Smriti Kiran: Guneet Monga was just 20 years old when she assisted her best friend’s mother, line producer Anureeta Saigal, on the film Valley of Flowers in Delhi. Nine years later, in 2012, Guneet was featured as one of the 12 international players to watch in The Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment Special. At 29, Guneet had already spent six years in the business in Mumbai, pushed the accelerator on the co-production model for financing independent Indian films, and went on close to 15 Indian titles like Gangs of Wasseypur, Monsoon Shootout, The Lunchbox in prestigious international film festivals across the world.
As she closes in on finishing another epic decade in the industry, Guneet has steadily built impressive international clout as a producer and a diverse Indian slate for her company, Sikhya Entertainment. She started a cinema collective, Indian Women Rising, with Tahira Kashyap Khurrana, Ekta Kapoor and Ruchika Kapoor in January this year. Karishma Dev Dube’s Bittu, the short film that IWR backed, made it to the Oscar shortlist. And recently, she was awarded the second-highest civilian French honour.
I wanted to talk to you about what’s happening right now. Because of the pandemic, we’ve got a moment of pause. Where are you at professionally today, Guneet?
Guneet Monga: This is a really hard time, especially for what I do. I need to bring my entire energy into the room to be able to have a buy-in for my stories. It’s a lot of faith. Especially working with a lot of young first-time writers and directors, it’s always that I need to be in the room to be able to sell something. I didn’t know any other way of doing this. I need to hold somebody else’s hands and say that this will be amazing, trust me. That does not come over to Zoom. So, my world is upside down. I didn’t know how to do this enough.
March 2020 was very tough – a couple of months were tough to understand how to work from home. At Sikhya, we were able to diversify. We doubled down on podcasts and short content that we did for Flipkart. We made the last year work by doing really innovative, cool stuff and doubling down on the development process. We’re glad that we were able to finish Soorarai Pottru and Pagglait and put those out in 2021.
But the second wave was unexpected. This is just emotionally draining us more than anything else. In terms of work, we have our next projects lined up. We have a big announcement coming up soon. The role of the producer is also that of packaging. The process of packaging and things like that can happen on Zoom but it’s still very limiting. The thing is that the whole world is experiencing this together – it’s not like one city in one world is experiencing it and we are talking about it. So, everybody is extremely proactive about having more empathy over Zoom and having more faith and still making things move because the show must go on. There is also hope that we will all find creative ways of making content, which is tough right now. But it has to keep going on. So, we are pushing on development and research. The teams are staying together, which is the biggest thing.
Smriti Kiran: Guneet, you moved to Mumbai in 2006. What kind of preparation did you do to even come here?
Guneet Monga: My move to Bombay is a very sweet story. I was doing a lot of international films as a production person – moving from an intern to a location manager to a production manager to a line producer to an India project person. I knew a lot of below-the-line people in Bombay like gaffers, light boys, vendors, people in catering, and I was closing their deals.
“All of us came here with a dream, with a hustle to go to offices, meet more people, ask for work and step-by-step, we did that.”
I have to say that my friends made it happen for me, and I’m really glad that now the industry also knows them so well. Actually, the people who looked for houses for me were Siddharth Diwan and Mukund Gupta. Sid and Mukund had already come here. Siddharth was working at Grips in Bombay, so was Mukund at that time before he went into the art department. Prerna (Saigal) was at FTII – she’s an editor – so she had a peer group that was moving from Pune to here. I was in Delhi, and I thought, ‘My friends are there. I should also go.’ They looked for a house in Goregaon, and it was a 1 BHK that both Prerna and I shared.
I’ve grown up on Yash Raj and KJo and ‘90s cinema. My house used to be next to Savitri Cinema. So, I wanted to come and do Hindi language films jo mere maa-baap bhi dekhenge aur bolenge ki, ‘Accha, kuch kiya hai.’ So I came here.
I remember, I only knew Vinay Pathak, who was a part of Partition, one of my earlier international films. So, Vinay sir was asking me, ‘Do you need something?’ Shraddha, the actor, whom I’d worked with, sent crockery and bedsheets. I remember Prerna and I having one almirah, ek shelf uska aur ek shelf mera. It was one BHK. We went bartan shopping at Andheri station kyunki vahan se suna tha ki saste mein milte hai. Hum log literally ek elevated, sacchawala ghar-ghar khel rahe the – ‘Hum log apna furniture chun ke lenge,’ aur ‘Ab hum logon se milenge.’ It really started from there.
Prerna’s friends from FTII were my immediate group. Prerna has been like a wall. She has been my closest friend. Actually, we’ve been friends from school, we cleared the entrance and got into the same college – which is very rare, having your school friends in the same college. I interned with her mother. We came to Bombay together. Till a point in time, I think our resumes were also together! It was like, ‘Guneet/Prerna,’ and the same resume for the same people. In fact, when we did Say Salaam India, Prerna was the production person and moved to be an editor from Peddlers to Pagglait. It’s home with her. Having that friendship was important; having a peer group was important. I went and stayed with her at FTII. So, I met her group of friends and it was just those people who stuck.
All of us came here with a dream, with a hustle to go to offices, meet more people, ask for work and step-by-step, we did that. Jo kaam mila, woh kiya. I started working with Anand Mahindru, who introduced me to Rang Rasiya. He wanted an executive producer. In fact, Prerna’s friend, Puneet Khanna, introduced me to Anand. It was everybody sharing contacts, saying, ‘Accha, isse milo, vahan par ek job opening hai,’ and that’s how you start building your work friends.
Slowly, we graduated from a 1 BHK in Goregaon to a 2 BHK in Lokhandwala to our individual homes. But we started somewhere.
Smriti Kiran: In 2007, your first film, Say Salaam India, came out. How did it happen? That film was actually the beginning of you going out there because you wanted to recover the money that you put in by trying out a distribution model that people had not really tried.
Guneet Monga: In Delhi, we were tenants, and our neighbour was the owner of the apartment. He told me, ‘Mujhe na ek studio khol na hai aur tune mass communication padha hai so you run the studio.’ I was like, ‘Accha, ye studio kya karega?’ He said, ‘Ye studio na chhote-chhote babies ke videos banayega, cute-cute videos.’ More like, baby videos, shaadi videos, stuff like that. ‘Tujhe camera chalane aata hai aur filmon mein bhi kaam kar chuki hai toh tu kar le.’ Then I asked him, ‘What is your budget to open this studio?’ He said, ‘50 lakh.’ I told him that it was a very bad idea. I told him, ‘You should give me the 50 lakh, and I will go to Bombay and make a movie.’
I was 21. I didn’t know what I was saying. I was just fascinated. Prerna was doing a post-graduation in FTII and she was planning to move to Bombay. Toh mujhe bhi jaana tha apne dost ke piche-piche. Ambition toh itna hi tha. So, I was planning to come to Bombay, and how, what, where, we had to figure it out, and Kamlesh sir agreed.
“If you’re starting a shop somewhere brand new, go to town and meet a few CAs and lawyers.”
I came here with a startup capital of 50 lakh, and I met people at food courts in Infinity Mall and other malls. I would say, ‘Mere paas pachas lakh rupay hai, tumhare paas kahani hai?’ Then I started meeting all the gaffers and other such people, and said, ‘Agar tum kisi writer-director ko jaante ho toh mujhe milwa do, ki hum kaise kaam karenge saath mein.’ I remember Kamlesh, Mulchand, just so many people I knew, introducing me to one person, then one AD introducing me to somebody else. I started building a network. I met a lot of people at MHADA with their shirt buttons open and chains hanging from their necks. People thought ki hum iske 50 lakh rakh lenge. Sab mujhe scheme de rahe hai, koi mujhe kuch bech raha hai, last-in-first-out models, and I’m learning on the go because everybody is giving me a business plan. It is the best way to learn, where everybody gives you a business plan and you grow your own brains through that. You’re just like, ‘Okay, this is what they are saying.’ Then you ask so many questions because you’re sitting on a bunch of money and you can afford to ask so many questions.
