Interview: “Brahmastra is the first of its kind ever made in Hindi cinema” – Apoorva Mehta

If you watch Bollywood movies, it’s hard to miss the Dharma Productions logo and the iconic theme music of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai at the start of many popular films. Founded by late Yash Johar, the studio has produced some of the biggest Hindi language hits in the UK market such as Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, and My Name Is Khan.

The man behind the Dharma Productions is Apoorva Mehta, who took over the role of CEO after director Karan Johar, a childhood friend, called him to assume the position following his father’s demise. Mehta was in London at the time, working with Yash Raj Films at their UK distribution office.

It was a fairly new set-up with Mehta being only the second person joining the YRF London office. YRF’s hit films of the 90’s by that time such as Darr, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, and Dil To Pagal Hai were released in UK cinemas by Eros International.

Apoorva Mehta - CEO - Dharma Productions

Once Mehta returned to India, he helmed Dharma Productions as CEO, being in charge of 15 people and managing finances for movies known to be larger-than-life. His experience in distribution showed him how to make content accessible to audiences, but suddenly he was behind the scenes and experiencing the magic of film-making with Karan Johar at the forefront.

With Mehta in-charge, the production house stopped working with just YRF as they had been, but moved from one studio to another to release their films in the UK, even co-produced some of them, usually through a deal that involved a promise of at least three projects. Their previous UK distribution partners include UTV Motion Pictures, Eros International, Reliance Entertainment, Fox Star Studios (20th Century Fox), Zee Studios and currently their forthcoming releases will be in the hands of Viacom18 Studios.

Dharmatic, a division of Dharma Productions spearheaded by Apoorva, has produced shows for Netflix and currently has more in the pipeline, with no exclusivity for one particular streaming service. The Dharma Productions catalogue right now is available to stream in the UK on Amazon Prime Video, including the newly released film Gehraiyaan with Deepika Padukone, which skipped a theatrical release and was made available directly to stream on 11 February this year, in partnership with Amazon Studios.

The CEO is currently gearing up for his most ambitious film till date, Brahmastra, starring Amitabh Bachchan, Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt; with an extended cameo by Shah Rukh Khan. This will be the first Dharma Productions film to be released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures in the UK. It is touted to be India’s most expensive film and is backed by Fox Star Studios, acquired by Disney through the Fox merger in 2019.

The film has been in the making for five-years and is set to release in cinemas on 9 September 2022

In Conversation with BollyNewsUK, the film producer opened up about his journey so far, the UK market and rising costs of film-making and more…

You started your film career with Yash Raj Films in London. How do you look back on your journey?
Yash Raj Films was already set-up in the UK. Avtar Panesar was the Head of Operations and the only film they had released by that point was Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. I was only the second person to join the office in London. Aditya Chopra, who heads the organisation, had tremendous plans for the UK market in terms of distribution for his own productions and films made by other producers. I was fortunate to be a part of their journey. It was also an exciting period coming back to India and joining Karan Johar at Dharma Productions. It was a different facet to what I had learned in the UK. We looked mainly at distribution at YRF in the UK. Here I had the opportunity to be a part of creating  films. Dharma Productions is essentially a film production house, specifically focusing on creating content. We use other distributors to release our films. It was the other aspect of film-making that I got to experience with Karan. It’s been wonderful and it almost feels like a start-up that has done well. When I joined the company 15-years ago, we were making one film every three years and now we make six to seven a year.

Dharma Productions has moved from one distribution partner to another. How do you decide on whom to partner with and what aspects do you consider?
The financial aspect and distribution network are two important aspects of our decision. It also depends on other factors such as satellite distribution, music distribution, what our requirements are at a given time, and what the studios are looking for in terms of content. We believe in a multiple slate projects agreement with our partners because if one film under-performs, you have the comfort of a few other films to protect you from losses, it balances out. We try to partner with studios on multiple films because of this reason. There is no specific strategy though. It’s a business requirement and a give-and-take situation. It depends hugely on the content we are making, what the studios can offer us, and what we are looking from them.

