With Badla becoming one of the highest-grossing crime thrillers in the Hindi film history, the makers of the film, director Sujoy Ghosh, producers Sunir Kheterpal and Akshai Puri for Azure Entertainment, and co-producer Gaurav Verma of Red Chillies Entertainment talk to Team Box Office India about how the idea originated, the power of word-of-mouth and their collaboration
Box Office India (BOI): How would all of you define the success of Badla – by numbers, by the response of the audience or a combination of these?
Sujoy Ghosh (SG): Gaurav, please go on.
Gaurav Verma (GV): To start with, it was the response of the audience, the way they reacted to the film, which was overwhelming. Then that translated into the numbers. The numbers came second; the response to the film came first.
SG: We all talk about films and discuss them, just like we were doing a few minutes ago, but it’s a very good feeling when you discuss a film and encourage others to watch it. That is probably what happened in the case of Badla.
GV: I think the conversation around the film lasted five or six weeks. That’s why we have seen such a long run. The conversation did not die after the first weekend or the first week. That is also why we saw only a very marginal drop in the second, third and fourth weeks. The audience kept talking about it and this made more people walk into cinema houses.
Sunir Kheterpal (SK): I think it all started with the English script. We read an English script and we bought into it. From the time we thought this could be an Indian film, we went step by step. We got the cast in place, the director in place, the final script in place and then we finally managed to make the film as planned, in a specific number of days, on a particular budget.
I think before a film works, a lot of other stuff has to work. Once you are done with the film, the marketing has to work. Then, the distribution has to work. The monetisation has to work. I think this film is a case study where a lot of things fell into the place from the word ‘go’ and it was a great example of how various people brought strength to the table in their respective domains.
BOI: To take what you said forward, how did all of you come on board this film, and how did the cast come on board?
SK: At Azure, we saw the trailer of a Spanish movie, which was in post-production. The trailer was intriguing enough for us to ask for an english script and the movie screener. We couldn’t watch the movie but we read the material and instinctively a lot of people reacted positively to the material. It was complex and not tried in Hindi cinema before. The only question was how will you make it? We still couldn’t see the screener so we bought into the material. I met Akshai in London where he was shooting for his Telugu film. He and Sujoy were trying to do another film. Akshai saw the film which was available by then. Sujoy had seen the material but he was pondering about the adaptation as we had switched genders and he was initially unsure about that, which later he bought into after reading our working draft.
Akshai Puri (AP): When I watched the film, I thought that only Sujoy should direct it. But when I showed it to Sujoy, he was not very convinced with the thought on adapting by changing genders.
SG: Because I didn’t know if I could improve the script, which was fantastic. I had to know what I was bringing to the table. It was a script that I could not have written. Somebody much superior to me had written the script, which is something I usually don’t admit. But, yes, it was a very good script and I didn’t know what I was doing in that film and how I was going to improve it. That took a little time.
SK: So there is a series of things that took place. Gaurav actually saw the film before even Sujoy did, so Gaurav was, in principle, on board. He was, like, this will be an exciting film to make. But we were trying to do this package where the right people could be cast for the right roles. Then Sujoy read the material where we had swapped genders and he thought that worked wonderfully. This is how he came on board. One thing led to another and a lot of positive energies meshed. Between the four of us, at different levels in different conversations, we had been discussing this film among ourselves for two to three months.
GV: I think we saw the film in December and we ended up showing this film to Sujoy in February. And before the end of March, the film had gone on the floors.
SK (to Puri): And you too had watched the film.
AP: I saw the original film when we were going through various permutations and combinations as far as the adapted script and the characters in it were concerned. And I think we were a kind of passive partner on that film.
SK: I think a lot of us fell in love with the film at some stage and then we worked cohesively as a team.
SG: I agree with Sunir. A film is not the result of only one person. It is always team work. This time, the team fell in place incredibly well, whether it was the cast, the crew, the production and especially the marketing. They have the most fantastic marketing team. I think when everything is put together, that is how we got one Badla.
