Team Gowariker – Ashutosh and wife Sunita – looks back at a decade since they launched their banner, Ashutosh Gowariker Productions Pvt Ltd (AGPPL), and also provide an insight into the mind of a genius
Box Office India (BOI): This year, your banner Ashutosh Gowariker Productions Pvt Ltd (AGPPL) celebrated 10 years in production. Can you take us through the journey and tell us how it all began?
Ashutosh Gowariker (AG): It has been a long and enjoyable journey so far. I have always believed in a combination of hard work and luck. I had never planned to be in the movie business. Never thought I would become an actor. But when I got the opportunity, I grabbed it. I became an actor! So similarly, I had never imagined that I would get the opportunity to become a director. Three of my co-actors – Deepak (Tijori), Aamir (Khan) and Shah Rukh (Khan) – all knew that I had the desire to direct, and they saw the potential in me. That’s how Pehla Nasha and Baazi got made. I became a director!! Similarly, I had never never imagined that I would become producer. But after Lagaan, when it was time for me to make my next film, the thought crossed my mind that maybe I should produce.
I told her (Sunita Gowariker) that we would turn producer only if she agreed to take charge. That would be a nice synergy as I would take care of direction and she would take care of the other aspects. Thankfully, she said yes and here we are. By all accounts, we should have made more movies in these 10 years, but each of our films took two to three years to make from inception, to pre-production to post. We are very happy that we are here, 10 years later.
BOI: Sunita, what made you say yes to getting into production?
Sunita Gowariker (SG): When he told me he wanted to produce, I asked him why, because it’s a very tricky trade. It’s better to hire out your services and take home a paycheck. I mean, as a creative person, you don’t want your stress levels going through the roof, as production is very stressful. I don’t know whether getting me on board has helped him fulfill his ambition but he does say that he got to make films his way. I told him I would stand by him but I don’t know if that’s how it has worked out as half the time, I am saying, ‘No we can’t do it this way!’ (Laughs) So the plan to produce began with him wanting to make films his way and I stood by him.
AG: Yeah absolutely! Lagaan gave me a huge advantage because without its success I could not have done anything, leave aside becoming producer. I will owe that to Aamir always, for giving me a second chance. I also learnt a lot from my experience with Pehla Nasha and Baazi. While Pehla Nasha was with a new producer, Baazi was with an established one. I have always been an observer. So while I was acting, I was observing directors. Then, while I was doing directing, I was observing producers. That helped a lot.
Our take-off point was not to become producers and make a film but the other way around. The question was: Swades needs to be made, so shall we launch a company and produce it?
BOI: Lagaan was such a big hit and, as Sunita was saying, you could have easily upped your fee and worked as a director. Wasn’t it tempting to cash in on that rather than take such a big risk?
AG: (Laughs) I didn’t see it that way. For me, the driving force to make a film is always the story. Both of us need to feel excited about it to make it into a film. There have been times when we have thought, ‘Oh my God! We just got done with Swades and here comes Jodhaa Akbar, for which the pre-production itself will take three years. Why can’t we just make a simple film?’ But then, when she read the script of Jodhaa Akbar, she agreed that we should invest the time to achieve that.
BOI: Sunita, was it easy or difficult for you to take up production when you did?
SG: It was very difficult. I had observed a lot during the making of Lagaan, especially during the last two months when I stayed with the unit. I knew about the different aspects of filmmaking only from conversations at home. I had no idea what was being thrown at me with regards to the technical jargon. Initially, I had to pretend I knew and am glad I could act as though I knew what was happening!
There were times I had no idea what they were talking about so I would ask Ashutosh at night, ‘Quickly tell me what is this and what is that?’ (Laughs) So, I basically learnt on the job. There were times I would arrive on the sets at 3 am. I needed to know everything from the lowest common denominator otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to run the company. I needed to know the nitty-gritty details like the food that comes on the sets, what is required of the art department, costumes and things like that. So, during Swades, I was almost like a spot boy and that was the only way I could learn. Later, I was able to do a decent job on Jodhaa Akbar because by then I had learnt a few things. But every film brings new challenges and becomes a learning experience.
