When you excel, your story is noticed. Producer Ronnie Lahiri has not only been noticed, his work in the form of movies, such as ‘Aparajita Tumi’ (2012), ‘Vicky Donor’ (2012), ‘Piku’ (2015), and the recently released Varun Dhawan starrer ‘October‘ (2018) are taking Bollywood by storm.
Deciding to give us a glimpse into his real life, instead of reel, Ronnie Lahiri talks about how stories reach the big screen.
“Films can’t portray us exactly as we are. I am still a small-town boy. I grew up in the North East, which was easy going and frankly not as corrupt as the city.”
“I relax at a couple of resorts that I’ve got in Manali and Goa. My passion for football and love for the game mean that I spend more time with it than any other hobby. I’m an avid fan of travelling and trekking as well.”
Shoojit said he is into the creative field and knows how to make films, but is bad with finances… So, we decided to collaborate, with me handling the finances and him focussing on content creation.
Each person seems to have a unique story to tell when it comes to how they are doing in life at a particular stage. For Ronnie, being a movie producer was not something that he had considered too seriously up until a certain moment in time when he met a particular name in the industry, known as Shoojit Sircar. He talks about how he got into the business side of the world’s largest entertainment industry.
“It just happened. With no plans, it was nowhere on my horizon. I had done my management, and then I was working in a hotel, and somewhere I felt that the 9-5 job concept is not for me, but I didn’t know what to do. And in 1998, by chance, I met Shoojit Sircar. He was starting off doing small commercials, and I had gone to ask him when we met through a common friend. I asked if I could join some agency and if he knew some people in advertising agencies. Then, I think we clicked; Shoojit said he is into the creative field and knows how to make films, but is bad with finances. My management background would allow me to handle finances more smoothly. So, we decided to collaborate, with me handling the finances and him focussing on content creation. That’s how the partnership began. We started off with ads in Delhi before shifting base to Mumbai. It took years to get into films. Once we got into bigger advertisements, the goal became to get into long format. TV commercials were of 20 secs -30 secs at the most 60 seconds and you have to tell everything. So, as a storyteller, we always wanted to tell bigger stories with more detailing, and that’s how films happened. It was a natural evolution from advertisement to feature films.”
In such dire times, with India producing such a large number of films and contributing immensely to the culture of cinema in India, it often becomes near impossible to keep a record or track different films. So, Ronnie talks about one of his films that flew under the radar, ‘Yahaan’, which released before what people often believe to be Ronnie’s first feature film, ‘Vicky Donor’.
“We did a film called ‘Yahaan’ in 2005. Then, we made a film called ‘Shoebite,’ which never released. Before ‘Vicky Donor’, Shoojit and I produced a Bengali film, ‘Aparajita Tumi’. Both ‘Vicky Donor’ and ‘Shoebite’ were in a very simultaneous period. So the first release for our banner, “Rising Sun”, was ‘Aparajita Tumi’, and then ‘Vicky Donor’ happened.”
Basically, the job of a producer today is to set up the entire project. And he starts before the filming has started, and the job ends maybe after the 3 months the film is dated for release.
The life of a producer is often fantasized by people, who lack even an idea as to what the life of a producer actually entails. There is almost a universal agreement in thinking that a producer is representative of the capitalist bourgeoisie, whose main aim is to collect the profits that a movie makes after its release. However, things could not be any more different. Ronnie talks about what, for him, is the true job profile of a producer.
“That’s a very magical term. In the past, that was how the process worked. Today, a producer is someone who also has a say in the creative process. A creative individual or an actor will come with a story. Me and Shoojit sit down, and first of all, decide if this is a story we want to tell or not. Once we decide that this is a good story and we should make it into a film, then we get into the nitty-gritties. Every film has its own life. We cannot judge that this film will also do the same business as the last film did. Every film has its own genre and shelf life. Then the job is about hiring the right people, because film is not just a director and producers’ medium, there are a lot of technicians that you need to hire. Close to 200-300 people work on a film project.
