Vikramaditya Motwane On Masaan, Indie Movement & Fresh Talent In Bollywood

By Srikanth Kanchinadham. Posted on July 23, 2015

Phantom Films is an exciting experiment in filmmaking. A production house led by a trio of directors, all with their own taste in films. When one of them directs, the others end up writing or editing. They've given us films as diverse as Lootera, Queen, Ugly & Bombay Velvet and backed talented young filmmakers like Harshavardhan Kulkarni, Navdeep Singh & now Neeraj Ghaywan.

Ghaywan's Masaan became the 1st Indian film in over 25 years to win two awards at Cannes. And the FIPRESCI award no less. It was a proud moment for Indian cinema and the men behind it could not have been happier.

And that came across in this interesting chat we had with the man who first backed Neeraj & Masaan. Vikramaditya Motwane ran an informal lab at Phantom that included other filmmakers like Abhishek Chaubey, Navdeep Singh, Sudeep Sharma amongst others. This lab was the first time Masaan received a standing ovation, much before it di at Cannes.

Vikramaditya spoke about why he loved the script, their role as producers, Phantom's vision for the future, the challenges facing indie filmmakers and his views on the talent coming through the ranks in Hindi cinema.

Here's the chat with him.

During our chat last week, Neeraj mentioned that the script was first shown to you guys at the informal script reading session you have or the team is around and that's where Neeraj and Varun got the first standing ovation, so we can start off with what you saw in the script, that you decided to back it?

First of all, having seen Neeraj’s short films, you know that there’s a lot of talent there. You know this is a guy who will make feature films, its just the question of waiting for the script. But even when the script came, it was a pleasant surprise. When you see his script, which is in equal parts emotional, equal parts gripping, equal parts almost a mystery, and yet it is artistic and there was so much depth.

This was one of those things, that you die to read. You are reading too much of mediocre stuff, or clichéd stuff or borrowed stuff, while Neeraj gave us something very original and very independent and very gripping. It was a pleasure to read something so fascinating. That's what happened, everybody’s reactions were the same, it's a pleasure to read the script and it was so minimal. I was very happy, very delighted

The confidence on the script paid off when you saw the first cut. The response that came from Cannes must have been a pleasant surprise. Can you speak about that?

The response was phenomenal, the two awards were phenomenal. It is lovely because the people at Cannes, love cinema. They give standing ovations unless the film is really terrible or offensive. You know your film will be warmly received, you know there will be appreciation for your film. But the two awards, definitely were incredible and it was a pleasure to go there and have your film appreciated. There’s no better film festival.

So it's like saying, your film is among the top 40 films of the year, because they choose only a certain amount of films. It's a wonderful feeling to be there. For me, it's even more special because you’ve nurtured the film in a sense and seen it grow and mainly because my film was also in Cannes five years ago in the same section. So for me it was extremely emotional to be there and see that film. I was super happy, and the awards were like an icing on the cake. It's a fact that your work has been appreciated beyond the audience and FIPRESCI is a very prestigious award.

There is always this dichotomy in the Indian market. There are films that do well at festivals and tend to get branded as festival films and there are these films that make a lot of money and do not a stand anywhere else. Is there now a growing sense that there is a possibility of an evolving market where these kind of films can and will be appreciated with films like Court, Killa, releasing this year. So is there a sense that things are changing a bit and you can push the envelope within the main stream and make these kind of stories?

I think it has been already changing for a while. Peepli Live went to Sundance and Udaan went to Cannes, and even Dhobi Ghat, and all of them got a commercial release. If you compare that to ten years ago, it was very difficult to think of those films getting a release. I do think the trend has been changing and this year we've seen Court get a release and even make some money at the box office and Killa, which definitely made a lot of money.

Also a film like Labour Of Love, which is an experimental film happens to get a box office release and that is phenomenal. It's wonderful to see that, and it's a lovely trend, it's there for the audience to go there and watch and maybe the regional audience (Marathi in case of Court and Killa) is more evolved than the Hindi audience. The kind of films that have actually worked like Deool, Ghabricha Paus, its fantastic. Maybe it’s the regional thing, but it’s nice.

From the distribution point of view, do you think things have gotten any easier? Is there a change in their mindset when you take films like Masaan to them?