SG: When we started the company, on one side we acquired an office and on the other we had someone who didn’t know anything about production. Then he (Ashutosh Gowariker) told me one day that we need to go to Wai for a recce.
He said four to five technicians would have to go on the recee and that we had to book a hotel, and things like that. He asked me if I could manage that and I said it wasn’t a big deal. Luckily, I managed the logistics. It came naturally to me and I was surprised. I think he was panicking more than I was at the time.
AG: Look, I like things done a certain way. So, if my crew is checking in at the hotel, there should be someone from production standing in the lobby with the keys and stuff. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was organised systematically.
SG: At the time, I didn’t know his professional side, about how he liked things to be done. I relied on common sense and always have. So if Nitin (Chandrakant Desai) has a plan and says we have done things a certain way for 20 years, so… I would say ‘Yes, Nitin… but no, this makes more sense now and so let’s do it this way.’ And common sense has taken me a long way. These were my initial experiences.
AG: Well, I like to reset everything to zero and start every film afresh. I don’t like to carry the baggage of the previous film, whether successful or not. Swades took three years because Lagaan needed a lot of attention after its Oscar run and the festival rounds that we did. So with Swades, it wasn’t a tough shoot on the first day but I felt that a lot of things could potentially go wrong. It was an unusual feeling. Thankfully, the first day was smooth sailing, especially production-wise. It was quite a tough pre-production, in the sense that we had to film in four villages and make all look like one - Charanpur! Four villages meant that many panchayats, that many more farmers to handle, and she had to manage all that. You know the classic situation in a movie - when there’s a wedding happening and someone walks in and says, ‘Yeh shaadi nahi ho sakti!’. I kept feeling something like that might happen on the first day of the shoot, with someone walking on to the set and saying, ‘Yeh shooting nahi ho sakti hai!’ (Laughs)
SG: Yeah, he panicked.
AG: It was very stressful but it was smooth sailing from there on. We also had a surprise visitor on the first day – Aamir! He was shooting for Mangal Pandey in Wai. He gave the mahurat clap, so that was a special gesture on his part.
AG: She keeps both my wallets. My domestic as well as my production wallet! I don’t really think like a producer. I think more like a director and she more like a producer. On set, she is my producer and she controls me but, of course, there are times when I have to make her understand why I need a particular thing. Sometimes I am able to convince her. Sometimes she convinces me.
BOI: But when you start a project, let’s say Mohenjo Daro, is it a creative or a commercial call? What is the mix between the two?
SG: It’s always first a creative call. The numbers follow and they never match. The economics of the business and the ideas never gel and we try very hard to blend them. If he says he doesn’t wear the producer’s hat, that’s not completely true because we both have a common goal. And both of us can work well only if we work together. It’s like being parents to a film. If there are problems, he listens. Many a time, he is adamant but he does adjust. So we put it all on the table. Of course, we do have our differences!
AG: We have tremendous fights.
SG: But they are all work-related and we don’t take our work home.
AG: Like I wanted 200 elephants for Jodhaa Akbar and we wanted to make them look like 1,000. We argued about that and she gave me 100, which too is not a small number and we achieved a balance in the compromise.
SG: Once he gives us his requirements, we go back to him and say ‘This is working out too expensive and we have to cut out one thing out of four, and of those four, which are the three that you really want?’
AG: Like Agra Fort… when we decided to shoot at the real Agra Fort, we realised we could not shoot there at all. Permissions were available for either early in the morning or at night after the tourists had left. But that would give us very little filming time. So we decided to recreate the fort in all its glory – the size, the look. The exterior fort wall was turning out to be 70 feet tall and the cost was not working out. Then you brought it down by how much?
SG: Nitin (Chandrakant Desai) said we needed to reduce the height of the wall to 40. But Ashutosh was not prepared to listen to us and said, ‘Do whatever you want, but I want it 70 feet high and I am not budging.’ So Nitin and I went and started working at the logistics again. Finally, Nitin and I took a call to keep it at 70 feet because he wanted that perspective and the look was important. So we re-examined the budget to figure out where we could get things at the cheapest rates.