So, as a producer, your job is to get your director the best possible technical crew that he wants. Once that is done, then you start raising the money. You don’t have to put your own money, there are various mechanisms. There are studios, which are there to finance the films. Basically, the job of a producer today is to set up the entire project. And he starts before the filming has started, and the job ends maybe after the 3 months the film is dated for release. So, it’s a long process that a producer has to go through right from releasing the film. During the making of the film. there’s not much work, because everything is set up; the director is there, the actors are there, the crew is there. Post the film is done, there’s the marketing campaign, which needs to be designed. Strategies of how to release it have to come up with. So there’s a lot of science behind what kind of films you are making and where you want to release it. You have to understand your audience for whom you have made the film. Because we are a country of 1.3 billion people, not everyone will like everything. So you have to understand who will like your product. So, a film is like any other product; you know where it will sell. Not everyone will buy it. It’s that kind of in-depth understanding that producers need to have. Based on that, we make the release strategy and then, the release happens.
Money is now basically a financer’s job. There’s a difference between a financer and a producer.”
Now, with the advancement of the digital age, another marketing strategy that producers would have to consider is the management of a movie in the digital media scene. Numerous websites, such as Hotstar, Netflix, and Amazon Prime, now exist to make the latest movies in the highest quality available right into the comfort of our home TV screens. Before any sort of revenue is generated in the line, producers must first know where, when, and how much to invest into digital media websites in order to earn the maximum profit. Ronnie gives us his take on this issue.
“It’s changing every day. It’s an ever-evolving field now. Basically, it’s all being shared now. Earlier, all the burden or a lot of it was satellite, now online has come into the fray. Money-wise, it’s more or less the same. It’s just that it gets divided between two parties. So, online is paying some, satellite is paying some – they are not paying the same amount as before. So, it’s not a burden on anyone anymore. Earlier, we used to get music by selling music CDs and cassettes; now we have online platforms. Money is the same. Just the medium has changed.”
Delhi, for us, is not just a Qutub Minar, an India Gate or a Chandni Chowk… the city plays a very important character in our film. We don’t just set up our films at any place.
Ronnie is involved in the production of movies through his own production house, “Rising Sun”. Apart from releasing and marketing huge hits such as ‘Piku’ (2015) and ‘Pink’ (2016), and ‘October‘ (2018) Rising Sun, to a certain extent, reflects Ronnie’s taste and liking in cinema. However, Ronnie believes that it does not strictly adhere to a particular brand or genre of cinema.
“I think it’s pretty eclectic, with one thing in common. That’s human emotion. All films are of different genres, different topics, different thought processes, but somewhere down the line, the basic human approach is more important in our films. The characters are more human, more real, that’s what we are aiming at. All our films have a very strong human drama to it and that’s what we are looking at as a brand.”
Keen-eyed observers and fans of Rising Sun’s non-particular brand of films have unanimously agreed on the fact that most of the characters in the movies tend to have a certain relation to the city of Delhi. Often, Delhi is the setting for the movie itself. ‘Madras Café’ was an exception to this. Ronnie provides us with a reason for this coincidence.
“We’ve spent quite a lot of time in Delhi. That’s where we learnt the whole craft of making films. As I said, I started off in Delhi with advertising. We stayed quite a bit in Delhi, so we understand the people over there. The story comes from your experience, from the people around you. Most importantly, it’s the director and the writer who come up with the concept. So, the writers we work with, the director, Shoojit Sircar, has spent a lot of time in Delhi. He understands and knows the characters of Delhi. Even ‘Madras Café’ was shot quite a bit in Delhi. So, in all our films, Delhi has been common. It’s like a very strong cosmopolitan city. We have explored a Lajpat Nagar setting where Punjabis live, a CR Park with Bengali setting in ‘Vicky Donor’, and then we showed a different Bengali household in ‘Piku’ in Delhi, and now in ‘October’, we showed the hotel line of Dwarka, again, a different character of Delhi. Delhi, for us, is not just a Qutub Minar, an India Gate or a Chandni Chowk. There’s a lot of Delhi there. Like in ‘Pink’, we showed the darker side of Delhi. So, Delhi is a common factor, because we have lived there, we know the different aspects of Delhi. Obviously, the city plays a very important character in our film. We don’t just set up our films at any place. Every city has its own characteristics. We have lived in Bombay, but we have never grown up here.”
