bengali cinema

The secret of Bengali cinema’s most powerful producers: ‘Keep making mistakes, keep making flops’

The story of how Shree Venkatesh Films, set up by cousins Shrikant Mohta and Mahendra Soni, emerged as one of the powerhouse producers in Kolkata.

With its arsenal of high-gloss commercial films and niche, often controversial, productions, Shree Venkatesh Films is a familiar name in Bengali cinema. The film production company, founded by cousins Shrikant Mohta and Mahendra Soni in 1996, has been most recently in the news with Arindam Sil’s controversial film Dhananjoy. Credited with turning around an ailing Bengali film industry by pumping in serious money for good scripts, Shree Venkatesh Films has also been derided for churning out mindless mass entertainers.

Evidence of Mohta and Soni’s astute reading of the Bengali audience is scattered all over the company’s swank office in a South Kolkata mall, where employees and guests enjoy stunning 360-degree views of the city while sipping gourmet coffee. There is also a special room of memorabilia dedicated to their mentor and most well-known collaborator, Rituparno Ghosh.

In an interview with Scroll.in, Mahendra Soni spoke about the challenges in dealing with the Bengali audience and bringing small-town audiences back to the cinemas. And how, despite more than 100 Bengali films in his kitty, he is still considered an outsider.

Were you expecting the kind of controversy that ‘Dhananjoy’ generated?
Honestly, when we started off, we did not think about the reactions or road blocks. We knew we had a solid script that was based on a book and plenty of research. We wanted to create a debate and create some edgy content that would appeal to the audience that now watches films on the web. Which is why we did not release the film for mass audiences, and it will be the first Bengali film to stream on Amazon Prime.

What has been your single biggest learning 105 films later?
Keep making mistakes, keep making flops and remember to be true to your subject.

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Dhananjoy (2017).

How did you get into films?
It was quite bizarre, actually. You know that Srikant and I are brothers and partners in the company. Srikant’s father had invested some money with a local distributor and he wanted us to check it out. We were in college – I was in the second year and Srikant in the first year. We went to this Chandni Chowk office, a very small dingy place. When we got inside it, we somehow liked it. We thought, it’s a great thing to do.

Which film was this?
The films were Dosti Ki Saugandh and Ikke Pe Ikka. The distributor was old-fashioned. But Mani Ratnam’s Bombay was where it began. We were hooked to AR Rahman’s music at the time – Roja had just been released. We asked the distributor, why we aren’t doing this film for Bengal? He said, this is a dubbed film, it won’t work, who is Mani Ratnam, who is Aravind Swami.

I said, we like this film, the music is already a hit. So we took a train to Mumbai and met producer Jhamu Sugandh. Suddenly everything started changing in front of our eyes and we decided to take up the film. Sugandh quoted some big numbers because he was sceptical. There were others too who told us that dubbed pictures could not be sold at this price. We took the film against everyone’s advice and it became a huge hit. And we were in the business.

You picked up Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Khamoshi’ after that?
Yes, once Bombay was a hit, we came across the Sanjay Leela Bhansali phenomenon. We researched the 1942 A Love Story songs and realised that he had great visual sense. Khamoshi had fabulous casting, but the film flopped. Whatever we made with Bombay, we lost with Khamoshi. We realised that the trade is risky, but we were hooked.

How did you move from distributing Hindi titles to producing Bengali films?
When we were distributing Hindi films, we travelled a lot across Bengal and we realised that people outside the city didn’t connect with Hindi. They spoke in Bengali and they wanted to see something in Bengali. A Bengali joke would appeal to them rather than a Hindi joke. We were told that however bad or small, most distributors were surviving on Bengali films.

This was the early ’90s. As soon as you cross Calcutta, you reached Howrah, Barasat, Bally or whatever, Hindi nahin chalta hain. We sensed an opportunity there. We did our research and figured that making films and selling them is what we really wanted to do. Bengali films were in very, very bad shape at that time. This was the post Uttam Kumar phase with a little bit of Anjan Chowdhury was happening.

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Bhai Amar Bhai (1996).

Which was your first Bengali film?
Bhai Amar Bhai. We said we would make it the best film of its time. We cast all the three big names – Prosenjit, Chiranjit and Abhishek. We got a very popular heroine from Bangladesh. We made the film in 35mm and it was a super hit.

That was 20 years ago. The first multiplex opened in Calcutta in 2003 and we released Rituparno Ghosh’s Chokher Bali. All the single screens were hungry for Bengali content and nobody was doing anything about it. And since we were fresh, we didn’t have the extra baggage – this is who we are, this is what we do or this heroine works or does not. It is not as if our first film worked, we had several flops as well. We also realised there was an audience for films with a Bangladeshi sensibility and actors that worked for the screen along the border areas.

That was the formula that seemed to be working at that time – films in a rustic setting with loud costumes and acting and improbable story lines.
Those films were not working with the local Bengalis. We wanted to change that and straightaway got about making films that were more like Bollywood – 35mm scope, better costumes, peppy songs. If all of India was watching, why not Bengal?

I got a choreographer and a fight master from the South and made our first big-budget film. In fact, at that point we thought that if the film didn’t work, we would go back. That film was Sasurbari Zindabad with Prosenjit and Rituparna. And it was a well made film, grand and huge and the biggest hit in 10 years.

