Anupama Takes a Look at Dharma Productions: The Arrival of the “D-Girls” in India!

T.J Stevens posted on last week’s Wednesday Watching post a video from Anupama Chopra’s “Film Companion” series, which was really interesting!  So interesting that it is too much to talk about in a post comment.  And yet possibly slightly too little to talk about in a post.  We will see!

Here is the video, just to get that out of the way to begin with:

 

In case you can’t watch videos for some reason (at work, internet too slow, whatever), it’s a 5 minute look at how the creative development wing works at Dharma productions.  Three people, Jugal Hansraj and Nidhi Parmar and Ryan Stephen, spend all day reading scripts and books and script ideas.  And if they find anything good, they bump it up to Karan.

What’s funny here, is that the thing that the people in the video find unusual is not what I find unusual, and the thing they find regular is the thing I find regular.  For me, the whole “creative development” idea is blah blah blah old school dull.  Hollywood studios have functioned that way since the 1950s at least.  And they got really big about it in 90s.  Because of a bunch of boring industrial shifts and so on (Paramount versus US decision, rise of TV, fall of studios, multi-nationalization of the entertainment industry, etc. etc.),  suddenly there was a quest for original content to bring back the viewers combined with a loss of the studio staff writer.  Tons of young intelligent women (for some reason, it’s one of those jobs that ends up going to women.  Maybe because it kind of feels like being a secretary?) were hired to read scripts and books and whatever.  They were called “D-Girls”, for “development”.  And they would pass scripts up to someone else who would pass them to someone else and so on and so forth.  It’s so routine that whole structures and rebellions have broken out within it.  For instance, the annual “Black List”, the list of the most promising scripts that every development team in town has looked at but for some reason never made.

(Good script doesn’t always mean good movie.  This film, for instance, was a Black List script.  And then Uday Chopra produced it and it was TERRIBLE!)

Now, what makes this video interesting to me is Jugal Hansraj and Karan Johar’s involvement in this process.  Taking Jugal first.  In America, the “D-Girls” tend to be young super educated women, sometimes coming in from publishing or other writer-type jobs.  I don’t know about the other two in Karan’s development team, but Jugal does not have a writer-type background.  He has a fascinating background!  Child star in the classic art film Masoom.  Came back as a 20-something in a cameo at the beginning of K3G, and one of the leads in Mohabbatein.  Developed Roadside Romeo at Yash Raj, also had a small role in Aaja Nachle at Yash Raj.  And now he has landed in the development team at Dharma films?  Can you imagine Shia LaBeouf, for instance, ending up in an office reading scripts?

(Speaking of Shia LaBeouf, this video is amazing)

But I am glad Jugal is there.  Firstly, it is a testament to the multi-talented kind of artist that Indian film turns out.  Actor/writer/director/producer, kind of a common combo.  And secondly, why does America focus on writer and word trained people for their development teams instead of on film trained people?  Wouldn’t someone with fully filmi experience in various roles do a better job picking a hit film than some random young woman with a degree from Vassar?  And finally, thirdly, maybe America would have better scripts if they put incredibly experienced and older and important people in the development office instead of making it an entry level job.  Like I said, I know nothing about the other two people in the office, but I only assume they have a similarly varied and long and film-focused resume to Jugal’s.

Okay, final piece, Karan!  The thing with the American Development system is that there is no end to it.  Scripts get passed up and up and up and then just sort of drop into limbo somewhere.  Most production houses don’t have a single person to give a thumbs up or thumbs down.  Sometimes you have smaller production deal kind of houses, like Adam Sandler’s thing or Annupurma Films or Tyler Perry.  But in that case, it gets passed up to one person, and then that one person has to move on to another series of people who will actually give them funding.

But with this system, the really magical perfect ingredient is Karan Johar.  Development isn’t some never ending confusing process.  Karan reads the script, Karan says yes or Karan says no, and that’s it.  There’s no committee meetings about it or vice-presidents who give input or anything else.  That’s the magic, not the structure or the development concept, that you have one person who has a perfect instinct for a good script, and that same person has the power to get the film made.

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5 thoughts on “Anupama Takes a Look at Dharma Productions: The Arrival of the “D-Girls” in India!

  1. Wait, Jugal Hansraj was in K3G?!?!

    You know how you mentioned that Karan talked about the Dharma brand in his book. What do you think he would do if he got a script that he really liked but it didn’t necessarily fit into the Dharma brand? Do you think he would give the script to some other production house?

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    • Yep, Jugal is Hrithik’s friend way at the beginning, the one he tells that he is going to visit his grandmothers.

