Mumbai: From being one of the most popular and successful photographers in the country, Atul Kasbekar managed to spread his wings with aplomb. After setting up a celebrity management company, Atul probably took a risky decision of venturing into film production. However, with the massive critical and commercial success of his debut 'Neerja', there's no doubt that the gamble has paid off.
He is now ready with his second film 'Tumhari Sulu' and in an exclusive chat with Deccan Chronicle, the producer reveals why Vidya Balan recommended his banner for the movie, why they averted a clash with ‘Padmavati’, and much more. Excerpts:
Tell us something about 'Tumhari Sulu' and how did you come on board the film?
Suresh Triveni, the director, had approached Vidya with the script and she liked it a lot. She had liked how we produced ‘Neerja’ and that's how we came on board. I’m very grateful to Vidya for giving me this opportunity, because I loved it. I thought it was a space not explored before, like a Hrishikesh Mukherjee or Basu Chatterjee film, a gentle, urban comedy, slice of life, with real people.
I like looking at unexplored spaces, like when the script of ‘Neerja’ came to me, the hijack space had not been done, so it just seemed like a good thing to start. Because in my opinion, how much ever research has been done, whenever movies have been successful, two reasons are common. One is people say it’s honest, and they say it's fresh, so I think the audience are looking in terms of content for a certain amount of honesty, and if you give them something different, they seem to like it.
Being a famous photographer, what made you venture into film production?
Since I also own a management company, we’ve always been on the fringes of it, in any case. You’re constantly negotiating deals for stars for movies. So it was one of those things where you are seeing it up, close the concept of movie-making. I was always involved in the visual medium, so when the opportunity came, it seemed like a logical extension to do. And with our first movie, we couldn’t have asked for a better success story than ‘Neerja’, so it’s very inspiring then to make the next one.
‘Neerja’ was a woman-centric film and ‘Tumhari Sulu’ also is one. So is it a conscious decision to back such projects?
Good question, but not really. I believe it’s a co-incidence. Whatever happens, the next one is going to be anything but that. Otherwise I’ll definitely get typecast and none of the actors will work with us (laughs).
Vidya’s last few films have not worked at the box office. Do you feel she can bounce back with an award like Sonam Kapoor did with the National Award mention for 'Neerja'?
See, someone like Raju Hirani will be a hero for me. I think he makes very good cinema that is commercially successful, with a message that is not very preachy, but very subtle. I’d love to have a repertoire of such films. Coming to Vidya’s case, I think this role is tailor-made for her. I promise you that you would text me or call me saying you were right, she’s unbelievable in the film. Box office, nobody can predict. But we’ve done this on an extremely tight budget, and we’ve got 11 brands on board sponsoring us, which can further reduce the finances.
So what we need to make from the theatrical is very little for it to be a plus film. However, commercial aspect aside, in my opinion, Vidya is one of the finest actors we ever had. And after you reach a certain stage, the industry as well as the market accepts that ifs and buts are going to happen, but there's never a lack of effort, like in Vidya's case. When she takes on something, she is unbelievable, and in this movie, she’s honestly, in a happy kind of zone, and I think people are looking forward to watching a happy film.
'Tumhari Sulu' was earlier scheduled to release on December 1, but it got advanced twice and now it’s releasing on November 17. Was it because of 'Padmavati'? And now, how do you look at the clash with 'Justice League'?
We were always going to come on December 1 and our timelines were very sorted for that. But when ‘Padmavati’ moved (November 17 to December 1), it made logical sense for us to move. We were very confident enough of everything initially, but we needed to get two weeks buffer. I’m not worried about ‘Justice League’ because it’s what I think to a great extent, for a different audience. We’ll get the screens we need.
As a production house, what kind of content or genre are you looking forward to backing?
I don’t think we’ll do horror. I don’t think we’ll do something like ‘Baahubali’ for a while; it’d be a little bit beyond our scope. What we want to do is be extremely financially responsible. Because if it’s somebody else’s money, I want to make sure that even if the movie doesn’t work, people who you work with say that these guys were extremely responsible, and put their absolute best foot in terms of treating their cash like our own. Which is something we did with ‘Neerja’.
And both films have come in under-budget, which is a big deal. Words like under-budget have not been heard in Bollywood very often and twice is a rarity. We want to try something we’re proud of, I think three years from now, if you see our names in the credit, and you feel these guys have produced it, I don’t want to know more, I want to go watch the movie because they made it. So if I could build a reputation like this, I’ll be very happy. Otherwise there is nothing off-limit.
Considering your accomplishments, what if someone approaches you for your own biopic? Who would you cast in it?
On me? It’s not such an exciting life. Anybody would be a retard to make a biopic on my life (laughs). I married the girl of my dreams and we’ve been married for 25 years. And we have two great kids and all is well. The only exciting bit is in the career part, but it’s flattering that anyone could even think of that. You’ll have to fictionalise it a lot.
You wrote a two-page script for 'Neerja' director Ram Madhvani.
That’s still work in progress. I’ve got a couple of writers working on it. Again, it’s a totally different genre altogether. I’m not a writer, I just fleshed out the beginning.
So any plans of becoming a writer or even a director?
I think direction would be a no for sure because the directors whom I respect and admire, have literally spent their lifetime paying their dues, that’s all they want to do. For me, I really feel like being on a platform on which creative people can co-exist because it’s not very often that you work with creative people and they treat you with respect as well. So it’s a good space I find myself in. So if you’re jamming with a writer and a director, a DOP, they will have a point of view and they will listen to yours.
So the collaboration with Ram Madhvani is on.
He’s working on 'Bodhidharma' and that will take about one year of his life. Our sensibilities match to a great extent, and we have a wonderful working relationship. He told me, you crack the script and we’ll work together, so hope I can do that.
Coming back to 'Tumhari Sulu', how satisfied are you with the product? What are your expectations in terms of box office acclaim and critical acclaim?
I’ve no doubt that we’ve made a great film. I’ve no doubt that Vidya will be massively acclaimed. I’ve no doubt that Manav Kaul, everybody will look up to and wonder where was he hiding this whole life, because he is phenomenal in the film. Box office, none of us are pundits in that space. I’ve no doubt that it’ll be a plus film, because it’s been made on a tight budget and our satellite and other aspects are quite sorted. So we don’t need to do too much theatrically to be plus, it’s just a question of how much now, so that’s good.