You have started your tenure with Viacom18 Motion Pictures on a high note with Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. What were your expectations and what’s the response been like?
I must say we were a little more ambitious about our plans for the film. This is a big film and had strong word-of-mouth. It will only improve. I think this film might even be our best. We have already achieved the median for the first three days. Right now, the question is whether we will keep the upper range or finish somewhere in between.
The film has benefitted immensely from word-of-mouth. But there is a slew of releases, three or four this week, and a few more thereafter. Is that a concern?
Not really. If you look at the pitch of this film and the way it has been received, it was always meant to be a scale film even though it might not have been top-lined by a star. This film is pitching above all the other films. We believe that this film will hold strong and with some luck, it may ride up to Eid.
The only concern, if at all, was about its length. This was a heavy story and to tell it properly, it needed that duration. But that can be handled tactfully through exhibition efficiency. And we have managed that well. We worked with our partners to have certain show times, where we could start early and therefore we didn’t need to compromise on our run time. So I think we are on a pretty solid wicket.
When you go by digital dashboards like IMDB, which are the best indicators, this film has been rated 8.4 on a base of 4,000 reviews so far. That tells you the quality of the connect is very strong. It gives us comfort that the film will hold out well and we don’t need to worry about films that release during this time.
This is your first film with Viacom18.
This is the first mainstream Hindi release. We also released Zapatlela 2, and also have been releasing English films, which we don’t make a noise about. It’s been an exciting phase. We have a big success in Zapatlela 2, which someone called the ‘3 Idiots of Marathi cinema’. But Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was always meant to be a big one. It is heartening to see that the strategic calls we took are coming together.
This film was marketed in a very different way. It had a big lead-up.
But the campaign started last year.
(Cuts in) It was very obvious that we were not making a Sachin Tendulkar biopic, which everyone would die to watch. Regardless of Milkha Singh’s achievements, he is not well known to the audience. That and the fact that the film was headed by Farhan (Akhtar) meant we had to approach the marketing strategy very differently.
If you can answer the question ‘why will people desire to see the film?’ you will get your footfalls. The only way to create that desire is to create a certain amount of curiosity. If you identify the challenge that the athlete is not so well-known, then you can create a curiosity and beat the challenge.
When we released the first look, it projected a certain scale, quality and a certain excitement. When Farhan looks around in the stadium, people became a part of the journey. There was a lot of curiosity about the journey and how the transformation takes place and what went into it.
Our PR was very focused and there was no sensationalism. It’s very easy to project a story like that. We took Milkhaji when we thought he would be able to make it. All of that created a phenomenal buzz and the way Farhan himself led that entire journey. Also, one does not expect Farhan to play a role like this; you associate him with something cerebral. I think we were successful in creating a buzz about the film. That was the key driver and it worked very well.
Apart from backing good content, Viacom18 is known for its aggressive marketing. But, with this film, things were slow.
I am very impressed that you guys noticed it. We very quite calibrated. We were clear about the curiosity we had created from the long tail. When you have a long tail, you can’t go berserk on the release. We had to tell a long story, which meant that the marketing approach had to be calibrated. Then, of course, as the release date approached, we unleashed the entire Air Force, so to speak, with our satellite partnerships and brand alliances. In terms of media weight, that rides on this kind of curiosity and that’s how we managed to get a massive opening.
Of course, there was. We did a lot of research on that and knew at the initial stage itself that the movie would be long. But people said exactly the same thing that they are saying now, that it is long but it is does not hamper viewing. People are not squirming in their seats. There are two aspects which we debated. First, the storytelling, which is a forte of Rakeysh. And then, there were practical business aspects like efficient exhibition, like, how many shows will we be able to get. We are actually losing an entire show with a run time like this.
This was heavily debated, especially for our overseas markets, where we cannot screen a three-hour film. Then we saw a reduced film, what you saw was a shortened version of the film. We reached a point where we saw a balance in terms of creative aspects as well as exhibition efficiency.