BOI: What was it that finally convinced you to do the film?
SG: When I said I would not change the script. Yes, I had to Indianise it so that the audience identified with it. But I stuck to the original because I really couldn’t improve it. I am not of that calibre.
AP: I don’t think so. He made a lot of value additions like the Mahabharat, for instance.
SG: Yes I Indianised it. If you were to ask a Westerner to watch Badla, they wouldn’t have any clue to what they were watching.
AP: I don’t think that is true.
SG: In terms of the context, I mean.
AP: But we can relate to a lot of films.
SG: I think that was very important for me, how to Indianise the film.
GV: Why are you undermining your contribution?
SG: I am not undermining it but…
GV (Cuts in): I think, as Sujoy said earlier, the first challenge was how to at least be close to the original because the original was so good. What Sujoy has been exceptional at is, one, it’s much pacier, the intrigue value is much more and it is still an adaptation that is very close to the original but much more engaging, especially in terms of the reveals and the pace. Also, the Indianisation made all the difference. Our mythology has been used in such a way that it keeps you engaged.
SK: Not to undermine the fact that when we swapped all the genders in the characters, it worked much better for the Indian version.
SG: Oh, yes, absolutely! Initially, I was absolutely not on board with that thought but he (Kheterpal) proved me wrong.
BOI: How did you do that, adapting the screenplay by swapping genders?
SG (Pointing at Kheterpal): He changed the gender and I adapted the screenplay.
SK: The first person to come on board was Taapsee (Pannu). And at some point, there were various views on whether the lead protagonist should be male or female. The initial thought came from that conversation with Taapsee, that what if we were to swap the genders? That’s just the first part. The moment you swap the lead protagonist, it works much better when the woman is talking to a man. So you need to swap the original character of the film. No one other than Mr Bachchan could have played that role.
Then there was a third swap, where we heightened the emotional core by bringing in Amrita Singh. It became a mother looking for a child, something with which audiences would connect more and then we got the father to take the lead in managing the disguise thus elevating his contribution in the game being played on the screen. Like Sujoy mentioned during the writing bit, that a mother looking for her child talking to a mother who has a child has a lot of traction and emotional value. So, one thing led to another and we went on changing the genders till we couldn’t find any other gender to change (Laughs). It’s an experiment which worked and obviously we will do a lot more of that in other films.
BOI: Mr. Ghosh, you have an affinity for mythology in all your films, whether Kahaani or the short film Ahalya. How do you connect that in your films?
SG: How long do you have to discuss this? (Everyone laughs)
SG: I think it is very important for anything, whether a place, an object or a person. that you identify with it. Any change is easier to accept when you identify with it. And there are no better books than the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. My primary duty is towards my Indian audience, so how do I take something absolutely Western and make it Indian? I think there is a lot of life’s philosophy in our mythology. The Mahabharata is never ending. You can make films relating to it even after mankind stops existing. I have grown up with that. There is no logic to how it happens but it comes naturally, whether it is in Ahalya, Kahaani or Badla.
BOI: Speaking of the cast, the protagonists Mr Bachchan and Taapsee have already done a film together, where their roles had the similar dynamic. Did that help you to figure out that they would do justice to their parts in Badla?
SK: Everybody who was chosen for a specific role turned out to be the best actor for that role. The only clarity we had was that since we were casting Taapsee and Mr Bachchan, we did not want to take anyone else from Pink so it doesn’t become repetitive.
SG: But, then again, Pink is an excellent film. And I think it is great to be associated with it. If they are coming from Pink, it only helps us.
AP: The starting point is higher.
SG: I would rather come from Pink than somewhere else.
SK: There was a time when we used that. We said that Mr Bachchan and Taapsee Pannu were working together after Pink. Then we used the fact that Mr Bachchan and Sujoy were again working together.
GV: There is a similarity but I don’t think anyone had that in mind while casting them.
