Smriti Kiran: Every journey is unique with its own struggles and triumphs. Producer and director Siddharth P. Malhotra comes from an illustrious and affluent background. He’s a third-generation film family successor. His grandparents are veteran actors Prem Nath Malhotra and Bina Rai. His grandfather’s sister, Krishna Raj Kapoor, was married to Raj Kapoor; and his younger sister, Uma Chopra, was married to Prem Chopra. Siddharth’s father, Prem Kishan, is also an actor. He founded one of the most successful film and television production houses, Cinevistaas Limited, in 1993. They produced iconic shows like Katha Sagar, Junoon, Gul Gulshan Gulfaam, Sanjivani and Dill Mill Gayye amongst many.
Siddharth joined Cinevistaas when he was 16 years old. His first show as a producer was Class Nine, written by Abbas Tyrewala and directed by Vijay Krishna Acharya. His first stint as assistant director was with director Ravi Ojha on a show called Saboot. He assisted Vidhu Vinod Chopra on Kareeb in 1997. He trained in classical music from 1992-1999. He came out with a music album, Dhun, under the pseudonym Prem that was released by Universal Music in 2000. He dabbled in acting with Nadira Babbar’s theatre group, Ekjute.
Siddharth soon realised that he was doing too many things. He parked everything and prioritized his desire to tell stories. His focus became producing and directing shows. He assisted Karan Johar and Nikkhil Advani on Kal Ho Na Ho in 2002, and Sooraj Barjatya on Vivah in 2005. He went on to produce over 40 television shows. His first film as director, We Are Family, came out in 2010.
He broke away from Cinevistaas in 2016 and formed his own production company, Alchemy Films, with his wife Sapna Malhotra. His second film, Hichki, released in 2018. Alchemy’s first film production, Renuka Shahane’s Tribhanga, co-produced by Ajay Devgn, released on Netflix to rave reviews.
Siddharth, you actually went to Karan Johar with a different script to direct. It was a romantic comedy with marriage at the core of it. But that film never got made. Instead, Karan offered you the opportunity to make the official remake of Hollywood blockbuster, Stepmom. We Are Family was mounted on a dream canvas, big stars like Kajol, Kareena Kapoor Khan and Arjun Rampal were signed on for it, Dharma produced the film, but the film didn’t work. What were the first few weeks post-release like?
Siddharth P. Malhotra: Your first film is your baby. You’ll always love it whether it works or doesn’t. Specifically, if it doesn’t work, you love it more. You will introspect.
It was a dream debut. Karan had given me everything. As a mentor, he’d given me a platform, he’d let me make the film. Everybody in trials was loving the film. So, we were in full gusto, ‘Yaar, ye film toh chalne hi wali hai. Everybody’s really loving it. You can’t go wrong with this.’ And there comes our film and there comes Dabangg in the same week. Dabangg smashes us.
“When you’re written off as an insider and when you start getting the bitter feeling of an outsider, that’s when you respect that outsider and you realise that this is a very humbling industry.”
Anyway, if the film would have been widely accepted, it would have stood on its own. So, the first thing is acceptance of the fact that it’s not been accepted. For a filmmaker, you first go into denial mode. You read every review as if they are tearing you apart, and you feel that it’s all personal grudges and vendettas that everybody has against you when they don’t – they are just doing their job. But at that point in time, you’re touchy about every little thing, every little comment.
So, the first thing is acceptance of the fact that it didn’t work. Then, you go back and realise why it didn’t work. That is another process, where you start dissecting and realising what went wrong. That film helped me in many ways to also find myself.
Karan means a lot to me. He’s a mentor. I really thought that I would live it up, that I would deliver. Punit (Malhotra) had just delivered I Hate Luv Storys. It was a big hit. I was expecting this to be my turn to give him a big hit. He has always treated us as equals. He’s given us that kind of liberty. What I regret till date is that I’d let him down. I’ve told him and Kajol this time and time again. But they don’t agree. But in my heart, I’ll always feel that I owe them a big one. They have stood by me.
The first weeks went like this: failure, then bitterness, then the acceptance of failure, and then learning from the failure and knowing if you want to come back and be in this line. I was already a successful producer on television. So, the first thing I did after We Are Family not working was, I went and wrote Ek Hazaaron Mein Meri Behna Hai, which was a landmark, runaway success as a TV show. It launched Nia Sharma, Krystle D’Souza, Karan Tacker, Kushal Tandon. It was a big hit. But somewhere within that your failure as a director is constantly reflected back at you, specifically when you come from a privileged background, when you come from things which come easy to you, which don’t come easy to the world.
It’s not easy to make a film. I can tell you that today after my seven years of struggle to make Hichki. When you’re written off as an insider and when you start getting the bitter feeling of an outsider, that’s when you respect that outsider and you realise that this is a very humbling industry, where a Friday will tell you if people are calling you back or they’re going to tell you ta-ta-bye-bye. I literally had three people supporting me. Everybody else had said bye and written me off.
Smriti Kiran: Siddharth, once the dust settles, you’re on your own and you need to figure it out. What are the first things that you did?
Siddharth P. Malhotra: The only thing I do is, I script every day. I read every day. Karan sat me down and told me, ‘Look, it hasn’t worked, and whatever we agreed or disagreed on in terms of editing is done.’ I also realised that as a director you’ve got to stay your ground. At the end of the day, it is your name. If you’re agreeing to suggestions of anybody, any technician, any actor, any person, it is your name. If you’ve agreed to it, then you’ve got to be ready to face it all.