SG: We didn’t cut anything.
AG: (Cuts in) You changed the material.
SG: (Laughs) Yes, we changed the material. I was not going to bring this up but, yes, we cheated on him with the material. Another instance was there is this scene wherein Jodhaa is cooking and a big kadhai (utensil) was required. He had said a ‘big kadhai’. When we showed him what we found, he said, ‘Not this, I want a BIG kadhai.’ So I sourced one from a soap factory and I sent him pictures of the utensil and he said it was perfect. I told him we would have to transport it to the sets with a crane. Then, he was like, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ Earlier, when he used to put me in situations like this, I used to panic but now I know my way around.
BOI: No wonder he directs only when you’re wearing the producer’s hat.
SG: I think we work well as a team.
AG: Also, it’s good to have a producer who can understand your vision completely. Aamir was like that on Lagaan. Today, if I have to make a film with an outside producer, I would do it for Aamir. He is an amazing producer. Once he knows the script, he backs you completely. If you say, ‘Let’s not shoot this scene today because I am not happy with the colour of the curtains, he will agree and say ‘I understand.’ He gave me complete freedom when we worked together.
SG: It helps me that he’s clear about what he wants and doesn’t change his mind on the sets. This makes it possible for us to do our homework thoroughly and crack deals in advance, if that’s possible. That’s how you keep your numbers low. I believe if you’ve done your homework thoroughly, you can make a film within its budget. That’s what happened with Jodhaa Akbar. When we were looking for a co-producer for that film, it was very difficult for us to make people understand that we would be able to make it within its budget. That number was 40 but potential co-producers told us that film could not be made on a budget that was less than 65-75.
But we clearly knew where we were going, we had done our homework and had everything in place so that there would be no delays or hiccups. But it’s not easy because of the kind of subjects he chooses. One has to literally create an entire world.
BOI: You mentioned co-producers… It’s one thing to make a film but one has to then get a studio or a partner on board; then there’s marketing and distribution. How do you divide your roles in these areas?
AG: We follow the script clearly. That’s sacrosanct. So everything emerges from that - the casting, the crew, poster design, marketing strategy, what-have-you. So we take the script and build it from there. The script is read by our long time collaborators like Imagesmiths, Epigram and several friends. They give us their feedback. We strategise everything beforehand as it’s not your regular kind of film. But we always welcome market strategies that come from our co-producers, like the partners we have had, UTV Motion Pictures and PVR Pictures, as I believe that one should play to each one’s strengths. We can then put our heads together and decide what’s best for the film.
SG: Your question was… how do we get a co-producer? Everything is numbers-driven. There are only a few players in the market and you go with whoever gives you the best price that is closest to your number. The best case scenario is when someone agrees with your number but that doesn’t happen very often. But with films like Jodhaa Akbar and Mohenjo Daro, we know that UTV shares our sensibilities and we know the synergy we can have with them, even if the numbers don’t fully add up.
While making a film, it is very important to partner with the right people because marketing is a very important tool. All co-producers are usually studios and they are tops in distribution and marketing. He is very particular about how his films are marketed but since the co-producer knows best, we usually leave it to them.
SG: Yes, even our office boys, my front office, my production people are the same.
AG: When you work with the same team, there is certain understanding, a certain collective learning from the previous film. So it’s a good thing to work with the same team, which has learnt from the mistakes, learnt how to take a film forward, applied new things, explored new avenues, etc. Then there are movies that need a new perspective, and that’s where the crew comes in. But my admin and office staff haven’t changed.
BOI: Your partnership with UTV began with Swades?
AG: Yes, they were partly involved with Lagaan as they were part-distributors on that film. But Swades was our first collaboration.
BOI: You collaborated with UTV on Swades, where you launched a new actress. 10 years later, you will be collaborating with UTV again and launching another actress.