AP: Yes, that realization came much later. And they were so right for the part that they have become a hit pair.
GV: Also, credit goes to them for the kind of actors they are. You can’t tie them down to a particular role or a film.
BOI: Coming to the marketing, the promotions for this film were minimalistic. Why was the marketing so limited?
GV: ‘Adequate’, rather than ‘minimalistic’, is the right word. Our job is to make people aware. There are certain films where you are driving the audience to cinemas on day one and on the weekend. While in certain films, you want people to be aware and reach the right audience because those films have the potential to create the kind of buzz that Sujoy was talking about. Then this conversation becomes the primary marketing tool, which is very powerful these days. We reached out to the right audience with our marketing. For a film like this to open with Rs 5 crore on day one is a very good number.
BOI: Speaking of numbers, Badla is one of the highest-grossing Hindi crime thrillers of all time. Do you think the audience is now accepting this genre in Indian films?
GV: People accept good films. They are not driven by genres. If it’s a good film and they want to watch it, they will watch it, and that will eventually translate into the numbers. Badla has taken five weeks to come to that. We are awed by the numbers, not only in India but internationally as well. And especially for Indian films, the thriller genre doesn’t work so well internationally, so the numbers we have seen in Australia and the Gulf, are awesome.
Usually, North America is supposed to be the lead territory for films like these but, in this case, the Gulf was a lead territory. It was a shocker. Australia has done exceptionally well, Singapore has done exceptionally well, and Europe too has done well for us, which is a testament to how good the film was and how well it has been liked all over.
BOI: And did you anticipate this kind of business?
GV: In this business, you only hope and pray that the film is accepted by the audience; no one can predict the numbers.
BOI: Taking the question of marketing forward, how important is it to get the right release date for a film?
GV: We didn’t have a solo release.
SK: We had Captain Marvel releasing along with Badla.
GV: We released in a very crowded window. We had films that had released in February and had done really well, we had a film that released on the 1st of March which was doing really well. In terms of holdovers, we had competition and from new films we had Captain Marvel, which opened significantly.
SG: It was a very scary thought… Captain Marvel with Badla and Badla will be gone. (Laughs)
SK: Actually, we stuck to that day. There was earlier a thought that Captain Marvel was to release on the 1st of March and then it came on 8th March. We fixed our release date in October-November and we stuck to it. But, like Gaurav said, the film actually landed in the middle of too many films catering to too many genres.
The February 22nd release, Total Dhamaal, was for the family audience, March 1st release, Luka Chuppi, was targeted at the youth and then we released with Captain Marvel. When we started on first day of release with a big lag behind Captain Marvel but a 5 crore opening day was significant for our Film. By the end of first week, we had taken over as the preferred option. Then we had Kesari releasing on March 21 after two weeks, where we were also involved as one of the producers.
GV: To answer your question about release dates, they are important but sometimes we over-analyse the impact of release dates. You need to know what your film will collect at the box office. If you get the capacity to get the number that you are looking for, you are home. I think the competition helped us. It helped us contain the exposure. Had I released the film on a solo date, I would have been bombarded with the shows in multiplexes which my film might not have sustained. We would have seen lower occupancy. We always wanted to release our film in limited places, especially in good multiplexes. With the holdovers and the new releases, what happened was, we got what we wanted and it worked for us.
SK: Also, the energies of the team start working more efficiently. I think the difference between the intended release scale of the film two or three weeks prior to the release and the actual release wouldn’t have deviated by more than 5 per cent. We decided to release the film in 800-900 screens. Rather than wondering endlessly on if we should release the film in 1,300-1,400 screens, we were focusing on how this film could be positioned/marketed/promoted differently and how to keep conversations going about the positive word of mouth on the Film.
AP: There were a lot of people asking why we had released only on 880 screens and didn’t go wider. But I think it proved to be a good decision.
GV: Coming back to marketing and distribution, what worked for us is reaching out to the right set of consumers and putting the film within their reach. It was not a very wide release but it was available everywhere.