Karan told me to script again. I started scripting. I must have written eight-ten films. I was like, ‘Karan, let’s make another film.’ It was a desperation to make another film and come back without realising who I was as a filmmaker. I have grown up seeing Raj Kapoor in my family. My grandfather’s a legend in his own right; my grandmother’s a legend in her own right. My father’s guru is Vijay Anand. I’ve seen them; I’ve grown up with them. I had to first realise that if I wanted to be a filmmaker, I needed to find my own voice. I needed to find what a Siddharth P. Malhotra film is. When I say this is a Sanjay Bhansali film or a Sooraj Barjatya film, what is my style? What is my stamp? Am I a me-too of a Karan? Am I a me-too of a Sooraj? Am I a me-too of an Adi (Chopra)? What am I? What is my strength? What is my weakness? So, let me find that out.
In that journey, because I was trying to tell too much, I calmed down, and at one point in time, my younger uncle, Raaj Mehta, gave me the idea of Front of the Class, which was a book by Brad Cohen. He’d loved We Are Family. I read the book, and we got the writers of Balak Palak, Ganesh (Pandit) and Ambar (Hadap).
“I was happy being a producer. But if I wanted to be a filmmaker, I wanted to also reaffirm the faith in myself that there is a storyteller within.”
Then began the journey to write it, and that became my obsession because I realised that Hichki was my voice. That was the film I wanted to tell. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to tell it; nobody believed in it. Everybody said, ‘Iski last film chali nahi, now he’s going to make a film about a teacher with Tourette’s syndrome, who’s going to turn a class, and he wants to cast basti kids over there. He wants to make it like an indie film. Well, he should make a commercial blockbuster because he needs commercial success.’ Every time they told me, I went back to a new script and I came back here. Karan had told me one thing, ‘Even if I don’t believe in your film, even if nobody believes in your film, find the film that you want to make.’
So, there came a point where Hichki became my voice, and I said, ‘Okay, this is the film I want to make. Somebody’s got to make it. If somebody’s not going to make it, I’ll continue with the journey, and I’ll do my television. But I’m not making a film anymore which is not me because if I don’t deliver in this film, I will not direct again.’
It was more for me. It was the fire within me, to prove to me, otherwise, I could have been a producer, I was happy being a producer. But if I wanted to be a filmmaker, I wanted to also reaffirm the faith in myself that there is a storyteller within. I also wanted to reaffirm the faith within so many people who banked on me that they didn’t bank on a phoney. They banked on someone who was talented, but whose decisions earlier on were not. Hichki gave me the lease of life to come back and empower other people to tell more stories.
Smriti Kiran: Why were you manically fixated for a second chance at direction, and did the desperation come in the way?
Siddharth P. Malhotra: There was a desperation to make a comeback without knowing what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it. There was a desperation to deliver a hit, but deliver a hit for what? What is the film you want to make? Why do you want to make it?
I have always been fascinated by this line from the age of two-three. Papa’s always played these tapes of mine where I’ve said, ‘Main hero ban na chahta hoon. Mujhe filmein karni hai.’ If I’ve always been fascinated by this line, why are you fascinated by this line? This line actually takes you to a world to tell stories. I have only been saying stories which have been told. I wanted to tell stories. I knew as a television producer I was telling stories. As a filmmaker, there was something within me, which needed to come out in the right way, and I had not explored fully – I had not given my best shot. I needed to give my best shot. And for that, I needed to understand who I was. And find that one subject that drives me and tells me, ‘Tujhe ye hi picture karni hai. Ye hi teri awaaz hai.’
“When you’re not a successful director, everybody wants to come up with a fix. Everybody wants to come up with a solution.”
Hichki really tested me. That picture tested me for seven years. Nobody – from the biggest star to the smallest star; the biggest producer to the smallest producer – was interested. I have narrated it with the tics, with the Tourette’s. I went to seven writers. Seven writers are credited in my film. I had become a man on a mission. I was just not willing to give up. I was getting calls at 2:30 in the morning from people saying, ‘Why Tourette’s? Take Tourette’s out. You’re screwing it up.’ I had some people telling me, ‘You’re a mad man. How can you make a film about a mad teacher? You need commercial success.’ Some people told me, ‘These basti kids? This kind of film will not work.’
Everybody wanted to direct my film. When you’re not a successful director, they are the successful directors, who tell you, ‘Beta, hum tum ko direction sikhayenge. Tumhara subject acha hai, thik lag raha hai, now we’ll tell you how to fix it.’ They won’t accept it for what it is, but they’ll want to fix. Everybody wants to come up with a fix. Everybody wants to come up with a solution.
I went to every possible actor in the film industry that the audience watching can think of. I went and narrated this film to them. It was Ayushmann (Khurrana) who actually got me to Yash Raj. That was the only studio I didn’t go to. I told my wife, ‘Yeah, yeah, Adi Chopra would be waiting for me, na? He’s just the head of the biggest studio in the country.’ She said, ‘At least go to him. He’ll like the film.’ I was like, ‘Are you mad? People have written me off.’
My so-called friends in the industry were calling me, messaging me, and saying, ‘You know, it was good while it lasted. We were friends, then. We should enjoy it when we look back on that journey. But now don’t message me.’ Another actor told me, ‘I’ve made enough first-time filmmakers’ lives. Tu kuch ban ke aa, and then offer me a script.’ These were people I knew! These were people I was moving in and out with, and they were not even giving me a hearing. They were not willing to look at me because the minute you’re out of Dharma, you’re not an A-list director anymore. Even if you’re a flop director at Dharma, you’re still an A-list director, because you’ve got Karan Johar. But when Karan has said, ‘No, I don’t believe in making this film. You go ahead and make this film you want to make. I don’t believe in producing Hichki’, then I was on my own. I had to make my own film. That name carries a lot of weightage and credibility, there’s a comfort that an Adi or Karan gives you which the world doesn’t give you.
