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Interview Hindi

A film chooses its storytellers and the manner of telling, says producer Guneet Monga

Monga, one of the producers of The Lunchbox (2013), plays down individual roles and credits a film's success to teamwork.

Mayur Lookhar

Usually, artistes and directors hog the limelight. Producers remain in the background, unless they are Karan Johar, Ekta Kapoor or Anurag Kashyap. These are flamboyant people, with their own charm, charisma and influence.

Guneet Monga is no Anurag Kashyap, but let’s not forget she was one of the custodians of Gangs Of Wasseypur (2012), a film that changed the career of not just Kashyap, but also Nawazuddin Siddiqui. She was one of the producers of the dark crime drama.

Monga also collaborated with Kashyap and other producers on the internationally acclaimed drama The Lunchbox (2013) and, later, Masaan (2015). She has her own production house today, Sikhya Entertainment. Her last release was Monsoon Shootout (2017).

While she has seldom been in the limelight, Guneet Monga has had quite a journey of her own. The Delhi native turned 35 yesterday (21 November). Those who have seen her and her grey hair might be surprised, but there is a fascinating tale behind that look.

In a telephone conversation with Cinestaan.com, Guneet Monga shared memories of her journey, her early struggles and how people did not take her seriously when she started out. She also spoke of how Aamir Khan’s Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992) influenced her first production Say Salaam India (2007). Excerpts:

The English meaning of your name is virtuous, but if I were to break it down, gun [talent] and neet for neeti [intentions]. In your career so far, what has made you an achiever? Is it just talent, good intentions, or a combination of both?

I have actually never known this about my own name. I think it is good intentions. A lot of us have talent. Especially in films, it is so intuitive as a business, I think the intent of telling the story matters most to me. 

Starting off as a production coordinator to producing new-wave films, how would you summarize the journey so far?

It has been very encouraging and rewarding. It has been very tough, but I would actually say I have a lot of gratitude (pauses). Yeah, I am humble, and I still feel it’s only a start. I have a long way to go.

In an interview, you said you believe stories find you. They choose you as a medium to be told. Did you have this philosophy from the moment you stepped into this industry or has experience taught you this?

When we start out, we give ourselves a lot of credit that we made it. But I feel the process, the filmmaking process, is so team-orientated, it has so many external factors for a film to come together — financing, distribution, the way it is perceived, the way it is received, and then tags like hits and flops, it is such a long process of putting a movie together, especially producing it is such a difficult process — I  strongly believe a film chooses its storytellers and the manner of being told.

Your production house is called Sikhya, or learning. What learnings did you get from the early setbacks?

My biggest learning is just do what you want to wake up every morning and do. The story has to be that exciting that you want to tell this every morning of your life, and it’s not just a transaction, a project that you will tell. It is very encouraging to have that energy around when you are telling a story. There are no shortcuts.

I believe for your first production, Say Salaam India, you came to Mumbai with your neighbour giving you 7.5 million rupees. Wish I had such a generous neighbour. What convinced him or her to give a 20-something such a huge sum?

He wanted me to open a children’s-video shooting company. He thought of me shooting cute babies as a business. I was doing international films, as part of the production team. He thought I would be able to handle that [baby videos] idea. I told him it is a bad idea and he should just give me all the money so that I can go and make a movie. I don’t know where I got that kind of confidence from. I thought this was all I had to do. I had the courage and he believed me. I convinced him about what I was doing.

Sports films have seldom worked in Indian cinema before. It is remarkable that you chose one such subject for your maiden production. What convinced you to back Say Salaam India?

We never thought on those lines. We didn’t [do any] research. It was more the excitement of the story, the underdog winning. I was more like Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (laughs).

Oh, so that [Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar] was kind of an influence?

Yeah. We had a Jo Jeeta influence — small school, rich school, the fight between two schools.

You chose to release your sports film around the same time as the 2007 cricket World Cup. Did you never think what if India is eliminated early, which is exactly what happened, and whether that would spell doom for your film?

Everyone was so sure that Rs2,000 crore were being spent on Team India’s promotions, big brands were associated with it, I remember The Marketing Room [a marketing agency] saying India will not lose in the first round. So, they lost in the first round and we ended up distributing the film ourselves in schools. The exhibitors pulled out at the last moment. They sent the prints back. India’s loss led to rioting. Cricketers' houses were attacked. In the same year though, India went on to win the [inaugural] Twenty20 World Cup. Well, we had to learn about distribution.

How did you repay your neighbour then?

School-to-school distribution. One screen we charged Rs50 per student, 1000 seats, single screens, we booked the theatre for Rs10,000. We did more than 250 shows. All this happened in a stretch of 9-10 months.

My neighbour always said it wasn’t your fault. He totally understood that the circumstances were out of our control. But I took it upon myself that I have to return this money. I told him that if I am unable to return your money then I shouldn’t be in this business.

I believe you deliberately greyed your hair in your late 20s to look like a late 30s or early 40s woman. What made you do this?

