Priyanka Joshi chats up Sunil Doshi, who is treating Indian audiences to films that are heady in content, to animation titles and the best of world cinema.
I f you are a fan of intelligent, multiplex cinema, you may know Sunil Doshi as the man who bankrolled Mixed Doubles and Bheja Fry. But for this session, the producer-distributor is expecting to talk of newer things: In fact, what he is expecting perhaps is yet another, slightly boring, session spent “educating” yet another journalist on some of his new acquisitions from Japanese cinema — animation films.
As director, Alliance Media & Entertainment, Doshi has just acquired 11 animation titles from Japan’s biggest production house, Studio Ghibli: Films like Princess Mononoke and Academy Award-winner Spirited Away, successful and acclaimed the world-over — if not in India, just as yet.
Having set himself the task of educating cinegoers (and journalists) as to this genre of filmmaking, Doshi brightens up when I mention that not only do I know of these films but have even seen them! “Aren’t they just great?” he asks, excited like a child, er, may be not. Because when I point out that animation is seen as a kiddy pastime in India, his frustration is visible: “That’s the biggest misinterpretation we have in India.”
Cue to launch into a lengthy monologue: “Studio Ghibli, Japan’s premier animation studio, was founded by two of animation’s greatest creators, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata,” he says, “Many of their films have not just won commercial success but have even won numerous awards and I am glad that I can help good cinema reach out to individuals,” he finishes.
On the other hand, even the cynics among us would be hard put to escape Doshi’s enthusiasm. He manages to convince me that “concept-driven” animation and children’s films are good business propositions. That’s why, he says, he will invest around $10 million on his latest business venture, Junior, that will produce children’s films as well as TV content. “And don’t expect my children’s films to have larger-than-life stars,” he says, with a hint of derision before quickly adding, “I am not averse to them but I make my films on my terms.”
For starters, Junior will release Azur & Asmar, an animated feature film by writer, director and artist Michel Ocelot. “It’s an Arabian Nights-style story about two re-united half-brothers, one white, one black and their genie-seeking adventures in a far-off land,” he lists. Justifying how the animation is not just for kids, he explains that the fairytale addresses themes of racism, nationhood, inheritance and idealism. A little prodding and he admits that the success of Azur & Asmat may establish whether Indian audiences take to animation at all.
Doshi also wears the hat of director, NDTV Lumière, an initiative to bring world cinema to India. He has been involved in building an impressive film collection of over 450 movies. “They are the best and have been handpicked by my team and I,” says the movie buff, who confesses to spending hours at end watching films.
Lumière has been organising corporate screenings and providing films to international film festivals in India, including in Mumbai, Kolkata, Thiruvananthapuram and Goa. When he is not negotiating rights for Oscar- nominated titles, Doshi returns to his production company — Handmade Films — and gets busy, well, “giving opportunities to newcomers”. “The new guys are bringing their ideas to the front and this will fire up filmmaking in India,” he forecasts.
His self-belief is well-rooted in films like Bheja Fry, now a case study for small filmmakers. This was a film with a budget of just about Rs 55-70 lakh. But it went on to make several times its production cost. He continues to invest in similar ventures but says that he refuses to look at the accounts sheet after the release of every film. “We look at long-term creative benefits. If there are some financial profits at the end of a year or two, we’re happy. Otherwise, the companies will continue to release and distribute films we believe in,” he says.
Doshi has extended his passion for cinema into production, acquisition and distribution of different genres of films at various film festivals abroad too. This explains why he’s at Cannes and other places on the festival circuit regularly. Feature-length fiction films that Handmade promoted in Cannes this year included Jaideep Varma’s comedy Hulla, Maneej Premnath’s thriller The Waiting Room, Rupali Guha’s Aamras, and Bela Negi’s Driving Lessons. He points out that all these have been directed by first-timers.
Doshi ends the interview on an assuring note: “We’ve the crème de la crème of cinema coming soon to theatres and homes.” We’ll wait and watch.