So, all so-called friends of mine wrote me off. Kajol was the only actor friend in the industry who stood by me, and Sooraj ji, who is like a father to me, has been a support in my life. Without him, I wouldn’t be alive. I’m saying that literally because I did attempt to end my life. I went through some really, really serious shit at that point in time because I was crying and I was depressed, and I was saying, ‘Why isn’t anybody believing in me and not willing to understand that this is how bitter the industry is?’ This is how things are over here. People judge you by the success of your last film.
Smriti Kiran: It really baffles me. It also makes me extremely sad that someone who comes from a position of privilege, who’s a successful producer, and someone who does have many doors open, some shut, can attempt something so sad. How does somebody like you get to that point?
Siddharth P. Malhotra: It was not that doors weren’t open. TV doors were open but you want to be a filmmaker. I’m a loyalist as a friend, I’m a loyalist as a family man. I’m just there for people. I love them, and I’m there for them no matter what. If I’ve had a relationship with you, and I’ve hurt you by mistake, I’m not going to sleep till you forgive me. Wrong or not wrong, I need it to be okay. At that point in time, no doors were open. As a filmmaker, every door was shut. There were actors and actresses who were writing me off left, right and centre. There were studios who were writing me off. So, I was like, ‘Maybe, I’m not a director. Maybe, I’m just a privileged kid, and I don’t deserve to be here. Maybe, I’ve let down my father, I’ve let down my mother, I’ve let down Sooraj ji, I’ve let down Karan. What am I doing? There are so many people out there whom I’ve seen struggle.’
When you make such foolish decisions, it’s that one moment. It’s never a planned decision. It’s a moment of complete surrender and weakness. At that point in time, you’re foolish. You’ve not thought of it. And then you go ahead and do something foolish. Then you realise that you did it, you did it over again, and then you realise, ‘No, I have kids. I have a great life. I have things to be thankful for.’ This is something you can’t justify. Whatever I’d done, I’ll never be able to justify it.
My wife went through some really tough times – seeing my struggle, seeing me cry every day. I called my uncle one day and said, ‘Are we doing the right thing or the wrong thing? I hope I’m not letting people down.’ You start feeling like you’re a failure. The rejection starts bogging you down even more. That’s what happened on my first day of Hichki.
“It’s never a planned decision. It’s a moment of complete surrender and weakness.”
On April 4th, I was supposed to shoot for one day and see if everything is gelling. I couldn’t sleep that full night. All those rejections came and engulfed me that night, and I wrote a mail to my ADs saying, ‘Thank you, you guys are great. Thank you for your vision.’ I wrote an email to Maneesh Sharma saying, ‘You’ve given me such a great break. But maybe I can’t deliver. I don’t have it in me. You go ahead and shoot it. I’m sorry.’ You start feeling like, ‘Can I do this? It’s happened, finally. You’ve been waiting for it for six years. Will this happen or not?’ Luckily, the wire of my MacBook was loose, and the tape I had used was gone.
The mail didn’t go. Then, Sooraj Barjatya called at 5:45 in the morning, when I was travelling. He knew that I was shooting. I hadn’t spoken to him in a month. He said, ‘I know you’re nervous. I know a lot of things will be on your head.’ Out of nowhere, he’d messaged me this. I was like, ‘How at 5:45 is Sooraj ji messaging me?’ I had tears in my eyes. I was crying. And my ADs were asking me, ‘Are you okay?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m okay. All good. It’s just that I’m nervous.’ I reached the shoot at Xavier’s, and I heard songs from Maine Pyar Kiya playing, and I sent a voice note to Sooraj ji saying, ‘Sir, your songs are playing. Ab toh main ye film jee-jaan se banaunga. I’m not going back. Now I’m going to live up to every single expectation. I’m going to kick ass on this film.’ That’s what we did. After that, there was not a single day we didn’t enjoy every single moment spent on Hichki. But before that, it was a nightmare.
Smriti Kiran: Post-We Are Family, did you feel that things would have been different if you hadn’t said yes to some of the suggestions given by people? If yes, how do you keep the channels of communication open? How do you keep your mind receptive when that receptiveness you feel might have harmed your product?
Siddharth P. Malhotra: In the first film, I was looking up to Karan and making a Karan Johar film. I was trying to make a film of a filmmaker who was already there. I was in admiration and adulation of Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar and Sooraj ji. But I didn’t know myself. So, the only mantra to that is, first know your film, know the philosophy, your story, your characters, know why you’re telling this film. Why do you want to tell this story versus all the other stories in the world, and what is the objective of the story and what is the motivation of every character in that story? Know it in and out. Live it, sleep it. Then, if people come in with suggestions, you’ll know if it’s within that world of the film you want to see. But this will only happen when you have found yourself. That seven years helped me find myself, helped me understand myself, helped me understand empowering people. I would have not been empowering so many people – Sonam Nair in Kaafir, Renuka in Tribhanga, Rensil (D’Silva) with whom I’m doing a film right now called Dial 100. I would have not been in that position had Hichki not done well and had I not found what my strengths were, what my weaknesses were and what works for me. So, you must listen to everybody, but you must, as director and captain of the ship, know what your film is about, what your story is about.
