Interview Hindi Marathi

We treat filmmakers as partners, not vendors: Siddharth Anand Kumar of Yoodlee Films 

In a conversation with, Kumar, vice-president of Yoodlee Films, sheds light on the aim and strategy of his production company and on the importance of independent, low-budget films in today’s time.

Keyur Seta

With 10 films in 15 months, Yoodlee Films is on a roll when it comes to production. And even though the production arm of Saregama is in its nascent stage, it has strict rules for filmmaking and quality control. For example, the films they produce are only shot in real locations and use sync-sound.

These measures bore fruit and their film Ajji, directed by Devashish Makhija, is turning heads at festival circuits. In 2017, the film was screened at the Busan International Film Festival, Mumbai Film Festival, Dharamshala International Film Festival, Singapore International Film Festival and Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. 

In a conversation with, Siddharth Anand Kumar, vice-president of Yoodlee Films, sheds light on the aim and strategy of his production company and speaks on the importance of independent, low-budget films in today’s time.

How did the idea of Yoodlee Films come about?

Saregama is the oldest music label company in India. So, we are a company used to trading in audio IP. But we also feel that in the days to come video IP is also very important. There is a need for us to position ourselves as content creators.

We chose feature films because we felt a lot of people are doing [web] series. And the one thing that decreases in our life is the amount of free time. As that would keep happening, you won’t be able to invest six to seven hours in one story. You might be able to invest one and a half or two hours. While ‘digital’ is the new catch word, with feature films you also have theatrical business and festivals as a way of marketing them. 

We conducted a consumer survey, which revealed that younger audience in the age group 18 to 40 are people used to watching international dramas. They have been torrenting it before digital platform started. Now with digital, they are able to watch it online.

While they love and enjoy Bollywood [Hindi] films, which are escapist, fantasy films, they also have an appetite for realistic cinema. We had very good, realistic cinema in the 1970s and 1980s, [produced] by the NFDC [National Film Development Corporation]. But off late, it has become less. So, we decided we will do realistic content within the feature film space. That’s how we came to Yoodlee Films; by process of elimination. 

Your aim is... 

Currently, our promise is that we will make 100 independent, realistic films over five to seven years. We will build a catalogue that will have value in the long term. If you hear ‘Lag Ja Gale,’ our song by Lata Mangeshkar, you were not even born when it was made but it still has value and emotions for you. Mirch Masala was made in the 1980s, but it still has value for you.

So, hopefully this catalogue will have gems which will remain valuable for years to come. 

The target of producing 100 films in five to seven years is quite high.

One aim is to quickly create a large catalogue of movies. Another thing is that independent cinema is very sporadic in our country. A production house like Cinestaan Film Company and Drishyam Films will have two to three releases a year.

Today, if four of us decide to go for a movie, there is no guarantee that an independent film will be playing [in theatres]. But two Bollywood [mainstream] films will be surely available.

Actually, 52 such [independent] films should be made every year, so that every week one is released. All I am saying is that I will make 12 to 20 (in a year). So, that randomly you can go to the theatre as you would know that such a film will be surely playing. 

You have these Standard Operating Procedures (SOP). What are they exactly?

Unlike most studios, everyone in my team is a filmmaker; either a writer, an assistant director, a director, like myself.  I have made few feature films and innumerable TV shows.

There is a certain frustration when it comes to dealing with studios, which, for me, is very personal because I feel studios are not transparent. You spend six to nine months of your life writing one script. Then from somewhere you get a contact of a studio and you send the script to them. That’s it! The story ends. If they don’t like it, you will never hear from them again. You don’t know if anybody even read it. If they like it, they will say they want to make your film. But what happens then you don’t know. You are in the dark. 

We want to treat our filmmakers as partners, not as vendors. One major thing we do is that we offer the filmmaker 30% of the film’s profit in perpetuity. This is the same as we do with music royalty. We are the only company to do this. So, 30% of your film's profit will come to you. After you die, it will go to your children for 60 years. 

Also, you should know that when you submit a script, within four weeks we will get back to you. If we don’t, you can email, message or call us. If we say no to your script, we will give you reasons. If you are signed, you will get to know how much money will come to you at what stage. You are an artist but you still need to live. You need to pay rent, you need to eat. We will also tell you how long after you finish shooting the film we will release it, that’s when you will make your next film. 

I believe you also have strict rules on the filmmaking process... 

We have also defined in the SOP about the kind of films we make, because it shouldn’t be that someone comes to us to make a film which is pointless. They have wasted their time, my team has wasted their time.

We say that the films have to be thematically led, which means that just the story is not important. You sitting in my room and interviewing me is a plot. But behind every good plot, there has to be a thematic, philosophical underlying idea. So, if it’s just about five friends hanging out, we will not make it.

We also have a few additional rules like every film has to be [made in] sync sound, we will not do any dubbing. Why? Because we want realism. 

