Sunir Kheterpal, Producer and CEO - Azure Entertainment, talks to Bhakti Mehta about the two super-hit films the production house delivered in March, its plans for future feature films and also initiatives in the digital content creation space
Azure Entertainment has been a part of two hits in March, Badla and Kesari. Success like this is very rare in the industry.
The nature of business is such that one can’t predict how much a film will earn. One can only work diligently with an intention to make a good film which will be loved by the audiences but finally it is the audiences who decide the fate of a film. It is a good feeling. Badla is a crime thriller and usually crime thrillers don’t do the kind of business that Badla has done in India as well as overseas. The film has grossed close to `104 Cr in India and more than `34 Cr in overseas markets making Badla the highest grossing Hindi film in the crime thriller genre ever.
Kesari too has done very well at the box office, where it has collected in the region of `150 Cr Net Box Office in India.
Yes. Kesari has become Akshay Kumar’s biggest solo Hindi film ever in terms of India theatrical collections and it has performed quite well in international markets as well.
What is the ethos at Azure when it comes to developing films?
Azure is a content development and production company. We work collaboratively with strong producing, financing, distribution and marketing partners. Our focus is to find and develop great ideas. Stories which are original as well as stories we identify and pick up from all over the world. Most of the original stories we have developed are larger than life, spectacular in nature, which, when produced can potentially become event films. Films like Kesari. We also have a feature film script called The Great Indian Robbery which is a fictional heist thriller based on a historical fact and is about a plan to stop India’s partition. There is a collaboration with Red Chillies on Operation Khukri, a war film based on the Indian Armed Forces’ most successful mission on foreign soil. From this year, we are also beginning to develop high concept original stories. When we look around the world for stories, we don’t necessarily look at successful films in other parts of the world. We look for adaptability of such stories to Indian milieu and culture. It is not enough to find a great story from a different culture. We should be able to adapt it suitably for our audience so that there is affinity and relatability to characters within such stories. Last but not the least, there needs to be a strong emotional hook which the audiences can get engaged with.
You mean, like Badla, where the genders of most of the characters were changed while adapting the story?
In most of the European Films, the primary focus is on the ‘thrill’ element with emotions coming towards the climax. In India, one needs to keep the emotion and thrill intertwined. The idea behind changing the genders was to bring forward a female protagonist whom audiences could believe to be innocent and more importantly to bring forward Amrita Singh’s character as a mother. There was an emotional pay-off when a mother was questioning another mother while looking for her child.
Badla is not very different from The Invisible Guest, which was regarded as a niche film. It has still worked wonders because we were able to take a story and add the Indian-ness through the Mahabharat and by bringing in the higher (perceivably) emotional hook of a mother.
Azure is a relatively young company. There must be a learning curve.
We did a film in March three years ago called Rocky Handsome. Arguably, it had some of the best hand-to-hand action scenes. A lot of sweat went into making of that film. The underlying story of a father’s void being filled by a child who is craving for a father was amazing. In my opinion, we, collectively as a team, were not able to adapt well a great recipe for a commercial film. Mistakes in this business are expensive. We tried to learn from our mistakes. Not that we have reached a stage that we will not make mistakes, but there is far more thought and focus now to adapt the stories in a manner that a good source material is able to transcend cultures and find audience engagement. That is the underlying thought process when we are trying to adapt stories from diverse countries and cultures like Panama, Denmark, France, Spain, Italy, Korea, Thailand and Hong Kong. Rest of the work is usual. Read, watch, research. Continue. Till we find something which is exciting and then we work passionately on those stories with other collaborators.
You also have big production houses collaborating with you such as Red Chillies Entertainment and Dharma Productions. What is the process of getting them on board?
A couple of years ago, we realised that we wanted to align with certain global players for collaborations because that’s how we could get access to intellectual property. But that was not enough. A couple of years ago when we inked the Kesari deal with Dharma Productions and Cape Of Good Films, we realised that collaborations have to be done in India as well. When you are developing 10-12 films at any given point and are aiming to convert a development pipeline into a robust production pipeline, you need to collaborate with partners, who can make that process more efficient and faster. We are moving towards a world where collaborations are going to be the key to packaging films. If you are working in isolation, you will probably end up making one or two films. But if you want to make three to four films, which we eventually aim at working, it is important not only to have collaborations on content origination but also to package them with producers, actors and directors because all of them are active stakeholders today.