In Hichki, we got a climax suggestion from our sound designer, Pritam. He pointed out that this was wrong, and we were mid-shoot. Then I was like, ‘You’re right.’ We called Adi and Maneesh and we said, ‘This we’d not seen, and we are making this fix.’ So, anything can come from anywhere. Even a spot boy can give you a great suggestion, which can turn your film. Filmmaking is teamwork. It is one person’s vision, but there are hundreds and thousands of people working towards that vision. Don’t make it your film only. Make every single person hear the script. Make every single person feel that this is not Siddharth’s film, but this is my film that I’m working on. I have an equal right to go to Siddharth and say, ‘This needs to be corrected.’ Of course, I’ll take a call. That director’s chair is there for me to take that call. It’s taught me to be receptive to everybody, and make everybody that free to come to me, because any suggestion can come from anywhere and it can empower them and make your film great. As far as you know what you’re doing. That’s what it boils down to: know your material well.
In We Are Family, I didn’t know that and I’m accepting it. There I was looking after people and saying, ‘Okay, if you think this is right, this is right. You’re more empowered than me.’ That’s why I say I let them down. If I’d made We Are Family today, I would have definitely made a film with a lot of thehrav.
“You must listen to everybody, but you must, as director and captain of the ship, know what your film is about, what your story is about.”
By the way, till date, I go to the We Are Family hashtag on Twitter and see if comments are coming. And they are! It just makes you feel that something was right in the film. A lot of things were wrong, but the heart was in its place. We had a blast making the film. Also, the memories of making the film are something you take back. My memories of We Are Family are always going to be happy. They are never going to be bitter. The failure was bitter. Every single person who worked on the film till today has a smile while remembering the filming. May it be Kareena (Kapoor Khan), may it be Arjun (Rampal), may it be my ADs – they are all one team.
The memories you make on a set will stay behind. You’ll turn back and say, ‘Maza aaya na shoot mein?’ That is a lot of fun. That is what you take back with you. In this film industry, it’s the relationships that count. It’s the relationships that you make. A film may do well or not well for various reasons. That’s not in your hand. What’s in your hand is that you’ve given your best. That’s the only thing you can do.
Smriti Kiran: When you were going to shoot Hichki and were setting it up, once Yash Raj came on board, what are the things that you did differently? What are the changes that you brought about in your process when you were approaching Hichki as opposed to We Are Family?
Siddharth P. Malhotra: It was Ayushmann Khurrana who first brought me to Adi. When we narrated the film, Adi Chopra was the only and only filmmaker who said, ‘I’ve not seen your first film, but the way you’ve narrated this film, you’ll make a very good film. Don’t change a word.’ These were music to my ears after seven years, when just one person told me to not change a word, whereas every single person until then wanted to change my film. Here was one filmmaker who said, ‘Whatever you’ve put together, and the way you’ve narrated you’ve shown me the film.’ I was literally in tears. I was like, ‘Sapna, you’re right. He liked it. He was the only person who liked it.’ But he was doing Befikre at that point in time. He said, ‘I can’t immediately produce it. Narrate it to Maneesh.’ So I went and narrated it to Maneesh and he said, ‘Badhiya hai.’ I said, ‘Okay, great.’ He said, ‘Jam karte hai thoda.’ I said, ‘Thik hai, karte hai.’ The minute Maneesh came on board, he told me, ‘Let’s turn the protagonist into a female.’
Smriti Kiran: For the longest time, Hichki was supposed to be a male protagonist, and then you changed it to a female protagonist, which changes a lot of things.
Siddharth P. Malhotra: Actually, it does and it doesn’t. In my screenplay, I just did a find and replace. I just replaced ki and ka, but my screenplay was the same. I wanted to make a film that I wanted to make. I didn’t want to change it just because with gender everything changes. I didn’t change much in the film. Maneesh and Afsar Zaidi, who heads Exceed Entertainment, was also telling me for a long time, ‘Female kar do.’ But I said, ‘Nahi. Female nahi karunga.’ That was destiny. We turned it into a female character. Once Maneesh came on board, he brought his own sensibilities – very different sensibilities from others, and as a filmmaker in his own right. Maneesh saw the way I was looking at the film. I jammed with him, tried to understand how he was looking at things, and then we crewed up in a way which was against my comfort zone.
Smriti Kiran: Why were you so averse to making it a female story?
Siddharth P. Malhotra: Because it was always a male character. For seven years, when you’re narrating it as a male story and you’ve finally gotten Ayushmann, you’re correct to wonder that when Aamir Khan had already done Taare Zameen Par, and it was a film where a teacher changes a student’s life, the only exception here was a teacher who changes a full class’s life, so Maneesh said, ‘You can’t beat Aamir Khan. You can’t up him. You make it a female and you will get nuances that you’re thinking in your head and get them way more.’ With Rani, everything just fell into place. It was the universe conspiring to get things in the right direction when they started falling into place. I was a person who used to think, ‘Why the hell is everything going wrong? Why is this happening to me?’ But now if something wrong happens to me, I say, ‘There’s a reason.’ If something drops right now, I’ll say that there’s a reason, that there’s something better. Now my attitude has become that something better is waiting for me. That wouldn’t have been the case if Hichki wouldn’t have done well. But with that, a lot of confidence, patience and calmness has come.
“I’ve realised the importance of crewing up. Half the battle won is getting the right casting, and the other half is getting the right people supporting you to tell that film.”
