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“I think the challenge that the industry is predominantly facing right now is having less actors and actresses who have a PAN India appeal”

Interview By: Ankita R. Kanabar

It won’t be wrong to call Apoorva Mehta, Karan Johar’s partner-in-crime for churning out film after film. While Johar’s creative expertise and in-depth knowledge about cinema makes Dharma Productions what it is today, the company’s CEO Apoorva Mehta looks after all the financial, distribution and other important aspects that are so pivotal to a film. Let’s not deny, that as a team they work amazingly. We don’t need more proof, do we? But we catch up with Apoorva Mehta at Dharma’s new, plus office. In an exclusive conversation, he speaks all about making movies and how the company functions. Excerpts:

The experience of being a part of a franchise like ‘Bahubali’ and of course the success – how’s it all been?
It’s been a tremendous experience. Even we didn’t expect that this film will be as magical as it’s been, eventually. I think when we did the first film and we spoke to them about it, Karan saw the trailer and he told us we should see the film. Of course, what we saw at that point is a lot of green screen because the film wasn’t complete at that time. But we knew there was some magic in what is being made because nobody in India has made it to that level. Of course, when we saw the first film, we were blown because to mount a film with that much grandeur, it’s got those clap traps at every point in the film and it’s still seamless as an experience. We were very happy with how the first part in Hindi also performed because we had marketed it well. Of course, the content worked but we were able to position it correctly which allowed a lot of people to see it than actually they would have gone out to see a dubbed film. So we were obviously very happy to be a part of a film like that which is so amazing. And of course, the second part took two years to make. Everyone kept asking us, why did Katappa kill Bahubali and we kept saying we can’t say, but the truth is, we really didn’t know. We never bothered to know also because we knew that the second one will be an even more magical experience. What a film like that does is that, it allows you to dream, it allows film-makers to dream because otherwise you just go by the existing benchmarks. Now you’ve seen that people are willing to come in if you’re willing to give them something magical. I think this film does that. I think it’s amazing that it’s broken norms. We’ve done very limited marketing for the first part. We’ve relied heavily on the buzz of the first part. It has got south Indian actors, which don’t fit into the regular mould of Hindi film heroes which people tend to enjoy. It’s in another language, era. So, it’s amazing that everything which is a norm has been broken and still the film has come out so strongly and has got so much love. It’s a beautiful film. The numbers are just overwhelming. In every language, not even in India but in every part of the world it’s broken a record. So, unanimously it’s connected with people. It’s a big sign that people are not bothered about the language, if the experience is great, they will go for it. It’s got learnings for all of us that we can dream big, there’s a market for everyone if your content is good.

How different was the process of positioning it this time around? It must have been quite easy for the second part?
The first time around we obviously did more things. We knew we had good content but we also had to ensure that people see it. A lot of the units were not ready completely because there was so much VFX work to be done so we were relying heavily on Karan’s brand to take it forward, coupled with Rajamouli’s brand and the trailer. We worked on these three variables to create the positioning around it and of course the intrigue factor on the film. The trailer organically met with a lot of love everywhere and we were able to build on it. We positioned it as this is the biggest film which the country has seen which is true. The second one, the task was much easier. Because half the country wanted to see why Katappa killed ‘Bahubali’ and the other half of the country had heard from the rest so they wanted to see it. It was going to be grand experience and nothing we did could match up to what you were going to see on-screen. So, we were going to focus on digital marketing and we did very limited stuff.

When one hears that a film is from Dharma Productions, it organically brings a lot of expectations. So how do you as a brand not manage to be complacent and strive to churn out good content every time?
The credit for that should entirely go to Karan because creatively he heads the company and all of us are very fortunate to be able to work with him, and enjoy the experience to be a part of his films. I think creatively, he’s a genius. He has an innate, strong gut which allows him to make almost 100 percent correct decisions. We’ve not had an extremely disappointing film. A film may not work for various reasons but on a story level they’ve always been fantastic. He is so receptive to meeting youngsters, be attuned to various people because of the various things he does because of his TV shows and everything. He is always out there, which helps, because you’re always connected to what’s happening, you’re not in a cocoon and it’s important because the world is changing so dramatically. He’s a people’s person and the fact that he’s gifted with an innate sense of what works commercially. These things have really helped us to put out great content continuously, and adapt to the changing times. That’s the most important films. We’ll now see that more and more film-makers will be attempting something like a ‘Bahubali’ because that is the future. People will want to enjoy an experience and only for that they will come to the theatre. They will watch simpler films on digital mediums.

