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The Write Stuff

As Trinity Pictures, a division of Eros International, completes a year of its Writer’s Room, Ajit Thakur – CEO, Trinity Pictures; Shridhar Raghavan – Mentor (Trinity Writers Room); writers Ajit Nagarkar, Maitri Shah, Niharika Puri, Radhika Anand and Shokhi Banerjee; and producers Abhishek Vyas and Mrunalini Havaldar tell Team Box Office India about their very unusual studio model and the learnings and highlights in the last 13 months

BOI: It’s been a year since you visited our office, when Trinity Pictures was launched. Tell us what has happened in the last 13 months.

Ajit Thakur (AT): This is exactly where it started when we talked about it at Box Office India. I don’t think there is a more relevant place to thank you for what you do for studios than today. First and foremost, thank you for carrying that first story, when we had announced our intent to hire writers. I think you agreed the brief was to put the writers first on the cover. So thank you for that.

More importantly, Vajir (Singh) was also part of the recruitment process, for getting the writers in at Trinity Pictures. So, now, when you evaluate their work, it will also be an evaluation of how good the writers you hired were. So thank you very much, in terms of support.

I will start and then ask Shridhar (Raghavan) to talk about the process, and then some of the writers and producers should talk about their contributions. I think it is fantastic that we had this team in place by July. We will have two more writers after FICCI but they will come on board by next month, and by the end of the year we should have 10 writers. But with this team of five writers and two producers, there are nine of us and I think we have made huge progress.

Last month, we announced our first slate of five films and there are many firsts… we stuck to our franchise promise and the first film that will go on the floors is actually the one with Amol Gupte and it is tentatively titled Sniff. This is the first time we are talking about it and we will start the shoot next month. It was written by Radhika (Anand), and then Amol Gupte and other writers took up the screenplay. We are ready to shoot and it is a fabulous character. We were discussing only today how we could see a sequel in the last scene.

So we stayed true to the franchise promise. The second thing we added was that we also looked at the fact that if we have to break ground with kids films on that scale, we have do them as social films or action films. Since this is a kids’ action film, how do we add to the scale of the film in terms of box-office potential for us to grow our franchises when there are no stars?

I think that has been the big learning process, because for the last year, I think all our films are dual TGs, so the Amol Gupte film will have family as much as kids being targeted. The elephant film will have same thing. The script that Shridhar is writing, Fair & Lovely, which we will talk about later, will be shot simultaneously in Hindi and Tamil, so we have two markets.

And, of course, the biggest innovation of them all, which was a very planned process that Eros and Trinity had, is how do we grow this box-office pie multifold? How do we create a Rs 1,000-crore film, which is something that has been added to our ambition, and the answer to that was China, to create an Indo-Chinese film and not a film where you have a Chinese character or a Chinese film which has an Indian character but a story that requires you to get both countries going together.

So we have two projects that we have announced. That will open up the market and we don’t know what the limit is, so I think that is the second film that we have done well. In every one of these, we will be investing more than it normally would have demanded. That investment is justified by the fact that we look at dual targets, either two audience groups or two markets or two countries.

Third, we have stayed true to what I had told you in that we have not done a single love story, we have not done a single comedy, we have not done a single South action masala film because there is enough of that. In the Eros slate itself, we have enough of that this year, in our slate of 65 to 70 films. To create these new genres, the challenge always was, from where would we get the writing talent? And we are very proud to say that of the five films announced, three are in-house and are being developed by this team here.

As we speak, we probably have 12 other concepts that are in active development, which we are pitching to directors. Two very senior directors said that it is a fascinating model. They said that when we interact with any studio, their buzz word is ‘koi subject hai kya aap ke paas?’ And while interacting with Trinity, the language is ‘humaare paas subject hai, do you want to listen to them?’ So this is where we are. Over to Shridhar in terms of how and why we got them on board.

Shridhar Raghavan (SR): What we did was, a year ago, we used social media to come up with names of people who wanted to apply for it. We had some 450 people who had applied, we didn’t have any criteria for the writers needing to be from any film school or any such thing. If you had a passion or interest in writing, you could apply. We got around 300 to 400 applicants, and we shortlisted based on an entrance exam, where they had to write reviews or a couple of scenes for films which already existed as part of the Eros slate.

