While Brahmastra has done well at the box office, the story for a lot of other releases has been underwhelming in the recent past. As a producer, what do you feel about the uncertainty of the box office right now?
I think we are in a state of flux right now. I asked people in my office post-pandemic, “How many of you have large televisions at home?” And 70% of them said they have large TV sets. And 50% of those have a home theater system installed. It is absurd. It became a viable alternative to watch movies at home, because you can create a theater-like atmosphere. A lot of people have done this consciously. But having said that, everybody watched Top Gun Maverick in theaters. Nobody wanted to wait for it to be shown on OTT. Everyone who wanted to watch Elvis went to the theaters. So, I think spectacle films are the ones for which people want to make sure that they want a theatrical experience.
A few months ago, my wife, daughter and I watched the Spider-Man movie in the theater and unfortunately at that time, tickets were available only for those lux theaters. We spent 6000 rupees including popcorn to have a movie-going experience. By any stretch of the imagination that is ludicrous.
Do you think the audiences hesitate to visit theaters like they used to before the pandemic?
There’s a lot of soul-searching that needs to happen on our end. Speaking for us at Ellipsis, all our movies have been profitable. All our movies were made at a sensible budget, including Cheat India, which didn’t do well at the box office, but it ended up being a plus film because Emraan Hashmi had come on board as a co-producer.
We have always tried to keep the content strong, fresh and add a deja vu quality. We have been doing this since Neerja. I can only speak for my productions. Contractually, we put it in our agreements with the directors that the film cannot exceed a runtime of 2 to 2 hours 10 minutes. Nobody has the time to indulge in directorial greatness and watch movies for two and a half hours plus. I find it very difficult to sit through.
I’ll give you an example. If someone recommends you two movies to watch, out of which, one movie is 1 hour 55 mins and the other is 2 hours 22 mins. You’re going to watch the shorter one first without exception. You might watch the second one but first you’ll watch the shorter film. People’s attention span today is that of a grasshopper.
I learned a lot from a conversation with comedian Rohan Joshi. Both of us had watched and loved the first season of a popular series. So, when we met, I asked him the standard question, “What are you watching?” He mentioned that show’s name and said that he only watched the first episode. I asked, “Then?” He said that the show didn’t grab him. I said, “But the first season was terrific.” He said, “I agree.” So, I said, “Give the second season some time na? Watch 2-3 episodes. It’s probably a slow burn.” To which this is what he said, “I don’t have 45 minutes to waste.” So, someone who has loved the first season and has started watching the second season immediately is not ready to give it a second chance. I learn a lot from that conversation. People have so many choices that there’s no loyalty.
You mentioned that Emraan Hashmi came on board as a co-producer. A lot of people are saying that the economics of the films have become problematic because of the stars’ fees. Do you feel a correction in that respect is necessary?
Of course. But think about it from the actor’s point of view. Eight people are offering you viable projects and are ready to pay an absurd amount of money. Logically, you will take it right? I mean, I’ll also take it if nobody’s holding a gun to my head while they’re writing the check. If you ask me, if your last movie was a rip-roaring success and you’re taking credit for it, there’s no problem. But if your next movie turns out to be a shattering flop, then by all means, stand up and be accountable for that one as well.
It is easy to slam actors. People say ban Bollywood. I always say, Bollywood is a bunch of people whose names you don’t even see in the end credits – the light boys, spot boys, assistants etc. A lot of them work on daily wages. If a DOP and his assistants are not working, nobody’s writing them a check. So, when you’re making grandiose statements like “Ban Bollywood”, you’re banning a lot of people who are making a living. There’s a lot of hard work that goes behind the scenes.
The simple thing is that, if people are happy to write a check to an actor, why won’t the actor take it? I feel the talent should come on board with zero numbers, take a small guarantee fee, like Aamir Khan does. He earns from the profits.
What should the actors take away from the current situation?
In any business, be it making ball bearings, plastic buckets or movies, everyone from the value chain – manufacturer to retailer – should make some profit at the end of the day. It should not be like somebody is holding the can and someone else has walked away with the cake and cookies. Having said that, if you are an actor and someone is still giving you a check with many zeroes, why would you not take it? Actors need to be told that everyone in the line should be able to make money. And it will make sense if everyone sticks to the plan. Actors get a lot of offers. Tu nahin toh koi aur sahi. Everyone is working on what they think is good content. Nobody starts with saying yaar ek khatarnak si flop banate hain.
