Arun Rangachari (AR): We were involved in the film industry in a very peripheral manner as anchor investors in a group of companies called Valuable Group, which has promoted UFO Moviez. Both Vivek and I have always had a passion for cinema and hail from quasi-cinema families. So we thought it would be a great idea to leverage those investments and get into content because we felt the M&E space in India was set for exponential growth and we wanted to be part of that growth. So we began in a very modest way in 2009.
BOI: What was the first film your studio produced?
AR: We started with a bilingual film called Lalbaug Parel, which was directed by Mahesh Manjrekar. It was made in two languages. Then we did a Marathi film and a couple of Hindi films. And, of course, the current slate of Hindi films which began with D-Day. We have The Lunchbox releasing this week, Mickey Virus in October and Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly after that. Also, we have already begun work on our next slate.
BOI: Why start with a regional film? Did you want to first understand the business in that space?
AR: We wanted to get our hands dirty but one of the films we are really proud of is Lalbaug Parel, our first film. I think cinema transcends language and it was a great subject. It also did very well in the Marathi market. But speaking from a practical point of view, regional cinema has a limited budget, so we functioned in that manner, and, yes, we wanted to understand the business of cinema first.
Vivek Rangachari (VR): Also. Mahesh had just finished Mee Shivajiraje Bhosle Boltoy. So we had that in the backdrop and that’s why we decided to make Lalbaug Parel.
AR: We have focused on four styles. I believe any production house that wants to make a name in the industry has to have those big tentpole films supported by smaller ones. We will do at least one or two big films a year along with youth-focused cinema. That’s the niche we want to focus on. And in the past few years you must have seen the kind of success that these films have had. India is a very young country so we need to make films that are skewed towards that demographic. It could be a rom-com, a comedy film, a serious film, social dramas whatever, but focused squarely on the youth.
BOI: And you recently partnered with iRock Films too?
AR: Yes, we have bought a stake in iRock films. And that, again, is our focus. The third style is films made in India, with Indian talent but focused as much on an Indian audience as on a global audience.
BOI: Like The Lunchbox?
AR: Yes, The Lunchbox is one of them and also Monsoon Shootout, Peddlers and Ugly. So films made in India, for India but which also have an effect on the Indian diaspora in international markets. I mean, the kind of business that The Lunchbox has done internationally, pre-sales, is awesome. We have gone into markets that no Hindi film has gone to and we have also got phenomenal MGs. So, quite literally, the world is shrinking and the language of cinema is getting unified. This is the third style that we want to follow.
The fourth is the horror genre, 3D horror films. We pioneered the first 3D horror film, Haunted, which was quite successful and are planning Haunted 2. Horror has a very loyal following all over the world, and the audience for this genre is increasing. Horror was also not exploited properly in our market. So we have a couple of horror films in our line-up too.
VR: These are the four styles we are concentrating on and this is also reflected in our line-up. We are green-lighting films on the basis of these four types. For instance, the few Tamil films we are doing and which we will announce soon. They are very interesting projects and have great content. We are also working on Ritesh Batra’s, the director of The Lunchbox, next project.
AR: But regardless of what we do, quality of content is most important. We will never do mindless, big-budget films, regardless of how exciting it sounds.
AR: (Laughs) I can’t give you an example! No, people do it and they do it very well, but we come from a different school of thought and are very comfortable in our zone. You may call it a ‘shortcoming’ but we can’t do that kind of cinema. So the common thread among all these films, whether horror, an international concept, high drama or a big-ticket film… all of them will have a very strong content foundation.
BOI: Speaking of green-lighting… What are DAR’s criteria for this?
VR: We ask for the synopsis of the film and our team – Arun, me, the marketing team with Sasha and distribution team with Murli and Elvin – looks at the commercial aspect of the film and evaluates whether it is marketable. Sasha takes that call and a call on the creatives.
Sometimes, we take a look at the script and sometimes, we ask for a narration, or a reading. Next, we look at the budget as we also have a production team. If the film doesn’t have a budget, we sometimes add our own budget and then take a final call based on whether we like the script and whether it is commercially viable. Then we give the final go-ahead for the film.