Based on what we read, when we felt that somebody was interesting, we called them. We didn’t do interviews; what we did was interactions and it wasn’t just writers. We called in a cross-section of people. We had you (Vajir) then there was Komal (Nahata), Mozez (Singh), there were directors, people like Sriram (Raghavan), Rohan Sippy, Sujoy (Ghosh) and Saket (Chaudhary), me, of course, and two or three other writers.

What we did was we just interacted with the applicants. We weren’t interested in the film writing experience. What we were looking for was a person who had a genuine passion for the medium, an interest in writing, which they had not yet done but at least had a sense of, and also people who love films and books. We both felt that if you need to be a writer, it helps if you are someone who reads. Based on the interactions with those eight to 10 people, we shortlisted five to six people and they are in this room.

AT: Talk about the process of Trinity.

SR: Ajit and I are very clear that it should be a franchise model, and we have also defined zones which we are particularly keen to operate on. I am not sure if I have the liberty to talk about those zones. There were six-seven broad zones, the kind of franchises which work nationally and internationally. I guess initially what we were doing was, the first stage of anything was actually the idea, then story and then screenplay.

We used to take a genre… For example, let’s take ‘war’, see what has been done to date, overseas and domestically, and discuss everything that is happening on the field. Not just in films but in literature, comics or books, anything. Then we see if there is any new way to approach this and everyone would start brainstorming. As opposed to spending ages working on one idea, everyone would come up with five to 10 ideas. Some would be good, bad or ugly, but after a while you start feeling confident enough to just keep saying stuff. Then, out of that, we would say, okay these ideas are interesting. Say, in the war genre, you come up with 50 to 60 ideas or 40 to 50 ideas. Then we take the ones we found different or interesting to a certain level, discuss it with Ajit and take his point of view. Based on his point of view, we decide, okay, these are worth focusing on. We would take, say, three or four of them and take it further.

Let’s assume one of them comes up with an idea which we decide to go ahead with. Now the rest of them will back that one person on his or her idea. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and you have seven to eight heads helping you brainstorm. You are still leading the idea, at the end of the day, you will decide that these two have a good sense on it, so they are co-leading that idea. But everybody is constantly backing it so it is like the role of a graphic equaliser that we are playing.

Just like this, we discuss genres every week, so we could shift from war to supernatural, private detective, legal or history. So eventually everybody finds something that they enjoy doing and there is a pool of 100 to 200 or 400 ideas. Like Ajit said, we are looking for something in China. I think there must be 100 ideas there because we came up with 20 to 25 ideas each, and of these, we were saying, okay, this looks interesting, so let’s take it further.

When we find an idea interesting, we take it to the story level. We brainstorm collaboratively and discuss… it is very informal. I wish I could make it sound like there was some deadly discipline to what we do. I think we actually bought it down to a bar conversation after two drinks, but the idea was to feel comfortable with each other and relax with each other and say what you want to. If you have a bad idea, nobody will judge you; if you have a good idea, everybody will compliment you. That’s the whole idea, to make it a support structure for writers.

MS: I recently graduated and I have a degree in pharmacy. I was going to apply for further studies and go to the US. I happened to read something online about this and I thought I would apply and see how it went. I didn’t think I would get through the first round but the next thing I knew, I had an offer! I thought I should stick around and see how things work out because, if I moved to the US, I wouldn’t be back for five or six years.

I love films and I never thought this would happen to me again if I moved to the US. All this is unreal to me, because being an outsider, I didn’t think I would have this kind of access to people. Now we are sitting in a room and you are chatting to Shridhar as a sounding board and to meet like a Kabir Khan or someone. It’s like… nice!!

AT: She is the critic of our team. She doesn’t like 99 per cent of the ideas presented. So when she likes something, we know it is really good.

SR: But when we interviewed her, we were highly intrigued as she was talking about films like Gunday and other Mithun Chakraborty films. I thought, how does a 21-year-old know all these films? She has a very interesting take on films.