I wanted Avinash Arun. I’d loved Masaan and Killa. He was doing a film with Vidhu Vinod Chopra, whom I’ve assisted in Kareeb. But he was not available because he was doing Shikara. But I met and vibed with him like we were a house on fire. If I were to call somebody a soul mate, that guy would be it. He and I are very alike. I had to call Vinod Chopra and say, ‘Vinod sir, main bana raha hoon apni film wapas. Pehli baar toh gadbad ho gayi, ab dusri baar…’ And he said, ‘Tu kar le. Ja tu Avinash ko lele. Main baad mein dekh lunga.’ I said, ‘Thank you, sir.’ Then I called Avinash and said, ‘Woh sort out ho gaya, ab tum aa jao.’ So, Avinash came on board. Pritam Das, I’d worked with; Maneesh came on board; Varsha (Chandanani), Shilpa (Makhija), the costume designers, they’d worked with Maneesh, and so came on board; Meenal (Agarwal), too. Everybody had a different mindset. Anckur Chaudhry was the dialogue writer on the film. He takes forever to write a dialogue draft. He took one year after I signed him. He does brilliant work, including additional screenplay. He can test your patience, but eventually what comes out of him is… wow!
Smriti Kiran: These weren’t people you’d worked with before. Even your editor was new if I’m not mistaken.
Siddharth P. Malhotra: Shweta Venkat (Mathew) is my permanent, compulsory blind. I’ll never work without her in any film after this. Even she knows that I’m not giving her an option. I’d rather adjust my film for her. In Hichki, whenever I’d be like, ‘Shweta, am I fine?’ She’d just say, ‘Sid, you need to take these extra shots, where you need to do this.’ She’s actually turned around a few sequences in the film, which I never thought could be perceived or put out in the way she did. That’s what a brilliant editor does. She takes the soul of the film and then she gives you something and lifts it up. Shweta did that in Hichki. She did that in so many sequences. I was like, ‘Wait. I didn’t see this coming in this order.’ She’d just say, ‘See, it’ll work better,’ and it did. In Hichki, between her cut and my cut, we had five days. That’s it. In literally five days, our cut was over. That’s the comfort I have with her.
I’d not worked with a first AD culture before. Nitin, at that point, was an associate. We never knew that the first AD is supposed to call action and the director is supposed to call cut. We worked old-school style. We say, ‘Start sound. Roll camera. And action’, then we say cut. We do everything together. It’s not compartmentalised.
My entire team empowered me to tell the story the way I wanted to tell it. And I made it their film. I’ve realised the importance of crewing up. Half the battle won is getting the right casting, and the other half is getting the right people supporting you to tell that film, who understand your vision and then enhance your vision to take it to another level, and also have the independent voice to come and tell you, ‘Maybe it can get better.’ So, you’re empowering all of them, and in that way, also empowering yourself.
Smriti Kiran: Do you have anything that you would like to say to people who are insiders? Do you think that there are blind spots and there are things that are taken for granted by people like you that are not taken for granted by people who don’t have all of this at hand? Do you think that there are things that can change?
Siddharth P. Malhotra: Given the landscape of cinema today and with OTT, it’s getting tougher to get an audience into a theatre. Any and every insider cannot take the smallest work for granted. You will not be allowed to survive in this line. And that’s the golden rule. If I could tell any insider or outsider one thing, I’d say that if you’re doing any work, even if it’s sweeping the floor, don’t take the job for granted. Your job is not going to be secure if you’re not giving a hundred per cent and your best. Gone are the days where you could say, ‘Ye ho jayega,’ ‘Ye chal jayega.’ ‘Ye pass ho jayega.’ There are no setups that work; no formulas that work. At the end of the day what works is a good film. Honesty works. And if that honesty is not there and that sincerity is not there, you’re not going to get your next job. You’re just not going to get it. I’m saying it out of bitter experience and happy experience.
I’ve been an insider, I’ve been an outsider. And then I’ve got those privileges back again. So, I know what an outsider feels. And I also know what an outsider feels economically because I went through such an economic downfall. I’m not saying that my economic downfall would be equivalent to others, but mine was very bad. My wife and I went through some shit times to start Alchemy on our own. She had to leave her fashion designing. She didn’t know anything about production. She became a producer. We’ve gone through our own struggle in these seven years. Not only the failure of We Are Family, but also the failure of a lot of things have helped me realise to not take anything for granted.
If you’re empowering someone, then you’ve got to empower them through and through – you can’t leave them midway. Otherwise, don’t be in this line. There are other lines where you can make enough money. If you want to tell something, if you’re ambitious to leave a mark, learn and earn repute – paise toh aa jayenge, repute nahi aayega; that is only earned – you really need to be sincere. There’s no other option. I’ve learned a lot from Adi.
Smriti Kiran: Siddharth, did you see changes in yourself as a producer post-We Are Family?
Siddharth P. Malhotra: Post-We Are Family, to a certain extent; post-Hichki, in a big way. Post-We Are Family, I was still producing television. I was empowering people. But TV is a very different mindset.
I have done television successfully. I’ve done OTT successfully and now I have done film successfully. But television is another animal. It’s like running a newspaper. You’re shooting an episode a day. You’re delivering tomorrow. Sometimes, actors fall sick; sometimes you want to change your track, which you thought about two months in advance that this was how your story was going to be, but your channel says, ‘No, this is not working.’ You have to listen to your channel. It’s a number game. So, it’s a different mathematical equation. It has to be in a budget because those budgets are there. You’ve got to make your money. You’ve got to ensure that people are working 12-13 hours every day nonstop.
“When you get success, you get a lot of calm, and you also get back a certain sense of power. You pay it forward by empowering new filmmakers.”
