With their eyes firmly on quality content, these two worthies – producer Krishika Lulla of Eros International and Sneha Rajani, Deputy President and Head, MSM Motion Pictures – are racing ahead. And with good reason, for their respective films, Tanu Weds Manu Returns and Piku, brought a smile to the faces of everyone, from cine-goers, to the trade and the industry at large. Here are the two winners in conversation with team Box Office India
Sneha Rajan (SR): NP (Singh) and I were discussing Kaun Banega Crorepati and, at the time, he narrated a one-liner of Piku to me and said Amitabh Bachchan was working on it. Two months later, I moved to the motion picture division of the company. NP asked me what I would like to work on first and I said, ‘Piku’. He asked me to go ahead with the project and I heard the full narration from Soojit (Sircar) and Juhi (Chaturvedi). They also sent me the script, which was outstanding. We announced the film just two weeks after I moved to the filmmaking side of the company.
SR: And your association with Tanu Weds Manu Returns?
KL: When I met Aanandji (L Rai), I wanted to make Tanu Weds Manu Returns as he had the seed of the film. I had just heard a one-liner of the film and I was eager to do the film. At that time, Raanjhanaa was also developing and it too had a beautiful script. I wanted to do both films and I was waiting for Raanjhanaa to be completed so that we could start working on Tanu Weds Manu Returns.
SR: And what a stupendous film!
KL: I knew it would be bigger than the first one.
SR: You knew it?
KL: Yes, because the concept was so strong. I can never forget the one liner that I heard in the initial stages. I fell in love with it and loved it so much that I wanted to do it first. But I am glad we did Raanjhanaa first.
SR: And the casting?
KL: The film is a continuation of the first part, so the casting had to be the same.
SR: Was it easy to get everyone back together?
KL: It was actually beautiful to not only get the cast but all the technicians together for the sequel. There were just a few new people like Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. Each character came back like the actress who plays Pappi’s love interest. She got back and had a better role too. Each actor performed brilliantly, from the father to the mother to even the uncles and aunts.
It is hard for me to pick my favourite scene as each one is so well scripted and executed. Even the scene where Manu’s mother is blabbering in the background even as Manu, Pappi and the father are talking. Everything is so real. I found it brilliant and even the audience found it brilliant.
SR: Yes, clearly.
KL: Earlier I would have said this is our film but it’s wiser to say that is the audience’s film.
KL: That happens only when you do something with total honesty and believe in content-driven cinema. I think Bollywood is also evolving just like Hollywood has. Hollywood films impress the audience with their trailers even when half the actors are unknown. It is the concept and the gist of a film in the trailer that attracts the audience. That is why I feel that the first trailer is make-or-break for your film. Our audience has evolved and they are smart enough to pass judgment on a film by the trailer alone. So you should always make sure that your trailer is the best.
Along with box-office success, the kind of respect and love I am receiving is phenomenal. From Twitter to Facebook to phone calls, people are giving me so much affection. It is overwhelming to get a reaction like this from the audience. Amitji (Amitabh Bachchan) sent me a beautiful message. He is a superstar and he didn’t need to message me. He could have just messaged Kangana (Ranaut) and Madhavan but he messaged me too and that is just so beautiful.
BOI: Were you surprised with Piku’s scale of success?
SR: Frankly no, because in my head I had always believed that the film would do great and my entire team thought I was cuckoo. I always said Rs 100 crore worldwide. And everyone in my team thought sathiya gayi hai koi baat nahi dekhte hai. When we got the numbers, they all but touched my feet. (Laughs)
So the numbers didn’t surprise me but I was surprised with the love that we got, the reaction from the audience and the way they connected with the story. Everyone could relate to Piku and realised that either their father or grandfather is like him. Everybody had a situation to narrate which connected them to the story. That strong reaction from across the world is what really touched us and was unexpected.
BOI: It is a proud moment for both of you, backing the right content and going all out to make and promote what you believe in.
KL: I believe that when you make a film with honesty, the audience will react positively to it. I have been producing films for a long time and I have done only realistic cinema, like Desi Boyz, which was a commercial film, and Chalo Dilli, which was a slice-of-life film. People enjoy my films and connect with them. Even NH10. Despite being a dark film, people connected to it. Undoubtedly, content is king right now.
BOI: What’s your take on the changing taste of the audience?