How did you manage to get a ‘U’ certificate?
I got the certificate very easily. There is so much positivity in the film; it is overwhelming. And that overpowers every other thing.
I think it has to do with the intent of the film. That intent was completely unadulterated in terms of what we wanted to show. There were no unnecessary layers. The film told its story as it had to be told. I think that’s why we got a ‘U’ certification so easily.
Will you be applying for tax-free status?
We have already done that.
Given that this was a biopic of a living legend, what precautions did you have to take? Was there any sensitivity in terms of communicating with the public?
Not only is Milkha Singh a living legend; we were talking about an 85-year-old. He has the sensibilities of a different era. I think there was a big challenge there. We were telling a story to the current generation about a bygone generation while not offending the person and his family. I think the man is very generous. He is very large hearted. And his son (Jeev) and daughter (Sonia) were very helpful. They understood and supported us. Even his wife was very supportive. And yes we did get the jitters when we showed him the film as we had no idea how he would react to it.
He saw his story brought alive and he gave us the creative licence to do it. It was not a documentary but a feature film, so he allowed us to play with it. More than anything, he believed in Rakeysh (Omprakash Mehra).
It’s a reflection of how the studio has operated in the past. We are primarily motivated by good content and good cinema. What is most important to us is the story that is to be told. That will not change and that will be the approach to all stories. We have also taken the tough route as the easier one for a studio is acquisition of films. I don’t think that helps the studio.
At the end of the day, the studio needs to make a profit and we have to answer to our shareholders. So we need balance. It’s almost like dum cooking, where you build it up gradually rather than microwave cooking, where you take a dish, pop it into the microwave and serve it piping hot. It’s very convenient but I don’t think that approach really works.
You will see lot more than the two and three films that we do every year. And that’s the balance we maintain and how we improve it. We will work hard to source more stories. Look at the way Farhan got into the story or how Vidya (Balan) went everywhere as a ‘pregnant’ woman to promote Kahaani. You need people who are committed and who will walk that extra mile, who will give you that opportunity to build the film.
Then, there are the collaborations we make, like with certain directors. What we have done in the past reflected in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, and it is reflecting in our upcoming films like Mary Kom in the first half of next year. It is our first collaboration with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and that too, two films.
Yes, if you look at this year’s line-up, we had Bombay Talkies. It was a critic’s dream to get these four directors in the same film, which checks both boxes - it’s a quality film and a commercial success too. Then we released Special 26 and Chashme Baddoor. We are following this up with Madras Café, which is very unique.
Do you think the audience is ready for the genre that Madras Café falls in, where you blink and lose track of the film?
As a studio, I think we have proven that, time and again. You could say that about Kahaani as well. We have done so many stories that are either intense or interesting, not what people call ‘easy cinema’ or art cinema. We have shown that audiences love it. Bombay Talkies was appreciated by the audience in cinemas. We are following up Madras Café with Queen, which women will love.
We are following that up with Santa Banta, which we want to build as a franchise, and then we have One By Two. After that, there’s Hamara Bajaj, once again by Shoojit Sircar. Then we go into a few smaller films like WTF (What The Fish), then we get into things like Mary Kom and Gabbar. So, yes, we will pretty much release a film almost every month.
They all are there. The challenge today for a large studio is where do you find an appropriate release corridor? So you don’t want a small film out there. That is why we are being careful about small films. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was great timing, many people were arguing about Ramzan, and overseas clearly was a challenge. But we decided to take the risk and release the film this month as we got a clean window.
You win some, you lose some. Volume is not a challenge for us, the release corridor is. We would make even more films but we don’t have the opportunity to release them. The market is still under-penetrated in India.
Will there be any changes in Viacom18’s approach to future releases?