That’s why I have immense respect for Aamir Khan. He says, listen, after you have got your cost of capital and the capital invested back, this is the amount that I will take. But please understand that I have spent 2-3 years of my life making one movie. So, I will take the lion share of it. If it doesn’t work, then guess what, there may be no share at all.
Would we love to work with much bigger actors? Yes, of course. But am I going to spend one year of my life doing something where I don’t see visibility at the end? At least if it’s not a zero-sum game to start with, I am not going to do it. Tanuj (Garg, Atul’s partner in Ellipsis) and I feel strongly that it has to be a viable project at the end of the day. You have to work on your numbers backward. A movie with so and so actors will be viable for satellite and an X amount and at OTT at Y amount. So, at least with that, it’s a zero-sum game. And if it goes theatrical then there’s gravy on top.
There are against OTT platforms for ruining the market. Similar had cropped up when the corporates came into filmmaking a few decades ago.
At every point in the industry, there were large sums being paid in some category or other. At one point, music was going for crazy sums of money during the times of cassettes, tapes and CDs. I guess the OTT honeymoon is over. At the end of the day, you have to take a call on how star-struck you are. How important is it for you to make a film with an XYZ actor and make a loss? For us, it is not. We work very hard to keep the content as fresh as possible. Literally, nobody is an expert in this. But we will continue to do things differently.
There’s no wastage on our sets. TG (Tanuj Garg) watches everything like a hawk. He is brilliant at what he does. We will spend wherever we need to spend. But there’s no grandiose excess whatsoever. All our movies have been made in under 50 shooting days. We made Tumhari Sulu in 42 days, Neerja in 32, Looop Lapeta in 41, and Sharmaji Ki Beti in 35. So, everything is very controlled and planned, down to the T. On sets, people are executing. There are no discussions on sets. You have done workshops, you know what you have to do, so do it.
Very important, like I said earlier, I have been shouting about runtimes, which is why I’m terrified of a writer-director. I appreciate that writing is an extremely numbing and cathartic process. It’s very difficult to write a good script. So, I appreciate that someone went through all the angst and a cocktail of a whole bunch of life experiences came through, then they’re very bound to cut it. On the edit table, we are giving you everything to tell your story in 2 hours 10 minutes. If you’re not able to do that then move aside, we will do that for you. It’s a deal breaker for us. If somebody looked at their watch while watching your movie, you have failed. If someone opened their Facebook account during a movie, you’re in trouble.
Is the film industry fair to the writers?
I don’t think anyone can say that about my production house. Because our opening logo says that it starts with the word. I learned it from our very first film. Everyone who heard the narration of Neerja and Tumhari Sulu had tears in their eyes or laughed or gave some reaction. We knew that the writing work was gold. If the writing work is terrific, it is difficult to screw it up in visuals. You can only make it better or just as good. If you don’t have it great on paper, don’t start the film. Looop Lapeta went through 4 separate sets of writers because it was an adaptation of an iconic film. So, we said that this has to be adapted to modern times. It’s a difficult task to take up. But both of us loved Run Lola Run, and we always thought that it had an Indian ethos of time and destiny. The “Jaisi karni waisi bharni” kind of vibe was there. Which is how the Germans are thinking about something that the Indians have been talking about since the Vedas.
We always wanted to make it because we thought that there was a context for us. But at a very simple level, that movie was made when there were no cell phones. So, just the fact that one cannot connect to the other has been thrown out the window. Because today, anyone can call anyone, because they have a phone in their pocket. And for whatever it’s worth, the adaptation was great. The movie did exceptionally well for us financially as well. You can’t have a directorial wank [about the runtime of a movie], because apart from you, nobody is interested in spending more time watching the screen. This is something that we are hardnose and brutal about. Hats off to someone like Ram Madhvani (director of Neerja). Because, the first cut, the edit line-up of Neerja was 2 hours 40 minutes. Both of us were in tears. What is this shit we have made? And then it came down to 2 hours 7 minutes. So, imagine, he [Madhvani] had no problem slicing the 33 minutes. A lot of things were chopped out because they were not moving the story forward, we were losing our attention. We learned a lot from our first film to be objective about the final product. It needn’t be there just because we wrote it.