My dad used to tell me that whenever you go to a new city, start a new business, get the best CA and get the best lawyer. This was my core, fundamental thing. So, I started doing meetings with the best CAs in town. I would say, ‘I’m very young. I only have this. I have some exposure, but I would love to stay guided.’ So, I was always protected. That is rule number one. If you’re starting a shop somewhere brand new, go to town and meet a few CAs and lawyers, just so that you can know the language; you pay a professional fee and understand the way of life.
Eventually, I met director Subhash Kapoor, who also had half the money. I raised another 25 lakh. He had 75 lakh, aur hum ne dedh crore mein Say Salaam India banayi. In 2006, we were thinking we were very cool because we were making this as a run-up to the 2007 World Cup. Hum log timeline pe the, urgency pe the ki khatam karte hai, so that we could tap into their pan-India marketing – so that it could be a cricket film in the World Cup season. We were working towards that business model.
We finished our work on time. It was amazing to work with Subhash sir and the whole team. It was a classic underdog film – rich school, poor school, and how on the last ball, the poor school wins. It was beautiful. At that point, I was really excited for this epic sports film, which gave you a high – that was the trajectory of the film.
Then, we were trying to sell it. Adlabs, which was run by Manmohan Shetty, actually picked it up. They said, ‘We will do P&A and we will release your movie.’ We were very excited to do this.
Their idea was last-in-first-out, where they would come in last to put the marketing money and release the films. They will recover their money, and whatever would come in after that would be given to the producers, or then our investors would make money.
We were very sure of our film. We were happy to get a distribution deal. Then, we started getting a lot of free things from brands because of the World Cup. Reebok was giving us money. Somebody was giving us 25 lakh, somebody was giving us 30 lakh. So, we started building more and more marketing gigs around this.
Cut to: India is going for the 2007 World Cup. But they lose the first match. It was amongst 24 countries and only the elementary round. Five years prior to that, India was in the finals, and Australia had won. No doubt, India is a very good team. First match India lost, aur yahan unke putle jal rahe hai, log pagal ho rahe hai – matlab, bawaal ho gaya hai iss baat pe ki World Cup mein India pehla match haar gaya.
“All the cinema owners called and said, ‘Ye dabbe wapas le ke jao. Hamare cinemas jal jayenge agar cricket ki baat bhi ki.’“
In the second match, they made 400-plus runs – the highest in the one-day format and we were back to our conference room, and we were putting out our little film. I remember the marketing heads at that time telling, ‘Of course India is going to go forward! This is just the elementary round. The third match is the deciding match. Of course India is going to win. Itna paisa laga hai.’ I remember SET Max had reduced their screen to 75% and in the remaining 25% of the screen ads were going on because of cricket. Pepsi had come out with Pepsi Gold, Samsung had come out with new TVs.
A day before the last match happened, Pakistan’s coach, Bob Wilmer, died mysteriously, and we were getting affected, our dedh crore ki film, thinking, ‘Hamara kya hoga?’
In the third match, India lost. Pure desh mein hawan chal rahe the uske liye. It was pin-drop silence that day. There were news stories that people died of heart attacks because India lost the match. India lost and our film had been released in cinemas. At that point in time, there were reels that would come in huge boxes. All the cinema owners called and said, ‘Ye dabbe wapas le ke jao. Hamare cinemas jal jayenge agar cricket ki baat bhi ki.’
I was like, ‘Our film has released, at least give it a chance.’ All cinema owners were like, ‘Purani filmein de do.’ Namaste London aur Bheja Fry chalne lag gayi. Jo purani filmein thi, jo ek-do hafte pehle release hui thi, unhe double down kiye. People ran to cinemas, but nobody wanted to think or talk about cricket. Namaste London and Bheja Fry became huge because people just ran to cinemas for some sort of relief and entertainment. No cinema owner wanted a cricket movie.
At that point in time, I was line producing Ghajini. I was like, ‘What do I do? How do I even go back home? This person gave me money, trusted me.’ It was such a sense of responsibility. How do you live and not return somebody who has trusted you? He was always amazing. He said, ‘Guneet, I understand. It’s business.’ I said, ‘No, sir. If I’m not able to return you the money, then I don’t deserve to be in this industry.’ I was that sincere child who had that sense of ownership and responsibility.
So, I resigned from Ghajini. I went back to Delhi. I didn’t know what I’d do. Being in my house, I went to my school and college, because those are the only places I knew. I met my principal, Suman Kumar, and said, ‘Bachpan mein hum 50 rupay har bacche se lekar school mein picture dekhne jaate the. We saw Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne. We saw so many films cinema mein jaa kar.’ I reached out to her. We had around 2000 kids in school. I asked her, ‘Would you be able to collect 1000 kids for one show? Maybe from class six onwards, or whatever.’ She said, ‘Yes, 50 rupees per kid.’ I went to Sapna Cinema behind my house, and I said, ‘Subah nau se barah ke show mein aap kitne paise kamate ho?’ They said around 5000-7000. I said, ‘I’ll give you 10,000, will you give me the entire cinema?’ The cinema was 1000-seater, so with 50 rupees per kid in a 1000-seater cinema hall meant 50,000 per show, jisme se 10,000 cinemawale ke aur 40,000 mere.
The kids came, and by the last ball were jumping on their seats. Then I went to my college and got interns to work with me. I went to many more schools. I went to DPS R.K. Puram – I did that with Sangam – through which other DPS schools got activated. Then, as it went into auto-pilot, I took the interval to brands for another 15,000 rupees to do sampling with the kids. I put stalls and sold audio CDs outside. I did 350 shows like this and made all the money back.
Smriti Kiran: What an incredible story! You also met your partner at Sikhya, Achin, who was one of your interns.
Guneet Monga: He was in my college. If activating one school took me one week, where the principal wrote the letter and later collected the money, I thought that I needed more people, otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to do it. 27 boys, who used to come home and go to their schools on bikes, were my interns.
There was a day in my life when there were 15 shows in Delhi running together, and one day I asked all of them, I didn’t even know their names, ‘Aap ke kuch kharche nahi aaye? Petrol aur sab?’ And the next I got this exceptionally beautiful Excel sheet with everyone’s name, with everyone’s expenses, toll-road expenses. It was beyond my imagination. I said, ‘Who made this?’ One hand went up, and it was Achin Jain. I was like, ‘Which year are you in?’ He said, ‘Second year.’ I said, ‘You should drop your college and come to Bombay with me. Hum log saath mein picturein banayenge,’ and he did.
Smriti Kiran: Hard work pays, right, Guneet? You noticed Achin because he did work.
Guneet Monga: Yes! Now he’s a partner at Sikhya. He’s my lifeline. He runs the company. He’s the producer of everything. The reason that I’m able to do whatever I’m able to do – travel and open doors globally – is because Achin is here making things work. Achin is the biggest gift and he runs Sikhya. I’m very grateful for that.
Smriti Kiran: You’ve done line production before you moved to Bombay. Speaking Tree Films was the line production company that you started before Sikhya. It got a credit on Ghajini. This was also started by you. Line production companies actually started to get acknowledged in the credits of movies.
I want to move to co-productions. In 2006, when you started, co-productions were rare. People still don’t understand what co-productions are and how they work. You accelerated the co-production piece. Give us a step-wise mapping of how you did this, why was it necessary, why had no one done this prolifically before and how do co-productions actually work?