We are going to focus more on making profitable cinema. There will be focus on making high-content films. We will perhaps have greater crafts on the regional front. We have the Kahaani remake titled Anamika in Tamil and Telugu; then we have a Punjabi film with Akshay (Kumar); and a Marathi film with him as well. So you will see more action on the regional front. I feel the regional space has a far more rational cost on the suppliers’ side, like cost of production, and we will be able to deliver a reasonably successful product. The economy is so much better out there so you will see a whole lot of that.
We should remain consistent and maintain what is good. We may get a little more aggressive in upping our acquisitions. To build the studio, we have to put out more content-rich films. And we have already made a start. We already have a partnership with Sanjay Leela Bhansali on one hand with Mary Kom, and on the other we have Gabbar, which is as commercial as it gets. This is a calibrated approach which combines the best of content and larger films as well.
Viacom18 has produced a lot of risky subjects and promoted new talent in actors, directors and even music directors last year. When you say you will focus more on acquisitions, will risk-taking take a back seat?
All I am saying is there is an opportunity to dial up more on acquisitions, especially when talking about what we can change. But that too will be very carefully examined in terms of prices, who the people are and the possibility of long-term partnerships. I want to be very clear about that. We are here to build a studio and I don’t think acquisitions alone can build a studio.
Oh absolutely! But we already have a film lined up for release every month and there is very little I can do about that. But, yes, the number of films perhaps needs to be rationalised so that we can focus better. A studio cannot be an assembly line that puts out a product every month. I think it needs to step back and focus on each release because the risk in this business is that you can very easily go wrong.
How will you make sure the studio’s Hindi, regional and Hollywood releases don’t clash with each other?
It’s a fairly straightforward approach. There are certain markets that can be isolated, language-wise. Like in the South, you don’t need to worry about Hindi. The size of the market also matters. You would need greater activity in a large market. Bengali and Marathi are led by the action on the satellite space.
Of late, Hollywood films have been cutting into the business of Hindi films.
Yes, it is a challenge. As the market grows, Hollywood films are becoming bigger. Earlier, Hollywood and Bollywood had separate audiences. But now you need to be very watchful. It’s not a big issue but you need to be careful.
Unlike other studios, Viacom18 is not very aggressive about distributing its own films. Why?
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was the first mainstream Hindi film we distributed ourselves. So, as the studio builds, you will see it expressing itself more fully. When Viacom18 started, it tried to build a content pipeline and partnerships and tried to put out good content. That was step one. Step two focused on marketing. We built impactful marketing strategies. But distribution is progressing and we will clearly build it further, both here as well as overseas.
You will see us excelling every successive release. Milkha is a great example. Look at the quality of branding activities, not just the number of brands but the quality of brands and the quantity of tie-ups. Film marketing in this industry is very tactical. You can actually be very economical and achieve the same impact. You also have build distribution capabilities, and win that battle as well.
How will you balance big and small-budget films that you will be producing?
We will continue to push the boundaries. You can clearly see that in the choices we will be making in the next two months. Both these things are fundamentally different. When we say ‘big-budget’ film, it is not necessarily distinct from an edgy subject. How about marrying the two?
In a way, Milkha is a step in that direction. You get a great subject and you have a great star in it. To me, that is an area to look at more and try and combine these two. I am not saying large films have to be mindless films. They can be interesting films and yet large and make an impact.
A film like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag may not look profitable on paper. Its run time, canvas and cost, and Farhan being the lead star… When do you decide to take that leap of faith and say ‘this may not look profitable on paper now but it can actually do great business’? Instinct versus balance sheet.
I actually look at it the other way around. It’s a very thought-through approach. It’s a calibrated approach. Like I said earlier, it’s like dum cooking. As you cook the dish, you taste it. And then you decide on what needs to be added. Marketing costs have tripled, production costs change. I think, it’s about picking up a subject, which first makes commercial sense on paper and then being wise about it. If required, you can add scale. It would be the same project but it may appear very different at the end of an 18-month cycle.