Shaan Vyas – a producer at Sikhya Entertainment (run by wunderkind Guneet Monga) – has been the invisible face behind some memorable Indian titles over the last few years. Starting with the remarkable Kshay, he has been a producer on Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan, and now Mozez Singh’s Zubaan, which opens the 20th International Busan Film Festival.
Here, he gives us an intriguing and rather impassioned look into the world of producing films, representing titles at prestigious film festivals, and – more importantly – an insight into his constantly ticking mind.
A lot of producers get in it for the money, or to work with big directors on large mainstream projects. But you’ve worked on medium to indie productions, with first-time directors, and you’re very well-informed about cinema.
A. It is about the people that you collaborate with, the stories that you want to tell or be a part of, and the years of memories associated with various films we’ve seen – all this drives us to do what we do. The moment I got into films, a certain bell in my brain started ringing incessantly. I got involved with my first film ‘Kshay’ properly at a very late stage. And when I saw what all the work had led to, it was unbelievable. The joy of seeing that final product at the sound mixing desk where that one final tweak is made and the project saved. And the walk home thereafter knowing that somewhere in history, this will have a little place, will connect with an audience no matter how big or small, and that you were a part of it. That thought makes me feel a little less insignificant and above all, that’s pretty much what drives not only me, but every passionate person in film industries worldwide.
It’s essentially the dirty job to do: manage egos, budgets, tempers and visions, on and off sets. Was there a particular point in your life where you thought, “This is my dream. It’s what I am born to do!”?
A. ‘Kshay’ was such a small affair that it was absolutely unlike standard line-production in the industry. I had absolutely no experience with film production, and the task was to not only make the film but also sell and release it. With my own ways and means, I somehow self-learnt the art and the commerce of the film business, made millions of mistakes along the way before eventually releasing the film. Along this time, we also World-premiered in Chicago and my first ever foreign trip turned out to be one for my film’s premiere. That made my parents really proud. I think all these signs just appeared out of the woodwork. It was during this time that I told myself this is all I want to do. It also helped that I just didn’t know better.
You produced Karan Gour’s ‘Kshay’, and pushed it relentlessly until people actually noticed how good it was. Tell us about this ‘lonely’ journey, and what it led to.
A. It was a lovely piece of work, and all it needed was to appear before an audience. That journey of getting it out there was essentially my journey as a producer. It taught me the value of the audience, the difficulties in finding them and the joy and happiness when they react the way you expected them to. It wasn’t so ‘lonely’ actually; I made some very important relationships during that time. I met Guneet Monga, who has since then been a mentor and continues to be. I met so many of my contemporaries and other producers – all exchanging notes and experiences. I met some admirable filmmakers and talent. Met some time-wasters too. And what do I tell you about the mistakes!! How I wish I’d never made them but I am so thankful that I did. Some really stupid ones.
The best part is that all of that energy didn’t go to waste. We managed to release the film, took it to tons of film festivals and the film made more than its budget in awards money. Most importantly, I got noticed as a potential producer by Guneet, who immediately offered me a job. Since then, I’ve gotten the opportunity to work on some pretty high-profile projects, learning the business more deeply and intimately. And more than anything, the talent pool that I’ve been exposed to. It’s priceless.
Is it a cliche that producers can only think commercial potential? I’m sure you’re dying to create an uncompromising masterpiece, but do you have to go against your natural instincts to reign in ambitious writers/directors?
A. Think about it. If you are a film director, both critical acclaim and/or box office success for a film are sometimes enough to guarantee your next film. For producers, that is not entirely the case. In Bollywood, independent producers need to function within the confines of a commercial space in order to raise finance, bring in talent and set up the project, either with a studio or within the traditional realm of things. When we can’t do that, that is when we look for alternate sources of financing: international coproductions, pre-sales, crowdfunding etc. in order to set up projects.
Why? Because most decisions are guided by an audience. The more films we make, our instinct about the medium and its audience improves. With every film, we tell ourselves that we’d want to push the medium, yet function within the confines of a commercial audience. As producers, the fine job of balancing the art and the commerce is the lethal combination. Today, there are lots of great arthouse scripts out there and tons of commercial scripts as well. The best producers out there are the ones who create uncompromising masterpieces, which are commercial and saleable.
It’s a mistaken notion that producers are the funders. Your job is to manage those funds and execute – for which you need to be everything from an AD to a caterer to an accountant. Are there times when you’ve drawn the line and refused to do something?
A. The most oft-repeated line everyone uses is: filmmaking is a collaborative medium. Which means that we are super-dependent on, as well as (in a few cases) independent of each other. This bipolarity in our roles is only developed over time and it only ever helps the film. I love projects where I get to work with smaller crews with more responsibilities divided among fewer people. It’s just a healthier creative space. Our industry naturally veers towards being very hierarchal and seniority-driven. I am actually pretty inexperienced in that sense. I’ve only ever worked with people who are themselves relatively new and working doubly hard to showcase their work. I love the creative energy that comes with not-so-experienced people on set.