Also because of that, we will not allow you to shoot on a set. You have to shoot in real locations. Samit Kakkad has made Ascharya Fuckit, a film about a prostitute, with us. He had to go at a place where all of this happens and shoot there. We helped him get permissions and to shoot. So that it becomes very real and we are not spending extra money and time on building a set. 

Are you not keen on signing big stars?

It’s not that we don’t sign big stars. It is just that if you come to me and say that there is Shah Rukh Khan in your film, that doesn’t mean we will make that movie. We will still examine only the script. The team that reviews the script won’t be told that the film has Shah Rukh Khan.

Again, we do not want to take the burden of paying stars. On a regular film, 80% of the budget goes to the star cast. On our films, we won’t spend more than 20% on the cast. Now, within that money if Shah Rukh Khan is willing to act because he loves the script so much, we will work with him. 

I have seen the uncut promo of Ascharya Fuckit and it looks like one of the boldest thing tried in India, with the nudity and cuss words. Did you readily agree to produce it?

Absolutely! See, we make all kinds of films. Within our slate of first 11 films, we have three children’s films, which is also rare. Our tagline is 'fearless filmmaking'. 

You come to us with an adult theme, with boldness and nudity, as long as the script makes sense and there is a theme [we will produce it].

Samit Kakkad’s film talks about the different forms of love. There is obsessive love, the pimp's love for the prostitute; romantic love, which is the driver's affection for the prostitute; self-love, which is the filmstar's love for himself; and there is escapist-love, which is the prostitute's feelings for the driver, she sees that he can help her leave the life she is leading.

Now, within this theme, if you need nudity, please do that. So, there were no two thoughts on green-lighting Samit’s film.

As we know, today it is difficult to get a bold film certified by the CBFC (Central Board of Film Certification)...

These things change. They are due to the regime and culture of a country. Society in general is becoming more and more permissive. Today, if we release Ascharya Fuckit, it will be censored. We have already received a censor certificate. Yes, there are cuts in the movie. But digitally, there are no cuts.

If you wish to see it alone, watch it uncensored. If you want to watch it with 10 friends, watch it in a movie theatre. 20 years later, maybe there won’t be any censorship in the country. Then we will re-release. If you are making content, you needn’t be thinking only of what happens today. 

We are a public limited company. We will follow the rules of the country. If tomorrow they say that even digital content will get censored, we will happily digitally censor our films. We don’t have a problem because we are law abiding citizens. Tomorrow, if the censorship regime changes, we will still have the content. 

Unfortunately, our industry is star-driven. Even a film like Baaghi 2, which hasn’t got thumbs up for its content, earns more than Rs150 crore. How do you see hope in such a situation?

This is only about the theatrical game. Our company’s revenues are not focussed on theatre. Theatrical business for us is the cherry on the top. Does that mean we won’t go for the cherry? Of course, we will.

There is a problem with how the distribution system works in our country. It allows one week, more specifically, one weekend for the film to gather steam, else it’s knocked out. Realistic films need word-of-mouth. This is how the audience grows. So, these films need platforming, where they are released in fewer number of theatres, but for longer period of time.

We are looking at this kind of strategy next where you might even hear a crazy announcement from us that we will only release a film in one city at a time. 

If it is released in Mumbai, you will put your views on the social media. If it comes to Delhi next, you will call your friends there and suggest them to watch it. When it releases at the same time all over the country, word-of-mouth doesn’t grow.

We are being disruptive in how we make films. Now we want to be disruptive in how we distribute films too. There is a big difference in the audience pull of a Shah Rukh Khan or Salman Khan-film and a Manav Kaul-film. So, we can’t use the same release strategy and expect the same results. Only once in a while will you have a Newton (2017). Else nobody knows when a film comes and goes. 

Your film Ajji has received a lot of acclaim recently. 

Ajji is doing great in festivals. It was targeted towards festivals and world audiences. It’s done over 20 festivals. We have won three awards recently. We are very happy with it. The film is also on Netflix. It is a successful film in its own space. 

A lot of trade analysts believe that only commercial films with big stars should be made as these films bring in the money. They are literally against unconventional films with no big stars. What is your view on this?

That’s correct. See, if you talk to them, they understand this intimately. I know a lot of them. It’s not a problem.

The problem is that in professional lives, we all choose sides. When more business is coming from a certain side, you will obviously favour that side. It is like, you have two job offers; one is giving you less money and the other is giving you more. Why will you take the one which is giving you less? But that doesn’t mean that the other side of the coin does not exist.

We are making films at a budget level which is extremely lower than the big films. So, we need less money to get our returns. If a guy makes a film with Shah Rukh Khan or Salman Khan, he needs to recover Rs200 crore from the box office otherwise he is in loss. But I don’t have such pressure. 

So, those trade analysts who are saying only those kinds of films should be made, it’s because large sums of money are being traded and that’s good for everybody in the industry.  

Any new projects Yoodlee Films is working on?

We have a line-up of films like Noblemen, Music Teacher, Hamid, Chaman Bahar and Habaddi [Marathi].