Guneet Monga: A large part of my learning came from Film Bazaar. I always say that going to film festivals is very important. Even when you don’t have anything to do, just go attend it – go listen to the talks, apply for the workshops, figure out how many sections there are, what all you can attend. Having a film festival footprint expands your horizon of possibilities and opportunities.
Going to Film Bazaar at that point in time really helped me. I got this Rotterdam Cinemart scholarship. I was with 60 young producers from around the world for one week, who were attending workshops. That’s when I started understanding how the rest of the world works.
India is a 100% equity market. It is either studio money or a rich person’s money, or any kind of money which needs to be raised and returned with interest, and then profit share.
[Equity is the nature of money. The money can be from anywhere. If your project costs Rs. 100, you need to raise Rs. 100 and return Rs. 100 + interest + profit. This is a basic expectation from anybody being in this business in India. This equity can come to you from studios, film financiers, individual financiers, uncles and aunts, crowd-funding, the US, but it needs to be returned with interest. This is the basic 101 of business in India.]
Whereas, in Europe, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, film funding comes from taxpayers’ money. It is part of art and culture. It is run by the Ministry. It’s run by the government, and you need to make applications to raise money for your work. There are state funds, city funds, central funds, script funds, and diversity funds. You need to constantly make applications. So, the life of a producer is just like, ‘I need to raise this. I need to raise this.’ There is no pressure of returning the money with interest and profit. Filmmakers are seen as people who are taking art to the next level, and taxpayers’ money is funded to them. That is how the rest of the world works.
Smriti Kiran: Is it only for independent projects? Otherwise, you’ve got big studios.
Guneet Monga: They do have big studios that work like how studios work here, but a large part of the filmmaking culture is run by the government. You can scale up to a point that you can then take studio money and use equity money, but a large part of your credibility comes with grants. So, if there is an independent producer, there they’ll be writing applications and here we will be meeting people.
Then, each country has co-production treaties, which say, ‘Okay, if my crew is from here or if I’m shooting in this part of the country, then I can accept their state funds also.’ Everyone is constantly thinking that if I get into France and Germany, then I get the Eurimages fund because I have activated two European countries. So, there are all these funds and processes.
The US works very differently. It is a combination of equity and international sales, and tax rebates, which depends on where you’re shooting. The US is more creative in terms of how they fund their independent films. If you are telling a story and if your budget is 100, what they will do is that they will at least try to raise at least 70 from outside the US because the English language travels the rest of the world. It is one of the most genius models. So, they try to get 60%-70% of the money out of international sales. After securing that, they take bank loans or mezzanine funding. Then, the balance 30% comes from close to 10% equity, where you take personal wealth or returnable money, and the next 10-15% comes from where the film is shot, tax rebates, grants and anything else that one can apply to.
Smriti Kiran: Guneet, I want to ask you two very basic questions. All these co-production treaties that are available that also inform you about what you can do with this country, where are these available?
Guneet Monga: Online. The Ministry websites have their rules and applications freely available in every country.
Smriti Kiran: For a budding producer, it’s very important to inform your passion with all avenues that are available for funding, right?
Guneet Monga: Absolutely. You have a piece of content, so how are you fundraising for it? You can’t be in a room thinking ki koi mujhe aa ke paise de dega, ‘Main art bana rahi hoon.’ Aise nahi hota. Aap kaise usko raise kar rahe ho aur aap kaise usko raise karne ka plan kar rahe ho. Aap ko wapas karna hai ya nahi karna – nahi karna hai toh kitna nahi karna. That starts informing you.
“My company is called Sikhya Entertainment, which means keep learning and keep growing.”
What also helped me a lot was the Breakfast Program at Cannes. I was actually recommended by IFP in New York to allow me to attend it. I was also picked up for a Transatlantic Partnership Program – which was a week in Berlin, a week in Halifax, Canada and a week at IFP in New York. So, these were all scholarships I won. These included showing up at festivals, figuring out how other people did it. It informed me on how these states are run, how these fundings are run, and I built a peer group, which has been the most important for me. It introduced me to young producers, lawyers, sales agents and how they work, how their contracts look like. It’s a year-long program that you go into. These programs informed me about the hustle, what work I could do, the possibilities, and ask questions.
My company is called Sikhya Entertainment, which means keep learning and keep growing. I’m a seeker at heart. My curiosity levels are so high, I just want to know everything. Then when I go deep into it, I can’t stop. Then I need to test the model and make it happen. It was like jo bhi main agli picture kar rahi hoon, woh main international co-production hi karungi kyunki main itna padh kar aa gayi hoon. For Monsoon Shootout, we got the first half of the money from Arte France TV. That is non-returnable money. We sold TV rights to Arte France for the French territory. Things like these hadn’t happened by then.
When I started working on The Lunchbox – again, I met Ritesh (Batra) at a film festival – we started going to film festivals, started going to script doctors, script labs, co-production labs. It’s like a train that you’re on, you know. There you go very well prepared with your pitches. I think Ritesh and I must have pitched The Lunchbox at least 300-400 times.
Smriti Kiran: Guneet, while you’re taking all these flights and taking all these leaps, how are you running the kitchen?
Guneet Monga: I do a lot of side hustle. I’m always consulting. Firstly, you have to figure out what your lifestyle is. I’ve had huge personal ups and downs in life. I feel like my lifestyle has always been limited, and I’m very happy. My needs were very low. I used to stay in a 20,000-25,000 rented house, and had some savings, I used to line produce ads, I ran a company called Anurag Kashyap Films. We needed basic rent and car fuel. I used to take 40-hour flights.
I’d been to Venice with That Girl in Yellow Boots in 2010. I didn’t know how to operate at a film festival. I’d over-printed stationery. I literally had some of the amazing directors now in our industry pin posters of our film and walk around Venice Film Festival. Mujhe jaa ke pata chala ki mujhe ye hoarding kharidni padegi. Main toh 200 posters yahan se print kar ke leke gayi thi.
I’d even printed visiting cards thinking, ‘Ab toh premiere ho gaya, ab film bik jayegi.’ Lekin aisa hua nahi hamare saath. Then, I straight-up walked up to Marco Mueller, the Artistic Director, and I said, ‘Sir, no one’s buying my film. How?’ He said, ‘This is a market, and there are sales agents whom you need on your movie beforehand.’ I was like, ‘Aap ne pehle nahi bataya mujhe.’ I just didn’t know. He was so gracious, so amazing. He said, ‘You know, Guneet, you need to give yourself three years. All these answers you don’t get immediately.’
“For one-and-a-half years, I was on a mission to get to know all of the people in the Venice market guide. It was my Bible.”
I had so many questions. He was very kind and very generous. He said that ye jo book hai Venice ki, the Market book, itni moti, iske andar har country ke log aaye hue hain, sab ka naam likha hua hai, and that these were the people I needed to know, which would be my network, and those people needed to see my film at least two months before, have PR at least two months before and that I needed – ek film festival mein 200-300 filmein hai na – to come to the film festival fully prepared, with my teams and meetings pre-lined up.
After receiving that information, I didn’t get out of the room in Venice and I was only writing emails ki koi toh mil lo mere se. A lot of people replied and a lot didn’t. Mera Gmail block ho gaya tha kyunki Gmail thought that I was spamming. Main ne itni mails bhej diye the! Plus mujhe itni badi book cover karni thi ki maine chaar-paanch logon ko apna Gmail khol ke de diya tha ye keh ki sab bhejo.
