We’ve had a lot of discussion on the Jagga Jasoos post about where things went wrong. And I think part of the reason we’ve been going around and around is because the production of an Indian film is so very different from the process for a Hollywood film. And, in addition, the Indian film producers waste a lot less time talking to reporters than Hollywood producers, so it isn’t as easy to get a sense of what really goes into their process. So I am going to lay it out for you here!
This is one of those things that either people know so well they don’t bother explaining it (I’ve fallen victim to this), or don’t know at all. And there’s really no bridge between the two extremes. So this post will serve as that bridge.
So, let’s say you want to make a film in India! The first thing you do is start preparing it. And the second and third thing you do is continuing to prepare it. Maneesh Sharma worked on Fan for almost 10 years. You work out every shot, every location, every single detail of every single moment on film. It takes about 2 years usually. And this is before you have a producer, before you are working with anyone else, it’s just you yourself walking the streets and planning.
The first collaborator you look for is your star. That first meeting with a star can take 6 to 10 hours. You narrate your film in great detail (the star already knows generally what it is about, otherwise they wouldn’t take this meeting). And the star gives you notes.
(At Rohit Shetty’s first meeting with Shahrukh, supposedly, he brought him the idea of a Angoor remake, but after talking with him, they landed on rewriting his idea for Chennai Express instead to work for Shahrukh’s persona. That’s the kind of notes a star might give you, picking a totally different idea than you had in mind for them and suggesting how it would work better)
Not like star tantrum notes. Like a really good editor looking at your first draft kind of notes. Saying, “expand this part, cut this part, change the tone to this other thing and it will work better.” This is what a star does, this is why you want a star. They have years of experience in the industry and they are supposed to know these things. That’s how they became and stayed stars.
It’s not just the big names like the Khans and Akshay and Ajay who will do this. Shahid Kapoor, John Abraham, anyone who has reached the level of being the main lead in a film, they are expected to be able to take these kinds of meetings and provide good advice. And you want this advice, it is invaluable to you as a filmmaker, you do not mind following it.
And then there is another 6 month to a year period while you work on those notes and wait for your second star meeting. At the second meeting, that’s when you dig deep and talk about character. The star is now an actor preparing to work with you. They have been thinking about the role all this time, they run ideas by you, you give them suggestions and notes, you work out absolutely everything they need to be able to give a perfect performances. In one very long meeting (or sometimes a series of meetings squeezed between other responsibilities). The star asks every question they have, you tell them everything they need to know, the performance is prepared.
(This is how the press new Don 2 was coming, because they noticed Shahrukh going in and out of Farhan’s house a lot, and staying for hours at a time)
Next step, dates! You have to be ready to be incredibly exact. Tell them “three schedules of two weeks each, one on location, plus one 4 day overseas shot for a song”. The star will give the go ahead, and his secretary will give you the dates.
The dates are sacrosanct. You CANNOT get the star for more time than you asked. You MUST have everything perfectly prepared and ready for exactly as long as they gave you.
After that first meeting, part of what you do while waiting for the second meeting is find the rest of your cast. The problem is, their dates have to wait to be confirmed for that second meeting with the star. You have a variety of availabilities for everybody else, and then you get the dates for the star, the final dates (at the first meeting he might say something like “after I finish this movie, maybe next fall”, but nothing more definite), and you run back to everyone else saying “okay, you were keeping October open for me, but now it’s going to be August instead, are you still available, can you move something else?”
This second part is where you start hearing that some heroine was confirmed and then had to be changed at the last minute because of date issues. Or the father actor or the older brother, anybody besides the star. This is also, I think, part of the reason that older actresses are less likely to act with the stars. Juhi, Madhuri, Kajol, Rani, their schedules are as complex as a male stars. They have TV endorsements, public appearances, all of that. Plus, they are wives and mothers. School vacations, family holidays, all of that has to be worked around before they can do a film. Just for a small example, Kajol got pregnant while filming We Are Family. Which was of course wonderful news and a good thing. But to make sure the film could be completed, they had to ask Shahrukh to change the schedule or Ra.One so that Kareena could be more available so they could finish We Are Family before Kajol started showing.
(See how the kids are blocking her tummy?)
Not saying it is fair, but until Indian men start doing their fair share (like Kevin Bacon, The Perfect Man, who stopped working and stayed home with the kids when his wife got a hit TV show), an Indian actress with children, or even just one who is married (you have to take care of your in-laws too, after all), is going to have added conflicts and complications on top of their work life responsibilities. And of course pregnancy will always be a possibility. It makes scheduling them based on the limited availability of a top star almost impossible.
