‘Tumhari Sulu’ was a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film for us set in modern day: Atul Kasbekar
New Delhi: Few would see film production as the ideal leap from fashion photography and celebrity management. But for Atul Kasbekar, fashion photographer, owner of celebrity management company Bling! Entertainment Solutions and co-founder of movie production house Ellipsis Entertainment, it was pretty much inevitable. He hit the bull’s eye with his first production, Neerja (2015), which won hearts and accolades alike, including the National Award for the Best Feature Film in Hindi.
As his second production, Tumhari Sulu, a comedy drama starring Vidya Balan readies for release this week, he spoke to Mint about meeting high expectations, working within the corporate culture of Bollywood and balancing creativity with economics. Edited excerpts:
Are the expectations from Tumhari Sulu high thanks to Neerja?
Our benchmark was set, inadvertently, I might add, a little higher than we thought, with Neerja. So there is a lot of pressure to perform. It’s a bar and standard that we’re going to try very hard to maintain. Having said that, there are many boxes that need to be ticked when you make a movie. And there are some that only divine energies can tick for you. Which I think happened in Neerja’s case. Here too, hopefully, we’ll have some luck on our side.
How did you get into film production after being into fashion photography and celebrity management for so long?
One was always on the fringes of movie production. You’re constantly negotiating deals for films for stars, visiting sets etc. So it feels like you’re one foot into that space already. But when we came across a seven-pager of the Neerja story by writer Saiwyn Quadras, I said if we got the right script for the film, I’d try and make it myself. So it just led from there.
How do you plan to balance creativity with economics at Ellipsis?
If you analyze the movies that have been doing really well lately, the safe bet is to be either really big or really small. When I say small, I don’t mean there’s any compromise on the written word. So first of all, your script needs to be really tight. While people are talking of content now, we’ve actually practised it for three years. There are some movies like Baahubali, which are visual spectacles and you’re sure that a certain number of people will come to watch it in the theatre, and that is also the case abroad with films like Transformers. Then there are short and tight productions where your downside, if any, is limited. Our film (Tumhari Sulu) is pretty much, a plus film on day one. So we’re quite confident it all works out well on the economic front.
Is there a blueprint on the kind of content you want to make? The one underlying theme between Neerja and Tumhari Sulu is strong, independent women characters.
There’s nothing like that. The two words that seem to have worked repeatedly when it came to films in the past few years, are honest and fresh. Regardless of what you are doing, even if it’s a franchise film, as long as you’re honest to the genre and you’ve reinvented it a bit, you see a good turnout at the box office. That’s just my pet theory on the subject. When we heard the script for Sulu, it was a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film for us set in modern day. It’s an urban, well-written comedic kind of space which has not been done in a long time. So for us, it seemed like a modern-day homage to the master which was a compelling enough reason to pick it up.
What are the challenges of operating in the studio-driven culture of Bollywood for a company like yours?
Whoever’s dealing with us knows what we bring to the table. Even if I say so myself, both Neerja and Sulu have been very well-marketed and positioned which is the consistent feedback I’m getting from everyone. I think all of it essentially comes from setting a platform without ego. Fox Star Studios (which co-produced Neerja), for example, went out of their way to complement us and work 110%. Similarly, T-Series (who’ve backed Sulu) have given us complete freedom, and there’ve been no excuses. These guys have a slate they are working on so when they see this one film is pretty much covered, they can shift focus on other stuff that needs attention. They’ve been excellent partners, they know we know what we are doing, they don’t need to be on top of things too much.
Does your time and experience in the industry help you in day-to-day production issues?
Yes, of course. I think there’s a whole amount of goodwill that has hopefully been generated over time. I’m not the kind of person who’d pull favours unless required. And I think people are aware of that and they respect it. In the case of Neerja, there were a whole lot of industrialists whom I approached at various levels. I sent them a one-pager saying I needed whatever I did for free, it wasn’t a good deal, but they know this is not the kind of guy who will ask for a favour just because he can. So people went out of their way to help us with Neerja and for that, I’m genuinely grateful.
What’s next for Ellipsis?
We’re working on two web series, one of them should close shortly. And one more film which is mercifully with a guy in the lead since everyone keeps saying we only make female-oriented projects. What actually happened after Neerja was that we had seven to eight things in the pipeline. But we realized the bar had gone up and we needed to re-evaluate and see whether we should take something up or not. Then half of it turned out to be good, but not good enough. We’re going to be two films old on Friday so I don’t know about legacy but it’s a big cross to bear.