The only thing I’ve never done in television was saas-bahu shows because I could never do it. The kind of shows I’ve done – Dil Mil Gaye, Sanjivani, Ek Haseena Thi, Ek Hazaaron Mein Meri Behna Hai – are all emotionally rich, even if they are thrillers. So, I’ve always been successful in doing younger shows, cooler shows, but very strong in heart and soul. That’s been my strength.
That’s been my strength even in my films that I’m doing now. I just get attracted to films about complex human relationships. That’s why I got attracted to Tribhanga. It was about complex human relationships. That’s why I got attracted to Kaafir. It was a triumph of the human spirit. Kaafir and Hichki were the only two stories I wanted to tell. Kaafir was a feature film. After Saurabh Narang died and Bhavani Iyer gave me that script, I just wanted to tell that story as a filmmaker. I was going and they were saying, ‘Nahi yaar, ye toh Pakistani ki kahani hai.’ I said, ‘Ye triumph of the human spirit hai. Ye koi Pakistan-Hindustan wala film nahi hai. It’s about what two governments and individuals go through.’ Luckily, after Hichki, Tarun Katial, who was there right from Star Plus, who gave me Sanjivani, my first television show, heard Kaafir. He heard four lines and said, ‘Do it.’ Bhavani and I worked on it along with the entire Zee5 team. Dia (Mirza), who was our life and soul, came on board.
There was an actress in Hichki, who didn’t have the confidence in me as a director but who loved the film and so wanted to produce it. And Adi said, ‘I believe in my director.’ So, it all boils down to the same thing. Today when an actor comes and tells me, ‘You’ll be there, na?’ The first thing I say is, ‘I’ll be there, but I won’t be on set. This is my director’s vision. You’ve got to come only if you come for my director, or else don’t come.’
When you get success, you get a lot of calm, and you also get back a certain sense of power. Alchemy was my baby. I was not reporting to papa; I was not reporting to anybody. I was doing the stuff I wanted to make, and I was doing it on my terms. We’re going to produce two films every year. Every day, I read a script. I want to empower new filmmakers because I feel that there are thousands of filmmakers who are so talented, who are not getting an opportunity. I have the opportunity to cast. I have an opportunity to pick up the phone again today to call an actor and get that appointment with them. They have the confidence that I can deliver as a producer and a director.
You pay it forward and it really helps back in a big way. I’m very, very proud of all the stuff I’ve done in the last few years. The stories that I’m telling are really lovely, and I’m happy about what’s coming up.
Smriti Kiran: Thank you for enabling Renuka, who’s such a brilliant actor and artist, and such a voice of reason in these trying times. More power to you for making sure that she got to direct her first film, Tribhanga.
Siddharth P. Malhotra: It’s my honour. Because of my journey and things that have happened to me, enabling has literally become a mission. The story of Tribhanga happening is also pretty interesting. Renuka was trying to get it produced for the last six years. I met her at a trial of Bucket List. She’d worked with my father in Ghutan and Junoon. She told me she was looking for a producer, and I said, ‘Kal office aa jao, suna do picture. I’m looking to produce something.’
I was crying when I heard it. She’d originally envisioned it as a small Marathi film. But I said, ‘This cannot be anybody else but Kajol. We have to do this film,’ and so her dream became my mission. Only she and I know the ups and downs that we’ve gone through to try and get this made. I’m so glad people are loving her work because she deserves all of it.
Smriti Kiran: Siddharth, very proud of you and very proud of the fact that you didn’t give up. You had some really dark times post-We Are Family, but the experience only enriched you – not only as a creator but also as an enabler. I guess, when we go through something terrible in our life, the only way we can control the narrative is to become the people that we needed at that point.
Siddharth P. Malhotra: Yeah, absolutely. Because you know the pain, they don’t. You’ve gone through the pain. It’s important to empower. There are way more people talented than you. It’s my greed, too. I’m not saying that I’m most selfless. My selfishness is in learning from them. They are teaching me. They are making me a better filmmaker. When I’m interacting with them, I’m empowering them and myself. They are teaching me a bit or two every time we make that film, go through that film, I will realise, ‘Oh, I never saw things that way.’ So, I’m becoming a better storyteller, thanks to them. And their dreams are coming out and coming through. I’m empowering that. In that, I’m empowering myself. So it’s a win-win for all of us.
Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on YouTube
Siddharth Menon: You said that one needs to find their voice while directing their film. How does that change when they are producing a film? Does there need to be a marriage between the voices of the producer and director?
Siddharth P. Malhotra: When the writer or the filmmaker narrates the story to you, see if they can show you the story. When Renuka narrated Tribhanga to me, she showed me the film. I had not seen Rita. I didn’t even know she had done a film before. She narrated the film and showed me the full film. I was crying by the end of it, and I said, ‘I have to do it.’ Or Kaafir, for that matter. As long as the story connects with you. I know Bhavani. She’s a friend of mine. When I read it, every page spoke to me. I saw the film.
The kinds of films that appeal to me are human relationship films – it may be love stories, father-son stories, thriller or horror. What I search for is the strength of the soul of the film, and whether it connects with me; whether I can empower this person and work with them. Once that’s done, I jam with that person for a couple of sessions. Once I see their vision, we jump into it full-fledged.
I actually don’t take too much time. I’m very instinctive. If I like somebody, or if somebody is coming to me, I always go with the faith that they are coming to make their film. They’re coming to do their best. If I’m empowering them, they’re not going to cross me over; and they’d also listen to me if I have a fair point to give them. That’s what’s been the case till now. I’ve not had a difference of opinion with anybody so far.