This is why Anushka keeps getting so many parts. It’s not just that she is young and unmarried and a dedicated professional. She keeps her schedule loose. Have you noticed she only does the top top films, or films she herself produces? Any time some other actress drops out, she is there, ready, she can rearrange the other films she herself is starring in/producing and be available in a flash for whatever dates the big name star has given for his next production.
So, my imaginary producer now has the firm dates from the star. He runs around and gets firm matching dates from his heroine (even if that means changing heroines) and finds some character actors to fill in the rest of it. And then he does everything else, organizes the hotels, finds the studio lot where they can film, gets the sets and the costumes lined up, finds someone to do the songs, finds a composer (often someone suggested by the star) to write the songs. As the time comes closer and closer, the star is more and more involved. Going to music sittings, stopping by costume meetings, not there all the time, but with his finger in every part of the pie whenever he is free.
(That’s what this video is showing. A humorous version of it, but still, the expectation is that a star is there as much as possible at every major creative meeting)
And finally, the first filming schedule! You have plans on top of plans on top of plans. If the star sleeps late, or gets caught up in another commitment, you have your back-up ideas, what you can shoot with your other actors while you wait, how you can change the script slightly to make up for absence. The second the star walks on set, you spring into action and take advantage of every second he can give you.
This is why all that character discussion happens before shooting, not during. There’s no relaxed “let’s turn the cameras off and experiment for 2 hours before shooting” or “let’s take two hours to discuss motivation before shooting starts”. You and the star have discussed all of that at length in all your previous meetings. You have made sure all your other actors are aware of what is happening with their characters as well. And your cameraman and your dialogue writer and everyone else, they all have a firm idea of what they are doing.
(Queen was not filmed like this. But it kind of was. Kangana was the only person there start to finish, and she had cleared her schedule for the full time, knowing there would be a lot of improve involved. The other actors were slotted in for their scenes and nothing else. It was filmed fast and cheap and on schedule because everyone knew what they were doing in advance, even if what they were doing was experimenting)
This is also why character types can tend to pop up in cheaper films. If the star didn’t give you that much time (because you are a small time producer and your script isn’t that great), then you will simply say “play it like an NRI playboy”, and he will. If you had to change actresses last minute, you will simply tell her “village girl role”, and she will do that. Look at, for instance, Shahrukh’s extended cameo in Dulha Mil Gaya. You could give him that character in about 30 seconds right before the cameras start rolling, “Wealthy businessman who is in love with Sushmita”. Versus something like Raees, where there was a solid year of meetings with the creative team before filming began.
If you go over schedule while shooting, then you have the choice of just not making the full film you pictured (working around the scenes you didn’t have time to shoot), or waiting up to a couple years for the star to be available again. It’s not just that the star has a complex schedule, it’s that you will drop to the bottom of the list if you have wasted your time with them. You’ve proved that your schedule can’t be trusted, he is going to put other directors ahead of you. That’s where you see things like films being almost completed, and suddenly there is a filming gap of a year and a half because the star is reluctant to give an additional two weeks beyond what was originally discussed. And so is everybody else, you didn’t just waste the stars time, you wasted the time of the heroine, or the character actors, everybody.
(Dear Zindagi is the ideal of how to shoot a film. Shahrukh gave his dates over a year in advance. His entire shoot took about 4 weeks start to finish, remember how it felt like it had just begun and was already over? There is only one Shahrukh scene left on the cutting room floor, and only two Alia scenes. Gauri Shinde knew exactly what she wanted before the cameras started rolling, and she was the only Shahrukh film in the past 2 years to actually release on schedule)
Once your schedules are done, everyone scatters again. Heroine, character actors, set designers, composers, song people, the team you brought together for filming moves on to other projects in their busy schedules. And again it is the director/producer alone. They gather a new team, post-production people. And again, the star is there. Stopping by the editing booth whenever they can, keeping track of how post-production is going. And again the schedule falls into play.
Oh, and this is also part of the reason that films are still often post-dubbed. During filming, actors and technicians are trained to focus entirely on the visual of the performance. Which makes it a heck of a lot faster to shoot. No worries about being quiet on set, no worries if a line is flubbed or not said perfectly. That is all done in the dubbing booth.