Apoorva MehtaShah Rukh Khan told BollyNewsUK that he would want to distribute Red Chillies productions himself overseas at some point. Does Dharma Productions intend to move into overseas distribution?
I understand the work behind international distribution. I have been fortunate to have worked with YRF, I learned from the best and understand what it entails. I feel, you need economies of scale, it needs to make financial sense, for example when you have a large number of projects lined up for release. Then the infrastructure costs and overhead costs that we have to incur, work out. There are also multiple overseas distributors who release films regularly and on a long-term basis. They have the line-up and for us, it makes sense to partner up with them for a much lesser cost rather than setting up our own infrastructure. If there are eight to ten films we will release a year, then yes, it will be something I will consider at that point of time. I have not reached that stage yet. For certain films, which are high budget, we may need to partner with a studio and they may not necessarily use our distribution network. We don’t want a situation where we are constrained by that. I don’t want to lose the ability of striking the best deal for each film.

How do you as a CEO justify and deal with the constantly rising costs of film-making, especially talent remuneration?
It has gone through the roof. It’s unfortunate that the costs have risen so fast and so steeply. As content creators, we have no alternatives, as there is a limited pool of talent available, and we have to keep working with them. Every business in the industry is facing the same hurdle. We have a limited number of strong A-list actors, all being chased by every filmmaker and now by streaming platforms too, for shows they like them to feature in. The demand-situation is very off-sided, in terms of the demand for actors and those who are available. The costs of film-making have risen due to their high salaries but the only thing we can do is make films that make budgetary sense, otherwise I don’t make them. Films with higher costs only get made if we can predict or estimate safe recoveries.

The UK theatrical market has always been strong for Dharma Production films. Is the market still important?
The UK market is very important. It still the third biggest market for us, after the US and UAE, outside of India. There is no change in that. However, the new trend we see is not just confined to the UK but all international markets. Social media has changed the way films are marketed and promoted to audiences. You have direct access to the consumer and are able to reach a very large number of audiences. We are able to achieve the same objectives from Mumbai, without having to travel. Even in India, the windows for publicity for a film has reduced substantially. Due to the pandemic, film marketing has also gone digital and changed the strategy. We are able to stream music and videos worldwide and everyone is using their phones to consume the content. The reach factor is being achieved very easily.

Why do you think is Bollywood moving away from what still works at the UK Box Office e.g. Kalank which opened at number 4 and made almost £1M ?
The digital platforms have brought about a rapid change in the taste of audiences. The new generation is really liking high-quality content and real cinema. It really has to to with audience preferences and they seem to enjoy high-concept films and real life story. Its really a question of taste and preference which driving some of these changes.

Brahmastra-Part-One-Shiva (1)Brahmastra is a high-risk film due to its budget.  Do the delays and the budget from a financial point of view worry you?
It does worry us. The film is expensive and it’s a larger than life canvas, the first of its kind ever made in Hindi cinema. For various reasons we are excited and anxious. Having said that, there is very little anyone can do about it in the current environment. We are living in a world where we have no control over how things play out due to the pandemic. We know that we’re not the only ones suffering with delays, everyone is like us. We have to keep working and adapt ourselves, something we have learnt over the last two years. This is not just true for Brahmastra, but all films. Every film has postponed its release dates, most of them won’t be ready because no one was able to work in December 2021  and half of January this year. We are in a global crisis and have to work around it. Human life is far more important than film delays. We have to work in a manner where we can ensure the safety of everyone involved, and that is what were doing. Every business is experiencing the ups and downs because of the pandemic.

Brahmastra will be Dharma Productions first film to be released in UK cinemas by Disney. Is the marketing budget going to be adjusted with this new partner on-board?
The marketing budget for the overseas markets is a direct reflection of what the distributor estimates the business of the film to be. If they are expecting high numbers, they will promote and market the film accordingly. I believe, everyone has a sense of the content and can estimate the range of returns. The marketing expenditure is skewed  to match that level business coming out of cinemas. When there is a film like Brahmastra, which is strong and VFX-based, you expect high box office numbers from every territory, and the marketing budgets will support that endeavour.

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