Venky Mysore (VM): One key person we are missing today is Karim Morani. Blesson is our CFO and he has had the longest association with the organisation. Karuna is one of the founding members of the company and a co-producer of our movies. Keitan and Harry have been anchoring VFX and instrumental in establishing a new benchmark in VFX and other creative work. Shailja handles our digital initiative across various platforms.
BOI: Shah Rukh, can you please tell us about Venky Mysore?
SRK: Venky sir used to work for Birla Sun Life… for how many years?
VM: I have been in the industry for 25 years and was with them for five years.
SRK: He joined the team initially with Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR). But we realised there were two aspects to running a sports company. We needed to streamline KKR since there are so many verticals including the administrative and marketing. Sometimes, I feel it’s a little more difficult than films. During the IPL, it turns into a virtual film production unit. He streamlined it thanks to his love for cricket.
I don’t understand corporate culture very well but he brought in that culture. Ever since Venky sir came on board two years ago, things have become more streamlined and he is now like our lucky mascot. He spent a year understanding the different aspects of filmmaking and recently created this whole corporate structure with Blesson. They plug the loopholes that I cannot plug.
So, Venky sir joined us with Chennai Express. He is like a one-point person who manages the company and that lets us do what we do best. The film business is a lot like a slot machine. You keep pushing in pennies till you hit the jackpot but how long can you keep putting those pennies in and can you keep doing this without losing? We have managed to pull it off for 10 years but, going forward, we need someone to lead the company in a way that is more organised and yet make the movies that we want to make. Basically, to see that the slot machine does not give away all what we have created and also keep getting something back.
BOI: Karuna, tell us about the experience of turning producer with Chennai Express.
Karuna Badwal (KB): I was an entrepreneur and it was a sharp learning curve after I turned co-producer. When you are on the sets, it’s like playing a live game. Everything needs to fall in place, deadlines have to be met, and budgets need to be taken care of. I think the key thing I learnt was that everything requires a tremendous amount of detailing, organising and one should be able to pre-empt every situation. Films are more dynamic business than any other profession but it is a challenge we rise up to every day.
BOI: Blesson, can you tell us about your journey from Dreamz Unlimited to now?
Blesson Oommen (BO): I have been with Red Chillies since its inception. You can’t build a ship and sail in a day. I am glad I have been part of building the Red Chillies ship since the very beginning.
SRK: Yes! Actually, we used to run many more verticals like a television arm and we had quite a profitable advertising unit. More than being disorganised, we had our fingers in too many pies. It wasn’t like we weren’t making money. But let me put it this way. Producers are extremely important. They are the backbone of income and they need to speak to their project managers, team them up and streamline them in the right way.
We still have the capacity to restart advertising within 48-hours. I think we also have the capacity to start our television work in a week’s time, if we need to. Maybe we can’t do it ourselves but we can outsource it. When Venky sir joined us, we had these brainstorming sessions on every vertical before we went into Chennai Express. VFX is a business model in itself. It’s a long-term plan. You can’t have a VFX team without knowing the business. Our sustaining power was that Keitan and Harry had a company called H20 and they started with a team of four to five people.
When we took over their company, we decided to go full throttle into VFX. The idea was that, in a couple of years, people would realise that this Indian company was not just doing an operator’s job or creating bits and pieces for Hollywood films. RA.One was a calling card and Krrish 3 will, hopefully, be another.
In the next three years, our focus will be to get into production in a larger way. We will not only make big star films but also take up small and medium-budget projects because the films I do fall prey to a bigger set of producers. Karuna and Karim can oversee the small-budget films and synergise our VFX into those films. I am not trying to compare myself with a high-end studio like, say, a Dreamworks where they have the backend of VFX to represent the animation or VFX films. A lot of people can say, ‘Arrey, RA.One nahi banani chahiye thi!’ But I think with a company like ours, we need to synergise our strengths – production and VFX.
Maybe a few years later, we will look at what studios abroad do but first look at television. And we will function like our VFX model then. We will not do bread-and-butter projects, just to get in, make money and leave. The idea would be to try and be the game-changers.
