It is 3:00 pm in London, the aroma of jerk chicken, Jamaican patties and fried fish waft in the air surrounding the 600,000 people who have congregated to celebrate the Notting Hill Carnival. Amidst the colourful crowds and beating drums, a 43-year-old Indian film director and producer smiles indulgently.
Along with his wife, who flew in from Mumbai to join him at short notice, he has joined in the revelries, clicked photographs, and made videos of Europe’s biggest street party with a security spend of £6 million according to the city’s Metropolitan Police.
For Vipul Amrutlal Shah, producer of 2008’s biggest Bollywood blockbuster Singh is Kinng, the Rs 48 crore spent on the Notting Hill Carnival security is like loose change, considering his current profits could burst a couple of bank lockers. “So far,” he grins, “the film has grossed Rs 126 crore worldwide.” For a film made on a budget of Rs 55 crore (it was produced by Shah and directed by Aneez Bazmee), that’s a lot of money.
So what if its storyline, at least on paper, looked like a dud: A young Sikh goes to Australia to bring back a bunch of goons, his village mates, whose wayward ways are giving his humble Punjab village a bad name. During the course of events he raises their conscience, lectures them on the virtues of being a good Sikh, and brings them back home. End . Oh, the hero makes a mistake, flying out to Egypt instead of Australia, where he sings a couple of songs with the love of his life.
“The first time I heard the story of Singh is Kinng, I had a good laugh about it with Vipul,” says J D Mathijia of Hats Off, a well-known Indian television production company. Shah and Mathijia (whose families have been friends) were together in the Narsee Monjee College of Commerce and Economics, which Shah joined “because the dramatics society there was very strong”.
Mathijia remembers Shah as a risk-taker: “A major difference between him and me: I think and move, he moves and then thinks.” A case in point is Singh is Kinng which he couldn’t relate to but on which Shah had cast his bet. “It’s certainly not a superlative film, it’s no piece of art, but Vipul knew what he was doing. The fact that audiences have lapped it obviously means that he has succeeded beyond all expectations,” says Mathijia.
He’s right, Singh is Kinng is an out-and-out commercial success. “Its first weekend collection was Rs 25 crore and its all-India opening stood at a bumper 95 per cent,” says film trade analyst Komal Nahta. The film’s second week domestic net collection alone stood at Rs 64 crore. What’s more, even before the film’s release, the music rights were sold to Junglee Music, an arm of Times Music, for Rs 13.5 crore, the highest-ever in the Indian film industry.
But Nahta makes a point: “Some distributors who bought the film from Indian Films, to whom Vipul Shah had sold it, have posted losses. However, that’s nothing compared to the success that Singh is Kinng has seen.” Sources say that Ramesh Sippy Productions, which acquired the film’s distribution rights for the Mumbai territory for Rs 9.5 crore, has lost Rs 1.5 crore. “But Singh is Kinng,” adds Nahta, “is a clear winner.”
Years ago, Shah couldn’t have even dreamed of such numbers in his kitty. “But then, I don’t dream, I’ve never done that. I’ve just kept doing my work — happily and passionately,” he says, busy scouting for locations for his forthcoming London Dreams. Interestingly, like his Singh is Kinng and Namastey London, the new film too will be distributed by Indian Films. Reportedly, at over Rs 100 crore, London Dreams has commanded the highest sale figure for any Indian film though, as film trade analyst Taran Adarsh points out, the deal is yet to be signed on paper.
For someone whose father forced him to take charge of the family business 20 years ago — he ran Parle Book Depot, one of the oldest bookshops in Mumbai — Shah has come a long, long way. With no one from his family in films (his brother publishes educational books and his sister is married and settled), Shah likes to think that his creative genes came from his mother, who is a terrific singer. His entire training ground was Gujarati theatre, where he acted, produced and even directed plays (he was 19 when he started acting and 21 when he directed his first play) before he moved on to making Gujarati TV programmes.