For one-and-a-half years after that, I was on a mission to get to know all of these people. The market guide was my Bible. I internalised it and realised that most of them were in France, some in London, Korea, New York and LA. I spent the next five years going to all these places. I stayed for a month or two in Paris, London, New York and LA. Only in Korea, I stayed for one or two weeks. I would couch-surf, make friends, stay in people’s houses, take 100-hour flights to America and 40-hour flights to Europe. That’s how I built a network.
I started meeting people in their offices and did not expect them to meet at a festival. Then I would meet them again at a film festival. That built a network, a conversation, and credibility. I was literally a foot soldier. I had researched. I had even gotten a pen drive that had ‘Anurag Kashyap Films’ and my email ID written on it, which had all of Anurag’s movies so that we could hand it out to everybody. At one point, it was so widely available at festivals. So, just these creative ways of hustling.
Being in France, I also understood that there were parallel sections like Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week. I was then able to present and apply my movies to these sections. I was very grateful that I was selected. I called my producing partners to France and said, ‘Let’s make these meetings happen.’ Then, once it got selected because I was in Paris, I was able to close a sales agent.
So, one step at a time, one foot at a time kept informing me, kept pushing me forward, which led me to learn a lot about international co-productions. Having received those scholarships, I was being recommended by people. Then, diving down into how treaties worked and finding my co-producers in France and Germany, and that’s how I structured The Lunchbox, which I’m very proud of.
Smriti Kiran: Every time that you think about film festivals, you think of travelling to Germany and France. It sounds very exciting but you’re not sunning in the Riviera. It needs to be deglamorised.
Guneet Monga: I have seen you and Anu (Anupama Chopra) slum it out, and you guys have seen me going crazy just trying to match one meeting after another. It is so hard and so expensive.
Smriti Kiran: It is very hard but you enjoy it. But just because it’s enjoyable doesn’t mean that it’s not as hard as nails. You’re the lowest priority in that ecosystem. Hustle sounds very bad-ass and swaggy. What is hustle according to you, and how do you inform your hustle?
Guneet Monga: I think it’s the power of showing up. Hustle is a huge sense of responsibility, something that you take ownership of because it is your problem. If this film has to get funded, if this film has to have a festival trajectory, you have to inform yourself ki mere pure saal ki festival trajectory kya hai, main kahan se start kar rahi hoon, uske baad kahan pe apply kar rahi hoon – you just can’t think about one thing at a time. This thought starts at the start of the film. We are shooting our film at this point of time, hum log ab khatam kar rahe hai, ab rough cut ready kar rahe hai, hum kisko-kisko dikhana shuru kar rahe hai, hum kaise apna feedback process kar rahe hai, hum kaise iss par ek soft conversation build kar rahe hai among people who are friends of the film.
It is a lot of strategy. It is a lot of showing up, writing emails, and inventing a path every time – there is no clear path. It is building a vision with every piece of content and then living under the burden of that vision because I feel like I could do better. In my gut, I genuinely feel that I am maybe two or three steps away from anybody in the world. For me, it’s not seven degrees of separation.
“Hustle is running in a dense fog, shooting arrows hoping something strikes.”
I’ve built my hustle in the manner of that one person that I can write to who can introduce me to the right person and then what do I need to do to be able to speak their language. So, when you deal with the US, when you deal with France, they speak a separate language of content. There is an assistant, there’s an agent, there’s a manager, there is a lawyer and then there is the producer. One needs to understand that and inform oneself on various things like how they primarily work on landlines, or know how Friday onwards Europe doesn’t work and opens straight on Monday – you can’t expect them to meet on Fridays – you need to plan your life like that. Or how are these meetings being set up at Cannes? Where are you sitting? What are you talking about? Who are you meeting? What is their agenda? Follow up is a huge deal. People shake hands a lot. Nobody follows up, nobody comes through. It takes us all behind. Everything needs to be followed up with calls.
I’ve come from being in love with ‘90s cinema and I have grown to understand what this is. I’m somewhat of a seeker of the business of movies from around the world. I seek it so much that I still follow those magazines like Deadline, Hollywood Reporter and Variety, knowing which deal is happening. For me, it’s a priority to attend MAMI because it is what informs me of the kinds of movies that people are liking. It is a learning. There’s not so much I can watch, but there are so many I can meet.
I remember going to Cannes with films and all my directors would be coming back so happy saying, ‘Aaj hum ne teen picturein dekhi,’ and I used to be like, ‘Aaj main 6 logon se mili.’ I never had the luxury to watch a movie at a festival because it was always like, ‘I need to meet them and that’s what I need to do.’ So, I used to also get guilt. But that is my work. So, Cannes, Venice, Toronto, Film Bazaar, MAMI are work hours for a producer. They don’t have any iota of luxury or holiday. They’re so intense, so power-packed. Puri duniya aa rahi hai ye paanch din and they are ready to talk to, how many people can you talk to?
Agar Cannes mein 10,000 log aa rahe hai, toh in mein se shayad 1,000 log interested honge Indian mein. Un mein se shayad 200 will want to do business, maybe have stories. How do I meet them? How do I get ahead of them? So, a sort of strategy, like this is the India section, this is where my card should be. I used to keep strategising on how to get ahead, how to know people. Going to people’s offices, travelling, then doing follow-up meetings at festivals was beneficial.
What really also helped my journey was that during my time at AKFPL, every year we had one film selected at a festival. So, that informed and amplified my hustle. I was able to ask more questions, do more, meet more people. I went from meeting and making friends with sales agents to meeting distributors from every country and seeing how their business models work. Then being curious about how films are released in Japan or Netherlands. There’s no other word for that kind of curiosity than hustle.
Hustle is running in a dense fog, shooting arrows, kuch toh lagega. It’s exhausting. But then actually kuch lag jaata hai. That is the beauty of hustle. You’re so sincerely pushing for it that people inform you about more people.
There is a way of doing this. I know one producer in Luxembourg or I know one producer in Azerbaijan – that is my peer group – not that that’ll translate into money and business tomorrow morning; but even if I’m 60 years old, I know if I need to do something in Azerbaijan or a co-production or something, I know who to call.
Smriti Kiran: At least you can get a drink in Azerbaijan if nothing else.
Guneet Monga: I will even get to stay anywhere around the world. My house is like a traveller’s home because the whole world has extended its homes to me.
When I was a young producer – making my presentations, doing that kind of prep – my bags used to only be stationary when I used to travel. I come from a very middle class, humble family. I didn’t travel as a child. Things like managing food between meetings, scheduling and showing up on time – you cannot afford to be late – are of prime importance. You have to be on your A-game.
Smriti Kiran: Hustle is, actually, a lot of intelligent hard work.
Guneet Monga: It is. We don’t give ourselves the credit for this intelligent hard work – I love your words always.
I remember when Gangs of Wasseypur happened, we really wanted to do a US territory sale, but it did not happen. So, I came up with the idea of cutting it into an eight-part series and selling it to Netflix for only US territories. So, it was actually India’s first eight-part mini-series. Gangs of Wasseypur was released in the US via Netflix before they were even doing international content – they were doing some of it – and we opened a window for us to be able to do that.
Way back in 2012 we could make 40-minute long episodes for an eight-part series of our five-and-a-half-hour film. I was informed of that because I was able to travel to festivals because I was able to learn from what is happening in the rest of the world and by understanding how India is positioned in the rest of the world.
Smriti Kiran: We don’t have sales agents in India that represent Indian films, and we don’t have knowledge about how to navigate this world. A very close producer friend of mine who was dabbling with the idea of producing independent films called me up and said, ‘I love this script. I want to do this. But how do I recover the money?’ So, shed a little bit of light on why this lack of knowledge exists?