From a distribution point of view, we also look at other films in the same genre and how well they have performed. That gives us an idea of the kind of revenues we are looking at. We also decide whether we have the bandwidth and manpower to do a particular film. These are the factors we look at. Of course, Arun mentioned how content is primary but we also look at the marketability of the film.
BOI: What business model do you follow? Do you believe in producing yourselves, co-producing or acquiring films?
AR: We don’t acquire; we have never acquired any films. We come from the school of thought that believes that filmmaking is a collaborative business and there is no one rule that we have to follow. We are very open and look at a script in its totality. Will the script work? Will it do well commercially? How will we market it? And will the distribution work out effectively?
There are certain films that are very good but very difficult to market. We take all this into consideration and then decide whether we will have the film made. At the end of the day, the film has to me made, whether it’s a co-production or a home production. We do all kinds of stuff. I think the advantage of having a very nimble organsiation is that we make our own rules as we go along. There is no ‘one rule’ that we have to follow.
BOI: Do you have a scale in mind, to do, say, eight or ten films a year of a medium budget, small budget etc?
AR: At the back of our mind, we do have that in mind and we try to look at how we will deploy it. We plan to do one or two big-ticket films a year; maybe a couple of international focus films, two or three small and medium-budget films; and two or three horror films. That’s the general sense of the kind of films we want to do a year.
But if a great film comes along, we are liable to change our slate and do something else. We are flexible in that respect. There have been times when we have been pitched projects that we didn’t have the bandwidth to do. So we were honest and turned them down.
Sasha John (SJ): After a project is pitched, we have an internal discussion and I talk about the marketing that the film can have. We see whether it is commercially viable or along the sidelines of… Let’s say a project has been cleared. We then make sure its marketing is in tune with the content of the film and I give my inputs at every stage.
BOI: Marketing is a very important stage for any film. What is your approach to marketing films like The Lunchbox and Ugly?
AR: For The Lunchbox, thankfully, we also had UTV on board! (Laughs)
BOI: Karan Johar was on board too.
AR: Yes, when we have films like these, bringing a brand on board helps. These films have a little time to release, so we are figuring out a couple of ideas. We have a couple of very innovative ideas and I think the other collaborators will be very impressed with what we come up with in the next couple of months.
BOI: But for films like The Lunchbox, where a bigger studio like UTV is involved and which has more marketing muscle, what is your role in marketing?
AR: They do take inputs from us. What often happens is people get caught up in ego tussles. What should I do, what is my brand positioning in the film, and other such things. At the end of the day, a movie speaks for itself. So, to answer your question, we have a very balanced approach towards marketing, especially when there is a third partner on board. The film has to benefit so it doesn’t matter if we get slightly less or more branding. But too many cooks spoil the broth. So, if there is one person responsible for marketing and we trust them with our film, we might as well put our faith in them entirely.
BOI: Most of your films are co-productions as opposed to standalone DAR productions. Is it important for you to distribute the risk?
AR: That’s part of it, of course. From a financial standpoint, we do distribute the risk. Also, as I mentioned earlier, filmmaking is a very collaborative business so we will do two-three films ourselves and if we have to do a bunch of more interesting films, we have to rely on some of the co-producers that we have. There is no harm co-producing. We just want to get to the top of the table and hopefully produce a good product.
Elvin Raja (ER): When it comes to distributing films like these, this is handled by Murli, who has been around for a very long time. What we bring to the table in terms of distribution is the understanding of what the exhibition market wants. How we can position a product in a certain way so that the exhibition fraternity accepts it. We try and map which markets these films work best in. Let me give you an example… a Lunchbox will work only in a limited number of markets. So how do we put that across? And how do we get the requisite showcasing?
AR: These are the guys who bring in the sanity. Our first reaction to a film is that it should crack at least 1,000 screens. Then, these guys say, hold your horses; this film is meant for only so many screens.
AR: No, if that’s how we worked, we would have had to quit the industry a long time ago. (Laughs)
VR: We work on a possible release date and work backwards too.
