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Jokes Apart

Akashdeep, director of Santa Banta Pvt Ltd, and lead actress Neha Dhupia in conversation with Team Box Office India

Box Office India (BOI): What is Santa Banta Pvt Ltd all about, especially since it is based on two iconic characters in the Indian humour space?

Akashdeep: The first thing we have done is put faces to these two funsters of folklore. They have been around for such a long time but there has never been a face to them. So Boman (Irani) and Vir (Das) are the faces of Santa and Banta. My last film Ghaath with Manoj (Bajpayee), featured Tabu and it was Irrfan’s first film, and it also starred Om (Puri) and Anupam (Kher). As you can imagine, it was a very intense film and it also did well.

Just when things were settling down, I moved to Sahara, where I was for seven years, before which I came back to the industry, which had changed by then. I was the first CEO of a film company but I didn’t realise that, during those seven years, they were all corporates by the time I quit and actually started making films.

I went to John (Abraham) as I had the story Dil Mil Gaye. He was like, ‘Haan, I know you, you are the CEO of Sahara.’ I also went to many other people and I realised that they all know me only as the CEO. The new generation had arrived and corporates only identified you by your last hit. I realised that I needed a brand that would sell without actors. I love humour and I love to have fun, so I thought I should do some Internet research to find out who owned the IP of Santa and Banta with the trademark because this is not something you can register as a title to be made into a film as it has existed in this surreal world for decades.

Radio City actually owned Santa Banta and I took it from them and wrote the script. Then Viacom18 approached me and I showed them that I owned the world trademark for the films, television, mobile content based on these two characters and that is how the discussion started.

BOI: How much is your film influenced by the jokes we generally hear about Santa and Banta?

Akashdeep: Not at all. I don’t even think it’s a joke. Although it has been treated with humour, everybody is dead serious and it is a proper story about two detectives who are sent on a mission to the Fiji Islands and how they mumble, stumble and yet emerge victorious. So it is about its protagonist, its antagonist, its characters and everyone has a role. Also, it is not a two-hero film. It has an ensemble cast comprising Boman Irani, Vir Das, Neha (Dhupia), Lisa Haydon, Ram Kapoor, Johnny Lever, Sanjay Mishra, Vijay Raaz, Vrajesh Hirjee and cameos by Ranjit, Vikas Bhalla and Sonu Nigam.

It features an entire team of actors with a story that as a beginning, a middle and an end; it is not just a series of jokes. A lot of people tell me, ‘Oh Santa BantaArrey tere ko toh kamal ho jayega,’ and I sayki, no, jitna aap ko lagta hai that this brand will take off, there is an equal amount of fear because a lot of people in the audience are going to say they expected more from my film. Santa Banta implies that it should be full of jokes and that
viewers will be in splits every two minutes. But it is not like that in my film.

BOI: You mentioned that you were out of the loop for seven years. While scripting this film, was it difficult for you to keep the younger generation in mind?

Akashdeep: No, but we have to keep in mind the fact that everything changed so fast in those five to seven years that when corporates came along, multiplexes started coming up and three-hour films were a waste of time. We had to make a two-hour film because gone are the days when you had seven to eight songs; you have to restrict it to what you really need. Since this is a light-hearted film, we have restricted it to four songs but nowadays even four songs are too much. But they are fun songs and we are fortunate to have good music.

Nowadays, everybody has a fixed set of technicians but we had to change things so I took on a new cameraman and a new editor, not people from my old team. These were people who have done digital work, cameras have changed. I was one of those fortunate people who had been in the corporate scenario from day one and I knew we couldn’t work like we used to. Now everything has to be in tandem with the corporate culture, unlike earlier when producers used to take their own decisions.

In fact, Viacom was the first to suggest Boman and Vir. The said that they believe in the brand and with them being a part of this film, even before it began, taking new-age comedians was best so that if everything went well, we could make sequels a few years down the line. At that time, Boman was already a well-established name on stage and he had done great work in cinema as well, and Vir was the new kid on the block who was very good at stand-up comedy. Also, when every scene has two people, you want one to be big and the other small; one tall, one short; one mature, one young… they suited that combination too.

BOI: Neha, tell us about your role and what made you sign this film.

Neha Dhupia (ND): Well, since I had been doing indie films for a while, when Akash called me for Santa Banta, I was, like, okay, this sounds like fun. But I don’t believe anything that Akshay says (laughs), so I called Boman to check if he was really doing this film and he said he was. I was, like, this sounds good.

What I marvel at is the fact that Akashdeep has singlehandledly got such a huge comedy canvas in one film… Sanjay Mishra, Johnny Lever, Boman, Vir, Vrajesh, Ram Kapoor, and several other people, and just to be able to be in a comedy film like this was great for me. As for what I am doing in the film… it is not pathbreaking and my role is not going to change the world. It was crazy but it was also fantastic just to be there. As an actor, one must not over-intellectualise the craft and only look at the canvas that is offered. And Akash really offered each one of us a good canvas.

BOI: Tell us about Viacom coming on board and backing the film.

Akashdeep: They liked it at the concept stage. In fact, the first letter I was given before the agreement was for three films as they are still looking at it as a franchise. If a film does slightly well and with brand value like this, you want to push it. It will surprise you to know that our P&A spend is all we have to recover, between satellite, theatrical, music, overseas, the rebate for shooting in Fiji, and the cost of production. It is almost a plus film. Whatever we spend on P&A and uplinking of theatres is all we require now, and I am sure we will achieve that number.

Unfortunately, we have a one-week window, woh bhi bahot naseeb se milti hai. A week earlier, there is Fan and a week later, Baaghi. So we have that window. It is a simple and sweet film for families in particular. Santa Banta could have always gone into a slightly adult joke format but, first, there are no jokes and, second, we have deliberately kept the humour at a kid-friendly level. We were in Fiji and could so easily have shot every second scene on the beach.

I am being very truthful when I say that it is a 360-degree brand. I am already in advanced talks for an animation film, we want to do a web series and we want to do television series. One film and one series every year, two to three seasons of Santa Banta on television, followed by a film. Fingers crossed, let’s see. Where are the brands in India now? We have a few in the animation space, like Chhota Bheem and Bal Ganesh but ab kya brand hai India mein other thanSanta Banta?

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