Guneet Monga: Treat MAMI as your Mecca in India. Bombay toh aa sakte ho kahin se bhi, ya chahe aap FTII ya SRFTI mein padh rahe ho, prioritise being at MAMI. 10,000 people don’t come there, but the 2,000 people that come here, or the 100 people that you bring down from outside India are only interested in you and in India, and that is precious. This gets lost when you are at Cannes or Venice or Toronto. It’s such a huge mass and they are interested in the whole world.
I have met people at MAMI, and I’m working with them now. Those conversations were able to happen over drinks. One of my biggest and the most precious connections in the whole world, Ava DuVernay, is because of MAMI. We were able to have dinner. Where on this earth could I imagine I would get to her and sit down and tell her my story? That happened because of MAMI. If you are a young first-timer thinking about international markets show up here. Volunteer. If you have to ask any questions, ask who are the people coming in and how do I meet them. That is the threshold of the starting point. There are even festival programmers who introduced me to more people. I was on panels and then stayed in touch with the other guests.
Apply for the Producers’ Network at Cannes. 200 people apply for that, and that’s your peer group. Set up meetings from there. Mentors will come and teach you. Apply for producing labs around the world. There are short labs, online labs – like the one by Sundance. That’s where you get all the knowledge. If you’re not studying producing, then apply for producing workshops. I still apply for them. Recently I was a fellow at Film Independent and I won the Sloan grant there in 2019. I applied with my project. You cannot sit and say, ‘I don’t know.’ It is your job to know.
Smriti Kiran: Mathivanan (Rajendran) and Celine (Loop) started Producerland, which you were also a part of.
Guneet Monga: It is much needed. That’s where I think an ecosystem will be built. There’ll be younger producers sharing knowledge. So, seek this knowledge. It’s very important to research and be online.
In 2010, I had a short film that was nominated for an Oscar. I had just come out of a huge personal tragedy. I had no money, no American visa. Kavi was a short film. It won the student Oscar. All I did was write emails to rich people, who I thought could give me financing to land up in LA. For me, rich people were Richard Branson, Ratan Tata – by the book rich people, not just anyone.
That’s all I knew. I thought ki ye log mujhe grant de denge. At the end of the day, I wrote to the President of India and I was able to get a grant, I was able to show up in LA and attend the Oscars. That was my only dream. How did that happen? This is hustle.
Smriti Kiran: When you’re reaching out to people, you also need to reach out to people with a plan, right? It cannot be just a plea for mercy.
Guneet Monga: We are in the business of filmmaking. You can’t just sit and say that I’m doing art. You’re in the business of filmmaking and you need to speak the same language that people understand.
For every film, you need to make your revenue sheet, which is low, medium, and high. You need to set up examples. There’s a business plan to film. Every film is like setting up a company and you’re the CEO of the company. So, if I’m asking you today that I need 100 rupees from you, I need to tell you examples from the past, ki uss film ka utna tha, uss film ka utna tha. ‘Agar meri picture bilkul nahi chali tab bhi hum 85 kama lenge. Agar bohot chal gayi toh 200 kama lenge. Thik-thak chal gaya toh 150 kama lenge.’ Then it is your call to tell me if you’ll give me 20 rupees or 100 rupees. I have made these business plans for every film of mine and there are 40 of them. Aur iske alawa 40 aur jo bani nahi. You have to do that work every day.
Smriti Kiran: Swati Chugh, who is a filmmaker, has written on YouTube, ‘Guneet should write a beginner’s guide to being an independent producer.’ I hope you’ll find the time to do this. We would love to collaborate with you because I’ve wanted to do this forever.
Guneet Monga: I love your words, Smriti. If you’re willing to write it with me, I’m happy to sign up.
In fact, each of my films can be a case study. The reason we crowdfunded Peddlers and Haraamkhor is because we knew we were doing something experimental and we didn’t want to only go to equity money, which has the pressure of recovery. So, we diversified our risk. It was way ahead. There were no crowdfunding platforms. I did it on my Facebook. Ideas also came because I’d seen people do this in the West and I studied about them, and I was like, ‘Okay, friends and families se thode-thode paise maang lete hai, diversity kar lete hai.’ Unko pehle se hum bol dete hai ki hum kuch kar rahe hai, shayad paise wapas kam aaye. At least with that, they are aware I wasn’t giving them any false promises. That’s why there was no pressure on them.
“We are in the business of filmmaking. You can’t just sit and say that I’m doing art.”
When Monsoon Shootout, Masaan and The Lunchbox happened, they were very conscious calls to do co-productions because when we did those script labs, we realised that there were people who love it and there was a market for it. We started building our revenue plans with films like that, and informing myself about my kinds of South Asian films that have done what kind of business, which distributor bought them, the top three distributors in every country in the world that I can reach out to. I had my meetings lined up with them before the film premiered. I had saved seats for them to go see my film. That kind of work you need to do.
You are one amongst 300-500 films in a festival. How do you break out of those? Firstly, it’s amazing that you’ve got in there. You’re amongst the best in the world. You’re at par. But the work of a producer actually starts from the moment you get that letter that you were selected. For Gangs of Wasseypur, Peddlers, we had a Cannes PR, global PR, and India PR and we had built conversations. It does not happen on its own.
Smriti Kiran: We’ve screened so many of your films, like Haraamkhor and Ajji.
Guneet Monga: Each of these films is a journey. Haraamkhor was a film that nobody wanted to buy. Maine kam-se-kam 200-300 logon ko dikhaya hoga – every possible distributor in India. They were like, ‘Nawaz ki film, crowdfunding se bani hai – ye toh le leni chahiye.’ Par log picture dekhte the aur kehte the, ‘Ye kya hai? Ye toh hum le nahi sakte.’ Then MAMI happened. Thank God for MAMI! We also won one of the big awards at MAMI. Not only that, it was the first time we had a community screening of the film and the film broke out of the festival. People were talking about it on the streets. The joy of finding love, people talking about, people saying ‘Ek aur screening kara do,’ to winning an award! The money that we earned from the award helped us finish the film, do the P&A of the film and release it in cinemas. This is the power of curation, the power of a film festival.
I didn’t know enough, either. I didn’t know that I needed to budget for them. So it was coming at a stretch. It was always, ‘Ab toh picture bana li, ab iske paise kahan se aayenge?’ Be aware from day one. If you’re on an independent journey, budget for this, raise it in advance because you need to do that.
Smriti Kiran: If you were thinking of embarking on an independent project where a traditional release in India might not be possible, what are the revenue sources available to you in the international arena as well as in India?
Guneet Monga: The world has changed from 2010- 2012 to now, so has my journey and so has Sikhya. The world has now evolved to global buyers like Netflix and Amazon. Your global deals happen with a global footprint, with Disney, for example. I have also moved from being in a place of trying to do this through a certain route.
Every film has a different journey. Say, for Pagglait, Soorarai Pottru or Zindagi inShort, my market is India. You have theatrical, you have digital, you have music, you have airline, you have satellite rights, so you have a revenue sheet of all these breakups. Previously how it used to happen internationally was that sales agents would give you MGs (minimum guarantee) per country – low, minimum, high. Also, getting a sales agent was a big deal. Now, that has evolved into being more dynamic because now there are global buyers, like Apple, HBO, Disney.
“When I choose a piece of content, it informs me of the story and with the filmmaker.”