(Laughs.) I wanted to be taken seriously. I was being written off as a young woman. So, I started dressing like an older person, wearing saris, suits, jackets. I was 26-27 then, and I wanted to project myself as 40.

So, did people start taking you seriously?

Now, having made some films, people know of my body of work. I am no longer questioned or written off. There are still issues where people don't know how to deal with women, they don't know what to say, But it's their problem, not on me.

Talk of becoming a producer and people feel that if you don’t have money it is impossible. But you have shown that money is not the be-all and end-all of it.

Well, firstly, you need to find a story, be in love with it. Everything happens after that.

The turnaround happened with Dasvidaniya (2008), didn't it? Indian cinema is mostly built on escapism, but here was this story of a dying man who is not sobbing but living the remainder of his life to the fullest. It may not have been a great commercial success, but the fact that it was critically appreciated and liked by most who saw it, did it open your eyes to the scope for non-conventional subjects?

That’s all I wanted to do. I never thought about conventional content. I genuinely think what I make is commercial cinema. My budgets are low. What is commercial? Your investor recovers his money. If mainstream cinema is demonstrated by Salman, Shah Rukh or Aamir Khan, then of course I don’t do that. I really just follow my heart, stories, and work with people who want to work with me. Make things happen within a limitation. I genuinely believe that if the budget is right, then every content has its medium of recovery.

Gangs Of Wasseypur (2012) turned a new page not just for you, but for Anurag Kashyap, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and some others. Then came The Luncbox (2013). From a business perspective, these films changed the focus from targeting the desi market to looking abroad. How well have you been able to monetize these films internationally?

We were able to sell The Lunchbox in a big way. We were able to have a conversation about Indian content breaking out in the non-diaspora market, above and beyond the diaspora market, with the latter being proud of it and also supporting it.

The Lunchbox did break rules in distribution, which I am very proud to have been a part of. With Gangs Of Wasseypur and others, we were still figuring out how to even do their business, how to do those deals. How do we do sales with the non-diaspora buyers? That is why going to festivals helps. It opens up business opportunities, critical acceptance. The Lunchbox was able to capitalize on it in the true sense.

I read somewhere that while working with Anurag Kashyap Films, you mainly operated on a budget, not more than Rs4 crore. In terms of return on investment....

(Interrupting) I think the dynamics have changed. There are more buyers in the market. Because of Netflix, Amazon, Zee5. Also, the dynamics have changed because marketing costs have gone exorbitantly high. So, even if you go and actually make a film in Rs1 crore, you really need Rs5-6 crore to release it. This was not the case before. So now you go to a film festival and crack a worldwide deal with one player — Netflix or Amazon, YouTube, so many players. The landscape has evolved, it’s not the same as when we [started] to make films.

Hypothetically, if you were to spend Rs10 crore on a film, what's the kind of return you can expect in the current market?

It all depends on the conversation [with the buyers]. It is very subjective. A Netflix deal would happen depending upon the quality of the film, and the film festival that it goes to. Such deals are based on per view, it is more about how prestigious a film is, how a global audience responds to it. Besides, of course, the local audience.

When I look at the kind of films you make, it is almost surreal that you guys are making films that are rooted in the soil, but they do not have many buyers in the domestic market.

We were ahead of our time. Even after making something which is a good film, emotionally well respected, well acted, well critiqued, the business does not allow us to exist because these buyers were not even there at that point of time. If you put marketing baggage, then these films don’t perform in terms of the theatrical mindsets we have. So, we were ahead of our time.

The likes of Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane were initially hailed as maverick filmmakers, leading the new wave. But when we look at his last two films, Mukkabaaz (2018) and Manmarziyaan (2018), it appears that Kashyap is trying to get a little bit into the mainstream. Does that worry you? Given that the market is not so conducive for offbeat films, do you fear that you, too, may have to go the mainstream way? 

Anurag Kashyap

I haven’t seen Manmarziyaan. And I’m in no position to comment on Anurag Kashyap. He is someone who discovered all of us and let us take our own paths. I would again say if there is a story that resonates with you and the way you package it, if it would be a great package with Ranveer Singh, why not?

I just feel that we should stop boxing people, their intent. Who knew The Lunchbox would be such an international success? Buyers in India didn’t even understand it. It is a producer and a director's dream to be able to work with good actors. Vicky Kaushal was a good actor when we did Masaan (2015). Now he is more theatrically present. We as an industry have to stop boxing people and double-dissecting things in hindsight.

You once said you are married to your computer. Has that situation changed?

Yeah. I follow deep spiritual practice and have found a work-life balance, which is very important for everybody. Now we work half-day on Saturday with Sunday off. Being an entrepreneur, it is important to have a breather, have a life beyond this and not take ourselves [too] seriously.

So, by that count, would you taking off on your birthday, 21 November? (Note: This conversation took place on 18 November.)

No, 21 November is the Tigers (2018) release and I am really excited and grateful to the universe that the day chosen happens to be my birthday. I did ask the distributors whether they wanted to push it back. We don't have enough time to market it. Would you like to push it back? But [they] stuck to 21 November. This [movie release] is the biggest joy!