SR: I keep saying this over and over again, that 2014 will be considered the lowest year in the industry because it was such a terrible year. The fact that a lot of big films did not do well was a wake-up call. I am glad that a lot of producers sat back and analysed the situation and figured out what was working and what was not. I think we have all concluded that it’s the script that matters most, not the projects. You have to make a film, not a project. I think things will only get better. So I am glad that the wake-up call of 2014 has worked for the films releasing in 2015. For the audience, it is a good time as they are finally getting content-driven films. It is obvious that they were hungry for good content but nobody was giving it to them. Now films are doing well back-to-back.
KL: (Cuts in) Hollywood films do well because they have different content. The Indian audience goes to watch an English film because they are different. Now Bollywood is stepping up and offering the kind of content that the audience wants. In 2015, many films have been doing well and I think this year is good for all of us.
BOI: What was your reaction when you watched Piku?
KL: I loved the film and I told Deepika (Padukone) too. As Sneha said, the film has the ability to connect emotionally with the audience. The problems in the film are so relatable… we all know someone like Amitji’s character. It is a common problem but no one likes to talk about it, especially a touchy subject like constipation. (Laughs)
BOI: Share your journey while making Tanu Weds Manu Returns and Piku.
KL: It was fabulous. It was always like a party on the sets with Aanandji. Apart from it being a learning experience, it was a great shoot because in the break, Aanandji orders all kinds of cuisine and it is like a big celebration with so much food. Sometimes, he literally blackmails me to eat and would say, ‘I will only take this shot if you try this jalebi.’ When you see something you read in a script coming to life before your very yes, it is a different kind of high. Some producers feel it is not important to be on the sets but I personally feel it is very important to stay connected with the team and be a part of the making of the film, especially when you have an inkling that the film will do well. So to see the transformation of a script to a feature film is overwhelming.
SR: It has been really wonderful for me as well. With Piku… with Deepika, Irrfan and Amitji, you just didn’t want the shooting to end. They even said it in many interviews. When Amitji was shooting on the last day, I was in Mumbai and his pack-up shot was being shot in Ahmedabad, they were shooting the road trip sequence. I got a call from Shoojit, saying, ‘We are all in tears and will you please speak to Boss?’ He calls Amitji ‘boss’. So I spoke to him and he asked me if we could shoot for a couple more days. So I asked him what we would shoot. He said, ‘I don’t know, just make up something, let this not end.’ And Irrfan too agreed as Deepika and Irrfan had a few more days to shoot. Nobody wanted to leave the set.
The film was shot in Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and Benaras and the unit became like a family. Then the editing process started and, after every few days, I kept calling Shoojit to show us some footage and he asked us to wait. In January, he showed us a rough cut. It was fabulous!
I saw the film without the music and it was a very rough cut but I gave it a standing ovation. It was just a collection of scenes at that stage.
Now it feels like a vacuum; we are not doing anything for Piku. We were so consumed by Piku for the last nine months that it feels odd to not be doing something for that film. It feels strange to see the standee in my office with me not working on the film. It’s a huge void.
BOI: Both films had a very strong female character. In fact, it was the female characters around which each film revolved. Personally, was it especially gratifying for you to see the films doing well as you are women producers?
KL: Yes, woman-oriented subjects are being appreciated more and more. I believe it all started with The Dirty Picture. In the end, it’s content that works. If the content demands a woman in the story, then why not? A female lead can justify a character as much as a male-oriented script can. It’s about telling stories from different point-of-views. Nowadays, see people love women-oriented scripts and stories and want to hear more movies like that. The audience wants to watch powerful woman doing well. And it’s just not woman-oriented stories… female directors, female DoPs… everyone is growing. So male and female are equal, there is no comparison. Earlier, the industry was male-driven but things have changed and both are equally appreciated.
BOI: What’s your take, Sneha?
SR: My take is similar to what Krishika just said. I also agree that it started with The Dirty Picture but I also believe women have always been very important in our films. What was Mother India all about? As long as your story and script are strong enough, every gender-oriented film will work. Mother India is a woman-oriented film and it worked.
KL: (Cuts in) But there was a lull in this subject after that, for a very long time.
SR: I agree but there was Seeta Aur Geeta and many more films like that.
KL: (Cuts in) But only a few.
