Last Christmas, The Indian Film Co. (TIFC) created history. It was one of the few companies where the party continued long after Santa had gone, leaving behind a world in the midst of an economic crisis.
Not so long before that, the film production house of the Network18 group, in its second year of existence, acquired the rights for a film that was adapted from a Tamil blockbuster—an action flick that was also a sweet Indian love story. Ghajini, in which Aamir Khan played the lead role and which was released on Christmas weekend, made Rs100 crore in its first week at the theatres. While many companies bled, the box office continued to jangle with the ticket sales of Ghajini through the year end.
“Saturation release” and “blanket release” weren’t terms put to regular, successful practice in India before TIFC made it all seem so easy. If Munnabhai MBBS was a hit, it wasn’t because its producers had blocked all the screens of all the multiplexes in all the big cities with many, many screenings. That was a time when word-of-mouth and a few days of pre-release publicity could get people to the theatres.
On the cards: Bhargava says TIFC will begin work on at least three big-ticket films this year, including the Hindi remake of ‘The Italian Job’ to be directed by Abbas-Mastan. Jayachandran / Mint
TIFC released Singh is Kinng in August with an unheard of 1,400 prints. With Ghajini, it went a step further by sending out 1,500 prints across the world.
The maven behind these strategies is 42-year-old Sandeep Bhargava, the company’s soft-spoken, seemingly even-tempered CEO. We meet at the lounge café of Taj Lands End, his daily evening haunt, a few days earlier Bhargava had made yet another big announcement: TIFC and UK-based Bend It Films had entered into a strategic partnership to produce Gurinder Chadha’s next feature, It’s a Wonderful Afterlife.
In a light blue half-sleeve shirt and black trousers, the bespectacled head of TIFC looks every bit the corporate film producer— somewhere between a suited investment banker and a linen pyjama-clad ad creative director. It takes me by surprise when he says, early in our conversation, that he is not and has never been a movie buff and would never pay Rs200 to watch an “arty” movie in a theatre. The revelation comes off-hand, while discussing the merits of Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D, a film he thinks “deserves the critical acclaim”.
But how does a man who doesn’t love movies sell them? “I have to keep track of every film that’s coming out every week, and what people like and don’t like about them. That sort of takes the romance and excitement out of actually watching them,” Bhargava says. He orders a glass of carrot juice and I settle for a cup of coffee. “This is my favourite drink here. They make a good one,” he says (carrot juice at 6pm makes perfect sense when he tells me that his passions, besides selling films, are swimming, tennis and squash).
After he took over as CEO in 2006, Bhargava has been at his busiest in the past six-eight months. Quashing reports and rumours that the R-word is creeping into the film industry as well, Bhargava says it’s unlikely that films will be affected by the financial crisis at all. Look at the line-up of his company: Chadha’s It’s a Wonderful Afterlife; Sooni Taraporevala’s Little Zizou in collaboration with Mira Nair and Taraporevala’s own production company; Dev Benegal’s Road: The Movie, another co-production; Abbas-Mastan’s adaptation of The Italian Job; a multi-starrer each with David Dhawan and Aneez Bazmi; and a film with Dev D director Kashyap, who he says has been recently signed on by TIFC.
Indians will never stop going to the movies, he says. “Like, say, Australians or Americans, we’re not outdoors people. Our weekends are not about camping in a nearby hill station or hanging out at the beach or learning a new sport. We go to the movies, eat a meal and come back home.”
The “we” is ubiquitous when Bhargava speaks. He considers himself an Indian moviegoer who is in tune with box-office hits and always thrilled by the occasional “good” Bollywood film. “By good Bollywood film, I mean an entertaining film. Why would I spend Rs200 or Rs250 to see a movie that tells me bitter truths about life when I’m dealing with that every day anyway? Every film that TIFC produces or distributes has to be entertaining.”
Bhargava uses this everyman attitude to strategize every release of the company. That, combined with a background in advertising and a stint with UTV and Sahara One Motion Pictures, helps him understand the fuzzy logic that drives show business. A star cast, a good script, a good director and good timing—the creative team that Bhargava heads scrutinizes all these factors while deciding who to sign on, or which film to acquire. “The idea behind distributing 1,500 prints for Ghajini was to completely block competition, to minimize as much risk as possible. Every print cost us about Rs65,000 to make. But there’s always an element of risk because now, unlike say two years ago, you can’t fool the audience. People want something fresh. I can’t afford to put out a ‘me-too’ film.”
The films released by TIFC between April and December (which included Golmaal Returns, Jab We Met and Dil Kabaddi, also their production) fetched £69 million (around Rs508 crore) in gross worldwide box-office sales.
Within a year of its existence, the company had already garnered Rs445 crore after listing on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) of the London Stock Exchange. Its stock fortunes took a hit in late 2008 when some of its investors turned hostile, something Bhargava refuses to discuss. “As with all stocks in the world, we’re not doing too well,” he says, “but with the success of Ghajini and Singh is Kinng, we’ll be okay.”
Bhargava is constantly re-evaluating audiences tastes and trying to anticipate shifts in their preferences. “Today, I wouldn’t produce or distribute a sequel to Singh is Kinng, but perhaps after a year I may,” he says, sipping his carrot juice.
Both on and off court, Bhargava knows the value of being agile.
Curriculum Vitae | Sandeep Bhargava
Born: 23 July 1966
Education: MBA in marketing and international business from University of Akron, Ohio, US
Current Designation: CEO, The Indian Film Co.
Work Profile: He started as a client services executive at Lintas in 1991; moved to Mudra and worked there for 10 years before becoming chief operating officer, UTV, in 2003. In 2004, he went on to head Sahara One Motion Pictures and joined The Indian Film Co. as CEO in 2006
Hobbies: Collecting antique locks from all over India, and camping in the foothills of the Himalayas
Sports: A competitive swimmer at the national level while in college, he now plays squash every morning. On weekends, he swims and plays tennis
On The DVD Shelf: All the James Bond movies, all the Shammi Kapoor movies and all the Clint Eastwood Westerns