      I think if Karan got a good script that he knew he couldn’t make, he would definitely pass it on to another production house. The other thing that became very clear in his autobiography, and which I sort of already knew from interviews and stuff, is that the industry functions as a community first, and a business second. And a community of artists. So if Karan got a good script, I think that, as an artist, he would want it to be made by someone, even if that person wasn’t him. And as a friend to other producers, and a member of the film community, he would also want to do them a favor and pass this script on to them.

      One thing I didn’t talk about in the post is how this new version, with scripts and an official creative development team, isn’t actually that different from how the industry used to work. Instead of a “creative development” department, you would have your secretary or your assistant manager or your wife or your mother or your sister or your friend or whoever who would come to you and say “Look, my nephew/driver/neighbor/friend of a friend has an idea for a movie and I think it’s pretty amazing, you should listen to it.” And if that person coming to you was someone you trusted, than you would agree to listen to the story, and decide if you wanted to make the film. And if you didn’t like the idea for yourself, but recognized it’s merit, you would call up one of your producer or movie star friends and say “Hey, I’m sending this guy over to your house, listen to what he has to say.” Karan is just formalizing the process with titles and offices and asking for an actual script to be sent in instead of a narration. But I assume the same rule applies that if it doesn’t work for you, you will send it on to someone else. Heck, Hollywood does the same thing! If a script is really good, an author might be tipped off as to who it should go to at a different production house to try to get it moving forward. It just doesn’t work quite as well in that system, because it’s not Karan calling up his childhood friend Farhan and saying “read this!”, it’s some lowly entry level employee sending over a note to a slightly less lowly employee at another studio who may not even read the note let alone the script, and even if she does, may not have the power to get it made.

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      • Oh yeah, I think I remember him now.

        Yeah, I thought that scripts would be passed around like that. I remember from the Baar Baar Dekho round table interview, Riteish Sidhwani said that they asked Karan to read the script when they were narrating to Sidharth Malhotra. They’ve wanted to work together and they thought Karan might like the script which is when they ended up deciding to co-produce the film.

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  2. Hollywood could definitely learn from this. The last ten years of American film has been the absolute dregs of cinema and it doesn’t seem to be improving. The entire Hollywood system appears to be broken, from top to bottom. I can imagine many good scripts getting lost in the shuffle or not even being looked at. And even the ones that make it through to production have had all originality and heart stripped away by the process. Unfortunately, they’re making more money than ever, so the studios probably view it as a golden age. I remember having lists of 25 or more movies to see in any given year. These days, I’m lucky if my list has five or six.

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    • If you want Hollywood to improve, keep an eye on The Great Wall movie that is coming out. Hollywood has been chasing international money for the past 10 years or so, ever since China started opening up to outside films. Michael Bay and all those big dumb action movies do great over there, because the language and cultural barrier doesn’t matter as much. Smart comedies or romances or social films won’t work, because non-Americans may not get the references and the jokes won’t translate and so on.

      Of course, the studios could still make “good” movies and make a profit, they are just too stupid to realize it. It’s the same as I’ve been complaining about with Hindi films lately, you can guarantee a record breaking box office, if you pour oodles of money into the film to begin with. But that means your profit margin, even with the huge box office, is very low. On the other hand, if you make a movie with a really good simple script, it’s super cheap and word of mouth does the publicity for you. You end up with a modest box office total, but a huge profit margin. When I was working at a movie theater, this was so obvious. Opening weekend of any big release would be massive, because everyone had been driven in by the ad campaign and everything else. But then Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday, we would just limp along with almost no tickets sold. And we’d dump the film as soon as possible. On the other hand, something like “The Help” or “Inglorious Basterds” or “District 9”, those did all right business opening weekend, but then they just kept playing for weeks and weeks. People heard they were good and wanted to see it, other people had already seen them and wanted to re-watch, it was a steady business. But you have to take a risk and be able to see quality when you find it to make a profit that way, it’s a lot easier to just buy any old script that is laying around and throw in a bunch of explosions and big name stars, and then spend twice the production budget on advertising. And, of course, get a lot of money from the foreign market.

      Anyway, The Great Wall is China’s attempt to control it’s own market. A co-production with most of the money coming from China, they brought in Matt Damon for a familiar Hollywood star, and loaded the cast with well known Chinese names. Plus explosions and CGI and all the rest of it. If The Great Wall does well, China may start driving the invaders out of their movie market. Which means poor Hollywood is going to have to start trying to woo the English speaking North American market again.

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