SR: Nobody knew the strength or the courage because the numbers were not added clearly. And, more than the numbers, it was content which was lacking or maybe we never would have said that suddenly women-oriented films are doing well. I don’t think anybody gave it a chance. But I am glad that these kinds of films have finally started doing well.
BOI: This was the first film after you taking over MSM. What is the studio’s line-up?
SR: Our main focus will be scripts. I am not looking at actor-oriented script. I mean, we get calls which say, ‘We have an actor already in for the project’. But, no, we are not looking for such films.
KL: (Cuts in) Yes, they call and say, ‘This ‘A’ list actor has been signed in.’ And I am like, hello, what about the script?’ Without listening to the script, how can I say yes to a film? As a producer, I also need to look at the budget. Otherwise, what will you enjoy at the box office?
SR: So, yes, the primary focus is the script; second is casting; and then costing. So we have announced our second film, which is Azhar with Balaji Motion Pictures. That film has been in discussions with Ekta (Kapoor) for the last six months. But until all three boxes were ticked off, we didn’t announce any project. Going forward, there will be three more announcements, which we have been cooking for the last year.
SR: No, strictly the script. If it’s a Piku type of film, fine; if it’s a biopic like Azhar, good. But the script has to stand out. We are doing a couple of comedies as well so there is no hard-and-fast rule on a particular genre.
KL: (Cuts in) I think we should attempt different genres because sections of the audience have different tastes. Everybody likes variety, so why not give them variety in content? Even with women-oriented films, we should not get fixated on one kind of film. One should always try different types of content because you never know what will work on a Friday. Also formula-oriented films are no longer working because the audience is open to a wide variety of films. They watch Hollywood films and world cinema too. So they want different genres from us too. As producers, we have to keep in mind that content should be good and the budget must be right. If a film high on content goes over budget, you don’t make any money. And if the content is very strong and you can make the film in a given budget, you can plan your marketing strategy accordingly.
BOI: Is it difficult to make a film on a targeted budget?
KL: While shooting, working backwards helps. When you can make a film within a specific budget, why would you increase your budget? So working backwards always helps. We work on dates, shooting on location… everything has to be done beforehand.
SR: It also helps when you are working with someone like Shoojit Sircar and maybe Aanand L Rai because they stick to their budgets. Also, when you work with directors like them, the scope of reshooting is nil. I believe we are both lucky to work with directors who were clear about what they wanted. Sometimes, I would ask Shoojit for songs if he has some scenes. There was nothing extra shot, there was no lip-sync song, it was all in the background. When we would ask him if he had anything in the bank and he would be, like, ‘I didn’t shoot anything extra.’
BOI: Your movie stint happened after a successful career in television. How much does the television experience translate while making films? How are the two mediums different?
SR: They are totally different, like chalk and cheese. Television is like fast food and films are like a seven-course meal, which you need to prepare and prepare. So I don’t think you can compare the two mediums at all, especially in our country where television is the only form of entertainment for the masses. The kind of soaps that work on TV will never work in films.
BOI: When you know you have strong content, does it change the marketing strategy of the film in any way?
KL: Why would it change? One always needs to believe in what one is doing and go all out to promote it.
KL: It helps in a lot of ways, especially because we know he will not go over-budget as he is also trying to maximise his profits. So it’s good, in a way.
BOI: Anything specific you want to tell the trade?
SR: We are here to make content-driven cinema. We already announced Azhar and in the next couple of months, we will announce a few more films. There is lot of expectation from us after Piku just like people must have started asking her (Krishika) about Tanu Weds Manu 3.
KL: Totally, after NH10 released, people said, ‘Now make NH12.’ And now everyone is talking about Tanu Weds Manu Returns 3. Someone said, ‘Datto Ki Shaadi Hai.’ People want to watch more of Datto and what happens to her character. It would be extremely challenging to write a third installment as expectations are insanely high.
BOI: What next for you, Krishika?
KL: I am planning to get into regional cinema and have signed a few directors. I am also planning some films with Aanand L Rai. Then I am doing Banjo, which will be directed by a Marathi director Ravi Jadhav, who has won four National Awards. His fifth film, which released along with Gabbar Is Back did equally well at the box office. So I am looking at the regional slate. We are also locking some other projects. It’s a surprise.
BOI: Any regional plans for MSM?
SR: Not right now. We want to sort out Hindi first, then we will move to other languages.