The Indian indie gets a boost at Cannes 2013 this year with the selection of Ritesh Batra's Dabba (The Lunchbox) in International Critics' Week and Amit Kumar's Monsoon Shootout in Midnight Screenings. Both films share the Anurag Kashyap connection, with his producing partner Guneet Monga on board. Batra and Kumar both have a shot at winning the Caméra d'Or for the best feature film by a first-time director. We talk to Monga, Batra and Kumar on the eve of Cannes about their films, their inspirations and the future of the Indian indie.
Guneet Monga's mind is not wholly on this interview; it is somewhere else. Or, rather where it should be - on finding ways to get the films she believes in, made, against all odds.
When I manage to get her to open up a bit, this becomes clear. She talks about her production, Vasan Bala's Peddlers, that was screened at Cannes last year as "the film that almost never got made". Amit Kumar's debut feature film Monsoon Shootout, which had been in the making for almost a decade due to unforeseen production delays, seemed to have acquired new life once Monga got involved three years ago.
"It was extremely satisfying for me to turn around a film (Monsoon Shootout) that had taken nine years of a person's life," Monga says. "It has translated very well on camera."
"Making these two films, in fact, gave me the most satisfaction," she adds.
Considering that these films have become a reality largely due to her efforts, it is natural to ask, her criteria for selecting projects. "Fully based on script and the director's previous work," comes her reply. "Also, it depends on my rapport with the director and my instinct."
That Monga is instinctive is seconded by Kumar, who says that once she decides to do a film, "she just jumps in".
Monga is of course "over the moon" that two of her co-productions have made it to Cannes this year. "I am elated with the strong acceptance of our films," she says. "It was never easy to find the money to make them. So it is reassuring to know that we are doing the right thing."
Monga believes in collaborations - domestic and international. "It feels stronger to have international partners than producing a film alone," she says, and explains why: "For Dabba, we could do the editing in the US because we had a producer there; the sound was done in Germany and we got the best music director there, Max Richter, as we had a German financer. The prints came out in Paris and we also got the subtitling done there because we had a French producer. Work was divided and we got the best for the film."
"Also, international producers can take care of distribution in their territories and it translates into a worldwide audience for the film," she adds.
Monsoon Shootout and Dabba were made under $2million each, of which Monga's company contributed almost half.
The intrepid producer has fixed her gaze on non-diaspora markets such as Italy, Switzerland, Benelux (Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg) and France. "We sold our films at high prices there because they have an appetite for different kinds of films, including Korean and Iranian cinema," she says. "They have machinery for releasing foreign films."
Monga says these are changing times for Indian cinema as a new breed of filmmakers is rising, whose projects are high on content and originality. How would they sustain themselves alongside the mostly plot-less R100-crore club films? "Yes, the star system is at its peak," she says. "But once stars start choosing content-driven films, things will change," she says. "It has begun happening with the success of original, low-budget films such as Kahayan and Pan Singh Tamar."
Does she and Kashyap ever disagree on projects? "All the time," she says. "It happened with Peddlers, Dabba and The Monsoon Shootout. I was convinced, he had reservations. Nevertheless, we took his feedback constructively."
About the producer
Her company is Sikhya Entertainment Pvt Ltd. Hollywood Reporter named her on its list of 12 outstanding international women achievers in the field of entertainment, calling her "India's go-to producer for edgy, young filmmakers".
Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles honoured her with their annual Industry Leadership Award.
She featured in India's Today magazine's Top 50 Indians changing the country
Her films have premiered at film festivals such as Cannes, Venice, Sundance, Toronto and British Film Institute
She is working with international sales agencies such as Elle Driver, Match Factory and Fortissimo Films
She produced the Oscar-nominated short film Kavi
Up next: Oscar-winning No Man's Land director Danis Tanovic's untitled film, Vibhu Puri's Bombay Fairytale, Shlok Sharma's Haramkhor.
Her first film as producer was Salaam India: Let's Bring the Cup Home
It's not every day that someone chucks a cushy, high-paying job as a consultant after studying at top universities abroad to pursue his passion, filmmaking. It is still rarer for someone to go to film school, drop out midway as it is not his "stuff" and yet have his debut feature film selected to Cannes.
Ritesh Batra has done all that and more. He is the director of the Hindi film Dabba (The Lunchbox) that will be screened at Cannes on May 19 and stars Indian cinema's two most talked-about actors at the moment - Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
"The Cannes selection was totally unexpected, especially since the selection process is incredibly strict," Batra says. "But I am excited that my film will be screened in front of a global audience. I am going there to enjoy."
Dabba has a "mouth-watering" premise. "My film is about how a rare mistake in Mumbai's famed dabbawala (lunchbox delivery) system connects two strangers - a young housewife (Ila played by Nimrat Kaur) and a man in the dusk of his life (Saajan Thomas played by Irrfan)," explains Batra.
Incidentally, Harvard University had studied Mumbai's dabbawala system and concluded that only one in eighty lakh lunchboxes is ever delivered to a wrong address.
"It's a fun film, a story about love and friendship, with a fantastical element to it: was that wrong delivery only a mistake or a miracle waiting to happen? That's the question I leave the audience with," says the filmmaker.
"The film is also an attempt to explore the many disparate worlds existing within Mumbai," shares Batra. "While the city is running at a frenetic pace, there are some, who are left behind. For these old-worldly characters to connect, I figured that notes exchanged through a lunchbox would be the only suitable device. Also, the exchange of letters is an established cinematic tradition."