We then need to have the infrastructure which extends from lights to the full backend of post-production. The idea is to build it up so that we have one full unit dedicated to this and then pave our way as the first creative production house.
BOI: In terms of ramping up, where do you see yourself – doing co-productions, acquiring films or producing them solo?
SRK: As producers, we will start looking at a separate team to shortlist stories. With the success of Chennai Express, we are on a comfortable ground. Now we can devote time to different aspects. If Karuna needs to be looking at a smaller film, I am sure she can designate someone on a film of mine while she takes a look at the other film. We might consider acquiring it if we find something creatively appealing and thereby co-produce it as well. But then, again, we’d like to do it in a profitable manner. We don’t want to become a niche storytelling company.
KB: Not a liability at all! I think it’s a huge asset. We are the only company that hasn’t looked at him as a commodity. His contribution is that we all ideate and get clarity on projects. The marketing and positioning of a film are given much thought and his inputs. He also helps us drive the organisation in a robust way.
VM: During my stint with KKR, I was a keen observer of Red Chillies and its core competencies and people who associated with us. We’ve always told everyone on the team, if we wanted people to associate with us, we had to give them a brand. People have got to know that by now, so we let it rub off that he is part of the decision-making. And most brands have appreciated the fact that his presence can add that X-factor to anything.
The best part about him being in the company is the big peak that comes with his involvement. Sometimes, his vision is perhaps a little ahead of our times. Even when Red Chillies was launched, his ideas were copied by everyone else. I think we excel at creating high-quality content and are very commercial at the same time.
How do we take those core ideas and make them viable without completely going off on a tangent? That’s our point of evaluation!
BOI: Also, how do you balance creativity against commerce?
SRK: Let me first answer your question on the impact of my presence on Red Chillies. The reason the company is called Red Chillies Entertainments Pvt Ltd and not Shah Rukh Khan Productions is to send the message across that with Red Chillies, you don’t get a Shah Rukh free. Like ek ticket le ke do ka fayda lo. If you are not getting a free deal, it means you don’t have free accessibility to me, which means the intimidating factor is not present at all kyunki main toh aaonga hi nahi.
For instance during Krrish 3, I did not involve myself with the VFX production of the film when it was being done at my studios. In fact Rakeshji (Rakesh Roshan) told me, ‘Ek din aake dekh toh le.’ I don’t intend to facilitate work that is not mine nor create a situation where they are awkward with me being there, whether with VFX, programming or finance. They simply keep me in the loop if they feel the decision is big enough for me to know. Everyone in the company knows that I only take creative decisions.
Your creative judgement may be fantastic but it can’t be better than mine because they know I don’t function for the ideology of money. The group we have here, whether Shailja, Karuna, Karim or Blesson… the group is a strange mix of people who get most excited by the creative excellence that we achieve. But obviously there is also that sensibility that prevails in all of us and is instilled by Blesson that maybe we are going overboard.
This happened during Chennai Express when they told me that I couldn’t be a part of the budgeting decisions and 80 per cent of the work got done. I treat my films as my own and a lot of films I do here are films that many other producers would turn down. Like a RA.One… I know a lot of people, out of love and goodness, would say I was a part of it and so was Kareena, but that doesn’t make it a sure-shot profitable film.
So we all sat down and decided that we needed to make this one. There are decisions taken that are creative in nature. But I think there is a balance in terms of commercials which is creeping in and so we need to look into the financial aspect too. In my experience, when you have a production unit you can start diversifying and having more films. They are there to save your cost of production. Small decisions also are becoming more and more important for the company because I know those little things are crucial.
KY: I came on board with Shah Rukh bhai during Main Hoon Na and then we did Paheli in 2005. At that time, there were no decent post-production studios, let alone VFX studios. In 2006, we opened Red Chillies VFX Studios. During the last five years, we scouted for talent across the country and turned down any outsourced work that came our way as we wanted to focus on our own plans. In the last five years, we have done 21 films.
