At last count, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s war epic Padmaavat had made Rs280.53 crore in box office collections in India, while the overseas earnings stood at Rs112.99 crore. Combined with Rs50 crore from satellite television rights, about Rs15 crore from music and Rs10-20 crore from digital right sales, the controversial film has more than made back its Rs180 crore investment.

Caught in the eye of the storm ever since production began, the film, starring Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh and Shahid Kapoor, faced more than its share of struggle with both Rajput fringe groups and the censor board that made it push its initial December release date, incurring big losses in the process. Now rejoicing its massive success, even as showcasing in Gujarat and Rajasthan remains uncertain, co-producer Viacom18 Motion Pictures has much to look back at.

In an interview with Mint, chief operating officer (COO) Ajit Andhare talks about the challenges of making what is the most expensive Indian film ever, future plans for Hindi and regional movies and dealing with the changing entertainment landscape in India. Edited excerpts:

What are your immediate thoughts on ‘Padmaavat’ as a studio? How do you look back on the experience?

I think it’s been a fantastic experience for us in terms of what we were trying to achieve and where we are. There were so many things that worked as per strategy despite so many challenges. One of the big reasons for doing large tent-pole films of this kind is that you should be able to grow the market and if you see what we’ve managed overseas, it’s a fantastic story. We’ve gone to 80 countries and managed to open territories like Egypt and Nigeria which to me is very satisfactory. Results and realizations from traditional territories, like North America, Australia, New Zealand or even the European countries, are also very strong.

Then there is the risk you’re taking to make the most expensive film in the industry. To be able to make a return in a tough business like films is a great feeling. Only a few Salman and Aamir Khan films have done the kind of numbers Padmaavat has, and we didn’t have either of them in the film. So that is a matter of great satisfaction. For the first time, an Indian film had an IMAX 3D release and we were able to push the film down south in two languages, Tamil and Telugu. So the idea to stay big on formats, width and languages has paid off beautifully.

Viacom18 had, until now, backed tightly budgeted projects. Why this leap of investment? Would you do it again?

That may be the impression but we’ve never been shy of doing a large film. We’re clear that a large budget is not a problem but you should be able to see realization and an upside and that is not very common in the industry. There’s no point doing a film where all the realization is taken up by the factors of production, talent fee and all of that. Which is why we’ve been very selective about this, there was a very strong upside when we looked at this (Padmaavat). If a film makes strategic sense, we will do it. You can’t have guardrails of small and large in film business.

Did you spell out a strategy within the team to cope with the crisis (fringe-group related controversy and violence)?

The least I would say would be that this was an extremely challenging film, because of the kind of roadblocks we faced and the perception battles that we had to fight. We were very steadfast in sticking to what we wanted to convey, we went out of our way to deny what is not in the film, which was a first (of its kind strategy). We had to change the strategy a lot because so many things did not go as per plan and respond dynamically to adversarial situations or things that we had not imagined, because there was never an issue with the film. We were fighting a complete misperception. All in all, we were very clear that we’d play it with a straight back which we did, we didn’t compromise on any front and we were very thankful that both the court and government played their part to the hilt.

Did you lose out on more Hindi releases because of the focus on ‘Padmaavat’ last year? What is the plan now?

Filmmaking is not a rhythm business, you always need to go back to ground zero. We’ll always do films that add up, make sense, have an upside, and work for us creatively. As long as those parameters are met, we will do the films. If we’re not doing something, it probably means the films haven’t met those parameters. We’re not driven by the sheer need to put out volume for the sake of it and that has served us well. There’s a thriller with Sriram Raghavan which is in play right now, there is Jeethu Joseph’s film starring Emraan Hashmi and a few others which are in the works.

Besides that, our regional slate has kicked off very well with Marathi film Aapla Manus (a Nana Patekar-starrer that released this month). That was a fantastic beginning to our Marathi story and a strategic step. This is what we want to carry forward to other languages, Telugu and Tamil, in particular. The important thing is to engage with the significant movie-goer bases other than Hindi in this country. Many projects are under development, it’s a new market and we will need to be calibrated about it. It helps that our broadcast footprint has extended to Tamil Nadu (with the launch of Colors Tamil), for us it is strategic to play in markets where we have broadcast presence. Film assets that we create in our studio business are useful in our broadcast network and our digital business and that is the way to drive our portfolio.

How do you view the changes in the Indian entertainment landscape with the penetration of over the top (OTT) video streaming and consolidations like the Eros-Reliance partnership? What is the key to staying relevant for traditional movie studios?

We’re not a traditional studio which is primarily dependent on box office revenue. We are a strategic player in the movie business since we have participation in multiple revenue streams. If you see, it is the broadcast studio model (where the conglomerate has both a movie and television arm) that has emerged stronger, like us, Zee or Fox rather than studios that were only box office driven. So to me, we are a modern form of how a studio needs to be. We’re not just looking at ourselves as moviemakers, we are also looking at content that takes other formats. There are new channels which are evolving and you have to be relevant to them. You’ll make anything for which there is a consumer demand, which is what we’re trying to do through our brand Tipping Point which is for digital content. It gives us another means to stay relevant and important to the new landscape that is emerging.

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