AG: That’s so true! Did not realise the similarity. (Laughs)
SG: Actually, he always emphasises on a new heroine as he’s looking for freshness, and after all it’s his vision and he sees it best. I just try to increase the number so I push for stars.
AG: The casting of the male protagonist is critical for me. He carries the film on his shoulders. Then comes the female protagonist, who might be in a supportive part and a fresh face does justice to that part. Or you make a film which has a hero or a heroine equal in parts, like Jodhaa Akbar, where Jodhaa was as important as Akbar. So I didn’t demand a new girl for that film.
SG: (Cuts in) No, there too you started out with a new actress.
AG: (Cuts in) No, not all. I wanted only Aishwarya Rai Bachchan for that film. In Jodhaa Akbar, the actress was also very important. The female character demanded an established actress. What’s Your Rashee? demanded 12 characters, so you needed a star and that’s how Priyanka (Chopra) came in. Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey needed Deepika (Padukone) to play Kalpana Datta. For Gita’s character in Swades, we cast a new girl - Gayatri Joshi. I don’t necessarily need a new actress for every film. It all depends on the script. For instance, for Everest (TV show), we cast a new girl Shamata Anchan and two guys - Rohan Gandotra and Sahil Salathia. Similarly, Mohenjo Daro too demanded a fresh face and hence - Pooja Hegde.
BOI: All we know is that Mohenjo Daro is going on the floors next month and that Hrithik Roshan and debutante Pooja Hegde features in it. What about the rest of the cast?
SG: This time, we have a few surprises.
AG: Give us one week and we will announce everything.
BOI: In your movies, apart from the leading jodi or leading man, you usually opt for lesser-known actors in the support cast.
SG: We have, for Mohenjo Daro we have a few established actors in supporting parts.
AG: My attempt it to create a real world, peopled with real faces. If there is a bearded character, then ideally I would like him to grow his facial hair. If a character needs to look slim, then the actor needs to lose weight. I would like them to be present at the readings or for the look test. I want them to be there for cast and crew meet-and-greet meetings.
The more established the character actors, the busier they are as they are committed to television shows, theatre performances and several other films. And hence they are not able to give that much preparation time. Hence I usually like to go for character actors who are very good actors but are lesser known.
During the pre-production of Swades, I told Shah Rukh that we were having script reading sessions for Kishori Ballal ji (Kaveriamma), Gayatri and Smit Sheth (Chiku), and I requested him to drop in during the reading session. I wanted them to get rid of their anxiety of working with Shah Rukh Khan! Shah Rukh came in and did the reading with them. After that, they realised how warm Shah Rukh was as a person and their anxiety vanished and they gelled very well on the shoot.
BOI: How do you go about the casting process for your films? When, where and how do you see their work?
AG: I do watch a lot of plays be it Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati or English. But my other very big source for finding talent is watch all the regional television channels, like DD Oriya, DD Bangla, DD Kashmir or DD Andhra, because there are so many talented actors on these regional shows who never think of coming to Mumbai and working here, either because they cannot afford the struggle or they have not got the opportunity. There are so many actors in Delhi who are doing theatre there, including Vishwa Badola ji, Varun’s father, who did Swades and Jodhaa Akbar with me. In our television series Everest, we have an Assamese star - Diganta Hazarika from Guwahati.
BOI: It is easy for you (Ashutosh) to watch TV and pick a particular artiste whose work catches your eye. How difficult it is for you (Sunita) to source these actors?
SG: It is not difficult as they obviously want to be a part of Bollywood but the hard part is getting them here and handling their expenses, getting them a house and a car and so on. So as a producer, I keep telling him to take actors from Mumbai as it costs less.
He always strives to create a world that will become believable. But, sometimes, the actor’s baggage gets in the way, like when they can’t say their lines. But he feels the look is right and that’s all that matters. But this impacts the shoot, which may have to be extended, and that impacts me. So I keep asking him if he is sure this is the actor he wants to cast. He casts a person for the way they look, which creates a world for the character as well.