Plus, for dubbing, no need to coordinate schedules. You can show up at 2am, be handed a script, and do your dubbing. When Sanjay was temporarily home on leave from jail, they set up a dubbing booth in his apartment so he could quickly finish off all his pending projects. Post-dubbing dialogue can be the difference between a film taking 3 years to make and a year.
(PK is also a good example of a flexible schedule. They lost Sanjay before they had finished shooting all his scenes. But they had started with the most important scenes, because that’s just good sense. Which meant that when he left, they had the bare minimum of what was required for his character already in the can. Instead of filming chronologically or based on “mood”, they went with “if we lose the star tomorrow, what do we absolutely need to have done?”)
And then there’s the promotions. The star has to take the lead in promoting the film. It’s both the cheapest and the most effective form of promotion. Partly because stars make headlines no matter what they do. You see that in the American film industry too. When you have a film about to come out, you are expected to hit the pavement, go to a bunch of events, just to have your picture in the paper, maybe make a fake romance story up, and give a ton of interviews about everything on earth, just so your name is out there and the name of the film comes along with it.
But in India, it’s not just that the stars are put on display, it’s that they take the lead in crafting the promotional strategy. Salman is tweeting set photos and cross-branding with Being Human products. Shahrukh is coming up with fan contests and reaching out to his twitter army. Aamir is traveling across India in disguise.
If you think this doesn’t make a difference, look at Mohenjo Daro versus Rustom. Mohenjo had tons of TV ads, Saavn ads, posters everywhere. And Hrithik was around, tweeting poster images, doing interviews. But for Rustom, Akshay actually came up with an idea on his own, and reached out to his star friends to help. Totally free publicity, getting them to tweet about his movie. And it was way way more effective than all the paid publicity invented by PR firms for Mohenjo Daro.
And so, while you are in post-production, your star is picking the release date. When they will be available for a lot of promotion, when they think that promotion might best shine, when they have an idea that will work well for promoting the film. And again, everything has to follow their schedule. Rohit Shetty was in the editing booth literally days before the release of Dilwale. Because it HAD to come out at Christmas. Because Shahrukh had Fan already coming out in April, and he needed to be done with the Dilwale promotions in time to ramp up the Fan promotions. That’s what drove the timeline.
(Yes, Dilwale could have really benefited from more editing time. But on the other hand, would it have been able to make a profit if it was moved to summer to conflict with Sultan? Or even just a few weeks to Republic Day when Kajol and Shahrukh would be caught up in other projects and couldn’t do the promotions?)
That’s also why release dates can shift. A star suddenly becomes unavailable, the film is in the can and ready to go, but the chosen release weekend now has a conflict that effects marketing, or the star breaks their leg and can’t make public appearances, so plans are scrapped.
Now, let’s back up and talk about the role of the producer in all of this. It depends greatly what kind of production house you are working with. If you are with Dharma or Yash Raj or Excel, your producer is your mentor, your partner every step of the way. They are teaching you how to plan a film, how to write a script, how to meet with a star, everything. And they are making sure the film comes in on budget and on schedule. Kapoor & Sons, for instance, was not filmed in the usual “everything is worked out in advance” kind of way, because Shakun Batra wanted improvisation on set, and also wanted to reshoot things from multiple angles.
But then, it also kind of was worked out in advance. Karan knew that Shakun wanted to work that way. So it was built into the schedule and the budget. Stars were told correct dates and everything was done as planned from the start, even if it was different than the usual filming style.
Let’s say you aren’t working with one of the artist-lead houses. What about, say, Nadiawala? Well, there it is a matter of you coming to your first meeting with the production house with absolutely everything in place except the star (and sometimes even the star). They expect that you have done all the pre-production work already, everything is planned down to the second. And then they will take your planning and budget it all down to the penny (depending on what star you can bring in).
(I am positive that Rohit Dhawan walked into his first meeting with Sajid Nadiawala with script, locations, song moments, and cast in mind. Well, maybe not Jacqueline Fernandez, but everything else.)
During the shooting schedule, the producer can be fairly hands off. It’s the director’s show, because they should have done everything so perfectly in advance that the shooting itself is nothing special. Post-production, that’s when the producer leaps back in. If it is Excel, Dharma, Yash Raj, they will take the lead on crafting your entire marketing strategy (along with your star). If it is Nadiawala or another one like those, they will wait for you and your star to come up with promotional strategies and support you.