Even my own journey has evolved, as you said, from indie to epic. I’m scaling up. I’m doing bigger work with bigger actors, which allows the current business to participate. I was working on the periphery of the business because I didn’t have the in. That is the only thing that I could do and I did that for a very long time. That’s what informed me to do international co-productions. Now, my way of looking at international co-productions has also evolved because I’ll be able to cast bigger and I’ll be able to bring bigger money from India, and not be in a position of only being dependent on the outside. So, that is a transition that I’ve been able to make in my career and in my storytelling. Now I can sit back and inform myself that this is the best of international and I can add that as a value to a movie that I’m a part of. This is the best of India that I know that we can partner with, like what we did Bittu. We had Tahira (Kashyap Khurrana) and Ekta (Kapoor) to build a larger conversation with Indian Women Rising. It couldn’t happen overnight because there are 10 years of work on it, because of which I was also able to inform and move quickly to support the movie, also starting a collective through which we want to support more.
What I’m trying to say here is, the revenue streams are very easy to understand and know. There is theatrical, digital, satellite, music, airline, and then any other further syndications such as mobile rights. Theatrical is where there are factors involved for something to be a super, mega-hit. Now this model can be either per country-wise or it can be summed up and done at a global level, but which is that piece of content that is even worth going country-wise? Not everything translates, not everything travels.
Smriti Kiran: How do you take that call, Guneet?
Guneet Monga: That call is with the story. You know whether the story has an emotional resonance or not. Also, what are the choices that you are making in telling it? Is it an expositional choice of telling that story? Or is it a held back choice of telling that story? When I choose a piece of content, it informs me of the story and with the filmmaker. So, there is a deep understanding about ye kaise dikhega. Once we both see the same thing, then I know ki hum aur ye kiske saath share kar sakte hai.
At the end of the day, we are what our exposure is, we are what our taste is. That matches with people globally and you know that this is something that this one would like, or this is something that that one will like. That is now producing hustle for me.
It’s no more a foot soldier’s journey for me. Now it is a strategy. All the people I know are also doing amazingly well globally and in India. So, it’s more like the piece of content that I’m a part of now, how I am adding value to this, why I am picking this up and where I am going to take this, and the impact of this. So, all these decisions are related as we move forward in Sikhya across, now that we are in five divisions.
We are doing so much nonfiction after Period, End of Sentence. We are doing podcasts, short films, series and films. The hustle has increased to a little village.
Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on YouTube
Diganta Dey: One of the difficulties I’ve faced while applying to co-production markets, especially being in the earlier stages of production, is tackling the criteria of having a producer on board from the country where the market is held. Also, having attended the Asian Film Market in 2019, I’ve seen that sales agents are more open to acquiring European, Korean or Japanese films, more than Indian films. How do you tackle these two issues?
Guneet Monga: I’ve applied to the Berlin Co-production Market, which did not have this. I’ve applied to Cinemart, which did not have the criteria of having a producer from the country where the market is held. Torino, whom I’ve worked with, did not have that. I’ve worked with Sundance in Utah, IFPA in New York – neither of which had it. The co-production market in Toronto did not have this. I don’t know which co-production market you’re talking about in France. If you talk about Rotterdam, you do need a producer from the Netherlands – but that is only for the Hubert-Bals fund.
What is very tough for us here is, people are not used to having independent creative producers around them. The business works producer-first outside India. In India, it’s very director-led or very actor-led. So, people don’t know how to place a director; people know how to place a producer. The lack of producers in India does complicate the scenario globally because there are just so many producers there and it works in a certain way. If all directors are producers, then it is just challenging for them to bifurcate. That’s what I understand.
Regarding the second question: it’s a very deep-rooted problem. I have to admit that I went into a big depression after The Lunchbox because of the lack of an ecosystem in India. I was out of the business for three years. It was very hard on me because I went through the sales agent model only to find that that ecosystem does not exist in India.
What happens here is, you have to sell your content to Indian players, like satellite TV. Even before Netflix and Amazon were here, you had to sell worldwide rights to Indian TV studios – to Zee, to Star, whoever. That cuts your wings and legs to sell outside India. Everywhere outside India it is territory-wise sales. It is normal for people to say domestic sale, which is their personal country, and then international. Even for the biggest studios in the US, it’s all about domestic and the rest of the world, whereas in India, it is all about everything – India plus the rest of the world is one. So, if your buyer is one, how will you engage with other buyers? How will our cinema ever increase? That is why there is no ecosystem of sales agents in India. When I tried that, it was very isolating. I had the burden of being the first one. I was misunderstood by my India equity players and my partners in India because they felt that we went against the system.
The Lunchbox became what it became because I was able to break that system and allow a hundred buyers to be a part of that project, without knowing if it would have resulted in money or not. It was like, ‘Accha, aap le lo territory.’ Un sab territories se humein thoda-thoda MG mil raha tha – 10, 20, 50,000 dollars from every territory around the world. It’s not one chunk of money that you get in India. That is why I feel that there is a lack of sales agents and a lack of business.
It is changing now, with global buyers. Now, a shift needs to happen where you think, ‘How do I work with global buyers and break out on their platforms?’ A different kind of breakout needs to happen now. So, don’t be discouraged by that. It is more about how you pave your way through it. Paving your way through it would involve doing co-productions and having producers from other parts of the world who can activate a sales agent for you in case your film needs it.
Arcopol Chaudhuri: My question is about the state of censorship on content in the country right now. There are various forces at work that lead to some people taking offence, or something lands up in court, or there are some curbs put on content, which the streaming platforms have no option but to comply with. How do you not let all this affect you? How do you retain your creative vision and make sure that you are able to tell a story exactly the way you want to say it?
Guneet Monga: I have been at a place where I have judged the system for very long. I just felt misunderstood. I felt like, ‘Oh, my God! How will this ever happen?’ The break that I took for two-three years and the 2.0 version of Sikhya made me want to be a part of the system. I want to very much thrive in what the world has to offer and make it work. It actually pushes me to be even more intelligent in telling the story and retaining our vision and continue pushing for it – not with an agenda but with holding hands with everyone and still being able to tell it. If you look at Iranian cinema or at cinema from around the world which is far more censored, there are journalists telling their pieces and amazing filmmakers telling their pieces. So, it’s almost like, ‘How do you work around it?’ That is the deck that is offered to you. Make the best out of it
Tapas Bhadra: Your films have always gone beyond boundaries and audience expectations story-wise, like Gangs of Wasseypur and The Lunchbox. How do you decide that the audience is ready for a particular type of film or story if something similar to that has never been made in our country? What analysis do you do or what research goes behind it?
Guneet Monga: Our exposure informs us. Because I’ve travelled, seen and interacted with filmmakers from around the world, it allows me to inform my decisions. Our exposure and our taste are who we are, you have to work on it every day. I watched Boyhood and I couldn’t sleep for days. I wondered, ‘How did somebody even think of it? What are we doing? Is somebody here doing this?’. You see work and you’re like, ‘Holy shit! How did they do it?’ So, I remember watching Boyhood and being unable to sleep for days – I was just pacing up and down. I was like, ‘Kaise socha hai ye? Kaise? Kisne socha hai?’
You get inspired. You build your gut instinct, I would say – follow it, build it, make mistakes, come through after those mistakes, show up after those mistakes. Not everything I’ve done has hit the jackpot in every which way, but I’ve tried.
Content is subjective. Understand that the journeys that we are on are subjective. Anything that I’m doing now, I think you will see it in 2023. I wake up so excited about it every day. I’m like, ‘Ek din ye bahar aayega!’ Woh 2023 mein aayega, but I’m already so excited about it. It has to be relevant in 2023 – but that is the journey we are on.
Dhruv Suri: What advice would you give to writers and directors who are outsiders in the industry, who are looking to get their debut projects in front of the right producer?