Gaurav Patki: How do you interpret what’s written on the page while adapting it on screen, especially when you’re working with numerous writers, all of whom bring their own vision and points of view? How do you ensure that their voices and your vision coalesce on screen in a manner which you find befitting?
Siddharth P. Malhotra: You have your voice as a writer and filmmaker and you’ve seen the story in your way in your world. The first thing I do is, see the story from your point of view – see the story how you’re seeing it, and become the audience first because there I’m the producer and not the director; there I’m watching the story as you’re narrating or making me read it from the point of view of the world that you’re creating. If I can’t understand the world, then I will call you and ask you, ‘How are you looking at it?’ ‘What is the syntax?’ ‘Where are you placing it?’ ‘Is there a film reference?’ and you will explain it to me.
If the basic soul of the story appeals to me, and I say, ‘Yaar, this is a story which has to be told,’ and I get greedy about wanting to be a part of this story no matter what, then I’ll say, ‘Listen, I’m coming on board. These are the suggestions I have. Do you agree with them or not?’ Now those would be suggestions that you’d either agree or disagree with. Either way, if I still want to tell the story, it doesn’t mean that those suggestions have to be honoured. If there is a synergy in the way we are gelling and talking over it, then I know that you know your material in and out. It’s anyway a story that I liked in the first go. Why did I like it? If I liked it for some reason, then let’s try and make this work. That’s exactly how I approach any writer or director’s work.
Ria Sanghvi: What was the one thing that made you hang in there?
Siddharth P. Malhotra: The want to tell stories. If you want to be in this line, then you must want to tell stories no matter what. You must love it more than anything else in the world; otherwise don’t be in this line. Be ready for heartbreak. No matter how successful you are, heartbreak will come. Don’t expect it to be a smooth journey. It will come your way. But I would say that if you want to be in this line as an actor, as a director or storyteller, you have to love what you do and not want to do anything else besides that. That’s the only way you can be in this.
Jaldeep Tiple: How would you suggest an outsider pitch their film to the right people?
Siddharth P. Malhotra: : If you have a wonderful script that you believe in, then you go with it. Dharma has Somen (Mishra) who reads scripts. In Alchemy, I read scripts. In Yash Raj, they have a department that reads scripts. All of these companies have launched first-time directors. So, the only way to go about is your work.
I know access is not that easy, and that may be your issue, but eventually, more and more people are opening and they have specific divisions that read scripts. So, get in touch with the production company that you want to first target, or at least four companies so that your chances increase, then hope that they like your script because people will read. I know people are reading. At least I’m reading stuff from a lot of newcomers.
I was a newcomer to Maneesh and Adi. Neither of them had seen We Are Family. They are doing Jayeshbhai Jordaar now, which is helmed by a new director, Divyang Thakkar. They’ve done many other films with newcomers.
Similarly, if you’re a newcomer, come with something that blows a producer or a creator off, who says, ‘Boss, mujhe ye script chahiye.’ Then, I’ll fix another meeting with you and figure out a way to make it work. If I’ve not seen your directorial work, I’ll spend money, do a test shoot with you and some actors and see what you can do in one scene. If you can deliver, we’ll move ahead.
Sheenam Bhalla: As a producer, how involved are you with the fine-tuning of a script which is ready?
Siddharth P. Malhotra: After Renuka narrated the script of Tribhanga to me, I was involved from casting it to being on the shoot to the edit to the background music to sitting with her on the script wherever she needed a bouncing board. The vision is hers – that you cannot take away from her. As a creative producer, one has to be very clear that you’re not a director. The director is the captain of the ship. You have to empower the director with certain sensibilities you have with which the director would agree or disagree. You have to be one team.
I was Renuka’s left-hand-right-hand person. I was the backup for her, but she was the vision. I had to empower her vision. I knew that she was brilliant, I knew she’d make that beautiful a film, which she did. So, it’s also instinct.
As a creative producer, my formula is to be involved from the start to the end. Even in Dial 100, which I’ve done with Rensil. I was involved with it right from the writing to the final stages of editing and background music. You let them have their vision and their final cut, and you can only have opinions which they can either accept or reject.
Swaratmika Mishra: Did you want the protagonist in Hichki to be male because you wanted to break the stereotype and have a man portray a character with Tourette’s?
Siddharth P. Malhotra: No. Maybe it’s my psyche; maybe because women have been a very strong influence in my life – my mother, my sister, my grandmother – because of which I’ve always believed that women are stronger than men. All my television characters who are women have always had a voice of their own, and I’ve always been instrumental in creating those shows – from the concept to selling them. It rests with the story.
On Hichki, it was always a male. I knew and had interacted with Brad Cohen for seven years – the man who had Tourette’s syndrome and was a teacher. I knew his journey. But I was like, ‘He’s a man. How am I going to change it?’ When Maneesh gave that idea and we changed it, and what Rani brought to the table was invaluable. In hindsight, there couldn’t have been better casting.
Swati Sehgal: How was your experience making Hichki, and exploring the theme of schooling? What propelled you to take it up?
Siddharth P. Malhotra: The fact that it was the story of an underdog, of someone who was not getting a chance to teach because of an impediment called Tourette’s syndrome. It is also the triumph of the human spirit.
The philosophy behind the film is that all of us have our own ticks. But if you make your tick your best friend, in this case, Tourette’s your best friend, then life will become better. That philosophy is prevalent all over the world, and it’s genuine – that we all have our negatives and positives. This is something that Sooraj Barjatya taught me. This is a philosophy I live by. Understand the negative and focus on the positive.
