When Bhavna and Sheetal Talwar decided to make a movie, they would have a structured production process. ‘Dharm’ is today making a lot of buzz in the global festival circuits and bringing in rave reviews at home. Their story
I was working as head of marketing at American Express till three years ago. It was a great life—flat in Malabar Hill, big car, and so on. But Bhavna and I often asked ourselves: Is this all life will be about? Shouldn’t there be a legacy we can leave behind? I was sure I wanted to be an entrepreneur and I also believed that there was a great future in entertainment in India. So, getting into film production was not really a random act. And there were other stories of people who had broken away and done well—Sanjeev Mirchandani of naukri.com, for instance, who was my teacher.
When Bhavna and I started work on Dharm, there was one thing we were clear about: We wanted the production and funding to be structured. We didn’t want to divorce the source of funding from the source of revenue as is normally done in the Hindi film industry. And we wanted to have every paisa we spent on the film, a little under Rs4 crore, or earned from it accounted for.
So, we set up WSG Pictures along with Peter Anshin who is the president of the Asian Entertainment Finance Associates (AEFA). We went then to high net worth individuals and sought to raise capital for the film.
I like to say that we are in the business of showbiz and not the show of show business. So we set up Friday Fund, a limited liability partnership (Llp.) company. It funded the initial capital and the mezzanine capital for the film. Then, we went in for pre-sales of the film in Europe to bring in the balance funds.
We got in a sales agent from France to help on all fronts, including the script of the film. The pre-sales worked, but we can’t say that it was easy. Bhavna was a first-time director. It was hard to persuade investors. But we had managed to sell the Europe territory and that put the production process in the same league as that followed by film industries in the US, Europe and most parts of Asia.
In India, we like to think that by having a film produced by a corporate house, we have corporatized film production. As an ex-banker, I disagree. These corporate houses that fund films raise equity from the capital market for a high-risk business. This is a dangerous trend because you end up eroding capital.
Of course, we were doing an art film and, to that extent, tapping the European market was easy. But I see no reason why those who make mainstream commercial films should have any trouble following a more rational production structure. But there are two questions they need to answer: Are they willing to have all their expenses audited? Are they willing to make deferments in payment? Most importantly, do they desire a transparent production design?
I started off as a journalist, but I decided that I wanted to educate myself on film-making. I took three years to do this and wrote a screenplay. But I couldn’t find a producer for a long time. When I found someone who liked the story, he suggested so many alterations that it changed totally. I abandoned the film.
This was when I ran into writer Vibha Singh. She had a lot of stories with her, but they were all standard commercial stuff. She was almost at my doorstep when she fished out the story of Dharm hesitantly. It was just three pages. I loved it. Vibha and I decided to flesh it out in Varanasi where the story was set. With a camera on my shoulders, we chased the pandas (priest) around, watching them at the ghats, and at home.
Varanasi was a culture shock. I was a South Mumbai girl, that India was not my territory. But we lived it up. Vibha even got a panda to trace her family history and allowed herself to get gypped. Varanasi does that to you.
I was doing the usual frustrating rounds of producers again. This was when Sheetal stepped in and decided to turn producer.
Around that time we had seen Pankaj Kapoor in Maqbool and I decided that he had to play the lead role of Pandit Chaturvedi in my film. To my great joy, he loved the script and agreed to join the team. Supriya (his wife) saw the script lying around and loved it. And it was sheer coincidence, she reminded me of a priest’s wife who left a deep impact on my mind with her energy. We made the film in 66 days.
It was released in Cannes and at the showing, I was so nervous, I actually walked out of my own screening in 10 minutes. I heard I received a standing ovation and not a soul left the theatre during the film. Then it got even better, I was nominated for the Gucci Group Awards for talented artistes. But what is big for me is that it has been playing for six weeks in Mumbai theatres.
As told to Malini Nair