Kind of, they are definitely open to new kind of films. But, it's all about the budget. If you have the right budget, anything is possible. In terms of investment however its more on the Producers. So even in the case of Masaan, it was Manish Mundra who pushed the money upfront saying that, let's go, do this film or in the case of Court, it was Vivek Gomber, or in the case of Killa, it was JAR pictures. So overall, it has become easier but not super easy. It’s still difficult to get a film released, it’s always difficult.

Studios don’t want to back independent films, distributors can, but they won’t produce them, they won’t back them, they don’t know how to do that. Once you’ve made it and seen it, distribution definitely becomes easier. Now, you can directly go to the multiplexes instead of going to the single distributors. So, the whole process has become easier, but not super easy or simple.

This year, you’ve had an interesting plate of films from Hunterr, NH10, Bombay Velvet and you’ll have Udta Punjab, Shanddar, after Masaan. So how does Phantom look at itself in this space? How does Phantom look at balancing the mainstream and independent films?

Well, that’s right. We don’t want to be stuck to any space, mainstream or independent. We definitely want to empower directors, and make the films that they want to make, and films that we would like to see and make. But for us, it's all in the script; if the script is exciting, it doesn’t matter, we shall back it up. Masaan and NH10 are prime examples of those kinds of films, and even Udta Punjab actually. These are films that you look at and want to get them made, be it a Rs 50 Crs commercial film or a Rs 2 Cr independent film. That's just us, that's the way we want to do it.

Is there a process for filtering the scripts?

We have a full development team in place. We have people who are reading scripts all the time. We also want to be fair to writers, so it's not like there's a pile and no one’s reading them, we are definitely reading them, it takes time. But, we have a full development team, there is a process in place.

As a filmmaker and a producer, how do you approach the role of a producer?

We are a team. Everybody is everyone else’s producer. Me, Madhu and Vikas are Anurag’s producers, Madhu, me and Anurag are Vikas’s producers, and so on. We are quite sorted, I think.

Can you talk about co-productions? With this film, you’ve brought French producers and from funding independent films, we can see that lot of films have co-production. Is that the way forward for independent films? And how does that actually help the film?

Co-production definitely negates everyone else'e risk in the film, it lowers the risk of putting all the money in the film. People are sharing the risk, and we also end up sharing talent. In the case of Masaan, Phantom, Macassar, Sikhya and Drishyam, we all are definitely sharing our expertise. Phantom’s expertise is production and marketing, that’s what we do best.  So we get the film produced and develop the script to a point.

What Sikhya does very well is international sales and distribution, getting us in touch with international distributors, that’s their expertise. Macassar, because they’re French, the post-production of the film happened in France. The quality that they bring to the table, we haven’t got here as yet, sadly. The quality of mix and the quality of DI, when you look at the film, it looks gorgeous because its been done over there.

When you’re collaborating on a film together, you’re just helping the film get better. That’s exactly how it happens in a sense with Phantom, where every film gets better because there are different people working on it. There are always three or four people who are looking at stuff and helping it get better.

What’s your view on the fresh set of directors and talent that is coming out? Also, what’s your view on people who are yet to make their first films. Do you think that there is a new energy and new voice that is on the verge of breaking out?

I definitely think so, it's mainly because of the fact that even people know that they can make different kind of stories. They weren’t sure of that earlier. They are seeing that different stories are working, different films are working, more interesting films are working, not just in the indie space, but even in the commercial space, where Piku and Tanu Weds Manu are working at the box office. That is lovely.

People are writing differently and I am amazed at the kind of ideas that people have. The screenplay writing skill is not there yet. I think there is some amount of journey to go for this skill of writing a screenplay to be developed. But definitely, the ideas are getting better, stories are getting better, producers are also getting interested in doing new stuff. Its looking good, overall.

So stressing on your last point, where you talk about the lack of expertise in the screenplay writing; how do you think that can be addressed? 

Definitely. More workshops, you can read more screenplays, and write a lot more. It's happening in a sense, where you have Whistling Woods, FTII, they are teaching and have long term writing courses. The best thing is to read more, watch more films and write your scripts.

What else can we expect from Phantom, apart from Udta Punjab and Shaandar?

Right now, Udta Punjab and Shaandar are the only films that are currently going. Anurag is developing something, I am developing something, but these are the only two films out there under production right now.

Also check this out:

Join The Jamuura Brigade & Make Your Film

Online Workshop On 'Secrets Of Screenwriting' With Kamlesh Pandey, At 6 PM, On 8th August


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