Whenever there will be a character which is there, I’m most open to having North Eastern actors in the films.
As India steps through the second decade of the 2000s, India’s new generation of movie goers have shown a diversification in their taste in cinema. Indie films have started to crop up from different parts in the country, often attracting national interest in the film. Ronnie’s production house, on the other hand, has mostly dabbled in commercial films. On whether there is a chance of producing an indie film, Ronnie stated:
“I think every film we have made has been offbeat. It’s just that they worked, it gave more revenue. Otherwise, if you look at ‘Piku’, it was as offbeat as it can be; a relationship between a father and a daughter, with no unnecessary song and dance, or a boy-meets-a-girl and girl-falls-in-love kind of a story. ‘Piku’ was all about a father who keeps talking about his constipation. Even ‘Madras Café’, in India, nobody has made a political thriller like that before. It was a very risky project for us. Same with ‘Vicky Donor’ in the landscape of 2012. If you had asked someone about making a film on sperm donor, how many people would have thought it a cheap comedy? Nobody must have thought of it as a family entertainer. Same goes with ‘Pink’, which talks about consent. So, none of our films have ever gone into a populist genre. We have always stuck to our kind of cinema. And ‘October’ is also an extension of what we believe in. See, as we are evolving, obviously, ‘October’ is much more evolved. It’s been 6 years since ‘Vicky Donor’, so I won’t say ‘October’ is an indie film. In fact, if ‘October’ is indie, then even ‘Vicky Donor’ was indie for that period. There was humour but it was also talking about serious subjects. We were talking about infertility and adoption, so it was like when you give a child a medicine, you lace it with sweet. ‘Vicky Donor’ was like that. In ‘October’ we were as straight as possible on what we wanted to say. Ultimately, it is in a similar space as all the film we have done.”
Even though Ronnie’s Delhi based projects have been quite cosmopolitan in nature, Bollywood, in general, has been less so. There have been very few projects that have offered the lead role to an actor from the rather ostracized regions of the North East. A huge exception to this rule was ‘Pink’, which gave Andrea Tariang, a talented actress in her own right, a big role in the film. Ronnie gives his two cents on the issue.
“I cannot say about the entire industry, I can only talk about my films. There is a subject which is there, I have tried. If you look at ‘Pink’, we talked about a very important aspect of women from the North East or women in general in Delhi, how they are looked upon. We definitely put up a North Eastern girl. Andrea Tariang was launched in that film, and I was very clear, since I’m from the region, that only a North Eastern girl will play the North Eastern character.We tried to highlight the problems North Eastern girls tend to face in big cities because of how they look or because of the culture they live in. People think about them in a different way. So we tried to bring that up in our film where it was required. Whenever there will be a character which is there, I’m most open to having North Eastern actors in the films.”
Where I’m sitting now, between Juhu to Andheri, this belt has more cinema halls, more screens and multiplexes than the entire North East.
Keeping in tandem with the aspect of North East, there is a veritable excitement in the air regarding the launching of more North Eastern actors into the world of Bollywood. As to when such a thing happens again, is up to the other aspects of the film, according to the producer.
“See, as I said, I’m a producer. It’s going to be the writer and the director, they have to understand the medium. Now, I know a life when I grew up in Nagaland and Shillong, but my director has got no clue. For him to portray that would be much more difficult, he would portray things he knows. Like we have Delhi as a recurring character in all our films, because we have spent a lot of time there, and are familiar with the place. My writer, Juhi Chaturvedi and other writers are from Delhi. They have never been to the North Eastern region so they can’t write stories about that place. Even if they write it will become fictional and people would say, “No, this is not how it happens over there”. So, it’s actually local talent who also have to come forward and contribute and work.”