BOI: Your’s is a studio that focuses on content-led films. Isn’t it necessary to back that up with a big-budget film like a Chennai Express, for instance?
AR: Which is what I said. If we focus on small-budget films round the year, we have to do those one or two big films. We are doing Bikini Murders this year and that is a big film.
BOI: Bikini Murders is a big film?
AR: I’m sorry?
BOI: A Bikini Murders is not like a Besharam or BOSS.
AR: It’s not a big film like Besharam. By big film, we mean a film with actors like one of the Khans, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn.
AR: The definition of a big film is evolving all the time. So from our point of view, it will be an important film for us. Again, it’s going to be a very content-driven film. We will announce the cast soon. We will do one or two of those films every year. That’s the kind of line-up we will have every year.
BOI: What are the company’s plans for expansion in the near term?
AR: After taking a look at our line-up, a lot of people are keen on working with us. So we have been approached by many production houses and talents and are sifting through those projects. Obviously, the idea is to scale up. It’s been just three and a half years since we launched. Having said that, we will be making a few more announcements soon, about collaborations with some filmmakers.
BOI: Foreign filmmakers?
AR: Yes, non-Indian filmmakers. We might just make that our specialty.
AR: Yes, we are not very comfortable with being bracketed in a particular zone but by being independent, we have the luxury of being what we want to be on a case-to-case basis. So in some cases, we will have to work with a studio and in the other cases, we will do it independently.
Our distribution team, independent of our Hindi films, also does a lot of Hollywood films. We did The Dark Knight Rises, Fast And Furious, Oblivion, and a few more interesting projects coming up this year. So the good thing about being independent and small is that we are very flexible. And for that, we are willing to work in any way, with ten partners or six as in the case of The Lunchbox; do it alone, as in the case of Mickey Virus; or with two partners as in the case of D-Day or Ugly.
BOI: Your foray into films was because of distribution. Was it to learn the recovery aspect of the business first?
AR: We were familiar with the recovery aspect and we saw a good opportunity in distribution. We saw a good opportunity with Warner Bros and Universal. Also, there are only a few pan-India distributors in India apart from the big studios. There’s a niche that can be filled there.
VR: There were studios like PVR, who came to us and asked us to release their films too, since we were already manning distribution. We saw that as an opportunity.
Murli Chhatwani (MC): At the time of Haunted, we realised that if we produced four films a year, which we are doing this year, there would be a big need for an in-house distribution arm. That’s how we came into the picture. Arun had already registered a company called DAR Film Distributors before I joined. So he immediately understood the model I came up with. We would do a few films on a commission basis to start our distribution process; and also buy a few films from Hollywood and Bollywood.
We stuck to buying more Hollywood content and to our goal of releasing all the films that we produce. So far, we have managed to achieve all this.
BOI: How easy or difficult is it to market a Hollywood film in India?
SJ: You are appealing to a wider… actually, two different audiences in the country. But I don’t think very different. You try to sell your films to as many people as you can think of.
ER: Hollywood films have a very specific TG. It’s growing now and…
AR: (Cuts in) With Hollywood films now being dubbed in four and five languages, that difference is diminishing. These films have brands that are now even finding an audience in different markets. So that difference is blurring. In the next few years, we will also see Hollywood films being dubbed in other Indian languages too.
ER: Since we have contributed to a major change in how Hollywood films were distributed in the country.
MC: Like in the selection of the films that we have chosen to distribute. And various studios…
AR: (Cuts in) Let me rephrase that. More than the movies we have done; the movies we have not done! (Laughs)
MC: Generally, when a studio gives us a Hollywood film to distribute, they look after the marketing. But we try to chip in with the PR, by increasing ad spends on prints. We try and push it into B and C class cities also. As a result, in Delhi-UP, Universal has earned, with Fast And Furious, what they couldn’t have achieved with any other film before.
MC: In Bombay, which is a major circuit we look after the distribution ourselves. But there are places where we have booking agents like in CI, CP and Mysore. In Delhi-UP and other major circuits, we partner with other distributors.
