The story of Ekta Kapoor’s ALT Entertainment is that of a production company that started off with an experiment and then decided to stick with the film-making formula. Set up by the television soap queen in 2010, the company’s first title was Love Sex aur Dhokha, Dibakar Banerjee’s edgy investigation of attitudes to technology and voyeurism. The next few films rolled out by ALT Entertainment, including Ragini MMS, Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai and The Dirty Picture, have brought the company more in line with mainstream tastes. Kapoor now wants to expand the second film banner run by her parent company, the publicly listed Balaji Telefilms Ltd. The next year will see many more titles from Balaji Motion Pictures (BMP), says the company’s 33-year-old chief executive officer Tanuj Garg . These movies will take safe risks while expanding BMP’s slate, helping the company emerge as a serious and prolific entity in the ever-expanding movie business, Garg says. Edited excerpts:
What is a student from the elite Cathedral and John Connon School and a resident of westernised south Mumbai doing in the movie business?
When I was in school, I was passionate about films, I would sing songs in class and talk about movies all the time. My friends would call me filmi. I am in touch with most of my friends and suddenly, they are the ones interested in Bollywood because it has become so big. They are the ones humming the songs, asking for gossip and wondering what is coming out next.
In the good old days, Bollywood wouldn’t figure in anybody’s scheme of things. If you went to a SoBo (south Bombay) party, you would hear house or trance (music genres). Now, no party is complete without Bollywood music. The industry has assumed gigantic proportions in the past seven or eight years and has become an inescapable part of people’s lives.
What share of the Bollywood pie goes to Balaji Motion Pictures and ALT Entertainment?
A little over two years ago, Balaji was seen as the market leader in television software. The company took a call to make a formal entry into the film business, set aside a corpus for production, and move into film-making in a formal, structured way. The idea was to aim for longevity. It is easy to come into a business, but it is difficult to make your mark quickly. I like to believe that given the perception that Balaji has built up in a short period of time, our team has managed to change things around.
You have several films lined for 2013. What is the binding principle behind them?
We have six confirmed films in 2013 and six films for 2014. We have worked painstakingly on putting out a pipeline. On 18 April, there is Ek Thi Daayan; on 1 May, there is Shootout in Wadala, Kuku Mathur Ki Jhand Ho Gayi on 7 June, Lootera on 5 July, Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai 2 on 8 August and Ragini MMS 2 on 11 October. Some films are by Balaji Motion Pictures and some by ALT Entertainment. ALT stands for commercial cinema with alternative sensibilities. We are now beginning to broaden the Balaji Motion Pictures slate. In 2013, BMP has films like Lootera and Kuku Mathur, which is a universal comedy. In 2014, there is Milan Talkies, directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia and starring Imran Khan; there is the untitled Dharma Productions and Balaji co-production directed by Akshay Roy, and there is a Mohit Suri film, for which casting is yet to happen.
We will be looking at genres that haven’t been explored much in Indian cinema. We will be trying out certain spaces that have been underserviced. We have tried folklore in Ek Thi Daayan, for instance. The Dharma-Balaji film is a hard-core commercial film that is set in high-society Delhi, but it is also an emotional look at the complexities of the male and female minds. Lootera is an epic romance.
Most of these films are a result of collaborations with other companies—for instance, ‘Shootout at Wadala’ is with Sanjay Gupta’s White Feather Films, while ‘Lootera’ is with Phantom.
Ragini MMS 2 and Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai 2 are in-house productions, but it is not humanly and physically possible to produce so many films on your own. Our model is clear: we will do two or three films in-house and forge creative relationships with hand-picked film-makers. We don’t do co-productions with XYZ Company, but with established names in the business. We want to work with people we admire. There are one or two more producers that we are talking to.
Why the need to produce so many films in a year?
Greater output will command greater respect in the trade. When you are working as a boutique producer, you can survive with one or two releases. When you are running a full-blown, publicly-listed company, you want to grow exponentially, build a library, build credibility, and have a slate. You develop better terms of trade if you have a slate—the moment you have a line-up, you are viewed more favourably. The theatrical business has grown so much that there is a tremendous demand for content. The other advantage is that there is an increasing acceptance among audiences for all kinds of cinema.
What kind of movies do you like to watch?
I am a softie—I like sleepy, sloppy, mushy, tear-jerking romcoms. The other genre I like is rude comedies, like Ted and the American Pie series. We did try to make something like that, for all it’s worth, with Kya Super Kool Hain Hum. The net collections at the box office were Rs.45 crore.
If there is a market for adult-themed cinema, why aren’t more film-makers pushing the envelope?
There is clearly a market for these films, which explains why they do so well. However, I am not sure if our moral, legal and regulatory environment is supportive of stuff like this. We set out to make something rude but innocuous, but then we get slammed by censor issues and religious or socio-political organizations. It makes you wonder if it’s worth it.
There are subjects we get, books we read, Polish and Mexican films we watch, but then you realize that people here are not going to watch this stuff. We are here to make commercial cinema. Do we want to make a Rs.2 crore film that will travel around film festivals? I don’t think so. We are certain that everything we make is for a paying audience, not a living room audience. But it is also our responsibility to evolve audiences, so we made The Dirty Picture. Ek Thi Daayan is a supernatural thriller that could horribly backfire, but we would like to take the chance. We believe that our films need a unique selling proposition. Ek Thi Daayan is about witchcraft. Shootout at Wadala is about Manya Surve, the Maharashtrian gangster who was killed in an encounter by the Mumbai Police.
Corporatization has actually increased risk-taking. Sole proprietary concerns made straight-forward Bollywood films for their bread and butter. They played it safe. Now, a risk-taking appetite is coming in; more money is coming in. We feel that let’s have four or five films that are safe, but let’s take the punt on that one film that could be offbeat, kinky and crazy—and might just become a superhit. That was Ragini MMS for us. In 2013, that film could be Ek Thi Daayan.
Movie stars come at a greater price than before—how does that affect your budgets?
Talent salaries are skyrocketing, no doubt. Talent comes at a cost, and top talent comes at a topper cost, if there is such a word. But compared to other companies, we are privileged. We don’t get charged what others get charged. Actors have also become smart, they want to work with companies that invest in them and market them well. But yes, it would help if salaries were rationalized, since stars have so many other ways to make money. That is why we need to be smart about budgeting films. We own our own film-making infrastructure, for instance. We produce films in a cost-effective manner.