Considering the popularity of North Eastern films such as ‘Local Kung Fu’, ‘Onaatah‘ and ‘Village Rockstars’, which have made their mark on a global scale, there can be no denying the fact that the North East has no dearth of talent. However, there must be a particular aspect in which the community’s filmmaking lacks, and therefore disallowing it from making its mark in Bollywood. Ronnie has an idea as to what that aspect might be.
“The important thing is that viewers would help the industry. Now, all these films that are made, they are good films, but when it comes to scaling up when they release, you’ve to see how many people go to the theatre, how many people support these films. End of the day, it all comes down to commerce. Nobody is going to spend 3 crores and recover nothing. Then you need very rich people who would give 3 crores and say, “Go make the best film possible” and don’t care if nobody watched the film. So, the first important thing is you need infrastructure in the North East; most important are cinema halls. There are hardly any cinema halls in every district. Where I’m sitting now, between Juhu to Andheri, this belt has more cinema halls, more screens and multiplexes than the entire North East. So, infrastructure is key. Once you have more theatres there, then it comes to the local people to go and support the film.”
‘Kothanodi’ is done by a junior of mine, from my school in Shillong, Bhaskar. Then the other very good director for Khasi films, who won national awards, Pradip Kurbah is again from my school. He is my junior. I keep on talking to them. But the whole thing is that they keep on making these films on their own. But ultimately, people are not watching these films, so how will they recover their investments? So, how many times will they make films with their own money and get no returns? The fact is, film quality will keep on going up if more and more people will go and see. At least the makers will recover their money. Then they can put in more money. But if they make losses for every film they make, then how will they make films? Kudos to Pradip Kurbah. He is like a one man industry in Shillong and he is making film after film and he is winning National Awards. But at the end of the day, after a point, he will need money to make his films. So the people have to go and watch those films when the film releases.”
It is no surprise that some very well established movie stars have gone on to dabble into the process of producing films themselves. Priyanka Chopra, for example, has invested her time, money and effort into the production of a Bhojpuri film, followed by a North Eastern film produced in Sikkim. Is it only a matter of time before Ronnie Lahiri invests in a North Eastern film himself?
“Yes, obviously, if there’s an interesting subject I would love to. But not just for the sake of wanting to make a film. As I said, the kind of film that we believe in, the kind of stories we want to tell whether it is regional or Bollywood, there’s a certain kind of cinema I believe in and I want to produce. So I’m looking out if there is anything interesting. I would love to produce a regional film whether it is Khasi, Assamese, Mizo or Manipuri. Language is not a barrier for me, but the subject has to appeal to me on a personal level because at the end of the day if I am producing a film it has to be my baby. Not just that I’m from North East so I should produce an NE film. In fact, I’m open for any regional films, not only North Eastern or Bengali. If I get a good script, and if I like the subject, I will go for it.”
Kudos to Pradip Kurbah. He is like a one man industry in Shillong and he is making film after film and he is winning National Awards.
Apart from the misrepresentation of the North Eastern states in Bollywood, another huge problem that plagues the industry is the problem of nepotism. As is evident from the controversy surrounding Kangana’s comments on Karan Johar’s TV show, quite a few actors have complained about less talented individuals gaining access to higher grounds and greener pastures through connections. Ronnie thinks that for those without connections, there is a way in, but it’s fraught with hardships.
“It’s a tricky one. But if you see, we are not from a Bollywood family, we were outsiders. I was born in Nagaland and then came to Bollywood. My business partner Shoojit was born in the South and grew up all over the country. We came to Delhi and then Mumbai happened. So at the end of the day, I would rest my case, that if you have the talent and the discipline and the work culture, nobody can stop you. So when we made ‘Vicky Donor’ we made it with Ayushman Khurana, who doesn’t come from a film family. Neither does Yami Gautam. Another example is Shah Rukh Khan, he is not from a film family. He came from Delhi. There are lots of success stories. One cannot, just in one stroke, say that there is nepotism.”
