By Yash Thakur. Posted on August 27, 2015
Sikhya is back. After a brief hiatus post The Lunchbox, India's leading indie production house is back in news and how. Neeraj Ghaywan's Masaan, which they co-produced, won awards at Cannes, acclaim back home and is in its 5th week in theaters now. Zubaan, directed by Mozez Singh, is looking good and will open the prestigious Busan International Film Festival later this year. And now comes the news of their first Marathi film, Vakratunda Mahakaaya, directed by Punarvasu Naik releasing on Sept 25th.
Sikhya's story is the story of indomitable spirit and people with spunk. People who've put together films like Peddlers, Michael, Monsoon Shootout & The Lunchbox and taken them to some of the biggest festivals around the world. People who have put modern Hindi cinema on the world map. Which other Indian producer can claim to have had so many films in Cannes? Peddlers, Monsoon Shootout, The Lunchbox & Masaan have all premiered at Cannes making Sikhya and Guneet Monga a familiar face in the international festival circuit.
In a lot of ways, the flourishing indie Hindi (or Hindie as some call it) cinema of today wouldn't have existed if not for two people: Anurag Kashyap & Guneet Monga. While Anurag Kashyap became the face of this movement, Guneet managed the execution of all their projects together. The thrill of getting projects off the ground and finishing them was a major kick for the young team and they did it against all odds. Quirky films that reflected the voice of a new generation of Indian filmmakers eventually saw the light of the day and found appreciation, if not box-office success. But that was never the point. The dream was to make interesting films that had till then been thought of as commercially unviable.
The first phase (if one might call it that) ended with the success of The Lunchbox, which became one of the biggest indie hits to have come out of India. The success of The Lunchbox validated the Sikhya model and proved that good stories with universal themes could be made in India and watched the world over. The Lunchbox established Sikhya & Guneet as a powerhouse producer of exciting Indian films.
This however didn't help Sikhya crack the domestic market, which they realized was an entirely different beast. The set template of masala films, the star system and the heavy cost of marketing films means that a small film has a slim chance of recovering any money. Awards and recognition at international film festivals still don't count for much and while hopefully the scenario is changing, the jury is still out on whether theatrical distribution makes any sense for small budget indies.
Sikhya seems ready to embark on the second phase of their journey, Sikhya 2.0 one might call them. Fresh, young but wiser, with lessons learnt from the first phase, they are raring to go. With new ideas and grit, the quartet of Sikhya, Guneet Monga, Achin Jain, Shaan Vyas and Ben Rekhi are ready to hit the market with a slate of interesting films.
Yes, there have been setbacks and yes there's still a long way to go for them, but the story is still been written. They have only just started. And as the team themselves admit, there's a long way to go. In probably their first interview together, the core team at Sikhya Entertainment, spoke to Jamuura on their journey, the struggles of indie productions and more importantly the role of a producer.
It's an inspirational story of a bunch of people who've managed to create a new narrative in Indian cinema. The team shared some of their learnings on what goes into producing indie films in India. We've summarised some lessons from the above interview for you. Here are some excerpts from the same.
Shaan: I think the biggest learning is that today if you are thinking of making a film, make it with the intention of releasing it. We didn’t take any validation before getting in the business, or before making the films; but the distributors do require validation before the release.
Guneet: My learning of film production started with That Girl In Yellow Boots (my 3rd film). There I learnt to build buyers, market my films. Film Bazaar helped a lot. Everybody who was interested in buying Indian films came there. I learnt about co-production there. See, you grow with time, age, experience and interaction. One needs to know how much does it cost for P&A, where, how much to spend. I just sat down with one team member and figured out distribution, what are spends, how many players are there, how many vendors are there, how many screens are there.
On a general level meet a lot of tech people, marketing people, just to understand how tech can help in distributing. The current means to reach the audience are expensive. Now with the rise of Jio, Hotstar, Nextflix, Sony Live, etc. I think the market is also ready.
Ben: The independent scene in the US is thirty years old and growing. There is a robust ecosystem for distribution of these niche titles. There are so many ways to release a film; theatrical, platform theatrical, day and date, digital, TV, international, and all are monetized separately. However, digital is poised to explode and this is the most exciting space to be in India right now.
