Mumbai: Ritesh Sidhwani, director of Excel Entertainment Pvt. Ltd, says “it’s crazy” working with three directors at the same time. One half of the duo that created the company 10 years ago—the other being director-actor (and occasional singer) Farhan Akhtar—is currently busy producing three films with three directors. Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara releases on 15 July, followed by Don 2 by Farhan Akhtar and an untitled film directed by Reema Kagti. All three directors are perfectionists, says Sidhwani, with separate sets of issues, which he has to try and balance.
In between trips to Spain, Germany and Puducherry, Sidhwani spoke about the production house’s decade-long journey involving just nine released films, the first of which was the acclaimed Dil Chahta Hai in 2001, forthcoming projects and more. Edited excerpts:
It’s unusual for Excel to have three films at various stages of production simultaneously.
There was never a conscious decision that we would make X number of films only. We started with one film at a time because only Farhan was directing then. We were finding our feet and figuring how it works. After Don, Reema (Kagti) came up with Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd after which there was no looking back. It so happened that last year we went on to three for filming. After Reema’s film is done in June, we will not shoot anything this year. We were overworked last year because of our hands-on style; we are not a big company. The only film we are committed now to is Gattu’s (Abhishek Kapoor), which has been moved to January.
Is there a divide between your role as financier and Farhan’s as being more creative?
There’s nothing left to finance now. When you are a reputed production house, banks fund you or studios buy out the film—though we don’t sell outright, we only allow a licence to distribute the film. When Farhan is directing, he is more creatively involved, but in other films, we are equal partners. Our feedback and sensibilities are similar. If a writer comes with a script, we both read it at the same time. We are involved in who should be cast, where it should be set. Once it’s on the floor, even if Farhan is acting, he steps back because it’s the vision of the director. The fact is we work with newer talent because we feel that’s fresh. If they use our perspective, then the purpose is defeated. We bring our expertise to give them a platform. On that level, if you are not creatively involved, then you are a studio.
Ten years ago, you were new to the business. What have you learnt in a decade?
I have learnt one thing, which I was told on Day 1—that the inherent nature of this business is unpredictable. Every time you do a new film, it’s got its own difficulties. The only thing you can do is prepare to deal with any eventuality even if you can’t foresee everything. You have to find the balance of knowing what went wrong, so you are not completely disheartened. We are in a position to do two-three films now maybe because of those learnings over 10 years. You need passion or you will become a factory. If you are not 100% convinced of a product, how do you convince a billion people?
Your film budgets are big, but are they always viable?
We release expensive films on joint distribution. But we don’t take fees and make the price high. Game is an expensive film, which didn’t work. If the budget had been half (of what it was), it would have been a successful film, but the story required (the expense). In the distribution chain, people in the studios tell me, if one film works, it nullifies the loss of eight-nine films because they make money on all verticals—music, home video, TV.
The system is still star driven. The minute you have a big budget and stars, that opening weekend recovers the money. If it’s a good film, there is no stopping it. If it’s an expensive film with a new star, viewers are hesitant because the prices of multiplexes are high. Why will they invest Rs 1,500 for the family for something with a new star? If Ready had someone new in it, it would not have opened the way it did.
Considering the growing audience is in smaller towns, don’t your films cater only to the urban young?
In most of our stories, there’s something you can identify with. Today, people watch a (Lage Raho) Munna Bhai on Gandhi, which is supposed to be an intelligent film, because you have created, through marketing, a sense of urgency for the film. Why is Ready working even in multiplexes when the message is for the audience to leave their brains at home? Because it’s entertaining. I don’t know how people in a civilized society can leave their brains behind. When a film does good business, how can it be mindless? Three Idiots is the biggest hit with Rs 108 crore net distributor share; almost 75% is from ticket sales, which are priced above Rs 140, which is your primary market, the audience I am catering to. If I start doing something that will work with the masses and not classes, then I am cheating myself and those people.
There’s so much awareness today because of television. People watch lots of (international) action films. So they will ask why Don does not look as good as Die Hard. You cannot alienate anybody or put something out there that says this is not for you.
A lot hinges now on the first weekend, which decides the fate of a film.
Earlier, a producer used to be the money bank; today, a studio gives you the money. The producer does what’s best for the script, makes sure the film is viable for him and everyone associated with it. If you don’t market or distribute rightly, you are finished. Your trailers do 70% of your job. With it, you create a sense of urgency for the film that encourages someone to spend Rs 250 to watch the movie in the first weekend.
Any big-ticket film does 60-70% of its business in the first week. People want to consume it then because next week they have something else to do. At the end of the day, you have to get that 70% right, making sure the promos connect. The next 30% is about keeping that excitement alive till the film releases.