adventure.