Coming back to the talk about production houses, it is evident that Ronnie’s own Rising Sun production house has set its standards very high. When it comes to acquiring a job at a firm such as this, the task is no easy feat. Ronnie gives us the details on what a person must do or possess in order to pursue a writer’s job at his production company.
“Go to our website or go to our Facebook page. Our details, email IDs are there. They could send us a link, and we have a scripting team that will go through the script. If they find any merit, they will pass on the script or just the synopsis to me. Then we discuss with Shoojit and the team. If all goes well, we contact the writer and take it forward from there.
For crew team like assistant directors, Shoojit decides the team. He usually has a strong fixed team. Again, one can try emailing us and we’ll decide.
For North Eastern people, what I’ve been doing for the past 3-4 years is that I am curating a festival in Guwahati every year called Brahmaputra Film Festival, where I work as an advisor also. The festival is open to only North Eastern people to make short films. Every year what I do is, whoever is the winner of that festival gets a chance to work on the entire film under Shoojit Sircar’s guidance. He works as a Trainee/AD and he gets all the experience from pre- to post-production. So, every year we have one person from the North East working with us. During ‘Pink’, we had this girl from Assam. For our last film ‘October’, we had quite a well-known filmmaker from Imphal, Romi Meitei, who worked with us. The whole idea is that one can get the first-hand experience of a Bollywood film. One could see the functioning, and the way we work and everything, then they can go and use the experience when they are making their films in their region.”
When one looks at the recent trend of Bollywood movies, recreations of historical events have taken the foreground in quite a few movies. However, most of these recreations have centred on events in the north and central part of the country. North Eastern events, such as the Battle of Saraighat, are yet to be recreated and represented. Ronnie Lahiri says that in order for that to happen, a North Eastern writer is a must.
“As I said, somebody from there who knows the script has to write those stories and pitch. See, I know that kind of stories happened, but that’s not my genre of films. But filmmakers who are making period films are not aware of everything that has happened in history. Look at us. We are a big country. Nobody has made a film about the Chola kingdom in Bollywood, right? But you can’t complain, because that attitude will never get you anywhere. So somebody from Assam who knows about the story has to come up and write a script and present it to people who make those kind of films. It is not possible for a filmmaker to know everything about all the history of our country. And we have thousands of years of history. I would put it rather the other way around, like why the Assamese film industry, which has been there for so many years, never made a film like that. I mean it’s their history right, so why has no one attempted a film on such a big hero? And it’s not about the budget. A story can be done; scale and everything is different. Whether you can make the film or not, whether the budget is there or not, first is the script and scripting doesn’t take money. Nobody has written and that’s my question.”
I would love to produce a regional film whether it is Khasi, Assamese, Mizo or Manipuri. Language is not a barrier for me, but the subject has to appeal to me on a personal level because at the end of the day if I am producing a film it has to be my baby.
It is rare to find a talent such as Ronnie Lahiri, whose undying dedication to his craft has allowed Indian audiences to watch great movies, from wholesome family dramas to relevant subjects, such as the treatment of women in society. Clearly, films have a different meaning to the man, as he states below.
“A mirror to our society. We show what is happening in our society. As a writer, or as a director, they don’t get stories out of nowhere. They get stories from what they see around them. Cinema is an important factor, it is not purely entertainment. You can have an entertainment film, but at the end of the day, every film should have a moral – why are you making this film? If you tell a story, there has to be a reason why you are making that story. That’s our belief in making films. Our film should say something about the society, whether it is good or bad. If it’s good, highlight that, if it’s bad, show that it is an ill within our society. When people see those things, they will realise these things are wrong.”
Questions asked at theMoviean Northeast platform:
1) Role of a producer? by Tomba Thembull
2) What a person must do or possess in order to work at Rising Sun Film?- Avi Dam
3) Movie on Battle of Saraighat. – Sanjit Kalita
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