Now, what if the “producer” is a big multi-national corporation? Well, then they don’t know what their job is. The biggest flops of the past few years, Bombay Velvet, Fitoor, Tubelight, have been because there was no strong producer hand running things. When I say “flop”, I mean films that actually lost money.
Let’s compare Fitoor with Fan. Both of them did much much worse at the box office than expected. However, Fitoor is the only one that actually lost money. Fan was kept on a tight budget of 80 crore for production (notice that Shahrukh was the only big name, and almost everything was filmed on location, no need to build sets. Even the crew was minimal, clearly filmed with a simple camera set up in most shots. Only expense was make-up and CGI and that was unavoidable) and 20 crore for promotion. It made 19 crore opening day, which is about the minimum you are guaranteed with a Khan film (not just because of the name, but because of the way a Khan would be involved in promotions making sure the word gets out there). It was sold for about 40 crore in satellite rights before release (again, based on the name). Aditya Chopra knew that 60 crore was sitting in the bank no matter how the audience reacted to the actual film. He just had to make sure that they could still make another 40 crore on top of that. Which they managed to do by the end of the first week and a half (averaging about 3 crore a day at the Indian box office during weekdays and 5 crore on weekends, which is pitifully bad for a Khan film, but still got them to a balanced budget).
(Satellite rights are a whole other discussion. That’s your golden ticket as a producer in India, you want to sell them high and early. And you never ever want to let them go to one of the co-production houses)
This was still a disaster for the studio, because they were budgeting for a major profit, not just a minor one. Future plans I am sure had to be scrapped, the budget cut on other projects. But they didn’t actually lose money, they were still in firm financial shape.
Compare this with UTV/Disney and Fitoor. First, the budget was completely out of control. They gave Abhishek Kapoor the idea and let him run with it. No two-three years of planning to make sure it was perfect, just boom! Green light, into production right away! Plus, no star involved. Which means there was no one there to collaborate with Abhishek Kapoor, to serve as a sounding board and a wake-up call. And no one to guarantee that opening weekend bump. Most importantly though, there was no one there to serve as a supervisor. No one to hold his hand and guide him to good creative decisions (as Farhan Akhtar, Aditya Chopra, and Karan Johar do for their directors), or even to serve as a yes-no machine (as producers like Sajid Nadiawala or Shahrukh’s Red Chillies CEO does, simply saying “no, I don’t see the cost benefit in shooting on location for so long, we aren’t doing it”).
Now, let’s look at Jagga Jasoos. First, it was rushed into production before the director had time to fully plan it. I mean, it must have been. It started filming in spring 2014, Barfi! just released in fall 2012. If this was a film for hire, that is, someone else wrote the script and Basu was just directing, and if it had a simple concept, then a year and a half film release to shooting start of the next one might be just enough time.
But we are talking a script Basu wrote himself, with an incredibly complicated concept behind it. Oh, and a biggish name star. Where was the time to write and rewrite and plan every single shot? Where was the time to have a series of one on one meetings with the star and get notes on the script and work out all the character concepts in advance? Where was the time to meet with other actors, talk with them, figure out their backstories? And where was the time to meet with the producers and present your full detailed plan and get approval for every step of the process?
And thus, after the first “schedule” of 20 days was done, it became public knowledge that Basu wasn’t happy with how it went, was scrapping all 20 days of work, and waiting until his actors were free to start fresh. This NEVER happens in Indian film. You just DON’T DO THAT. Maybe, sometimes, you aren’t able to get as much done in the first schedule as you planned. But you don’t just scrap it, after having wasted literally priceless time from your stars, and start over. And in this case it wasn’t just priceless star time, it was also a very technically complex film. And a film on location. So you were wasting the money paid to technicians, to overseas crew, to all those other people.
(Karan Johar is infamous for these very very long shoots. But it’s planned. No films are being bumped back because he is running over time, the plan is always for stars to dedicate 6 months to location shooting until it is done. No one minds that if it is set up that way from the start, so long as their time isn’t wasted)
Right there, that’s when a good producer should say “No, we are ending it.” If a director so much as runs behind schedule three days, it can bump the release a year and a half. 20 days of unusable footage, that tells you to cut your losses because it will only get worse.
