I like that word, Excel-lent!" says Ritesh Sidhwani. The wordplay seems like a good way to start a conversation.
The co-founder of film production company Excel Entertainment is coming off a string of successes, their last few ventures either fetching them impressive box-office returns or acclaim or both. This February’s Gully Boy focused on the untapped theme of Mumbai’s hip hop culture, while their Amazon Prime web series Made In Heaven has used the world of wedding planners in Delhi to address issues of dowry, homosexuality, forbidden love and societal pressures.
Somewhere alongside, Excel sneaked in KGF, a Kannada film whose Hindi dub it distributed. It got a niche audience and raked up the kind of returns that have made them excited about a sequel—the Hindi dub is reported to have made ₹40 crore in its first month.
For a company that is just about two decades old—their first film was Dil Chahta Hai in 2001—and has produced over 20 films, Excel seems to coexist as a boutique as well as a mainstream production company.
Seated at home in Mumbai in a large lounge-like room that sometimes doubles as his office, Sidhwani does not give the impression of a “veteran", a label that could easily stick to someone with such an inventory. Settled comfortably on a large beige-coloured sofa, dressed in a grey T-shirt, dark pants and trendy white sneakers, the 45-year old does not talk with the filters of diplomacy on, but as someone who is secure in his position in a fickle industry.
A quintessential Bandra boy, he’s never lived beyond a 500m radius of where he is now, off Carter Road. It was at the Maneckji Cooper Education Trust school in Juhu that he met Farhan Akhtar, the actor-director who would go on to become a co-founder at Excel. But Sidhwani didn’t enter the glitzy world of cinema immediately. He tinkered with the family business of home appliances after college, learning the ropes of sales and marketing in Faridabad, near Delhi, among other places. But he soon realized this was not his calling.
When Akhtar mentioned a film script he had written at a gathering of friends, Sidhwani jumped in enthusiastically. “When I read it, I asked him, did you write this? Not Honey aunty (Akhtar’s mother) or Javed uncle (his father)? Then, when we took it to Aamir (Khan), he asked, did you (Farhan) write this?" Sidhwani remembers, laughing.
That film became Dil Chahta Hai, a coming-of-age story of three young men, set to novel personal styling and music. It explored issues of friendship, maturity and relationships with wit and sensitivity that urban youth could relate to easily. It set a new benchmark for Hindi cinema—even today, young travellers remember the film when taking a group photograph overlooking a beach in Goa. It was a promising start to Sidhwani’s and Akhtar’s careers, one as a producer and the other as a director.
Over the years, Excel has experimented with genres—young comedy with Fukrey, slick action with Don, musicals like Rock On, buddy films like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and dramas like Raees and Talaash. In the last two years, their entry into the digital space with Inside Edge (which was nominated for the International Emmy awards), Mirzapur and Made In Heaven has added a new dimension to their repertoire, making them one of the first major Indian production companies in the over-the-top (OTT) space.
Working with first-time or new directors, including Akhtar’s sister, Zoya, their films have not followed any formula, trying instead to explore contemporary themes, though not always successfully.
“My strengths are in putting stuff together," says Sidhwani, who has only vaguely been tempted to direct himself. “I am not a writer, but I know how to pick my scripts, relate to a film like an audience does.
“When I am reading it, in my own way I am visualizing the script. The director will visualize it differently but I can see how it will translate from paper to an audiovisual format. I find a script that’s inspirational, motivating, that connects emotionally, and is an engaging story that I want to tell."
He has been overwhelmed by the way Gully Boy and Made In Heaven have been received. Shows like Made In Heaven and Mirzapur have stretched the boundaries of what has been seen on Indian television/web while dealing with complex issues through engaging storytelling, sophisticated production values and passionate performances besides the intense sex scenes, violence or coarse language.