Harry Hingorani (HH): We have an independent business model. As a service provider, we are open to doing any film that has a good story and budget.
Shailja Gupta (SG): Firstly, the digital integration of Chennai Express was possible because of SRK. The second thing is that digital is becoming so important that you have no choice but to be informed about what is happening around you. And Mr Khan is very clued in. I wouldn’t call him a geek but he is clued into what’s ‘in’ technologically and what’s not. So without him, being ready with the other team members like the marketing team would not be possible. But thanks to the digital medium, he was able to promote the film in places even where he was not able to be physically present.
When it comes to the company, it is very well demarcated as to what is brand SRK, what is associated with his individual films. So we have taken his films on platforms from where we could milk maximum returns.
BOI: What is the latest thing you have introduced on the back of Chennai Express?
SG: He is the first person to introduce the technology where, if you don’t have a Twitter account, you can access his tweets via sms. At the end of the day, it’s all about the product. If the product you are marketing is not good, then no amount of push can make it reach those levels through any kind of campaign. It was only because we had a great product that we created a huge buzz online.
BOI: What is the kind of brief you are given for production in terms of the films you make?
SRK: All of us are from very different backgrounds. If you look at us individually, we are capable of finding great jobs in any company. But everyone also has an offbeat talent too, which helps a lot. Shailja is key in the digital work but there is also a creative side to her. Similarly, Harry and Keitan have an alternative voice on filmmaking. So the whole idea of the vision of the company, which even Venky sir agrees with, is that it should be long-term. Short-term ideas will always depend on commerce. We are not in a casino for one big win; we are in the business of filmmaking for the long haul. After making our 12th film, apart from the acquisitions we have, we have finally got it right. And I don’t think we have made a huge departure from what the company stands for.
Mashallah, we have this huge business with Chennai Express, where money has been pouring in, which has helped us run all the departments and also increase the volume of our films. Apart from that, we are a very conservative production house.
Around 99 per cent of the time, we show our film to buyers, aap gaane sun ke toh jaao. Aapko picture leni hai dekh ke jao. So our culture of business is not going to suddenly change but it gives us a huge leap of faith in terms of negotiating. We are very lucky that on the back of a very commercially viable film like Chennai Express, we have a Happy New Year. Both these films were also very commercially viable on paper, but now we are also going to look into the creative aspect of films, with or without SRK. The volume of films has to increase from the company. Success always makes you look into aspects of business which were earlier ignored. We also have a lot of ancillary businesses, like KidZania is opening up, cricket… All these are entertainment related.
BOI: You also have a huge fan following overseas. So when it comes to marketing your own films, what kind of marketing inputs or suggestions does Red Chillies give to the company co-producing your film?
SRK: We have to thank UTV, which has always been associated with us even when we were down and were producing Chalte Chalte. We had no money to make a film then, so Ronnie (Screwvala) came on board and both of us kind of re-started a company that was almost down and out. We have been associated with them for eight to 10 years. And, somehow, both of us produced the biggest film of both our careers. We have shared a certain synergy over these years and neither of us has changed. UTV is very competent with distribution kaise karna hai and marketing kaise karna hai, so we let them do what they do best.
During the promotion of Chennai Express, we were travelling by air to promote our film and, suddenly, we thought, ‘Yaar, America ja sakte hain kya film ko leke.’ And Siddharth (Roy Kapur) and Amrita (Pandey) of UTV said, ‘Abhi late ho gaya hai, nahi le ja sakte.’ So as soon as we landed in Mumbai, we Skyped with the US audience. The production team planned the whole thing, the technology team set it up and within two hours, we were able to communicate with them to market the film. This kind of thing happens only when you understand each other.
But we have an equal say in marketing and we come up with out-of-the-box ideas like do ticket pe ek free karo during Raksha Bandhan. All of them laughed, saying it was not a lucrative idea. But we said ‘why not?’ So the whole idea is to play with a futuristic business model.