Abhishek Vyas (AV): I come from a brand marketing management background. I spent about two and a half years with TV18 and four years at Star. I got a chance to know Ajit when he was heading Channel [V]. I used to handle marketing for them and I was actually done with brand marketing. I have always been passionate about films and I always wanted to produce one. Then I had a chat with Ajit and he told me this was a great platform, and I thought so too. He gave me a break here, so what Ronnie (Screwvala) did for Ajit, Ajit did for me. I am just following in his footsteps.

BOI: You had a secure job. What made you quit?

AT: Even this is a secure job. (Laughs)

AV: I had a secure job but I am a risk taker and I thought, why not? If this didn’t work out, I would probably go back to marketing but this was worth giving a shot.

AT: Abhishek is learning everything from scratch, from budgeting for a film to contracts. Putting a film together is complicated, and both Abhishek and Mrunalini are working on the film, with Amol (Gupte). Neither of them has done film production before.

I had interviewed a lot of people before I met these two but everyone I met had done something or the other in film production, and they brought in that same formulaic kind of thinking. Abhishek had no idea about film budgets, and that’s why he approaches it with a clean slate. He keeps saying, ‘Do teen saal aap se seekh lunga phir producer hi banunga.’ (Laughs)

Mrunalini Havaldar (MH): Prior to this, I was a PR professional for five years and before that, I was in the banking profession for three years. What drew me to Trinity was my passion for cinema. So, one day, I happened to read Ajit’s interview online, where he had said that anyone who loved cinema could write to him. I did just that, telling him that I wanted to learn the process of cinema, and we met. That’s how it happened. I have been around for six months now and I am having a great time. I am getting to meet a lot of people and, most importantly, it is a great learning experience.

Ajit Nagarkar (AN): Nine months ago, I joined the room and I was just a fresher out of FTII. I was an idealistic young kid among them.

SR: (Laughs) I was… I am reacting to the ‘was’.

AN: I mean, after the course, we had certain assumptions about the industry. We assumed we would get our stories out and everyone would jump at them. But after I was proved wrong, I realised that…

AT: …by a bunch of people who he thinks are all incompetent people at the studio. He didn’t tell you that.

SR: Jumping does happen… but in the opposite direction!

AN: And then the interview happened. So I thought I would give it a shot. I had watched Ajit’s videos in the beginning. So I knew this was the kind of the space I wanted to work in.

BOI: Videos?

AN: His interviews.

AT: (Laughs) I have never acted in any videos.

SR: (Laughs) I too was curious…Ajit’s videos.

AR: (Laughs) Am I the only one who has watched those videos? I saw his interviews and I realised that this is the space I wanted to work in, franchises, and this was a different way of working which Bollywood doesn’t work with right now. When I got into the Room, I was a solo player. Almost all writers think they know everything and don’t need to consult anyone. Those assumptions were steadily broken down and I realised that there are better writers than I am.

AT: (Laughs) He has been trained to say this. He still thinks he is the best writer in the Room and Shridhar and I are incapable of judging talent. And that is honest…

AR: This has been a wonderful experience, to see things from a different perspective. It is a learning experience as well. It feels great.

Niharika Puri (NP): I have a degree and background in journalism. And 13 months ago,I was doing a lot of freelance work, reviewing films and writing blogs. I found out about this opportunity but I was a little apprehensive. I had never done this kind of writing before and I didn’t know how screenplay writing worked. We had two dhurandars from FTII, Ajit and Radhika who really know the craft. I had no idea and I always thought I was more of a closed writer. Still, I went for it as I was very interested in the process. When I walked in to Hard Rock Café, it was not the typical stern, panel discussion. It was very interactive and everyone was relaxed. I found a lot of positivity in that process. I thought this was a really cool place to work as the panelists were going to be affiliated with Trinity in a way. I really liked the energy and everyone went out of their way to make us comfortable.

Even though this was an unusual set-up, this was something that had never been done before. Here, you get so many perspectives on the same idea or so many ideas on the same brief on a particular story, which teaches you to keep an open mind.