His biggest hit was Ek Mahal Ho Sapno Ka (inspired by one of his own Gujarati plays) on Sony TV which completed 1,000 episodes before he switched to films. His first film Aankhen (“I hate the second half of that film,” confesses Shah), produced by Gaurang Doshi, had a budget of Rs 18 crore and collected Rs 23 crore at the box office. His second, Waqt, produced by Adlabs, garnered Rs 4 crore in the overseas territories alone and Rs 7.5 crore from Mumbai territory. His third, Namastey London, made for Rs 25 crore, has collected Rs 110 crore so far.
It was through college theatre that he met his group of friends who would later become successful TV producers (Mathijia), writers (Aatish Kapadia) and actors (Deven Bhojani and Paresh Ganatra). “I remember sitting at my father’s bookshop, waiting for him to take phone calls or attend to clients so I could slip away,” says Shah. “I would gallivant,” he shrugs, “turn up home at 3:00-4:00 am to find my father sometimes glaring from the balcony.”
Akshay Kumar, who has worked in four films with Shah, says, “While doing Namastey London with him, I saw how intelligent he was not just as a director but also as a producer. I actually suggested to him then that he should make a film where he would have a role only as producer, and I’m glad Singh is Kinng became that example.” But another friend, not wishing to be named, fears that Shah might be beginning to drift away into the world of out-and-out commercial films.
Adarsh interjects, “Vipul’s films are contemporary but still very desi at heart, and that’s why he’s in the big league.” In his view, Shah’s films are a perfect marriage of form and technique, vital ingredients for any film to succeed. “His goodwill and success are reasons why his forthcoming films, before they’ve even begun, are already in the news,” he adds.
In what will be a big challenge to prove himself, Shah will start shooting for London Dreams next month with Ajay Devgan, Salman Khan and south Indian actress Asin. No Akshay Kumar-Katrina Kaif? “I need to be flexible, I have to work with other actors,” says Shah, agreeing that with his success graph expectations from London Dreams are huge. When he had decided to cast Katrina Kaif and Akshay Kumar in Namastey London, friends had warned him of potential disaster. “I had immense faith in my actors, and it proved a success,” says Shah.
Already, his production team in Mumbai is working on shot sequences, drawing up lists of locations, jotting minute details of costumes and songs, even the number of extra crew that would be needed from London. “We work very systematically, but unlike many directors I never use a storyboard. I like working shots on the sets, that’s the only thing I don’t plan,” says Shah.
The Gujarati lad, born and bred in Mumbai, whose father worried about his son’s future, is ironically booked for the next two years with projects that include London Dreams and an as-yet untitled film, work on which will begin by February 2009, with — who else? — Akshay Kumar. “Vipul sat me down and had a long chat with me some days ago and said, ‘You have to support me, I’m going to be busy for the next two years’,” says Shefali, his wife, who worked with him in Waqt, that starred Amitabh Bachchan, Priyanka Chopra and Akshay Kumar.
Their first meeting was for a Gujarati film, one in which Shah wanted Shefali to act, and which she wanted to refuse. “He has tremendous power to convince, he could sell ice to an Eskimo,” laughs Shefali, who is readying to move with her husband and two children (boys, aged six and five) to their newly-purchased home in Andheri.
Kapadia, who wrote plays with Shah in college and translated two of them for celluloid (Aankhen and Waqt), says, “Vipul’s very motivating as a friend. Professionally, he is a fantastic blend of a producer and director.” Mathijia agrees, “He’s always been an entrepreneur. Even in college, he was always a couple of steps ahead of us.” Shah, on his part, feels he tasted failure early in life, which is why he continues to remain grounded.
“My first Gujarati play as a producer, for which I raised Rs 3 lakh after selling my father’s bike and taking a loan at 4 per cent per month, flopped miserably. I remember the agitated crowds screaming, demanding their money back. It was terrible,” he rues. Shefali adds, “Yes, but despite setbacks, I’ve never seen him flustered.” Actor Neha Dhupia, who worked in Singh is Kinng, says, “He’s not a stingy producer, always looking after us and our minutest needs.”
For Shah, the goodwill he’s earned is a humbling experience. “I haven’t done anything extraordinary with Singh is Kinng,” he says, setting out for Oxford Street to shop for a new pair of shoes. “It’s because my films have continued to succeed that I’m getting noticed.” That’s why he needs those shoes — after all, he’s still sprinting towards success.