I love Hichki because I was going through a phase of being an underdog in various ways at that point in time, where no one was letting me become a filmmaker like no one was letting Naina Mathur become a teacher. While she got a class of failures which she had to turn around, I got basti kids who had never acted before. I had to prove that there is something within me. With Hichki, I felt that I was telling my story. When I was going through it, the fire within was so intense that I felt it was the only story I wanted to tell, and nothing else.
Similarly, the film that I’m working on right now, there’s nothing else I can think of apart from that. That is the film I want to tell. I need to get it out of my system. I have been obsessed with that script for almost two years. Now, finally, I’m getting a chance to tell it. I don’t know if it’s risky or not risky, but it is a story that I want to tell.
Swati Chugh: How did Kaafir come about? Also, the marketing tactic for the show was unconventional – it involved the use of shayari extensively. How did you take that call?
Siddharth P. Malhotra: Hichki and Kaafir were two films that I wanted to direct, and nobody was letting me tell either. These were the only two films that I was stuck on.
Once Hichki did well, I asked Bhavani if we could turn Kaafir into a series. She said, ‘Let me write it out in eight episodes and see.’ She came back and said, ‘These are turning out beautifully.’ So, we wrote it out. Then we went to Tarun, head of Zee5 at that point, who in exactly four minutes said, ‘You’re going to do this story.’ When the universe conspires things to fall right, they fall right, and when they don’t happen, you try whatever you want but it just won’t happen. So, Kaafir just fell into my lap that way.
Then, I believed that Sonam Nair could direct it – she’d done Gippy. I knew her from Dharma, and I knew from my heart that she has a beautiful heart and she’d be able to deliver over here. The series had a woman producer, woman director, woman actor and a woman first AD. I was the only man on the job, and Mohit Raina. That’s how it happened.
The shayari was Zee5’s marketing genius. No credit to me there. They came up with the idea and we all loved it. They did a great job. The creative producer, Milind (Gadagkar), from their side was involved. Tarun was very much involved in the marketing. So, it was an entire team that came together – people from Zee5, from our side.
Avtansh Dubey: What does an actor or producer look for in a new filmmaker when they approach them with their story?
Siddharth P. Malhotra: They both look for separate things. An actor looks for what the script is. Do they see themselves in that role? Do they relate to that role? It doesn’t end there. Then, they’ll see if you’ve directed before. What have you directed before? Is your last film a flop or a hit? Will you be able to deliver? If you’re a new filmmaker, who’s backing you?
Today, just making a film as a new filmmaker is not enough. For an actor to be in such a competitive line, they need tick marks. A credible producer, a credible studio, who brings it out, a credible star cast, varna film release hi nahi hogi. It’s the toughest thing to make a film today. I’m giving you a very realistic picture, not a dreamy picture. Be ready to face these problems if you’re a new filmmaker approaching an actor without a strong producer. You’ll have to overcome them, but you’ll have to face them.
As a producer, I would look at the script, and see how clear they are about their vision. Can they deliver on that vision? What is the budget of the film? Can I deliver? Can I bring in actors who will trust me and trust that filmmaker? And if they’re a newcomer, I wouldn’t tell them to jump in as a director if they don’t know how to direct. Your crew is there to empower you, not to teach you. They are not there to open up a training school to teach you what to do and how to do it.
At the end of the day, it’s a business. You pay an entertainment tax. You must have mastery over your own voice and your own work before you even decide to become a filmmaker. You don’t have the right to become a filmmaker if you don’t know the F of filmmaking.
Today, there are so many opportunities. Every director takes new assistants. Go learn, do a film or two. Today, films are made in 50 days, 60 days. Gone are the days when films were made in two-three years. Do two-three films, come back, understand if you want to be in this line, because that experience will open your eyes in many ways. As an AD, mujhe thappad pade hai. I have gone through a full gamut. I worked on three films and then I went to university. You’ve got to go through the drill. I’m actually averse to the idea of taking up filmmaking without having worked on films beforehand.
As I say, you cannot take anything for granted. Don’t take your direction for granted. You must know your film, you must know what you want and how you want it. Then you let people come in with opinions. But if you don’t know your vision, don’t be here.
Harsh Agarwal: According to you, is it beneficial to go abroad to study and work, or is staying here and working in the industry better instead?
Siddharth P. Malhotra: I went to NYU. I did my course in filmmaking at Tisch there. Zoya (Akhtar) and I were in the same batch. A course will help you to a certain degree – like a Blake Snyder, or Syd Field, Robert McKee, any of these courses. It’ll tell you a formula to follow. You’ll understand the essential elements. But they are not going to tell you how to write your full screenplay. They are not going to exactly make you write your own screenplay. That you’ve got to do. It’s a very lonely process. You have your director coming on board, your producer, your actors and technicians, and the screenplay goes through draft after draft after draft. It’s very important for the writer to understand the soul of the story, and then stick to the soul before it changes.
Personally, I feel being here is better. It’ll help if you’re here because you won’t get the experience that you draw here, with the people working here, anywhere outside. My learning was way better on set here, with people here.
Also, it depends on the kind of filmmaker and the kind of screenwriter you are, the ethos that you hold, the people that you’re catering to, and the kind of stories you want to tell. My experience is, if you want to be in Bollywood, the more you interact with people around here, the better it is. The more you interact with people and brainstorm, in Bollywood especially, the better it will be. Share your script with them. Get some feedback from them. You’ll learn more, according to me – considering that people are forthcoming and are willing to sit down with you and tell you where what’s going wrong if you’re fortunate enough to get people to give that constructive criticism. And please register your script or idea before giving it out anywhere.
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