“It’s a wonderful time to be in the business right now because I think the business is evolving so dramatically and movies are something that will always be watched. But you have to be selective about the content you’re putting out”

So, at this point what do you think are the challenges that the industry is facing? Of course, the nature of challenge might be different from a small production house to a big studio…
I think the challenge that the industry is predominantly facing right now is having less actors and actresses who have PAN India appeal. There are just five-six actors and actresses. Of course, there are lots of good actors but they don’t have the PAN India appeal. They are not able to support the budget that you have to make the film with. You’re working with a very limited pool of talent and the biggest challenge, for even people like us is to mount a project. We’re in a scenario where actors are not very keen on doing two-hero films. We miss the yesteryear days when we made films like ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’ – that’s not happening anymore. That’s the big challenge. We’re not able to mount those multi-starrers anymore. Heroes are preferring to work in solo hero projects. That’s one of the big challenges that we’re facing in general. The whole industry is facing that. We have lots of great directors, lots of great scripts but the actor’s dates aren’t there. The challenge for us is also the same that how do we mount a project with all the ingredients that it requires and under the right budget. We are fortunate in that sense that we’ve had a good career run as a company so things are easier for us as compared to others in terms of being able to sell our films and release them. The trust factor is there because of Karan. But yes, it’s a tough time right now because there are 60 filmmakers chasing 6-7 actors. Then there are so many different themes which the actors want to explore today, as a result there’s such a wide variety for these actors also to choose from. So, it gets that much more difficult.

What has been your personal journey of evolution over the years?
It’s been an extra-ordinary roller-coaster ride. When I joined Dharma 10 years ago, we were a staff of about 20-25 people, today we’ve grown into a staff of a good hundred people plus, so I think it’s been a very eventful journey. When I joined Karan, even though the company was only producing films that he made, we had just started producing films from other directors. We had started putting up one film in one or two years. And now over the last ten years, we’ve reached a point where, we’ve managed to put out 3-4 films in a year. So, it’s been rewarding in that sense, we’ve been able to put out more content, do distribution, have these associations. We’ve ventured now into the ad division. It’s been a great journey and it’s a wonderful time to be in the business right now because I think the business is evolving so dramatically and movies are something that will always be watched. But you have to be selective about the content you’re putting out. People are not just going to go in for anything or everything so whatever you put out has to be impactful.
Has the appreciation to a certain kind of content further given confidence to try out different stuff? For instance, people still say that ‘Kapoor & Sons’ was one of the best films from last year.
‘Kapoor & Sons’ is a beautiful film, but at the script level it just seemed like everyone is fighting. So, at the script level it’s very easy for someone to reject a film, or not understand the texture of the film. But Karan has that innate ability to grasp that, being a film-maker himself, he is able to visualize and appreciate screenplays. So, we just kind of heavily rely on him to get the screenplays correct. Then I look at the non-creative aspects from financial to distribution aspects. We are at two separate ends sometimes but we find a path, he’s a very generous director and producer so I have to at times let go more than I’d like to let go. But I know he’s coming from a right space and he has a plan which makes sense.

You’ve been in the business for years now and made so many films but would you be able to pick a film which has been the most fulfilling experience for you?
For me, personally it would be ‘KabhiAlvida Na Kehna’ because when I joined the company and Karan, that was the first film we went on the floors with. That was a special film because it was a film ahead of its time, and secondly because it had such a multi-starrer cast. We shot for two months in New York and it gave us an opportunity to learn so much. Typical earlier it was Karan’s father helming everything earlier but here neither did I have the knowledge and Karan was more focused on direction in those days. I had come from a corporate background to now be handling a film production. That one film taught us a lot, it was a very enriching experience in terms of learning. It had so many actors, so handling such a big crew, different temperaments. It was ahead of its times, probably if it released today, it would have got more love, though internationally it did extra-ordinary for us. That challenge on the film helped us learn a lot and made it a memorable experience.

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