BOI: Your films My Name Is Khan (MNIK) and even Chennai Express reached out to non-traditional markets internationally. So, by now, do you have an understanding of the markets where your films can travel to maximise profits?
SRK: I either learn about it through the digital media or when I visit a new and potential market. I suddenly learnt that youngsters in Peru liked me! So I said, ‘Peru mein bhi karein kuch.’ Sometimes, the distribution team suggests a new market that we should try out. So, it’s a futuristic thing.
Also, your partners have to be willing to do that. Some may say, ‘Arrey yaar, Shah Rukh, 2,000 dollars dalenge, 5 ayenge. Toh chodo na.’ And I will say that I don’t want to travel all the way to Italy. But the idea is that the film business is a lot more than what those markets can produce. MNIK can be a role model, which the others can follow. Of course, there are a whole lot of other films. Abhi Peru ke andar bhi koi business hai, koi soch bhi nahi sakta tha. But Amrita from UTV told me that the film travelled to Peru, Indonesia, Malaysia and Germany.
SG: The online revenue of a Bollywood films is huge now and digital is opening up 30 or 40 per cent markets. So now, if you are opening your films in 96 countries and in another two years you expand to an additional 20 countries, in a few years the revenue of the opening of a film from the international business will grow four fold and be at par with any big-size Hollywood film.
SRK: There are superhero films all over the world. I don’t know who Captain America is, New York ke andar Spiderman hai toh hum log kyun khush hote hain? Likewise, in foreign countries, if they see a superhero like Krrish with a little mythology of India, and song and dance, maybe they will accept it. But there are always budget issues when you make a film like that. We are always, like, hamare yahan itna budget nahi hai. But when we make films like Chennai Express, or 3 Idiots which despite their limited budgets bring in good numbers from the market in India and the diaspora that gives people to expand budgets for future films. This means we can make a more fantastic film or a Krrish or a RA.One. This is just an example, but we make such a film and it goes international because the quality of VFX is unparalleled. There is a stupid notion that we have which is ‘India ke liye theek hai’, and that is the worst notion of the Indian film business.
The second thing is that Sony, Disney and Fox are there in the country, why should we just keep making films for limited audience? I have made a 45-million dollar film because that much business in India, meri last picture mein aaya tha, ab aap usko bahar le ja ke aur paisa bana sakte ho. So we are using them with our low-cost of production and a high standard of distribution and using us, India, as the main market. Why would Disney UTV say, ‘Ok, an SRK and Rohit Shetty film can be made in 35, so woh toh safe hai yaar utna aa hi jayega. I think Disney has been able to do that and Fox has also tried. We are the ones not giving them any films to try.
Indian cinema can go international in the next four or five years and not as world cinema. Like when RA.One went to LA and we told them the budget of the VFX on the film, they went ‘Wow!’ because they do the VFX in 35 to 40 million, and we did it in about 3 million. They said we were lying because the cost of two episodes of Game Of Thrones is about that much.
It’s sad that Indian cinema ends up being regional cinema or world cinema. But that change can only happen from within. The business can only increase if you offer new things.
BOI: Does Red Chillies see a potential in regional cinema?
SRK: Absolutely. In fact, I have been thinking about getting into Marathi films. I want to start with Maharashtra. Now that we are producers, we should see if a film fits into our scheme of things and do it. Even if it’s a small film and abhi toh maine ek regional film (Chennai Express) banayi bhi hai. (Laughs)
VM: I was told by a senior of mine that an ideal job would be if I wake up in the morning and willingly get out of the bed to go to work. That’s how exciting this has been. The other thing is the ability to watch high-performance people at such close quarters. The vision SRK spoke of… I see a great chance to leverage those. To be able to invest in other projects and to incubate ideas.
SRK: I think the core team knows their job. I am a trained actor; he is a trained VFX individual, efficient digital manager, trained finance guy. I think the core of a business is to empower the right people. If you don’t, your business can gain only short term. But if you empower the right people, success will be yours. I think we need another two years to actually start enjoying ourselves. Success makes you enjoy your job even more. And I think it will take us a few more hits to do that.