AG: (Cuts in) Let me cite an example. For this one scene in Swades - getting the look of Haridas, the farmer, accurately, was very essential because his plight had to impact Mohan Bhargava. That farmer was going to represent the state of the entire village and on a macro level, of rural India. So if that casting was not right, the entire scene couldn’t have worked. So the look is sometimes more important than just acting talent. And if you get a combination of both, you celebrate. Like we did, after the Haridas scene was filmed.
SG: There have been times where he has cast our production team members as he felt they ‘looked right for the part’. There was this time I was on the sets and I saw one of our production guys in costume! When I asked him what was happening, he said, ‘Woh sir ne bola hai ki unko ye look chahiye character ke liye.’ He casts people off the sets too and I keep asking him, ‘What are you doing!’ (Laughs)
AG: In Jodhaa Akbar, I had asked my then Chief Assistant Karan (Malhotra) to play a farman reader and my first AD Guru (Gurmmeet Singh) to play the king, because their ‘look’ was right. I even cast my script supervisor Tejpal Singh in the role of Nimat, the eunuch in Jodhaa Akbar. So, on the sets, they would be seen in mughal costumes but also have walkie talkies on their kamarband with headphones under their turbans! (Laughs)
BOI: We saw Hrithik in a different look in Jodhaa Akbar and now you are working with him again in Mohenjo Daro. Without revealing anything about the film, can you tell us about his different look this time too?
AG: Yes, he has a very different look. (Smiles)
SG: Exactly, when we were doing the look test and he was standing in front of the mirror, I went up to him and said, ‘My God, from an emperor to a…’
BOI: To ‘a…’?
SG: Okay, I need my marriage to last. (Laughs)
BOI: Everyone is aware that Mohenjo Daro is a love story but what exactly is the film about?
AG: Mohenjo Daro is a look through a magnifying glass at our oldest civilisation. Indus Valley Civilisation falls in the Pre-history era and hence there isn’t all that much material to fall back on, except for excavation sites and study materials by various archaeologists. Even the script they used hasn’t yet been deciphered. So there is no research material except for archeological sites. I am most interested to see how this civilisation lived, what were their manners and morals, traditions and culture and how strongly they are relevant to our times - but all this through a love story.
BOI: Will the audience be able to relate to the film as they are not familiar with that era?
AG: Whenever I am doing a historic film, the story needs to guide it. The story connects and the audience finds relevance with that part of history. The only film I felt very strongly about, which was more of a biopic, was Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey where we focused on Surjya Sen and his world and the way the Chittagong uprising was carried out. Despite Abhishek’s (Bachchan) superb portrayal, the audience didn’t connect with it because they probably did not feel interested in this part of history and moreover, they probably did not connect with the script. So that was a huge learning experience for me in terms of the creative aspect of storytelling, that a biopic will not connect with an audience if it doesn’t have relevance. So in Mohenjo Daro, the contemporary relevance is very strong.
SG: The world is different from ours but you will be able to relate to it.
BOI: How much change have you seen in the industry over the years?
SG: When a film hasn’t worked, it’s been tough. We always start a new project from scratch and look back only to learn from mistakes we have made. Over the years, we’ve built a reputation in the industry, so that’s what we have gained in 10 years. Also because our production house is content-driven, we are happy with the way things are going but I would like to be happier. (Laughs)
AG: That would be the next phase. (Laughs)
SG: We have gained a lot of respect over the years.
AG: I have a theory that in the last five years, social media connectivity and sports have been majorly responsible for changing audience tastes. One sure thing it has done is it has shrunk people’s attention span for entertainment. We have grown up watching five-day Test matches and then one-day cricket came along. And today, 20-20 has revolutionised the gentleman’s game! That day is not far where matches will be decided by the toss of a coin! (Laughs) So I think a lot has changed with attention spans shrinking and also with entertainment available at our fingertips on our cellphones.
We need to start catering to that audience. Change is inevitable and we need to adapt to change.
