Cannes: India's New Wave Producer Guneet Monga (Q&A)

Guneet Monga
Sikhya Entertainment

One of India's most prolific producers of a new wave of cinema making a global impact – Cannes titles include “The Lunchbox” and “Monsoon Shootout” - explains how her approach to film-making is different from the mainstream.

As a trail-blazing producer with over 20 films to her credit over the last five years, Guneet Monga heads her banner Sikhya Entertainment and runs acclaimed director Anurag Kashyap's production outfit AKFPL. Monga was featured as one of the 12 international players to watch in The Hollywood Reporter's 2012 Women in Entertainment special.  Once again, Monga is busy at Cannes where her films have been representing India two years in a row, including new titles The Lunchbox and Monsoon Shootout. Monga shares with THR how she powers her projects with a global outlook.

THR: You have had a good run at Cannes two years in a row with multiple films making it in the program (including last year's two-part epic, Anurag Kashyap's Gangs of Wasseypur). It seems international coproductions are the bedrock for your projects.

Monga: Absolutely because its difficult to find money for these kind of films in India. So for The Lunchbox (playing in the Cannes Critics Week) we found money in Germany and France with Indian funding as well. We have gone on the coproduction route as you also get acceptability. But it begins with a belief system we have with the director such as The Lunchbox's Ritesh Batra. I think with international collaborations the value of the product is better.
We are also associated with The Congress (by Waltz With Bashir director Ari Folman which opens the Director's Fortnight) for which we acquired some territories including India.

THR: What goes into greenlighting projects?

Monga: Its really about a good script and greenlighting happens at the script level. Monsoon Shootout (playing in the Midnight Screenings program) took nine years to make and it has been a long journey for its director Amit Kumar despite it being a good script. I met him three years ago and even then it was tougher to talk about coproductions – now at least there is an acceptability that multiple partners can work together. Monsoon Shootout is another example of an international coproduction and we also put our own money – I even sold my house! Its the only house I had. I can't wait for everybody to see the film.

THR: How has the creative incubation process evolved for independent films?

Monga: Things have really evolved with platforms like the annual Film Bazaar organized by the National Film Development Corporation which features mentors from all over the world for valuable workshops and sessions. NFDC invited Lars von Trier's editor Molly Marlene Stensgaard (who is editing the director's upcoming Nymphomaniac) for an editing workshop and we used her for Monsoon Shootout and for another upcoming project Haraamkhor. The Sundance-Mahindra script lab (now in its second year) is another great platform. So its good to see this evolution and new talent should grasp these opportunities.

THR: Your next challenge seems to be about cracking marketing and distribution for your films.

Monga: There is a perception that our films are arthouse but that's not true - they are mega commercial films. That's why Monsoon Shootout is in the midnight screening. I am looking forward to showing it to Indian studios as well. Viacom18 Motion Pictures did a great job in promoting and marketing Gangs of Wasseypur which had a good run at the Indian box office.

THR: How do you see the Hollywood studios playing a role in producing Indian films?

Monga: When the Hollywood studios first produced Indian films, they were quite wide eyed. But now they are getting more real. Every non-English speaking country has its own film genre. India is classified as Bollywood but it is not really a genre since it is quite difficult to define it. For the world a film like 2002's Devdas (starring top star Shah Rukh Khan which was showcased at Cannes) is Bollywood. But that perception can change if you see how Shah Rukh experimented with a big budget, superhero VFX caper like Ra.One. By comparison, Hong Kong action films are a genre as are Japanese horror films or Chinese historical martial arts epics. So when the studios first came to India and said that they wanted Bollywood, there was no clarity. But the reality check has happened and they are now funding productions with stories that can translate worldwide. Again, Viacom18 is a great example in how they sold Gangs of Wasseypur. Similarly, Fox Star Studios had a good run with their recent release (social comedy) Jolly LLB. These are stepping stones but it seems standards have been set for the future.

THR: How do you see the marketing potential for The Lunchbox (playing in the Critics Week)?

Monga: It is a love story that translates worldwide. Its about a lunchbox getting misdelivered and that's how the love story starts (between lead actor Irrfan Khan and newcomer actress Nimrat Kaur). I look at it being extremely successful both in India and overseas. Germany's Match Factory is the international sales agent while Fortissimo Films is handling Monsoon Shootout.

THR: Your banner Sikhya Entertainment and Anurag Kashyap's AKFPL are becoming a one-stop production platform for a new generation of film-makers. Are you flooded with proposals?

Monga: We are flooded with ideas after we did an open call via the AKFPL website. The review process is happening. We have formed our way of finding directors through their short films. There is a certain bond that happens via short films with the director and us and that leads to the feature. Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox) had worked on short films. Amit Kumar's script for Monsoon Shootout just blew me away and I took an instant decision to back it.

THR: Going forward what kind of strategy do you have to develop a slate?

Monga: I am first looking at marketing our unreleased films from the last year or so. As for production, we are now upping the scale as our directors are getting into their second films. I am going to slow down on the volume of films so will do one or two films for now. But there are new producers who have joined us and they will also discover new projects under my supervision.

THR: Are you open to outside equity funding?

Monga: We have been in those discussions and that (looking at equity funding) will be the natural process going forward.

THR: How is it to be at Cannes celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema?

Monga: India has arrived! It is a very, very good time to be someone from India in the 100th year of Indian cinema. We now have a chapter that even we can write at Cannes. Its very overwhelming. I hope the world buys our films and they translate worldwide.