Guneet Monga is in a meeting. She often is.
She checks messages and emails on her phone in between our appointment. She often does.
Being a movie producer is hard work, but pushing an independent-spirited project is even tougher. Especially if you are with Anurag Kashyap Films Pvt. Ltd (AKFPL), which is attempting to convert the personal equity of its founder-film-maker into finance and distribution deals for the movies he makes and produces. The company has its hands full, with several films in the can, some on the floor and many more in development. Monga has been involved with at least 12 projects, but she has another task at hand: exporting AKFPL to the world. Many of her clients are scattered across different zones.
“So many films, so little time” could well be Monga’s motto these days. “I am married to my computer,” she says. “I don’t have a life.”
Ever since she joined AKFPL in 2009, Monga has handled several films, some of which have been released, like Shaitan, That Girl in Yellow Boots, Gangs of Wasseypur and Aiyyaa. Forthcoming and under-production titles include Michael, Peddlers, Haraamkhor, Monsoon Shootout, Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana and Vakratunda Mahakaya. She even makes an appearance in Aiyyaa, as a heavily made-up prostitute in a street scene.
Apart from raising money for and handling Kashyap’s productions, Monga has emerged as the engineer building the bridge between AKFPL, foreign buyers and distributors. Kashyap’s company has grasped the potential for modestly-budgeted, offbeat Indian films to be exploited commercially in all kinds of ways in foreign markets—by being shown in cinemas and on television, selling DVD rights, cracking video-on-demand deals, and going to places that seemed unthinkable before. “There are shipping rights for films—you can sell your film to be shown on oil rigs,” Monga says. “We have discovered video-on-demand in Sweden. I love it.”
This conversation takes place at Café Mangii in Versova, Mumbai. Monga orders a watermelon and feta salad, but she nibbles at it. A self-described production geek, she loves talking about the business of independent cinema. This involves travelling to film festivals, meeting sales agents and distributors, getting them interested in your titles, clinching co-production deals so that you can secure finance—in short, squeezing money out of willing funders in all ways possible.
“Co-productions, legal details, sales deals—it’s so dynamic...I love it,” she says. “I found my peace and my high in structuring deals. You should be able to do a deal in three lines. Kitna paisa hai? Kitna share hai? Kitna kamayegi (How much money is involved? What is the share? What will the movie earn)? Everything else is in the contracts and clauses. The bottom line: Keep it simple, make it easy to pay yourselves, and don’t spend on lifestyle. The baseline budget of our films is below Rs.4 crore.”
AKFPL has had some success in the past few months. Elle Driver, a division of the French international sales company Wild Bunch, picked up Gangs of Wasseypur for distribution. Monga is also in the process of negotiating a distribution deal for Wasseypur in the US. Another company, NonStop Sales, has acquired Hansal Mehta’s Shahid. By pre-selling Monsoon Shootout to French television company Arte on the basis of the script, AKFPL raised money to complete the film. Another forthcoming film, The Lunchbox, directed by first-time film-maker Ritesh Batra, is a co-production with companies in Germany, France, the US and India.
"IN PARENTHESIS: Guneet Monga says Anurag Kashyap is like a father figure to her. “He is priceless, he is a visionary,” she says. “He has mood swings, sometimes he is not available, and he has the worst communication skills in the world. But he’s like family, the whole thing is emotional... He has given me all the liberty,” she says. “We don’t talk, we don’t meet that often. We have a great dinner or lunch every now and then and plan for the next six months. We stay in touch over email and SMS.”"
It’s not about owning a film but being able to disseminate it, Monga says. “Owning 5% of something really big is different from owning 90% of something that won’t go anywhere,” she says. “For instance, we own 37.5% of Monsoon Shootout, but I don’t have a problem with that. If you have a watertight agreement, there is no problem. We can all keep doing our work.”
Monga grew up in Delhi, where she started out as an intern for a production coordinator in 2003. After a mass communications degree from Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, she tried her hand at editing and eventually became a full-time production coordinator for international productions. In 2006, she came to Mumbai to work on the film Salaam India. The cricket-themed movie was released before the 2007 ICC Cricket World Cup but flopped. Undeterred, Monga took the movie to Delhi and screened it at various schools to recover some of the money spent.
More films happened—Monga was involved with Rang Rasiya and Dasvidaniya. She met Kashyap while working on the Balaji Telefilms Ltd production Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai.
Alongside keeping pace with Kashyap, which can be a full-time job in itself, Monga runs her own production outfit, Sikhya Entertainment, as well as a line production company, which is called just that. One of Sikhiya’s productions is the movie Peddlers, directed by another first-time film-maker, Vasan Bala.
“We raised money for that film on Facebook,” Monga says. “The movie cost Rs.2 crore, of which we spent Rs.1 crore. Ten people gave Rs.10 lakh each.” Eros Entertainment will distribute Peddlers, which was screened at the City to City section at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, early next year in India.
“Sikhiya means keep learning,” Monga says. She has been doing little else since she attended her first film festival in Venice in 2010 with That Girl in Yellow Boots. “I went in fully wide-eyed,” she says. “We didn’t have the money to buy advertising spaces or stalls. I went up to people and said, where do the directors sit? Where do the buyers sit? Anurag and (then artistic director of the Venice Film Festival) Marco Mueller said, give it three years. I know it now. I have now understood that around 10,000 people come to festivals but only 200 are interested in India.”
International companies that want to pick up Indian films to broaden their slate often don’t know who to talk to and where to begin, Monga says. “People are interested in India, but they don’t know its dynamics,” she points out. “We don’t have the reputation of the French and the Italians. Every time I say I am Guneet from India, people say, ah, Bollywood. Then they see films like Shahid, Wasseypur and Yellow Boots and they wonder what is happening. I tell (them) that there is a flush of new film-makers from India, and that India is an up-and-coming market.”
It’s not easy trying to sell your wares to agents who have the world at their disposal. Countries like Mexico, Brazil, Hong Kong, Thailand and Japan have well-entrenched networks built over the years by working through film festival markets. The only way to exploit the commercial possibilities of independent cinema is to take the battle into their territory.
“It has been a struggle—if you just land up in a place, nobody will meet you,” Monga says. “But I make my appointments in advance. I meet people and I keep meeting them again and again. My agenda is always, let’s get introduced, we will do business after five years. It’s fully interpersonal there. It’s about how you represent and conduct yourself.”
Sometimes, she wishes she had a finance degree. “I politely but shamelessly ask questions. That’s how you get to know things.”
Monga is only 28, though you can’t tell from the streaks of white in her hair. She has faced some opposition on account of her youth and her gender, but it’s nothing she can’t handle. “People have said, she can’t do it, she’s too young. People say, let’s speak to Anurag. You are sitting there, strategizing, doing the budgets, but the spokesperson has to be someone else.”
But she loves the act of getting a film off the ground far too much to be daunted. “I have just structured a Rs.4 crore Marathi film,” she says. “It’s orgasmic to see a beautifully structured film. I am really enjoying this space.”