Film reviews matter, but they do not control the narrative entirely: Viacom 18 COO

Ajit Andhare on the studio's projects and what the audience wants from cinema


With three blockbuster films in its kitty—OMG 2, Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani and Mission Impossible—there is much to celebrate for Viacom18 Studios, an integrated motion picture studio that has emerged as a force to reckon with by delivering a stream of critically and commercially successful films including franchises, right from Pyaar Ka Punchnama 1 and 2, Drishyam 1 and 2 to OMG—Oh My God 1 and 2 and more.

Its slate also includes Laal Singh Chadha (2022), Shabaash Mithu (2022), Andhadhun (2018), Padmaavat (2018), Toilet – Ek Prem Katha (2017), Queen (2014), Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), Madras Café (2013), Special 26 (2013) and Kahaani (2012) among others.

THE WEEK spoke to the COO of Viacom Studios, Ajit Andhare on how the studio has been dishing out successful franchisees one after the other and what it takes to greenlight a project, and much more.

This is the sixth week of Rocky Aur Rani ki Prem Kahani but the film has left from almost all theatres. For how long should a film ideally be selling in theatres as per you?

Ideally for as long as Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge played in Maratha Mandir in Mumbai. But realistically speaking, the fact that we have just completed 50th day, that is six to seven weeks of Mission Impossible in theatres is the equivalent of a silver jubilee in the current times. The number of shows tapering off as we go ahead in time has also to do with the number of films releasing.

What has Viacom done differently that has led to the kind of blockbuster successes we see now?

This has been the result of our efforts since the time we, that is Viacom Studios, launched 13 years ago. We have consistently featured unique stories and catered to unconventional cinema right from Tanu weds Manu, Kahaani, Special 26 to OMG , Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Andhadhun and Queen—all these films look very different but that one thread running across all of them is a 'contextually rich' script. All the films have something unique to offer and therein lies the strategy Viacom Studios opted to do a new kind of cinema that has conventionally not been done in India by the traditional filmmakers who have been around for many decades.

In comparison, your approach to cinema has been quite opposite of what mainstream films looked like back in time.

Yes. We have done several films where the lead character was actually the heroine. We have rarely been hero-centric in a lot of our work. Even in films where the protagonist is the hero, he is not the typical masochistic or armchair critic kind of a person. One example is Ajay Devgn in Drishyam. The conventional use of Ajay Devgn is you put him in a Singham, give him a cop role, he beats the baddies and creates this whole testosterone driven feeling. But we have reversed this trope. Here is Ajay in Drishyam who is being beaten by the cops but does not as much as raise a finger in a bid to save his family. So we have subverted a lot of tropes and bent the rules and conventions and that's the only thing we have done consistently. Today when everyone believes that mass action thrillers are the only way to survive in mainstream cinema, Viacom continues to shine the light on new pathways with our own kind of cinema and find success through them.

And how has the audience evolved, changed and become more sophisticated?

The audience is not a monolith; instead, there are several demographics at play here. Recently, the independence day weekend showed this too. We have an audience for a very testosterone-driven, patriotism-laced films like Gadar2 as well as for a romantic drama like Rocky Rani..., then for Mission Impossible as well as for Jailer. So I think when we say the audience has evolved, the city-based people exposed to western content is often far more open but the large mass of audience still responds to a more conventional approach as shown by the box office performance of Gadar 2. So all kinds of audiences exist; it depends upon the filmmaker as to which segment of the audience do they wish to cater to. The point is to know your audience very intimately.

Yet, at times things don't work. Like it happened with Laal Singh Chaddha which was also a Viacom 18 project.

Just one year back, in the month of August, we had Laal Singh Chaddha (LSC) which failed miserably and now, a year later, we have three blockbusters. There are times when you take creative risks—with LSC we were trying to remake an Oscar-winning Forrest Gump and therefore that itself took a lot of gumption. I think it was a fantastic creative risk to embark on but one that did not pay off. I think what happened was that people did not connect very well with the central character and if one does not connect with the protagonist's journey, the film fails. We did not see it coming; in fact, we thought people will root for him but that did not happen. Ultimately content is king; if the film connects, it will perform beautifully but if it fails to connect, it is bound to fail.

Franchises have been an area of strength for Viacom Studios.

