Abhijat Joshi, Rajkumar Hirani, and Biswapati Sarkar

At the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival – trying saying that three times in a row without stumbling – we attended two panel discussions: on Saturday 31st October 2015 we attended a morning talk featuring filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani and his co-writer Abhijat Joshi in conversation with Festival Director Anupama Chopra and film critic Rajeev Masand. On Sunday 1st November 2015, we attended a screening and panel discussion with people making, enabling, and measuring digital content. This included representatives of the two biggest names in online video from India – All India Bakchod (Tanmay Bhat) and The Viral Fever (Biswapati Sarkar) – as well as Head of YouTube Content Satya Raghavan, filmmaker Sujoy Ghosh, the MD of Condé Nast India Alex Kuruvilla and Smita Jha from PWC India. The panel was moderated by film enthusiast Nikhil Taneja, who is also a creative producer at Y! Films, which is an arm of one India’s most influential studios – Yash Raj Films.

The first discussion promised to be about “How to write a blockbuster” while the second one was “In celebration of the Digital Narrative.”

Here is what we learnt at the Hirani-Joshi talk:

  • Their films have grossed a combined 1200 crores (close enough to USD 200 million for me to call it that) worldwide.
  • Both Joshi and Hirani agree that PK – their biggest hit – was not their best work. They believe that they worked very hard on it but their talents were not up to the mark when it came to conveying all the thoughts and ideas they had about the film.
  • They write sitting next to each other rather than facing each other because facing each other demands a give and take whereas sitting next to each other allows for silences during which the mind can wander.
  • The first scene that Joshi sent Hirani when he expressed a desire to collaborate with him was terrible. The rewrite however, which arrived in less than 24 hours, is the one that convinced Mr. Hirani that he could work with this writer.
  • They also believe that you cannot write a blockbuster by setting out to write a blockbuster. Their advice to writers was to write about things they truly care for and stay true to that vision. We asked them about this later as you will see in the video below.

And this is what we learnt from the Digital Narrative panel:

  • Tanmay Bhat believes that the money will be gone in three years. After that the biggest players with the deepest pockets are the ones who will survive. He also flippantly suggested that the guys at TVF and AIB should cash out while the going was good.
  • Ms. Jha believes that brand-supported content alone cannot sustain the entire digital content ecology. There will need to be offerings that prompt the consumers to pay for what they like. Mr. Bhat didn’t seem to believe that such a consumer exists.
  • Mr. Kuruvilla felt that there is scope for non-comedy content to build audiences as well.
  • Filmmaker Sujoy Ghosh whose last feature film Kahaani was an unqualified box office success also enjoyed online success recently with a short film titled Ahalya but he was very clear that his ‘struggle’ to make films continues. Life hasn’t become a picnic overnight.
  • Tanmay Bhat also stated that they were looking for pilot scripts from writers and suggested that AIB might be foraying into producing fiction content next year.

I felt like we got a lot more usable material out of the Digital Narrative panel than the one featuring Mr. Hirani and Mr. Joshi. Most of what I heard at the first panel seemed to simply confirm the previously stated maxim: it’s not what you know but rather whom you know (that defines the course of your career). Because while the idea of having a ‘good story’ is great in theory, the continuous stream of failed films at the box office is testament to the fact that the idea of a ‘good story’ is still very subjective. Whereas the popularity of works produced by TVF, AIB, East India Comedy, as well as individual short like Best Girlfriend, Mamta Tonic, and the afore-mentioned Ahalya are proof positive that small stories with heart are finding audiences without requiring the blessings of an all-knowing producer.

The fact that Indian enterprises have built huge fan followings, earned video views in the multiple millions, and possibly even begun earning revenue from all their work suggests that endeavouring into the vast digital wilderness with a DSLR, an idea, and a group of supportive friends might be a better way to realise a filmmaking career rather than making the rounds of the various private and corporate production houses involved in the business of making movies.

That is encouraging new for those of us who lack ‘connections’. Just remember what Tanmay said about how long he expects the money to last. Your clock starts now.