Achin: Nobody knows where the industry is going. Distribution wise, one statistic says the number of films produced this year has gone down considerably. So that means next year, we’ll see a lesser flow of films.
Guneet: The last one and a half year went in a lot of self doubt, a big low after a huge high. We always wanted to make this kind of cinema, what didn’t exist earlier. And it does exist now, in a much larger way so there is a way of carving a niche even in that. Our country is so large, so beautiful, that even that niche is large. There are 11 screens per million people. Now we know which film is for which audience.
And if your film is truly good, honest and if you don’t find the right release, then hold on to it. The value of the asset only increases.
Ben: The Indian distribution system is drowning under its own weight. There are only ten distributors, and only one way to release a movie: theatrically. The TV market has crashed, international is non-existent save for the handful of large Bollywood films per year and digital is just starting out.
Shaan: One of the learnings that we have had over the past few years is that a film that has a universal appeal, a film with a good story has to be the starting point. It could then develop a colloquial, cultural connect and be India-specific, or could have a worldly connect. We are looking at both kinds of scripts, but now we know the markets better.
If a film is leaning more towards ‘Indian’ then don’t go for an outside release and instead approach a studio, or a star. We’re developing 5 scripts today, and not all will be internationally produced. The more larger ideas will have an outside productions. The rest will be made here, with a more leaning on Indian culture.
Guneet: We are raising money from around the world for our content. So that we can take our content far. It is not instant gratification; it is over a period of time. This kind of waiting period (3-4 years) is normal in Europe. India is a very aggressive market. That has given us a larger understanding of what we choose. Nothing is stopping us from doing an English language film. There was a study done, that 70% of the U.S. box office figures come from the International releases, whereas 30% comes from domestic releases. Here it is the complete reverse.
Ben: In the U.S., there is a market already for Indian films, but it is limited to NRI's. Few films truly crossover. The challenge is that the US is a crowded marketplace. If Indian filmmakers want their films to be appreciated by the West, they should really look at what the west wants to see. Not try and export something that the West has no appetite for.
Guneet: Today, I will not start a film without distribution in place. Or without knowing where it’s going, or without a sales commitment. It has cost me lifelong friendships and relationships. You will need the right partners if you want to see your film go far.
Achin: Like she said, it isn’t about instant gratification. Our industry is very different. Abroad, there is a system of acquisition in place. Here, the acquisition model has died.
Shaan: I think we have always been people driven. We believed in people since the beginning. We still want to make those films that we have been making; only, we want to sort their releases first.
Achin: I think content wise, this is the best time. Digital is booming, more experimental cinema is coming out. On a general level, people who are creating content will flourish. Also for content creators, there’s always digital. It’s the biggest distribution system that we have.
Guneet: Anyway theatrical is so challenging, anyway there are so many taxes, anyway you have to make 3 times the money on theatrical, anyway satellite (TV) has crashed. We just pulled off a Netflix deal for Gangs Of Wasseypur. It will come out next month as a 8-part miniseries. So things like long form storytelling that exist in the U.S. will also seep in here.
Shaan: For us, Sikhya is an international production house based out of Mumbai. To bridge the Indian market and the global market with our content. That’s our vision.
Guneet: One should strive to maximize the art of producing. Producing is not just execution or just getting through the days of the shoots; the role is much larger. We strive to be an international content house based out of India, not just a production house.
Achin: Filmmaking is not easy. It is not a glamourous job. Producing is a thankless job, mostly. Do it if you’re passionate enough. I think you are like a parent. The film is like your child, you can never abandon it. You keep making it grow, keep nurturing it.
Guneet: Producing a film is a lifelong responsibility. After a certain point, everyone moves on from the film, except the producer. He/she has to live with the exploitation, the releases, pushing the envelope.
Shaan: Somewhere, as a young producer, you also have to understand the business of film festivals. How do you reach to the right audience, or the right investors and distributors. More than just finishing the film it’s about where to take it forward from there. A producer’s primary role is to be true to the director’s vision and make sure it is portrayed in the most honest/true way. At the same time it is an expensive art and you have to protect your investor’s money, make sure he gets it back. And finally you have a responsibility to get the content out to your audience.