We have strategically tried to build franchises beginning with Pyaar Ka Punchnama (PKP) which was a huge success. Currently, we are developing PKP 3. OMG, Drishyam both, have done very well and we are currently planning to come out with a sequel to Special 26. Even in the area of web series, we have Jamtara 1, 2 and now 3, then there was SHE 1 and 2 and now the third season is in the making. Kaalkoot on JioCinema has done extremely well too. We will soon be coming out with a sequel to that as well.

To what extent does a film review really matter?

Cinema which will appeal to the cinephile that is a sophisticated audience, the reviews will reflect that view but for most of our audience who seek entertainment rather than cinematic fulfillment, reviews do not matter. The review only gives some totality in what is the sense of your film in binding perceptions. For instance, Gadar 2 finds the audience despite negative reviews. The way the film appeals to you by invoking the sense of patriotism and nostalgia and that heady concoction presented through legendary characters like Tara Singh and Sakina, nobody needs to worry about what the reviews have to say. However, for OMG 2, which is a very unconventional film, we were anxious as to how the film would be received and the appreciation by reviewers helped us a lot because they contextaulised the film for the viewers. By the time the film released in theatres it already came with a positive ring around it. So film reviews do play a role but they do not control the narrative entirely.

Rocky and Rani Ki Prem Kahaani became crucial for the revival of Ranveer Singh's career.

Yes. We have done Padmaavat with him and he is dear to us. To begin with, the equity of the stars ...nothing stacked favourably. Jayeshbhai Jordaar did not do well, Cirkus did not do well, 83 did not do well, Befikre didn't do well ....and so despite being a phenomenal actor with so much talent, his films were not working. And so Rocky Rani... because crucial for him. Overseas the film is a huge success as it collected upwards of Rs 160 crore gross. In the domestic circuit we are clearly looking at a Rs 150 crore range. You have to remember that when this film came out you already had successful titles like Oppenheimer and Mission Impossible, so it was a very busy corridor. Also you have to look at what was the equity of the stars before they came into this film. Ranveer did not have successful box office collections when he came into Rocky Aur Rani....Nothing was stacked in his favour but the film turned it around. This is despite there being no action sequences in this film, unlike a Pathaan or a Jawan.

Is the studio system thriving in India as of now or you think we need to take lessons from the West?

What studios bring in is a certain amount of discipline in the area of filmmaking. Today, shooting schedules are prefixed and everyone works around the script. There is a lot more discipline involved. Funding is absolutely clear and above board unlike decades earlier when the industry used to suffer a lot from this issue. It is more professional now and a studio is far better equipped to handle risks as compared to individual producers. Especially studios such as ours, Viacom18 which is also a network and a digital platform, is strategically far better poised. Marketing and distribution too, happens in a systematic manner than when handled independently.

What the studios must do now to stay ahead is to have a very strong creative core—not many have that and that's where the challenge lies. This is not a business that can be run by the 'suits,' you need to feel the product and emotions. Another strength that Viacom18 studios has demonstrated is the ability to work with a lot of partners. Right from Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Karan Johar to Vishal Bharadwaj, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra or the younger directors such as Vikas Behl, Amit Rai and Abhishek Pathak in Drishyam, we have worked with them all and will continue to do so. Additionally, we are at an advantage because a lot of material we work with is that which we create ourselves. A lot of people who are employed with us are either writers or showrunners. This is the reason why we are having a great run while a lot of other studios have also shut down.

The studio business is not a standard business which can be run like a desk job; you need to be in trenches, in shoots, need to be able to edit, manage sound and have everything as an integrated system right from scripting to production to distribution to syndication. We also several agencies who work with us in the talent management domain. But most importantly, Viacom Studios does well in the softer aspect that is to understand filmmaking, filmmakers and empathise with them to create value. We have had rewarding partnerships so far with Phantom films with whom we made Queen, with Sanjay Leela Bhansali who gave us Padmavaat, Wakao Films and also Dharma. No other studio has worked with this range of creative people and have succeeded at that.

Through your partnership with Paramount Studios/Pictures you have turned Mission Impossible into a highly successful franchise in India.

Today Tom Cruise is as good as any Bollywood film hero in India. We will continue to stay with them (Paramount Studios) and grow their projects here. Today Transformers is also a relevant title in the Indian market. So the strategy has been to grow the English entertainment Hollywood market here in India. We'd also like to take our successful films like Drishyam globally and make them into English and foreign language films.