And then it did. Because of the 20 day waste, his stars had to move on to their next projects. Filming continued in very expensive starts and stops (the whole crew has to be reassembled whenever Ranbir is available for a few days between Tamasha and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, and then unassembled again). Think of it like painting your living room. What is easier, taking one weekend, moving all your furniture out, calling your friends to help, and doing the whole thing; or having to do it one hour at a time, moving all the furniture, calling on your friends, painting for an hour, then moving all the furniture back, waiting a week, moving it again, etc. etc.? Ranbir was that friend who offered to help, he gave you a weekend, and you had him paint the room the wrong color. Now he is only available for an hour here and there. Should he even still show up for you? Should the paint store lend you money to buy more paint? Or should they cut you loose, accept that they wasted the original paint and original weekend, and move on with their lives?
Now, Hollywood studios, they don’t work like this. They have a staff of painters on retainer. They have a massive warehouse of paint in the back. Yes, it costs money when you mess up, but you can just try again next weekend, no big deal. If you go 3 or 4 weekends using the wrong color, then it gets expensive. Of course, this is also why Hollywood studios are in such trouble. Paying all those painters and having all that paint ready is expensive, let alone selling the house once it is painted.
Let’s talk about selling the house, meaning film promotions. In the “olden days”, promotions were fully the responsibility of the star and the distributor. A star would give a series of interviews and show up for the premiere of his big film. Maybe the producer would cut some trailers and send them around, and design a poster, but that was it. Beyond that, the distributor for a territory would pay for the bill boards, the exhibitors would put up posters. You would do it piecemeal like that because that’s how a film would release. Each territory, and each town, might get it months apart. Those fan magazine interviews would be around, maybe a review from the city paper that came out a few months back. But to drive the audience in once your local theater finally got it, it would be on the distributor and/or exhibitor to make it work.
(The same thing was true in America before Jaws brought in the wide releases. Some trailers, some interviews in fan magazines, a few radio ads, but the majority of the work of getting audiences into seats was done by the local theater buying ads in the local paper, paying for posters to be put up around town, etc.)
Releases started slowly growing in India through out the 90s. Hum Aapke Hain Koun was one of the first really big ones. And then Ghajini took it to another level. If a movie is coming out simultaneously all over India and all over the world, you need simultaneous promotions too. TV ads, bus ads, and most of all, public appearances by the stars. The promotion budget for an Indian film used to not even be part of the film really. But now it is. And, like Hollywood, Indian producers are beginning to gamble more and more money on promotions in order to reap the reward in a healthy opening weekend.
Again, good and bad ways to do this. Jagga Jasoos, big big ad buys. Mohenjo Daro, big big ad buys. Fitoor, you couldn’t turn around with seeing an ad. Great, you drive up opening weekend. But you have now spent sooooooooooooo much money on promotions, you can’t possibly make it back, on top of the budget for the original film, unless this is a record breaking hit.
Fan, tiny ad buys! 20 crore, sure, but on top of a budget that was kept as low as humanly possible. No, the big promotion was “free” promotion, Shahrukh twitter stuff and Yash Raj in house promo films.
(They didn’t even waste money renting a venue for the trailer launch, it was done on the Yash Raj studio lot)
If I am making a movie, part of my job is to work in tandem, producer-director-star, and come up with the promotion plan that makes the most sense for my film. What will be effective, but also what is a reasonable budget for it. By now, the final cut is done. We know what we are selling. If it is a bit of a dog, low promotion. Mere Pyari Bindu, for instance, had that clever series of trailers that came out. But that was it. When you find yourself going “oh wait, is that movie coming out?”, that means they didn’t spend much on promotions. Not that it was a bad movie, but the producers could look at the final cut and go “yeah, okay, this will do well in urban areas among a certain part of the audience, but we can’t really sell it overseas and we can’t really sell it to families, not going to waste money on promotions.”
And finally, there is the release. It’s hard to calculate the cost to the distributor and/or producer per screen these days, since they no longer have to cut an actual print. But there is a cost. If only because their ticket percentage is based on number of screens playing it. Or, even more abstract, because the Indian press tracks occupancy rates and reports them, so if you have too many screens and low occupancy, you will lose cred in the industry. A good producer-director-star team will figure out exactly how many screens they can fill, and not shoot higher than that. Again, Mere Pyari Bindu, did decent business, but on very few screens.
So, that’s it, start to finish, how you make a movie in India today. Years of careful planning by one person, then the star leaps in, the last 6 months of pulling it all together, exact schedules and budget with the producer’s supervision, and post-production and promotion and release strategy worked out between producer, director, and star.
It might be a slightly different process tomorrow, it was a slightly different process in other eras (I’m happy to do another exhaustive post on how you made a movie in the 90s or 70s or 50s or 30s), but generally this is how it has always worked.