Ajit Andhare: Five Best Film National Awards in six years is an unusual script in the narrative of any studio

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As the head honcho of a leading movie studio in India, he has a lot to feel elated about. With five National Award-winning films in the company’s repertoire, Viacom18 Studios’ COO Ajit Andhare, has a lot riding on his shoulders now, more so, after the studio’s clutter-breaking film AndhaDhun was honoured with National Awards recently. In a conversation with BT, he gave an insight into the road ahead for the studio, and what has contributed to its growth across various markets. Excerpts:
The success of AndhaDhun was not something you had anticipated. The film won the National Film Award for Best Hindi Film, and Ayushmann Khurrana, too, bagged the Best Actor Award for his performance in the film. Your thoughts?
I’m thrilled that AndhaDhun has bagged the highest film honours in the country. In a year of outstanding films like Badhaai Ho, Uri: The Surgical Strike and Padmaavat, the best film award for AndhaDhun is hard to anticipate. Nothing gives the producer in me more joy than watching the film you’ve nurtured right from the script stages to be loved and lauded. Having said that, nobody sets out to make a film with the intention of bagging awards. When I first heard the narration from Sriram Raghavan (director, AndhaDhun), I knew we had a winner. By winner, I meant a great script and an unusual story that needed to be told. I believed in the story and with a few changes to it and the right cast, I was confident we had a solid film on our hands. All of us — Sriram, Sanjay Routray (producer) and I — are overwhelmed with the love the film garnered globally. We thank the audience and eminent jury for embracing AndhaDhun.
A film like AndhaDhun, which is a dark comedy, rarely gets this kind of recognition at the box office and award ceremonies. Your film studio has won National Awards on four other occasions with extremely different kinds of films. What do you think your studio has done differently to achieve this success and honour?
Viacom18 Studios is the only studio in India that has bagged five best film National awards in the last six years with Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), Queen (2014), Mary Kom (2015), Dhh (2018) and now AndhaDhun (2019). Unusual and incredible stories are our DNA. Five Best Film National Awards in six years is an unusual script in the narrative of any studio. We have taken creative risks and searched for answers in places not many would venture into. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’s unique success created a new category of biopics, Queen and Mary Kom showed that heroism in a script can come from a woman, instead of only heroes. Dhh (Gujarati film) draws its magical quality from the innocence of childhood, while AndhaDhun is dark, macabre humour ensconced in a thriller. There is earnest intent to find such stories and talented storytellers around which, a strong content ethos has been built over many years. We have also done other unusual films like Maanjhi, Drishyam, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and a blockbuster like Padmaavat. Our films that did not do as well as expected, such as Lucknow Central or Rangoon, also demonstrate a strong creative idea at its core. An important aspect here is our complete involvement from the script stage to ensure that we have the best film. We aren’t just ‘suits’ as studios are often known as. It’s our instinct for storytelling, belief in new talent be it directors, co-producers or actors, that sets us apart.

Has all the recognition that your projects have received changed your approach to the kind of films you give a nod to?
If awards are what you mean, no! And it’s not just about giving nod to a film, it’s also about understanding what the creative vision is and whether it resonates with us. Selecting and developing winning films with gifted luminaries like Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Vishal Bhardwaj, Sriram Raghavan, the Phantom directors (Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane, Vikas Bahl and Madhu Mantena) or newer directors like Omung Kumar or Manish Saini requires tremendous commitment, courage and a touch of empathy for their craft. Above all, we are passionate about storytelling and that drives everything at our studio. There are also several films that we’ve let go off that we couldn’t identify with, even if they were from pedigreed names. Being faithful to only stories that we understand instead of just reputations, has served our cause well.

AndhaDhun’s success has added a lot of muscle to the studio’s existing strength in the market. How do you plan to capitalise on it?
I think maybe our future partners will now take us more seriously (Laughs!). On a more serious note, I think, we are on the right track, on a journey that we began to ‘redefine Indian cinema’. I want to continue doing good cinema, across various languages. Viacom18 Studios is currently looking at expansion down South, where I believe we have a lot to learn from. With respect to AndhaDhun, we’ve just sold the Tamil rights and are currently in the process of finding partners that would be able to do justice to the film across languages. We’ve been flooded with requests, but we want to be doubly sure before giving a go-ahead.

Who will headline the cast of the South remakes of AndhaDhun? Can you tell us more about the project?
AndhaDhun will soon have a Tamil as well as Telugu remake. Prashanth will be reprising the role of Akash in the Tamil version, and I think, it’s going be an interesting take on the Hindi one.

What kind of line-up is the studio planning for the next two years?
We are focussed on building a complete portfolio across regional, Hindi and Hollywood films. Our exciting Hindi slate features Laal Singh Chaddha with Aamir Khan, a big franchise comedy Doghouse, a heartwarming comedy Motichoor Chaknachoor and a thriller remake, which is in post-production stage. We are also planning a project on the story of the Indian women cricketers focussing on Mithali Raj and her team. Then, of course, we have Top Gun: Maverick leading our Hollywood slate. On the regional front, we have some soon-to-be-announced projects like Dada and Vasantrao under development. Our Tamil slate includes films with Karthi and Jyothika, a soon-to-be-released film with Dulquer Salman, one each with Vijay Sethupati and Vikram. We have already made two films with Nagarjuna in Telugu and one with Dileep in Malayalam. There is Nikka Zaildar (Punjabi film) with Ammy Virk due for release in September.

A distinct quality of the studio is its strong regional presence. Content can reach far and wide either in the form of remakes or dubbing it in other languages. That increases the repertoire of the studio manifold, and in the bargain, helps all kinds of content find a larger audience across platforms. What are your thoughts on this?
Indian cinema is now exposed to a larger global audience thanks to the OTT platforms. The line demarcating Hindi films and regional films is diminishing with more crossovers. The new-age audience is hungry for better concepts, newer stories irrespective of the language. We want to cater to this expanding audience. There’s good content available across Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Gujarati and Telugu cinema, and we want to collaborate with some of the best talents across regions. We’ve tremendous success with our Marathi films starting with Aapla Manus, Ani…Dr. Kashinath Ghanekar, Bhai and expanded our portfolio down South with Telugu films like Devadasa, Manmadhudu 2, and announced Tamil films with some of the best talents. Our maiden Malayalam film, Kodathi Samaksham Balan Vakeel, starring Dileep, ran over 50 days in theatres. I think this is just the beginning, and there’s a lot more to explore. (smiles)

After setting a new benchmark for the studio, does it become difficult to choose projects that can live up to the expectations that the audience has from the company?
Yes, National Awards are a gratification, but making films with awards and image in crosshair isn’t a helpful tip. It’s a great time to be making cinema as madness and maturity in content both co-exist. We have built a legacy and we strive to live up to it.
Apart from films, your studio is all set to present digital content as well, right?
Yes, besides our films, you will soon see our digital content from Tipping Point. We recently produced a few exciting series that were announced earlier, and they will be released on major digital platforms soon. There are tons of stories waiting to be told in the universe.

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