The Don 2 director talks about work-life balance, marketing innovations and Bollywood’s obsession with opening weekend collections.
Bollywood’s leading lights are not known to have a penchant for punctuality (there are stories galore of how most of them keep the media waiting for hours before finally making a grand appearance), but Farhan Akhtar surprises us by turning up much ahead of schedule, write Shyamal Majumdar and Varada Bhat.
There are more surprises. The 37-year-old who wears quite a few hats – actor, director, producer, writer, singer and now a super-busy model – says he is an “early to rise, early to bed type” and doesn’t attend late-night parties, specially the “filmy” ones. “It’s better to spend quality time with my wife (Adhuna, who is a professional hair-stylist) and two daughters whenever I am in Mumbai,” Farhan says in all earnestness. We wonder whether that was one of the reasons he was recently nominated “India’s sexiest dad” by a magazine. Ask Farhan about it and the sense of humour is evident: that’s probably the only award, he says, for which he didn’t have to work hard.
We are in his office – Excel Entertainment – on Bandra’s Turner Road. It is sparsely furnished and the only giveaways that it is a film production and distribution company are the three film posters near the entrance. Obviously, Don 2, which released last Friday and has been co-produced with Reliance Entertainment for a budget of Rs 90 crore, has pride of place.
As the waiter serves tea (since there is no centre table in the cabin, we have to put the cups on the floor; Farhan does the same with his glass of garam paani since he doesn’t have tea), the actor-director tells us triumphantly that Don 2 marks his return to direction after a gap of five years. The film closest to his heart is of course Dil Chahta Hai, his debut as a director in 2001.
By this time, Farhan has endeared himself to us by dismissing his associate’s suggestion that he can spare just 15 minutes. He is dressed in jeans and a pink T-shirt that is suitably tight to show off the biceps and a lanky frame.
So how does he juggle so many roles? “One should know how to compartmentalise the roles in your brain so that you can give full attention to each of them. Besides, work-life balance is the key,” Farhan says. At this rate, we thought, he can give any management guru specialising in the virtues of multitasking a run for his money.
We steer the discussions to Excel and Farhan says he and Ritesh, his childhood friend, are creative directors of the firm. Though there is no CEO, there is a CFO who takes care of all financial matters — a subject that he isn’t particularly fond of. He was in fact “thrown out” of college for poor attendance and that is entirely because Farhan has no love lost for numbers. He had chosen BCom simply because some of his close friends did the same, but stopped going to college as soon as he figured out that accountancy wasn’t his cup of tea. The next two years were spent at home watching at least two films a day — a decision that gave his mother, Honey Irani, many anxious moments.
At Excel, thus, his main job is to give “creative inputs”, while Ritesh takes care of production logistics. Only bigger decisions like budgets and actors’ fees are taken jointly, Farhan says, adding Ritesh takes all the headaches on how recoveries are to be done. “My understanding is that if it’s a good film, it will rake in money. Ritesh, of course, has different ideas, which suit me quite well,” he quips.
The arrangement between the two buddies has worked out fine. Excel, which is a co-producer of both the Don films, among many others, has done reasonably well, though the number of films produced isn’t many. Set up in 1999, the firm has produced just 13 films in 12 years (the 14th to release next year will be Talash with Aamir Khan in the lead role), which is much less than some of the other production houses. But Farhan says he and Ritesh are not interested in running a “film factory” and want to enjoy their work.
It will, however, be back to acting soon since he is playing the role of Milkha Singh on the athlete’s biopic written by Prasoon Joshi.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, which will be his first assignment outside his own production house, requires him to undergo athletic training for two hours every day and grow a beard. Farhan’s attention to detail is noteworthy. “It will take me exactly five weeks to grow a beard that is suitable for the role,” Farhan says, adding he is just waiting for all the promotional work for Don 2 to be over before Bhaag Milkha Bhaag takes over his professional life.
While he is absolutely in love with Bollywood, Farhan says the “opening weekend collection” mindset is an unfortunate reality. “In the past decade, the economics of filmmaking has had a complete makeover, especially with the box-office business reducing to just the opening weekend collections. It’s a very trade mindset that has grown as India doesn’t have enough screens that can help a film sustain for a longer period of time,” Farhan says. He still remembers his father (Javed Akhtar) proudly holding the trophies of some of his films celebrating golden jubilee or silver jubilee. In that context, he was thrilled when his sister, Zoya’s film, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, (in which Farhan played one of the three lead roles) completed 100 days in a theatre.
A few years ago, distributors came for what is called “trial shows” to see the film they had bought, but just before its release. Today, they read a script and invest only after they are satisfied that the budget is commensurate with the script’s requirement. But Farhan has no problem with the change. In fact, it helps to make one feel responsible since you are dealing with crores of rupees of someone else’s money.
Box-office collections, Farhan says, are crucial in India since unlike in the West, the home-video market is minuscule here due to rampant piracy. Abroad, the home-video revenue is sometimes bigger than theatrical revenues. Since producers in India still don’t enjoy that luxury, the emphasis now is to flood the market with prints to beat the pirates. Don 2, for example, opened with over 3,000 prints in India and is being shown in over 100 overseas markets.
The opening week collection syndrome has also meant marketing is critical — it’s not just about spending money on hoardings and TV promos, but out-of-the-box ideas that can break the clutter. That explains the lead actors in Don 2 appearing in countless malls across the country asking the crowd “to join the Don gang”. This is important, Farhan says, as the brand is supreme. For example, “I don’t want anybody to remember just Shahrukh Khan; I want them to remember Shahrukh, the Don”.
Farhan says he isn’t too impressed with the increasing use of focus groups and target audience to get a sense of how well a film would do. “The amount of research a firm like Hindustan Unilever would do before launching a new soap brand is phenomenal. But unlike soaps, a film is more of a personal experience. Four members of the same family would react to a film in four different ways. Rubbing a soap bar doesn’t remind you of a childhood experience; but a film might. So beyond a point, our job is less clinical and more based on gut feel,” he says.
The 15-minutes allotted to us by his associate has already stretched to almost an hour and Farhan says though making Don 2 required a lot of travelling and hard work, he had a lot of fun doing it. That is understandable considering that the inspiration for much of the evil ideas of the protagonist in Don 2 came from him watching Tom and Jerry — especially how to trick somebody.
“Don 2 is one of those thrill-a-minute films. No message, please,” Farhan says before we wind up. Though many say the film doesn’t excel in story or ingenuity, going by the box-office response in the opening week, Don 2 is surely giving its producers many thrills as well.