In the 2012 Bollywood romcom Vicky Donor, there is a wedding sequence where the protagonist Vicky (Ayushmann Khurrana) ties the knot with his lady love Ashima (Yami Gautam). “The cost of putting up a set for a wedding sequence in any other Bollywood film would be equal to the entire budget of Vicky Donor,” says Shoojit Sircar, the director of the film and others such as Piku (2015) and October (2018) which have the essence of both offbeat and mainstream cinema.
“We planned to shoot the movie during the wedding season in December-January and met some people who help organise weddings in the lawns in and around Delhi,” explains Sircar. “One of the organisers informed us of a wedding planned for later one night and we re - quested them not to dismantle the setup after the ceremony was over, since we would come in the next day and shoot there.” Sircar stands apart in that he not only tells a tale well, but has an eye for economy—so important to the success of movies where the real hero of the film is the script based on bold topics. Vicky Donor, which revolved around sperm donation and the taboos associated with it in India, is a case in point. It went on to win a national award.
It is remarkable that most of the movies he has been involved with have enjoyed critical acclaim and commercial success. The returns on investment (ROI) from some of Sircar’s films have been higher than some big banner films headlined by stars. For instance, Pink, which was made on a budget of Rs 21 crore, earned an ROI of 224%, which is higher than that of films such as Dear Zindagi (featuring Shah Rukh Khan and Alia Bhatt) that released in 2016. Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal, which was made on a Rs 90 crore budget, saw the highest ROI that year—330%.
Piku, a 2015 dramedy that explores the relationship between a daughter and her ageing and grumpy father obsessed with his bowel movements, yielded better returns than Salman Khan-starrer Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. In addition to box office collections, these films earn through ancillary avenues such as digital, music and satellite rights.
While 50-year-old Sircar, who is inspired by the work of Satyajit Ray (posters that adorn the walls of his office include those of Ray’s films such as Pather Panchali along with his own), pursues his creative vision, it is Ronnie Lahiri, Sircar’s friend of two decades, who strategises ways to keep production costs to a minimum. The 44-year-old is a partner along with Sircar at their production house Rising Sun Films.
“Shoojit takes two to three years to finalise a script and once he is ready, we take another six months for pre-production research to see where we can avoid unnecessary spending,” says Lahiri, sitting with Sircar at the Rising Sun Films office in Mumbai’s western suburb of Juhu.
“The other philosophy is to not spend too much on things that aren’t seen on screen. We don’t want to travel in a Mercedes or stay in suites while filming. We would rather have basic, clean rooms to stay in as that helps save a lot of money,” adds Lahiri.
Minimising costs is something that Sircar confesses that he learned from his stint as an ad filmmaker for more than two decades. Advertising teaches you to work in a tight, time-bound manner, says Sircar. Sneha Rajani, deputy president and head, motion pictures, at Sony Pictures Networks, which co-produced Piku with Rising Sun, describes Sircar as an “honest filmmaker”. “Not only does Shoojit tell simple stories purely without falling into the trap of commercialisation, he is also a blessing when it comes to keeping production time and costs in check,” says Rajani. “He will never take a day more than needed to complete the shoot even if the producer offers it.”
There is an element of life in Sircar’s films that touches a certain nerve in us all, unknowingly, yet knowingly.Amitabh Bachchan
But not all large studios are willing to play ball with Sircar, especially if he is not directing the film himself. Often, smaller production houses which cannot distribute their film on a large scale, approach a larger production house or a studio, which have established contacts with film distributors across the country. The larger studios then come on board as a co-producer and fund the marketing and distribution of the film for a share in the revenue earned by the film.
Despite the success of Piku, none of the big studios were willing to help distribute Pink, which was produced by Sircar and Lahiri, but directed by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury. “Many of these big studios want to only back a big name or a big director. They only have faith in the name and not in the concept,” says Lahiri.
Pink tells the story of three girls living in Delhi who face sexual and mental harassment from some influential men and a retired lawyer suffering from bipolar disorder helping them fight the case in court.
So, Sircar and Lahiri decided to distribute and market their films themselves, which they did with Pink and October. They were helped by Sheel Kumar, a film and television producer known for ventures such as Jism (2003), who has been associated with all of Sircar’s film as a co-producer. “Distributing the films ourselves gives us the freedom to make the kind of cinema we believe in,” says Kumar.
It is with this conviction that Sircar set out to make October, perhaps his boldest bet in mainstream cinema yet. October is a multi-layered essay of human emotions, not the typical easy-onthe-eye romcom (a Marathi filmmaker has accused the makers of October of copyright infringement, though Sircar has denied the charges). In the first week after its release the film earned Rs 30 crore.
Though the box office collections may not seem very encouraging, Lahiri isn’t complaining. “Obviously our film isn’t a Rs 100-crore potboiler, but it is the kind of cinema we believe. in and want to make,” says Lahiri. “Even if our film does a business of Rs 40 crore it will be a super hit [a film that doubles its investment and earns an additional 50%]. Beyond Rs 25 crore, the film is a hit [a film that doubles its investment].”
But Sircar isn’t known to fret about Friday collections and Excel sheets. “I have never heard or seen Shoojit bring the commercial aspect of his creative process to the forefront. His belief, as far as I can read, has been to bring his audience into the minds, hearts and drawing rooms of the characters in the film,” Bollywood megastar Amitabh Bachchan tells Fortune India. “The commerce shall follow subsequently, he believes. Time and again he has proved that. There must be heart in his storytelling. When the audience’s heart beats in symmetry, the box office breathes well.”
Bachchan, who has acted in Piku and Pink, is all praise for Sircar and his work. There is an “element of life (in Sircar’s films) that touches a certain nerve in us all, unknowingly, yet knowingly”, he says.
Sircar says his sole motivation is to create the kind of cinema that he believes in, regardless of commercial considerations. “I need to be able to watch my own films. My daughters shouldn’t see my films after 10 years and question their father’s IQ,” Sircar jokes. Going by his filmography so far, his daughters have little to complain.
(The article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of the magazine.)