From the ideation point of view, to the way forward, we have seven perspectives and we can point out flaws and that way we can fortify an idea. Shridhar is a really great, open-minded mentor, and with Ajit too, we have someone who is extremely open-minded. He doesn’t shut down an idea, no matter how bizarre or quirky it is. You are also nudged in the right direction. That’s what I like… the sheer openness in the Writer’s Room, where you can work across genres with a sense of creative freedom.

AT: To capture the diversity in the room… there is a PR professional, FTII graduate-rebel kid, journalist, the only film writer with the FTII experience, TV executive who is not a writer, pharma student who was going abroad for studies, and a hardcore marketing guy who is not even close to production. That’s the kind of diversity and that’s the key. It seems like lot of fun but has very strict deadlines. The idea of Hard Rock Café was to show one side of Trinity and the other side is the discipline.

NP: Chabuk maarne wala!

AT: Discipline is needed to get there because we are not in favour of big writers and big set-ups. I still consider us as a boutique studio. Amita (Naidu) has been very kind to give us some of her time but Eros is a big studio and we are the boutique studio. I don’t want us feel that we are at Eros, so if we write toh woh ban jaega. We had to work harder than everybody else. The last successful studio in the country was Phantom, so we had to be bigger than they are. The big successful studio is Yash Raj Films, after which others followed. I am talking about the creation studios. And then there are studios that acquire and co-produce. So there’s a lot of hard work involved.

I know people who write drafts till 3am because I brief Shridhar on Monday. This is the agenda of the week, so say, this week we discuss kids and then I don’t see any of them. I might meet Shridhar for a couple of other things but I don’t meet any of them till Friday. And then Friday is exam day and when they come in, it is fabulous. There are some Fridays when you don’t like anything and then there are Fridays when we like everything.

With just two people (Abhishek and Mrunalini), they are managing production processes linked to China, Tamil Nadu and Mumbai. I have a very small team to have a slate of five films going in one go.

So it’s a lot of hard work and I must compliment the team on their discipline, the discipline to deliver to a brief because a brief is a franchise. This genre this week, or this is what is coming up next or close this before the director comes in… and they have stuck to the brief.

SR: It is like being in a gym and having to try out every piece of equipment because we are shifting gears in genres every time. We are going from kids to war, from war to history, from history to something else, from supernatural to sci-fi. Most writers… I mean all of us… tend to have an idea of working solo and developing it. This is a three to four-month process. Here, it is like ball in motion, left, right and centre, and afterwards you start enjoying it. It is actually liberating to think about 30 things than sticking to one.

BOI: You have a young team. Do they sulk when their ideas are rejected?

AT: Oh, big time! He (Ajit) sulks so much, he lives in Pune, he goes to Pune for the weekend, and doesn’t return on Monday. Then I have to call him to ask what happened. I am short of adopting him as a third son! Then he says, ‘No, I don’t feel like coming.’ Then you know the Friday beating has worked. He will stay in Pune, varan bhaat kha ke aa jayega and he will turn up on Tuesday morning and say, ‘You all are s***, I am the cool one’. (Laughs)

AN: That’s primarily because he had promised cake on two different occasions but never got it. (Laughs)

AT: Actually, they don’t sulk as everyone reacts differently but let me give you some anecdotes about a couple of meeting with directors. So we share a certain comfort level among ourselves and then, suddenly, we are in a room with Kabir Khan, Amol Gupte, Siddharth Anand and other directors, who they have pitch to. First, they have butterflies in their stomach but by the third or fourth meeting, I don’t think we were present for some of the discussions and they did their own narrations.

So, Kishor (Lulla) is a big fan of kids and mythology and I still have to find a subject that we can crack. With mythology, you either end up doing it on TV or you have to have a Hollywood-type budget. So, on kids, he gave us a brief, saying why hasn’t it happened and Kishor is, like, ‘All the writers came in June, I want it by June second week.’ He’s like that, he wants to do 300 films. Jyoti (Deshpande) will catch up with Sunil (Lulla) at 65, and he will say that 235 are missing, it’s like that.

He gave us a brief and all of them worked on that. There were 10 ideas and four that I liked. I was high on one but I said, let’s take these four. So Kishor, Jyoti, a lot of people were there and Shridhar and I were presenting the ideas. He was, like, we will make all four. That was the first big success, internally. He said all four are good ideas, let us make all four. I was, like, ‘Nahin, Kishor, ek banaate hai.’ He was, like, ‘Nahi, chaaron banaate hai.