BOI: Speaking about collaborations, Red Chillies has been producing films for a long time while Azure is a relatively a new company. Was there any learning from each other during this project?
SK: We actually started discussing another film which was our first collaboration. We know each other professionally as we were both, at some point in time, working in the distribution business in different organisations.
We announced our first collaboration on Operation Khukri, which is the Indian Armed Forces’ most successful mission on foreign soil. At some point, all these linkages and discussions start happening on other material being worked on by the two organizations. Badla happened to be one of properties we were developing and that we ended up collaborating on. For Azure, it has been an excellent partnership. We will be working together again but will make the announcement at the right time.
GV: That Azure is new is irrelevant. The idea is to work with like-minded people. You spend 18-20 months working on a film. You create a bond with everyone. If you enjoy the journey together, it is perfect and you want to repeat the journey again and again. This is what collaborations are all about and that’s what we want to do.
BOI: As producers, how much was your creative involvement with the script and the production?
GV: I think Akshai should answer this.
AP: Sujoy was very collaborative. If there were any suggestions from us, he always used them if he saw merit in them. And, like he said, it is all about people coming together and working on the same product. There are things he was able to teach about production as he has been producing films for so many years. He was kind enough to teach us a few things and take a few things from us.
SG: I can now say that, since seven weeks have passed, for me Amrita Singh is the hero. After I wrote it and when I gave them the script, Sunir had a lot of guts to agree with that because it was not an easy decision to take when you read the script and you see that the whole pitch is tilted towards one person. This could either work or not. I think it was very commendable of him to accept that.
BOI: Mr Ghosh…
SG: I love how he addresses me as ‘Mr Ghosh’. Sounds so respectful. Sunir, listen and learn.
SK: Akshai, he is talking to you.
AP: Okay, now we will respect you.
BOI: So, Mr Ghosh, are there any particular elements that make a thriller a successful film?
SG: For any script, as long as you want to read the next page, you are home, on paper, at least. Then it’s all about how you tell your story and hold your audience. Other than that, I honestly don’t know. You write something, you get feedback from people around you, and then you go along with it. That’s all you can do. You believe in the script.
GV: One thing that we have not spoken about is the background score. I think the background was an equally important tool which worked for this film.
SG: Absolutely! The sound, the background, all the teams came together. Like I said, it is team work. I cannot say I made this film and neither can Sunir, nor Akshai, nor Gaurav. We made the film, and that includes an incredible number of talented people who worked on it.
SK: Like our cinematographer, Avik (Mukhopadhyay).
SG: Yes, there was Avik my DoP, my editor Monisha (R Baldawa), my crew, all of them were a part of this success.
SK: We shot the film in 40 days, which was a commendable effort by our production and direction team. It can be very tough to do that if the team is not working cohesively and if every nut and bolt doesn’t fall in place. We cannot emphasise enough that a lot of things came together in the making of Badla.
SG: Yes but there was no pressure. We were working long hours but we never felt any pressure.
SK: In fact, even the weather in Scotland supported us. It usually rains there but the only time it hampered us was in one scene, which we wanted to shoot on the first day but had to shift to the last day. Ironically, it also rained on the last day! Other than that, it was a very hot, sunny Scotland for us. It was destiny. Everything kept falling in the right place.
BOI: There is huge change in the consumption of content, which has blurred the lines between the previous segregation of commercial versus content-driven cinema. As filmmakers, what is your take on this?
SG: Content is changing because we are getting more acceptance from the audience. You, as a part of the audience, are changing and that is allowing me to do something different. A case in point… when we were growing up, everything was clear-cut, there was one hero, one heroine, one villain, one comedian, etc. In those days, we did not accept that a hero could also be a villain. Now, with 24-hour news, people travelling all over the world, one knows that a good person can also be bad, and have shades of grey. People accept that. So if you suddenly hear about a frog climbing Mount Everest and I make a film on that, you will agree with me because you have heard about it. That’s how it works. Not that these guys will give me money to make a film on a frog climbing Mount Everest. (Laughs)
GV: Do you want to make it?