About drawing the line in terms of budgets, I’ve always believed in having healthy discussions and solving budget problems creatively. And in most cases, I have worked with smart directors who are very respectful of the budget.
You’re involved from scripting to post-production. You get a complete view of a film production. This must inspire you to actually call the shots, and be a director at some point?
A. I think development is a very understated part of a film’s production. It is the most creative stage and requires a producer to make decisions that could shape or break a film’s future. I think currently, I am very inspired by great development minds and am aiming to ace that process. I haven’t thought about directing films as much as I’ve thought about developing the best projects with some of the best directorial minds.
You’ve been to film festivals across the globe. It’s not always as glamorous as it’s cut out to be (except red-carpet premieres like MASAAN). Tell us about what you do there as a producer.
A. There are two kinds of film festival experiences: one is with a film selection, which can be very glamorous and give you tons of attention internationally. The second one is when you actually only go to a market with projects.
The first kind of experience is really enriching, but has a bipolar nature. You see, the attention internationally; it’s really quite something. But when you get back to the motherland and see those same films struggling to find screens, shows, even a release sometimes, its heart-breaking and disillusioning. Of course, there are all kinds of experiences. Films like ‘The Lunchbox’ and ‘Masaan’ have only gained major success with their prestigious premieres. A major festival selection or a global hit that year makes a producer super-relevant in the international arena, and one can stand to open many doors internationally at these festivals. It’s an opportunity to be considered as a serious player, and people like to do business with serious partners. Your calendar needs to be chock-a-bloc with appointments with leading international players, depending on your own goals and strategies ahead. Most of our films have sales agents so they do the actual sale, but a producer can really create industry buzz around the film at a festival.
At festivals, upcoming producers must, in full candid-camera-reality-show-style, follow Guneet Monga. She’s definitely one of the most prolific producers around and is a fireball at film festivals. It’s tough to keep up with her energy. In markets where we go with projects, we are either looking for producing partners armed with screenplays, treatments and sometimes complete packages; or we are looking to sell/finish a film and find partners for the same. Either way, what I try and do is meet everyone in that market or festival that I can get access to. It is all about networking, you see. One never knows what may work out, and if nothing, at least we get the pleasure of meeting a potential foreign partner. The best thing I love doing though is asking international producers about how they structure their financing/distribution on their various films. It is a treasure-trove of information and most of them are willing to share it.
You’re probably always thinking one step and even one project ahead. Can you afford to have an in-built talent-o-meter, where you can perhaps choose who to work with?
A. Of course, who wouldn’t love that? But most talent collaborations happen out of either your own good experience or at someone else’s recommendation, or by just watching people’s work. As producers, we always keep our eyes and ears open to spot a good and fresh writer, a good music composer, fresh new technicians, great actors etc. when we watch Bollywood movies. Most people develop a comfort zone with finding a group of collaborators over the initial number of years and then rely on them for all their projects. I am currently in the process of finding and compiling my own ‘Wild Bunch’.
Does the ‘hustling’ and ‘fixer-upper’ aspect of your personality tend to then dominate your personal life too?
A. Actually, the one thing I am not so good at is the ‘hustling’. I love reading and consuming books and stories on power, power plays, hustling, fixing etc. and totally aspire to be like that, not in a harmful way of course. But as fascinating as it is, I think I much rather spend my time with a writer figuring out ways to juice up the screenplay, or with a technician discussing the latest equipment, or at best, share some new music I’ve heard with a filmmaker. Frankly, the only one hustle that I personally use the most is the ‘I am busy’ excuse.
Producers come with a tag of being people’s people, and a reputation of being able to persuade and push people. People tend to get wary of silver tongues; have you encountered people with pre-conceived notions about you?
A. Everyone has pre-conceived notions about everyone. That’s just the way of the world. You walk into a room with one brain and walk out with a slightly different one.
What is your endgame?
A. Over the last one and half to almost 2 years now, I have been working on the brilliant Mozez Singh’s debut feature Zubaan. On this, I have been creatively involved in every aspect: from scripting to physical line production, from music and sound to every little aspect of post-production, to even co-directing a music video for a song in the film. The film has turned out to be quite something and I am super proud of it. Look at the talent I have gotten to work with: the great Vicky Kaushal and Sarah-Jane Dias, a superb DOP Swapnil Sonawane, a master-editor in Deepa Bhatia, a composer like Ashutosh Phatak, some brilliant actors, casting directors and technicians (as you may have noticed, I love using superlatives). It has consumed a good 2 fulfilling years from my life, and I have absolutely no complaints about that. As much as it seems to be about the endgame, it is actually more about the journey.
Filmmaking is tedious and time-consuming. It is not very easy to be prolific and produce 3 projects in a year. At the average rate of a year per film and if everything goes well, I presume that I must have around 15-20 more films to be actively involved in from script to release. One’s final filmography can be only this long. The endgame I presume is just that: With every film, to better the business and to better the craft.