BOI: What happens when, as with The Lunchbox, where a UTV is also involved… Who distributes it?
AR: UTV will distribute the film and I think it’s best that way, because they have a lot more experience with films like these. They showed us a plan, we liked it and we are going ahead with it.
BOI: Any plans to ramp up distribution this year?
AR: We are looking at organic growth. I am very happy with the way Murli and Elvin are handling it. We haven’t grown too soon; we haven’t grown too slow. The idea is to take the company forward. In terms of DAR Motion Pictures… Vivek, do you want to take the question on how we want to grow?
VR: We have a strong line-up that includes six or seven movies for next year. It also depends on how our films are received this year. So instead of two or three big-ticket films, we might do three or four films on our own instead of depending on partners. It also depends on the kind of projects we produce.
BOI: You began your company with a Marathi film. Do you plan to get into South films?
AR: Getting into the South is not a joke. It’s a very evolved and disciplined industry and they know what kind of value addition one can provide them. They are a very self-sufficient industry and every space has been taken. So there is nothing much we can contribute. It is also a massive learning process. In fact, we have just started learning Bollywood. We will take some time to get there.
AR: We are looking into Bengali and Punjabi films. Since we began with Marathi films, we will look at Marathi films too next year. So regional cinema, yes; South Indian cinema… no plans in the foreseeable future.
BOI: On a different note, you said filmmaking is a collaborative business and also a very personalised business. How do you pander to egos and relationships with the stars?
AR: I leave that to Vivek, Murli and Sasha. They do the grunt work.
VR: We are also interacting with a lot with people, including old-time distributors and exhibitors. So networking is key.
AR: You’re absolutely right. I like the way Vivek and the team have been forging relationships. A couple of years ago, we would get projects that had done the rounds with XYZ production houses. Now, especially at the end of last year, we have started becoming the first port of call. We have become a significant port of call for many filmmakers. Due to that, our collaborations are also increasing.
BOI: Are you trying to say that, just like among actors, there is an informal rating system among corporate studios too?
AR: Of course there is a definite pecking order among corporate studios too. There are A-list studios, B-listers and the guys with whom you would only want to work under duress or at gunpoint. We were not exactly there! But we have moved ahead. (Laughs)
BOI: What has the journey with the company been like for each of you?
MC: I have been with DAR for two years and there have been some major changes in the company as far as distribution is concerned since I joined. I’m really happy with how things have shaped up.
From going through 55 script narrations, we have gotten into the production of five films and in my 15-year career, these are the five films I am very proud of. That’s because of the way they have evolved from narration stage, we rejected some of them and changed some of them and the results have been mind-blowing.
AR: It’s been a very challenging and exhilarating ride. We have had massive ups and downs, and insecurities about whether we are doing the right thing. We have stayed up nights discussing strategies. We also learnt how the industry functions in different ways since we were not exposed to in our previous corporate avatar.
Would I trade this for anything else? Absolutely not! It’s been rocky, bumpy, happy and sad. We have been through a vibgyor of emotions and it’s been great. I guess, that is especially true for Vivek, who left an investment banking career to do this.
VR: Leaving a very organised sector to be part of a sector which can be very disruptive.
Murli: Vivek has left a very positive career to…
VR: …get into something even more positive! (Laughs)
BOI: But, Vivek, can you elaborate on your journey?
VR: It was great to quit my job three and a half years ago and look for office space. There have been several ups and downs but the journey has been really exhilarating, and next year we have a great slate. It has been a great learning experience. When I burnt my fingers, I thought of it as an entry fee. It has all paid off and we are hoping it will only get better.
SJ: What keeps us motivated is also the fundamental need to be on the lookout for content and keep the slate content heavy.
ER: It’s been a very good learning experience. When I look at us now, I feel the UTVs and Viacoms also had a start like the one we’ve had. I’m lucky to be a part of what is happening here and that they have stuck to their goals of going great guns on content rather than compromise.
AR: I want to add that, initially, there was a lot of uncertainty about us… whether we were here to stay or just a flash in the pan. I want to use this forum to say that we are here to stay, so you might as well come and work with us!