AP: I think Badla is the first film in recent times that has no songs. Hence, it also needed a lot of commercial backing from the studio to market it. How do you promote a film which doesn’t have songs? People are now aware that you have to make content which is suitable for the film. You cannot cheat on a film by saying let’s include two songs just to promote it. There is also no formula which says that if you add two hit songs, your film too will be a hit.
SG: Films are a product of your environment, your society, the world you live in. Initially, it was completely different from what it is now and the content reflects that.
SK: There are these ‘x’ number of people who go to cinema halls. What we have seen as producers, studios, production houses and directors is that in the last two years, there has been an acceptance from audiences of a wide variety of well-made stories – not only critically but these movies now are able to attract audiences and get box office grosses. One could see several Malayalam and Tamil Films opening low and working from Monday as well told stories more often than not find audiences in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
Coming back to the Hindi film industry, the last two years have given us enough case studies emphasising that if you have a good story to tell in an entertaining way and/or something which excites the audience differently (let us call it high concept, if you will), that group of ‘x’ people – the often cinema going audience is willing to spend money by going to cinemas. They can make their decision from the trailer, which is the first exposure, from the first look or due to word-of-mouth. If you put all this together, the lines between content and commerce are anyway fused. How well the film does is a direct function of how much momentum a positive word-of-mouth is able to bring to the film. That word of mouth creates exponential growth in numbers over and above the grosses brought in by that ‘x’ number of people.
BOI: That is the oldest trick in the marketing handbook.
SK: Yes, but the films that are releasing today and working at a scale they are would have never worked three to five years back. I have worked in a studio before and it would have been very tough to green-light some of the films that do huge grosses today. There is a higher propensity amongst audiences to consume and accept different kind of content today and therefore such content is getting made.
GV: To start with, the definition of content is very broad. Everything, good or bad, is a part of content. That started happening 7-8 years ago, and Kahaani was a part of it along with Paan Singh Tomar and Vicky Donor. If you look at all these films, the acceptance is much wider today. And as Sujoy said earlier, people are consuming a lot more content not just in cinemas but also outside it, which has given us much more flexibility in terms of what we want to create, what we want to back and what we want to produce.
If Badla had released four years ago, would it have been successful? The answer is yes. Would it have done the kind of numbers it has notched up? Probably not. The acceptance that we are talking about has always been there and now it is becoming wider. Rarely has a good film not done well at the box office.
SG: Almost never.
GV: And the thing about commerce is that if you are investing money in something, it automatically becomes commerce. The question is about the content we are seeing, whether it is theatrical, in India, outside India, on TV, on digital platforms and how they are encouraging people to be okay with stories that are much more relevant today and take a little risk. I think the definition of content will keep pushing boundaries and that is where we are headed.
BOI: The digital space has played a huge part in changing the audience’s acceptance.
GV: In terms of consumption, I don’t think so. But in terms of exposure to newer content from various other countries, definitely. People are seeing much more content and are accepting that in our film industry too.
SG: The awareness about the world around you has increased manifold. And that helps us.
SK: Word-of-mouth has impacted many of the decisions we take regarding the film. For example, with Badla, the film opened slow but got good reviews and occupancies started trending higher by the late afternoon and evening shows. And, as Gaurav said, if you then enable an ecosystem where there is a conversation around a film, that helps a lot. That is what carries it forward. It has not happened only in India, but the film has done close to five million dollars in international markets too. That is unheard of for this genre. In America, the audience takes the lead and accepts newer cinema. But that has been the case for this film in the Gulf, in Singapore, in Australia. I think considering its genre, it has even done well in the UK.
BOI: Social media now helps spread word-of-mouth.
GV: The dinner table conversations we used to have when we would watch movies, talking to friends, families, discussing films… all that has shifted to social media. If you like or dislike something, you post about it. And that helps start a conversation.