Your association with Prosenjit is a long one.
From the first film, actually, and now we will release Yeti Abhijan [based on the popular Bengali fictional detective Kakababu]. He has always been a star. But when we signed him, he was in a phase where there was no work for him. In fact, Bhai Amar Bhai was a multi-starrer. His only request was, give me the better role of the three, not more money. So he made two comebacks, Bhai Amar Bhai and Sasurbari Zindabad. He was always a crowd puller.

But in Bengal, films always run because of the content. It is always content over stars in Bengal. If you look at the last big hit, Belasheshey, there are no stars but solid content.

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Yeti Abhijan (2017).

At one point, you were being criticised for producing commercial films modelled on southern and Bollywood mass entertainers.
I think that was required to pep up the industry. The Bengali industry was nowhere, nobody was interested. And we must thank Rituparno Ghosh because he inspired us first. In fact 1997 onwards, we tried our hand with other kinds of cinema. We made a film with Tapan Sinha which failed miserably. It was called Ajob Gaayer Ajob Katha. But the film made us open our eyes to other ways of making films and telling stories.

We got in touch with Rituparno. We released one of his films, Dahan, and we became good friends. And he used to call us and tell us stories and eventually he pushed us to make Chokher Bali. We said nahin yaar, nahin banayenge. He said, I know that you guys are making commercial films and you are making money, but don’t you think you have the responsibility to make good cinema as well? Come and hear the script, if you don’t like it, don’t do it.

We had started avoiding his phone calls, I remember. But we liked the script. It was a very big project. Nobody would have imagined that we put in that kind of money at a time when Aishwarya Rai was not finalised. I’ve made the film with lot of passion, courage and I would not say that we didn’t make money. It was a big eye-opener. It went to festivals.

So ‘Chokher Bali’ was the turning point.
It gave us confidence. We got so attached to making films that we decided we would do at least one or two films in a year that would satisfy us and give us something to be proud of. And then we got our national award and we made Raincoat in Hindi with Aishwarya Rai and Ajay Devgn, sitting in Calcutta. That was again a great experience and our partnership with Ritu da started.

Sadly, there were no money. We were losing money but still for the sake of cinema, we were doing it.

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Chokher Bali (2003).

Producing a Rituparno Ghosh film got you credibility and respect in the eyes of urban audiences.
A lot of people still say that we are non-Bongs who came from somewhere else. But we are born and brought up in Calcutta. Ritu da also used to tell that we are more Bengali than a lot of Bengalis there. The media has not been very supportive overall, I would say. They still live with the mentality that it all ends with Satyajit Ray and Uttam Kumar.

But if you look at the last 20 years, we have come a long way. So credibility, yes, but more than credibility we feel happy.

Srijit Mukherji’s ‘Autograph’, inspired by Satyajit Ray’s ‘Nayak’, was also was a milestone film.
Absolutely. I really thank Srijit for bringing back audiences to Bengali multiplexes.

Rituparno’s films never made money. Most of them did not even cover the print and publicity costs. What Rituparno did was made people notice that at least Bengal can make good films. And they were made for a certain class. Rituparno was very clear that these were festival films.

Then came Sriiit, who had left his job in Bangalore to pitch this script. It was the kind of film that would appeal to college crowds and multiplex audiences.

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Autograph (2010).

Is there any film that has managed to cross over?
I would say there are only a couple of films, and one of them is Chaander Pahaar [based on Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s adventure story set in Africa] which has done exceptionally well everywhere. That is the content that will work for everyone.

That is an adaptation.
Even Kakababu and Feluda are urban films. They still don’t create havoc in Midnapore and Bankura and Birbhum and other places, which are 80% of Bengal.

Is that the audience for which you would want to shoot abroad and do song and dance numbers?
Yes, of course. If you go to a place, say Baduria, there is nothing – no development. There is only one cinema hall, which is a community hall. Why and how do you expect them to watch an intellectual, urban film? You have to do something for them too. For them, an extra marital affair doesn’t work. For them, I will love one woman, marry her, and live with my family and brothers and everyone.

The big recent big hit, ‘Posto’, made Rs three crores in two weeks.
The dynamics of the film business has changed a lot. It is not about how much you have made at the box office. It is about how many people have seen it, whether through box office, satellite, streaming or whatever way. So Belaseshe is such a big hit but the television ratings were dismal.

Why is that?
People who have seen Belaseshe are from cities. The rest don’t relate, this doesn’t happen to their family, they are very simple. So it doesn’t work. Posto still has not sold satellite rights.

So you have to create content that can reach out. Filmmaking is for us a very personal thing. We have made Apur Panchali, we have made Chotoder Chobi. We know that nobody is going to watch it, television is not going to rate it, but we made it and we are happy with it, because these are stories that need to be told. At the same time, we will make Love Express, we will make Bolo Dugga Mai Ki.

Having said that, there is a big problem in Bengali cinema, which is a lack of good single screens. We are trying to address that by opening small two-screen and three-screen multiplexes. We have already opened around 10 in Purulia, Krishnanagar and all those places. Once you create multiplexes, there is a chance that you push the boundary of Autograph and get larger audiences to the theatres.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

Watch Rome Now

For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.