“People keep saying there are no restrictions and no censorship. But to quote a line from Spider-Man: With great power comes great responsibility," says Sidhwani. “The audience here is smart and exposed to shows from all over the world. So if you misuse the platform just because you can, the audience won’t stay. Whether exploring sexuality or inequality or marriages, if you are showing things that are real, it will resonate."
He says the timing of these international OTT platforms was just right. “Firstly, you have a chance of reaching into 149 countries and making them aware of your culture, of your cinema," he says. “In the last one-and-a-half years, these actors (from Indian shows) are now auditioning for international shows. They don’t really need big stars or big publicity."
Initially, he adds, both Amazon and Netflix didn’t want to do shows here. Some months after Amazon’s mid-2016 launch in India, however, it asked Excel if they had any original content that would be suitable as a web show. Excel had already started work on two shows—Mirzapur and Inside Edge. Sidhwani knew that these were stories that wouldn’t be suited to the feature film format—it would need more than 120 or 180 minutes to do justice to those character arcs.
“I knew you would want to see more of these characters but not something that could go on to our Indian TV or broadcast. They (the shows) were slightly more evolved, but the audience was not there. Or so we thought."
If 2018-19 proved to be a breakout season for Indian productions on the web, it was also one in which some major films tanked at the box office, leading to deep analysis about the demise of the Khans’ (Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh) drawing power. The modern benchmark of a hit, the ₹100-crore box-office collection, was discussed more fervently when less predictable films like Uri just would not leave the theatres.
“Look at what the Khans have given, the box office they generated," says Sidhwani, who has made films with Shah Rukh and Aamir in the past. “All three are talented professionals. But there is also a lot of talent out there that’s going to come out. Until recently, you would have five actors who would be right for a character. You couldn’t go beyond that or you would have to rewrite the character. You will get a bigger range now.
“I don’t want to talk about my business because it’s nobody’s business. We are the only company that has not advertised box-office numbers. I don’t think an audience should know how much we have made. I don’t know what your income is. For you, the cost of my film is ₹100-200 (the ticket price). I want to know the footfalls in the cinema. Was it one crore (10 million) people (watching)?"
Doing shows on the web is different, he adds—like making an ad film: You deliver and get paid. There is a fee as a producer, as a creator and as a director, but no additional revenue because it goes on to a platform.
“The sad part is none of these players give you numbers and they don’t tell you how many people have watched the show. But you get an idea from the buzz on social media. When the platform quickly gets back to you and asks to do another season, you know you have done something right," he says.
They have already finished shooting season 2 of Inside Edge, while the season 3 shoot has started. Both the second and third seasons of Mirzapur will be finished this year while the second season of Made In Heaven is being written. They don’t have any other feature films releasing this year but two co-productions are in the works: a boxing film, Toofan, with Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, and Jugnu, a concept-based movie about a road trip undertaken by a gorilla and a goofy character. In addition, there is the second part of KGF, which will have a roster of pan-Indian actors joining the cast.
I ask him about Don 3. “Both Farhan and I have said that it is a franchise we are also eager to do but we have to crack the script," Sidhwani says. “When? Not sure."
It’s almost 8pm and he has another meeting lined up. His daily schedule is erratic—a few days later, he is to have a script narration at 10pm—but he makes sure his mornings are work-free. They are devoted to his teenage sons, whose names are tattooed on his left arm, and to kick-boxing, a passion for seven years. He takes off every six-eight weeks for a beach holiday, carrying one or more scripts to read, combining work and pleasure.
As he escorts me out, we are joined by one of the more pampered members of his family, their dog Bruno, who is just back from a walk. “He comes to the office every other day," says Sidhwani, grinning. “He walks around for a bit and then comes back home."
Favourite film of all time
‘Dil Chahta Hai’. It is the first and always the most special.
Last show seen
Last show abandoned
‘Call My Agent’. I saw only the first season and then didn’t get back to it.
Last show binge-watched
‘Jack Ryan’. And ‘Goliath’!—Billy Bob Thornton is amazing