Guneet Monga: What I do when I build my co-productions is, work on the material, prepare my one-line synopsis and have my pitch. The Lunchbox pitch was rehearsed – Ritesh and I rehearsed our jokes – who will say which line. What I’m trying to tell you is the work that goes behind it. We would also correct each other’s lines. How do we also get a producer interested? It’s only through the work that we put in – your logline, your elevator pitch, your bigger picture, synopsis.
Even if you’re reaching out to us at Sikhya, we revert to you in about three weeks. We have an email ID. We have a website where you can apply. Just be clear with your synopsis. I get scripts on my WhatsApp. Those people are blocked. Don’t send scripts and synopses to people on WhatsApp because you found the number. Write an amazing email, say that you’d love to meet, this is your synopsis, logline. People will respond.
Siddharth Menon: In an interview, Anurag Kashyap said that there just aren’t enough spaces and screens at all in the first place, and so the fight as such is not only ideological but also very much physical to show the films that we want. With so many challenges in place, how do you ensure that you’re motivated with regards to the content that you want to push out? Has it changed with the advent of OTT?
Guneet Monga: At the core of it, challenges are everywhere, even in European countries where you’re writing applications and not getting heard and you’re going through bureaucracy to make a film. They think it’s cool that we can make films through equity here; here we think that nobody is giving us money because they are judging us. You’re dealt different cards everywhere.
I had to define success for myself, irrespective of everything. My definition of success is that if I show up inspired every morning, then I’m successful. You need to be inspired to do what you do and that inspiration comes from stories, from people you’re surrounded with. If you can just do that every morning and continue to own that journey, it’ll be beautiful. I feel that if my team shows up inspired every morning, we’re all extremely successful and we are moving forward.
Har roz aisa lagta hai ki aaj ek email likha aur jawab bhi nahi aaya. I’ve been there. Whereas I used to feel like I couldn’t move a rock, at the end of this decade I’ve felt like I’ve moved a mountain. Now it’s about what more we can do. Every piece of, not only making the film but also putting it out, releasing, marketing it in the US, during the Oscars, during Cannes, MAMI, Toronto is a lot of work.
You also want to know ki sabse acha kahan se hua tha, the strategies that are being employed for films that are at the Academy Awards, the conversations, the deadlines, what you are putting out there – being on top of it all and hoping that something will hit. When we were doing Period. End of Sentence, we didn’t think we’d win the Oscar. When we were doing Kavi, we didn’t think we’d be winning the student Oscar or be nominated in the top five. We didn’t know while doing Masaan or The Lunchbox that they’d be global hits. We just show up every morning and do our best, knowing that we did our best despite people judging, telling you that this won’t not work, despite lack of cinemas, lack of money and lack of faith.
What has helped me is also my spiritual journey. I think we are all spiritual beings having human experiences. Some deep-rooted spiritual journey has taken away my validation from people around me because we are in such a subjective industry. When our ideas are crushed, it feels like our babies are judged.
When I was very young, my dad asked me to become an insurance agent. Un ko lagta tha ki meri koi fixed income ban jayegi aur woh apne doston ko life insurance bech denge kyunki unke dost older hai, aur woh unhe mere naam pe bech denge taaki mujhe saal pe saal paisa aayega. That was his big business plan for me. I went to Ritu Nanda School in Delhi and studied insurance, even got a job at Tata AIG. Then, my dad started selling insurance in my name. I was only excited about stationary at Tata AIG. What I learned there was the most beautiful thing that has always stayed with me.
Imagine going to people and saying, ‘Guys, you’re going to die. Why don’t you save up some money with us for your family?’ Right? This is what I was selling at the crux of it. They used to tell me, ‘10 people will say no to you, and then one person will say yes.’ That stayed with me. Now when somebody says no, I actually get very excited. I’m like, ‘Waah, I’m getting closer to my next.’ Every time I enter a room, I enter with that energy. If you want to say no, just say it – don’t extend it for two months, because I know my 11th person is coming. I have to try to open this door 10 times. That has always kept me going always. I’m trying to use that in my personal life also, but it has worked in my professional life.
Sharmistha: Is there gender or caste discrimination in the business? How do you think Dalits, especially Dalit women, should they protect themselves, and who can they ally with?
Guneet Monga: There is no lens of discrimination in the universe that I inhabit. I don’t think I’m in a position to comment on the industry at large. But the world that I have inhabited doesn’t have caste discrimination. Yes, there is a lens on gender. There is definitely a lack of opportunities.
I also think that I came into this industry with nothing and I’ve made some of the most amazing friends. I’ve been able to push through. I’ve been able to build a career. I’ve been able to build knowledge. It does matter who you work with. Also, that question is open to every industry in the world, right? Be it medical, engineering, or if you work in a call centre – that lens is everywhere.
I actually love the business. I love the good part of this business. There are people misusing their position and power. It’s on you to call it out early and check out of that early, to call bullshit, be aware of gaslighting, be aware of bullying, be aware of people taking advantage and move out of it sooner. It is a beautiful atmosphere where people are involved. My office is democratic; I have a team of 30 people that work with me. There are amazing women across. I’ve never even seen through those lenses. Of course, I understand my office is led by me and evolved inspired people, but I would say that there are many offices like this in Bombay.
See the top 10 or top 20 films of the year and start with those – try to be an intern in one of those offices. At least, there will be equality there. You’ll know what they were thinking before putting this content out there. Don’t just think that acha ye koi film bana rahe hai aur mujhe kuch toh chance mil raha hai. Understand the atmosphere that you’re walking into. Put yourself through that and work hard. If you’re at a good office space, an inspired, encouraging office space, you would only grow. I have been in those positions where I’ve said that I don’t like that atmosphere. I’ve done mata ke jagrata videos as a production assistant in Delhi, and I’ve just said, ‘Ye mujhe samajh nahi aa raha thoda. Shayad mujhe ye nahi karna chahiye.’ From there, I’ve done international films, where people treat you like equals, where the producer is sharing their email with you; then it is your ownership to be honest to your work.
Young people change the world. If I don’t have young people around me, then there’s no point, then there’s no growth. I don’t know everything. Here, in my office, everybody has an opinion and everybody gives written opinions on everything we read. We do weekly calls, we do joint discussions and don’t take singular decisions. So, stay in a place that helps you become a better person and makes you more aware, in any profession.
Poorva Dinesh: Personally, I was very excited when I saw Indian Women Rising because as a woman documentary filmmaker in the country there is no ecosystem – any career that we have is really abroad. How do you see yourself promoting Indian filmmakers, women filmmakers? Do you have any concrete strategies in place? How can the freelance/commission work ecosystem be better?
Guneet Monga: Anything that is commissioned has to be paid. There has to be a proper contract. There is a constant hustle that everyone does because just as it is at your level, where you are asking a producer this, similarly, as an independent producer I can ask studios this because they give us briefs and say, ‘Come back to us.’ There’s no culture of them saying, ‘Okay, here is the start-up money – come back to us.’ That culture trickles down. So, we get briefs and then we work very hard to try and convert the brief. It’s about being in that ecosystem where we can share the briefs with some people that we love. If something is commissioned, absolutely it’s paid. You have to understand how the ecosystem entirely works. The position of running a production company, teams, the structure is very hard, and of course, the pandemic hasn’t made it any easier.
For your question on Indian Women Rising, I would say that we want to, we aspire to, discover, amplify and distribute. If there’s a film that you’ve made, you can send it to us at email@example.com – even at the IWR website, there is an email ID – and you will have a response. If the film speaks to us, we will put all our might behind it to get it distributed, to get it amplified, get it released – exactly what we did with Bittu. So, we are looking.