Dabba was born out of Batra's research for a documentary on the dabbawalas he was planning in 2007. "The documentary didn't get made, but the individual stories of the dabbawalas - the little details of their profession, the people they delivered to - stayed with me," he says. "In fact, Irrfan's character is an amalgamation of several real-life older Catholic men in Bandra."
How did he manage the casting coup: Irrfan and Nawazuddin in one film? "I had written the script with them in mind," the director says. "They read it and said yes. From then on, they made the script their own. They were very invested in the movie and methodical in their approach to their roles. We worked as a team."
Batra says his movie is a co-production by choice. "I was clear in my mind that I wanted my film to travel," he explains. "I was looking at various stakeholders. At Cinemart in International Film Festival of Rotterdam, I met my French producer; at Berlinale Talent Project Market, I got my German producer. National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) too pitched in. Guneet came in after the final draft."
Batra is looking for a release in India during the last quarter of the year.
About the film
Producers: Sikhya Entertainment Pvt Ltd, Dar Motion Pictures, NFDC, ASAP Films (France), Roh Films (Germany).
Cinematography: Michael Simmonds, the director of photography on US filmmaker Ramin Bahrani's critically acclaimed Chop Shop, Man Push Cart, Goodbye Solo and Plastic Bag.
The screenplay was part of the 2011 Binger-NFDC Screenwriting Lab and first got international attention at Film Bazaar in Goa.
About the director
Batra studied economics at Drake University, Carnegie Mellon University and worked as a consultant for Deloitte.
He quit the job and joined the Graduate Film Program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, but dropped out one-and-a-half years into it.
He was associated with the Tribeca Film Festival and the Doha Film Institute.
Batra's feature film project, The Story of Ram was selected to Sundance Writers and Directors Lab in 2009.
He was named the Sundance Time Warner Storytelling Fellow and an Annenburg Fellow.
He directed an award-winning Arabic short film Café Regular that was shot in two days and was screened at Rotterdam and Tribeca 2012. He understands Arabic, but cannot speak it. He has made some other short films too.
Inspirations: Satyajit Ray, Ingmar Bergman. In Batra's words, he aspires to be like Louis Malle. Dibakar Banerjee is another favourite.
Favourite actors: Aamir Khan, Juliette Binoche, Robert Redford.
Amit Kumar is a great believer in destiny, in a positive way. His debut feature film Monsoon Shootout had languished for nine years, but by his own submission he had remained naturally calm during those days.
Kumar's project, which took off after he won an idea pitching contest by the UK Film Council (UKFC), almost got shelved when the British government shut down the council in 2011. "But I was cool," Kumar says. "I just told myself, 'So now it will not be the UKFC, let's look for someone else (to produce the movie)'."
The film deals with a rookie cop's dilemma as he is about to shoot a gangster, with three scenarios exploring the impact of his decision on other people's lives.
While newcomer Vijay Verma plays the rookie cop, Nawazuddin Siddiqui takes on the role of the gangster.
"I always had this image of a man with a gun in the rain, grappling with his morality," Kumar says of the film's genesis. "While studying at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), I had watched a short film An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge. It starts with a man being hanged and the entire film is an expansion of that one second between someone releasing the lever and him dying. That's how I was inspired to use the expansion of time in my film."
Kumar, who won a Kodak Bafta Showcase for his short film The Bypass (2003), is excited about the Cannes selection, but more because "it has paid off for the people who took a gamble for me".
The debutant director brushes aside his Camera d'Or chances saying that he is just "honoured that my film is in the same category as famed Hong Kong action film director Johnnie To's Blind Detective". Kumar's film premieres on May 18 midnight.
Kumar's film itself being a co-production between international and Indian partners; he says the climate is right for such collaborations, but only if the film demands it. "Some people would approach me asking that I write a crossover film, so that they can secure international producers," he says. "Producers abroad are not fooled by that."
On the future of independent films in India, Kumar believes that the situation will change as there are now more producers and directors, who are willing to take risks. "Probably a new system will emerge - I don't know what - but one where the market will fulfill the demand for these kinds of films," he says.
"Producers here don't lack sensibilities; unfortunately they may not be in a position of power to make such different films," Kumar explains. "But that too is changing. A studio like Viacom has understood the value of original films and produced some like Gangs of Wasseypur Parts I and II."
What plans does Kumar have after Cannes? I am writing a World War 2 film with my wife Anupama; there's also an idea about British gangsters that I am toying with.
About the film
Producers: Trevor Ingman's Yaffle Films (UK), Anurag Kashyap Films Pvt Ltd, Guneet Monga's Sikhya Entertainment Pvt Ltd, Martijn De Grunt's Pardesi Films (The Netherlands), Dar Motion Pictures; Asif Kapadia is one of the executive producers.
The post-production was completed recently, after news of its Cannes selection.
Kumar repeats Rajiv Ravi, his DOP from The Bypass
The film has four item songs: 'Chikni Kamar' and 'Banke Sharabi' by Raghav Sachar, 'Kundi Kharkao Na Raja' by Honey Singh, 'Miss You Balma' by Chinmay.
Fortissimo Films is handling the international marketing and sales; television rights have been sold to Arte France
About the director
Originally from Uttar Pradesh, he has worked in a Delhi hotel and in American Express, earned political science, mass communication and journalism degrees, before joining FTII.
He considers directors Asif Kapadia (The Warrior) and Florian Gallenberger (Shadows of Time) as mentors.
He has made short films such as Far North with British actor Sean Bean.
Inspirations: Akira Kurosawa, Andrei Tarkovsky, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorcese, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah.
Favourite actors: Amitabh Bachchan, Christian Bale, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Lawrence, Keira Knightley.