Cannes: Guneet Monga on Why Now Is the Best Time to be a Filmmaker in India (Q&A)

Sikhya Entertainment

The Mumbai-based powerhouse is the force behind India’s new wave of filmmakers, "the young Martin Scorseses," as Thierry Fremaux calls them.

For someone who just left her 20s last year, Guneet Monga has chalked up an impressive run as a producer showcasing a new sensibility in Indian cinema. And with her films landing on the Croisette three years in a row — this year she is back as international sales consultant for Titli, which will compete for the Camera d’Or — the CAA-repped Monga now is a familiar face at Cannes, buzzing from one meeting to another with leading global industry players keen to work with her banner Sikhya Entertainment.

PHOTOS: Nicole Kidman, Blake Lively, Zoe Saldana Hit the Red Carpet in Cannes

Born in Delhi, Monga graduated from Delhi University with a degree in mass communication and started out as a production intern on various projects before moving to India’s film capital, Mumbai, in 2004. She went on to partner with acclaimed director Anurag Kashyap on such projects as the well-received Gangs of Wasseypur. Fast-forward to 2013, when The Lunchbox became a trailblazer, not just for Monga as producer and Ritesh Batra as a new director, but also for India’s new wave of films, which Cannes festival director Thierry Fremaux describes as a genre distinct from Bollywood and art house fare. In between trying to crack overseas markets, the single Monga unwinds by sailing. 

She sat down with THR to discuss why now is the best time to be a filmmaker in India.

In a short span of time, you have made remarkable progress. How has the journey been so far?
Starting out was tough. Last year, I was at a breaking point, having put all my resources in so many projects over the years. It was becoming very challenging to go out and sell something that only I was passionate about. But the global success of The Lunchbox changed the game and now I move forward with new energy.

What are your plans for Sikhya Entertainment?
What I learned from The Lunchbox and its director Ritesh Batra is that there is a precision that goes into the script. Instead of rushing into lining up a slate of films like a typical producer, I am spending time getting scripts in the right shape. It really affects the development process. Most of the directors I invested in are now ready with their second or third films. And I have also started partnering with international industry players such as Karen Tenkhoff [The Motorcycle Diaries]. She is a producer on Side Hero, the next film from Vasan Bala [whose debut Peddlers, produced by Monga, screened in the 2012 Cannes Critics Week]. Another project being set up as an international co-production is upcoming filmmaker Neeraj Ghaywan’s Ud Jayega [Fly Away Solo]. Its script was a finalist in the Sundance-Mumbai Mantra Screenwriters Lab. And then there’s the planned Hindi remake of [French hit film] The Intouchables. This will be co-produced with [leading Bollywood filmmaker] Karan Johar.

PHOTOS: The Party Scene at Cannes 2014

How do you see international co-productions contributing to the creative and commercial aspects of a project?
I want to develop international co-productions where the script relates to both by making these stories more globally relevant. After The Lunchbox [which was released in more than 70 territories], I am now more exposed to the world. I have to think about global audiences, which influences the creative process because when I look for international partners, they get on board right at the inception stage. There has to be a certain newness to how we develop a project.

You also are handling outside projects such as Titli, which is co-produced by veteran Bollywood banner Yash Raj Films and was picked up for worldwide sales by U.K.-based West End Films.   
I know it’s early to say this, but I think Titli is by far the best film that India could make this year. I saw a rough cut in October last year and its producer Dibakar Banerjee asked if I could come on board and position it internationally. So now I am thinking that I also want to work as a producer’s representative, which is a common trend in the U.S. and other countries, but not yet in India. Depending on which project catches my fancy, I would like to rep producers or studios to position their films globally. For instance, I saw Fandry [the award-winning Marathi-language debut of director Nagraj Manjule] and absolutely loved it. Though I came in a bit late for its India release, I am now trying to sell it internationally. But you have to realize that nothing happens overnight. Behind The Lunchbox was a consistent effort and a constant engagement over three years that we built with a number of films such as Udaan, That Girl in Yellow Boots and Gangs of Wasseypur. When it comes to engaging the global industry, we are still not as developed as Iran, Mexico, Korea and other countries. We are still in the nascent stage of penetration. We still have to find our identity.

In your view, how has the international perception of Indian cinema changed in recent years?
I go back to my first time at the Venice Film Festival, in 2011, where I was trying to sell That Girl in Yellow Boots. Anything in a language other than English is considered art house. I went on to discover that I must crack this perception because I know that my films from Gangs to Titli are not art house. Even Thierry Fremaux said that there is a third genre of cinema coming out of India. And he said that this is being led by a new generation of filmmakers whom he calls “young Martin Scorseses.” All I can say is that we are not a land of snake charmers: Our films are showing a new sensibility. Lunchbox spoke to people on various levels. People saw a new side to Mumbai with the dabbawala [lunch-box delivery service] culture. But it was a love story at the end of the day. I am now trying to attract that kind of attention to other genres such as dramas and thrillers from India. As of today, I don’t know where it will lead. But I do know that acceptance is coming. Also, I would like to do English-language films which can have an Indian angle as well — India has the largest population of English speakers in any country. And we have filmmakers who are ready to do English-language cinema, depending on the nature of the project.

But is there a sustainable business model for your kind of cinema?
Despite the success of The Lunchbox, this is still not a business model as hits like these are a one-off phenomenon. Over a decade ago, Monsoon Wedding was another breakout hit. But there can be a business model going forward and for that a lot of work has to go into the script and in forging partnerships at the inception stage. You do that by attending festivals such as Sundance, where you meet like-minded people who love what you are doing. I am trying to penetrate the markets, while on the other hand, I have my ear on the ground interacting with a new breed of fiercely independent directors who don’t owe anything to Bollywood. Compared to the past when there were very few films trying to challenge the norm, now it’s no longer a wild shot. Give me another two years when it will become a business model.

Being from Delhi, what made you want to move to Mumbai?
I grew up in a Punjabi family living in a big house in Greater Kailash Part 2 [an upscale South Delhi neighborhood]. Then my parents shifted to another area where we lived in an apartment block that exposed me to children from various backgrounds. That was a big influence in my formative years. As Punjabis, we have this aggressive ambition to pursue our goals and I guess that is what keeps me going. I would first shuttle between Mumbai and Delhi until I finally shifted there.

Have you faced any challenges as a woman producer?
I haven’t faced any problems as a woman. I have actually faced problems because of my age because people don’t take you seriously. But we are at an extremely great time where women are getting out of all sorts of cliches. We are uprooting and challenging everything in society. I think also socioeconomically about 60 percent of India is youth so there is an awakening and a change. It is the best time to be in India and work out of India. Even if I didn’t exist, there would be no stopping this new wave.