If there is a film directed by a woman – because that is our core focus – that if even any one of you want to send our way, please send it to us. We will put everything behind it to have an ecosystem and to have it distributed and have it seen, heard, championed, cheered, reviewed, spoken about and released. All of us – Ekta, Tahira, Ruchikaa and me – are doing our independent work, but in this case, we come for amplification and distribution.
Aniket Rumde: Should I write a film that I can shoot on a 40-50 lakh budget and try to sell it to a platform? Or should I try to write a film, which is local, which I can take to festivals or the world screenplay market?
Guneet Monga: Just keep life simple and make a good film. Whether it’s a short, a feature, or a documentary, ask yourself every day how it can be better, what you need to do, how your storytelling can be better, would you need to do a masterclass, do you need to get yourself a script doctor, do you need to get into a lab for that. Just make a good film. If you make a good film, you will get noticed. There are people in my office who will reach out and call you and say, ‘We want to know what you’re doing next.’ So, there are people in every production company who will call you and say, ‘Aniket, we want to know what you’re doing next.’ So, just make a good film.
Be driven to say that this was my first idea, shayad ye itna acha nahi hoga – ye shayad low-hanging fruit hai. ‘How do I make it better?’ So, when you start asking that question to your material, you start informing yourself on making a better version of your film. That’s what I do every time. We did 17 drafts of Pagglait. So, every day, every time we ask ourselves how this can be even better. We share our scripts and we come back with feedback. It’s a process of making it better. It does not become better by one single mind. It gets better with constructive feedback, with growth, and that is creative producing. So, just make a good film. There are no words like ‘glocal’, ‘local’, ‘international’, ‘festival’ – acha hoga toh pura desh aap ke paas chal kar aayega.
Komal Agarwal: Do you think the base of making a film, getting it the reach and release have changed due to the pandemic? Are you following a different strategy during this scenario?
Guneet Monga: I took two of my films to OTT, which were both made for cinemas: Soorarai Pottru and Pagglait. Soorarai Pottru is a Tamil film, with the amazing Suriya in the lead, on the life of Captain Gopinath, directed by the most amazing Sudha Kongara, that went to Amazon. Pagglait went to Netflix, which is written and directed by Umesh Bist, with Sanya Malhotra. That was our collective strategy as a team because of the pandemic.
Komal Agarwal: How do you select your content? All your content that we have seen is out of the box or unique in its own way. Also, talking about your films that are going to be released in 2023, how do you know that they are going to be relevant at that time?
Guneet Monga: Our exposure and our taste define who we are. We make choices for many reasons. We make choices for money, we make choices for love, we make choices for changing the world, impact cinema, impact conversations – whatever reason we choose to tell a story.
Why I said 2023 is because do saal lagte hai picture banane mein – overnight nahi banti. Jab actor dates aayenge, jab hum shoot karenge, phir post karenge, music hoga – sab karte-karte 2023 ho jayega. I hope 2022 mein picturein aa jaye bahar. But it depends on when we shoot it. I hope I can release my film in 2021 but that’s wishful thinking. Practical thinking would be, in 2023 you will see the work that I’m putting down. Right now, Sikhya is building a slate of 15 feature films – we will be announcing seven of them soon. So, it is when these films are happening and when they are coming out. It will be 2023, hopefully.
How do we stay relevant? By informing ourselves of where the world is and where it can go – stories that we love and that touch our heart. It’s very intuitive, very instinctive. Then there’s the filmmaker on the other side and if you can see the same vision. It’s like you’re in a relationship with your filmmaker. You have to be on the same page. We are building this world together.
I definitely have a lens on how women are represented in cinema and how each character is informed. I try to expand those conversations within the team. So, any film that I am a part of has that lens, especially post the MeToo movement – understanding feminism and deeply resonating with that, building characters around that. Whatever we can do in our way in our entertainment industry, we should.
Outside of that, I’m very motivated by impact cinema, especially short documentaries. We have a slate of around 10 documentaries, which will be announced. We have been shooting some. In fact, we shot two documentaries during the lockdown last year. They’re all on edit right now. I think I will have some releases in 2021, too. We will know more eventually.
We follow our heart, I hope I can always continue to do that. I hope we can always be relevant and do our best. We kill ourselves trying to get feedback from everybody we know. I’ve worked on a format of getting a lot of feedback. More negative feedback is better. It helps us inform what we can be ready for in the world. That’s the work that we do.
Brigav Dua: I’ve just started my production company. What would suggest at this stage for me to make an impact and sustain, based on your experiences? How can people who are just starting out as a filmmaker in the industry get in touch with you?
Guneet Monga: Through the Sikhya website. Please get in touch with me; there’s the Sikhya team – so many creative producers are in the team: there’s Manpreet, Ronak, Aliza, our head of development is Aliya, there is Praval, who heads the company; Achin, who is my partner; there is Ritika, Sagar in marketing and communications. There are so many of us. You can contact any one of us for sure.
Because you’re starting out, I would say, look at short content and look at short series – like there has been the Snapchat series, or what we did with Flipkart, which is a short series. When you look at a piece of content, ask yourself, ‘Is this a short? Or is this a short I am trying to make into a feature?’ Don’t just think ki sirf picture banana hai. Aaj duniya bohot badi ho gayi hai – we won an Oscar for a short documentary. I hope that one day we win for a feature film. But the truth is, our work was put on the map because we were part of a short documentary at Sikhya. So, look at every piece of content and inform yourself on whether this IP can be a short film, short documentary, a feature film or a documentary feature kyunki aaj itni opportunities hai, aaj itne content ke liye buyers hai. You don’t have to be in the queue saying ki actor mujhe dates nahi de raha toh mujhe paise nahi mil rahe ya kaam nahi mil raha. Today, you can do podcasts. We sustained Sikhya by doing five podcasts last year.
I would just say that today you can sustain with so much that is going on if we can sustain at a level of Sikhya. You’re starting out with not so many team members and expenses, unlike us, where we have so many permanent expenses of running a company, an office, maintaining a structure, an accounts team, taxes, managing so many IPs of so many years and everything that the IP needs to be serviced. It’s a lot of work running a business.
Look at what is available and look at what you can translate immediately. There are so many digital actors and there is so much short content happening, which is also the future. Start where you can and don’t wait.
Anusha Dutta: I’m from a background of being a writer-director for documentary films. When I’m trying to develop something of my own, how do I potentially scale my project? I keep wondering at what stage I will be able to approach a producer to ask for a certain amount of money.
Guneet Monga: Write an amazing pitch. Pitches are something that we have to do at our own end, we do it at our level. Being in the film industry also involves a bit of entrepreneurship. Write pitches, be as advanced as you can – whatever you can do – and reach out to producers. Now there are buyers in the market for docs.
Also, know what kind of docs people want. There are so many: Verite, wildlife, interview, archive. There’s such good work happening in India and around the world. So, either work with a team that is doing a lot or know what the world wants. Inform yourself. Don’t work in isolation. Build a peer group around yourself – that’s very important for growth to happen and so that you don’t feel like, ‘Oh, my God! I’m under the burden of my own ideas and working in isolation for so long.’ It’s important to work with a team, to know that team, to see where they are going, what they are looking for.
Aliza at Sikhya heads everything non-fiction. You can reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org, book a call, share your ideas, see what it is that the company is looking for – inform yourself with that – see where you need to improve your craft and what it is that you need to know.
To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session of Guneet Monga in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.
For more information about the Dial M For Films series click here.
P.S: The Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) conducts Dial M For Films, an online knowledge series, free of cost because we believe in fair and equal access to the insight and experience of talent from the world of cinema for all. If you find these sessions of value and would like to quote from them or distribute them further as study material, we request that you give MAMI and Dial M For Films credit while doing so.
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