Also, the quality of filmmaking has changed. Earlier, films based on literature were immediately labelled ‘parallel cinema’. And these films would be shown in select obscure theatres. It’s not that there was no audience for this kind of cinema back then. It’s just that audiences had no access, they were not aware of where the films were showing. Today, those films can be watched at a multiplex. So, viewership and visibility is much higher. Today, they are not called ‘parallel cinema’ but a ‘different kind of cinema’, ‘Indie cinema’.
You don’t have to make films two and a half hours or three hours long. You no longer have to have songs in your films, or necessarily have your actors lip sync. Changes like these have helped our cinema evolve.
Now is Phase Two for AGPPL – producing movies with other directors, especially directors who are writers, as I feel that to be a true auteur, you have to write the material that you want to direct.
BOI: Speaking of the next phase of expansion… what would you like your banner to represent? And how do you plan to scale up production as you cannot be on different sets at the same time?
AG: I think my genre has always been entertainment combined with some kind of social message. It is not necessary that the films I produce should have that. We might make a small romantic comedy or a horror film or even a spiritual movie. The genre doesn’t matter as long as the story connects with us. So it doesn’t have to be an Ashutosh Gowariker film. Why should I impose my style on another director?
On AGPPL Turning 10!
In AGPPL's 10 year journey, we have collaborated on four movies, starting with Swades followed by Jodhaa Akbar, What's Your Raashee? and now Mohenjo Daro. It has been a very close relationship and deeply satisfying for us both, creatively and commercially. Ashutosh's unmatched creative vision, coupled with his genius for envisioning and then bringing to life new characters and new worlds, together with Sunita's supreme efficiency and excellence in production and people management, has helped AGPPL successfully attempt genres and scales of cinema that would intimidate most production houses with their sheer scope of ambition. We are thrilled to have been a part of their creative journey and look forward to continuing on this path together with them as we commence the shoot on Mohenjo Daro in January. Congrats Ashu, Sunita and the whole team at AGPPL! Here's to many more decades of movie magic!
Can we even imagine Indian cinema without the contribution of AGPPL?, without films like Lagaan, Jodha Akbar, Swades etc? These were movies that stimulated the intellect and tickled our senses in ways never experienced before on celluloid, each time kickstarting a new revolution in the way cinema was perceived back then. I consider myself very blessed and fortunate to have been chosen to be a part of their magnificent journey which most of the time I'd say has been triumphant 'against all odds'. My heartiest congratulations to Ashutosh and Sunita and all those associated with completing 10 years in a journey that will last a lifetime. And I look forward to creating another milestone together, one more time, with the most challenging venture yet, Mohenjo Daro. Congratulations, once again.
I have known Ashu for many years and it was my dream to work in a film with him. Thankfully, that dream came true. Khelein Hum Je Jaan Se is a film I have great pride in. It is an experience I will never forget. Thank you, Ashutosh, Sunita, and the team of AGPPL for such wonderful memories and many congratulations on completing ten glorious years.
It's not every day that you get to work in a film like Jodha Akbar. A well-written part that is very feminine and delicate, and a director with focus and clarity do not often come together. Ashutosh is the Mr Nice Guy who does not get bogged down by any situation. It was a great experience working with Ashutosh and his team on Jodha Akbar. Today, he is a dear friend and I would like to wish Sunita and him all the very best for the future and a big congratulations on the completion of 10 yrs of his production house AGPPL.
In my mind, the story of AGGPL is one of perfect harmony. On one hand, you have a prolific filmmaker and on the other, a very astute producer who understands the nuances of what makes a film special. I have worked very closely with Ashu sir and with Sunita, and the synergy they have is amazing. Each one compliments the other, which in turn makes AGGPL what it is... a home of storytellers.. that weave art and business in the best way possible. Congratulations on completing a decade in our mad, crazy world of films and I wish you every success in the years that follow.
AGPPL will complete its tenth year on 17th of December. I am proud to be a member of its creative team from its very inception because here is a production house that believes in the finest traditions of Hindi cinema and has proved again and again that poignancy and entertainment can go hand in hand.
Wishing the berst for AGPPL… May you go ahead and do many more memorable, life changing movies.. with great success and credibility.. God Bless!!!