He was unstoppable. He was, like, create a different label for kids, something like Trinity Kids. And if you don’t have time, then get someone else. We didn’t plan it that way but the first film is Radhika’s story, which Amol Gupte is directing and it will be a kids’ film but in a different sense. Even now he asks about what happened to the other three films. I want to emphasise that, at first, when I told people we would only make franchises, they thought of a very narrow brief but it is actually a very wide brief.

Second, and the biggest high point for Trinity and Eros, was that we had an agreement that Sunil had signed with a China film group. According to the agreement, we could do anything so we invested in their film. Then, one day, they wanted to know if they could develop a film together with us because we had good writers. I think that was the toughest timeline they have had.

I was, like, we don’t know anything about China. So all these guys here did some intensive research and we came up with eight ideas. I also got some ideas from outside, and cut it down to six. And in a room full of Chinese people, I presented them.

SR: We had a bigger number, I think we had 14 to 15, and we brought it down to eight and then to…

AT: Yes, and I had some external pitches too. And, to a room full of 20 Chinese people including the head of CFT… that woman greenlights every film made in China. It is controlled by CFT and then the studios come in. And they were very clear, they told us don’t do action because Hollywood is doing that with us, they said, give us something new. By the end of the meeting, both subjects they picked up had been written by our Writer’s Room. They loved the ideas so much that she walked towards us and said, ‘Can I adopt your writers?’

One was written by Shokhi alone and another was co-written by Shokhi and Radhika. It was such a high! We have since developed that one-page concept into a whole story. They have translated, they submitted, got the licence and now they have put in two writers – one is Din…

SR: Din Din… he has written Kung Fu Panda 3.

AT: He will be a co-writer from their side and they want to meet a month later, after they have developed the idea. So they have writers from their side. It is such a high for a bunch of young writers to have that kind of success. To go there and have two of their projects picked up was great. That kind of also opened doors for Eros and Trinity to get into China and we are the first ones on that. A lot of people are doing cross-casting but we are actually doing a story that requires those. So one of it is Kabir’s and there is another director we are in process of locking, so that was the second high.

And the third high took place a couple of weeks ago. I said, this year, we will make three films because that was the budget and annual plan that we had. All three of them – Kishor, Jyoti and Sunil – were quite excited and said we should go ahead and make all five films and that they would somehow get the money to invest.

Since Trinity projects are fully ours and these are new genres, I think it a huge deal for a company to say ‘we will cut down a couple of co-productions and invest in Trinity’. This happened two weeks ago, which is why we couldn’t roll out all five films because the power of the whole thing is in the idea, and the ideas are coming. So that is great. Kudos to all of you, good start.

BOI: Is there anything you would like to add?

AT: Just that the plans at Trinity are still a work in progress and there is lots to achieve. Also, none of this would have been possible without the backing of Kishore, Sunil and Jyoti. I would like to thank Amita, she got it right every time. She was the one who suggested that we come here for the first interview and I think it was perfect from the trade point of view. Then we had our Facebook and Twitter accounts, that’s all we did. There was no marketing spend. I met you, met Bollywood Hungama and then this and we got 440 applications. We had a guy who came from Dubai for that panel. So it was good fun.

The first three films in terms of putting them into production will be Indo-China films. The first one is Amole Gupte’s film, a kids’ film and it goes on the floors next month. Then there is a film on elephants, which goes on the floors in August-September. It’s with Prabhu Solomon, who is a Tamil director. The third film, which Sridhar has co-written with K Subhash, will be directed by Krish, which is a Hindi-Tamil project.

We had to really hunt down Prabhu Solomon. He doesn’t speak Hindi and barely speaks English. Nobody is aware of him in Mumbai. He had come to Mumbai three years ago, when his film Mynaa won the National Award. We chased him for a very long time because he is the only guy who has done an elephant film in the last 10 years and that too a very successful film called Kumki. After two meetings, he agreed only because we were making a film on elephants. That film will require a big Hindi actor and a big Tamil actor.

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