There are certain collaborations which will happen with directors to bring them on board, onto our content; there are certain collaborations which will happen with actors in order to make them more inclusive in the film; and there are certain collaborations which will happen with other production houses in order to translate a development into a production as well as to fill respective voids.
Kesari is a great example where Dharma and Cape of Good Films joined in and the film became a reality. We were already working with Red Chillies on Operation Khukri. They were excited with Badla and it quickly translated into a producing partnership. It is important for collaborators to have a common ground on passion for a specific story and a win-win commercial deal. Rest is easy. In a few weeks, we shall announce tie-ups on three of our Hindi films as well as a collaboration with a Hyderabad based production house for a Telugu version of a young thriller.
On the international side, we have a two-picture deal with Warner Bros, of which Infernal Affairs is one and we will announce the second film shortly. With Lionsgate and Globalgate, we have two films which are in advanced stages of development. We will announce the packaging of that soon. We have a film with Asia’s largest film studio, CJ Entertainment from Korea. There is a collaboration with StudioCanal from France, which will be unveiled soon. There are also discussions on collaborations by way of investment capital which can come from international players as well as from India.
What is your process of approaching these international studios for collaborations and for acquiring rights?
Most of our foreign tie-ups happen with the studios and production houses with us approaching them with our interest and a possible adaptation for a story they own. It is a much longer process for US studios than other independent production companies all over the world because of the market structure. We research, identify stories and then go about passionately to pitch for them. It helps that we are able to demonstrate a very healthy conversion between the stories we acquire and are able to move them into development and production.
A lot of production houses are venturing into the web space. Any plans to foray into digital platforms?
We are in discussions with several OTT players for digital shows. There is a show for which we are in discussion with ZEE5. Then there is a show based on an Indian book for which we are in discussion with MX Player. We are also in discussion with Applause Entertainment for a property based on international literary material. Then, there is an European film being adapted into a digital series. But all this will take time. Later this year, as our feature film slate gets into an autopilot mode, we will also start focusing on creating pitches for large-format series with an objective to partner with Amazon (Prime Video) and Netflix. Till now, our focus has been on Feature Films but going forward as and when we find newer stories which can be adapted well to the series format, we will go aggressive on digital medium.
How is the future looking for Azure Entertainment?
We have two more films coming out this calendar year. There is Jeethu Joseph’s (Drishyam) Hindi directorial debut on a supernatural thriller, whose working title is The Body and which has been produced along with Viacom Motion Pictures. It stars Emraan Hashmi, Rishi Kapoor, Sobhita Dhulipala and Vedhika Kumar. Then there is Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Yaara, which features Vidyut Jammwal, Shruti Haasan and Amit Sadh. This film is set in the late 1970s and late 1980s and belongs to the action-drama genre.
We are hoping to have between four to five releases in 2020. There is going to be a Hindi and Telugu adaptation of Bad Genius and a couple of other films, which will be announced shortly. We are also working on three tent-pole films, which are in active development. There is the remake of Infernal Affairs with Warner Brothers, an adaptation of Instructions Not Included with Lionsgate and Operation Khukri with Red Chillies, where scripting is complete and we are in discussions with directing talent.
The trend says that content-driven films are working. How do you keep your finger on the pulse of the audience, considering you said that there is no formula to figure out what will work and what won’t?
I don’t think anyone can predict the fate and business of a film in a fool-proof manner. As a producer, all you can do is bet on stories that you believe in and package them with people who are as passionate about those stories as you are. Sometimes, you bet on stories that are clutter-breaking, sometimes you bet on stories that are high concept, sometimes you bet on stories that become topical and sometimes you just work hard to create a package, which will become an event film, which lots of people will want to sample. You can work on a story which excites you, have a fair idea on how you are going to be able to market that story to its intended audience, endeavour for a good release date, tie up with the best possible distributors for optimal showcasing. Even after all this is done, your work is still being governed by the age-old adage from screenwriter William Goldman about the film business – Nobody Knows Nothing.
What do you look for in a director that makes you believe that his vision is at par with yours?
We choose our stories with a lot of passion and try to approach directors where such passion can get matched to yield positive energies. The director should be as excited about the story as we are. Everything else falls into place once you get this right.