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From 'Dil Chahta Hai' to 'Mirzapur', Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani look back on a 20-year partnership

Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani founded Excel Entertainment 20 years ago, starting with 'Dil Chahta Hai', and continue to score with OTT hits like 'Mirzapur'. They talk about the journey so far, and the one ahead

Rucha Sharma
Published: Oct 30, 2021 10:00:00 AM IST
Updated: Oct 29, 2021 06:18:15 PM IST

From 'Dil Chahta Hai' to 'Mirzapur', Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani look back on a 20-year partnershipFarhan Akhtar (right) and Ritesh Sidhwani started Excel Entertainment to tell stories of their times

When Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani created Excel Entertainment 20 years ago, they wanted to tell the stories of their times. Starting with Dil Chahta Hai (2001), Excel has delivered noteworthy productions, including Gully Boy, India’s entry to the Oscars in 2019, and nurtured talents such as director and screenwriter Reema Kagti, director Mrighdeep Singh Lamba, and director Zoya Akthar. 

After two decades in the entertainment industry—which has witnessed the evolution of technology, consumer behaviour and the rise of digital media and OTT platforms—Akhtar and Sidhwani trace their journey, and the evolution of their production house. Edited excerpts:

Q When you look back, what do you see as Excel’s place in the film industry?
Ritesh Sidhwani: We’ve managed to hopefully stay on track. What we set off to do was to tell stories of our times. During Dil Chahta Hai, people started telling us that, ‘You are way ahead of your time’. The kind of movies we wanted to make, the kind of stories we wanted to tell, at that point, a lot of it was coming from what was happening around us. There was a generation that was not going to the cinemas, and we managed to bring those people into theatres to start experiencing movies. The stories started changing at that point. We are fortunate to be a part of that change. Hopefully, we’ll continue to engage and entertain, inspire, and give important messages for the next 20 years as well.

Farhan Akhtar: We have endeavoured to engage beyond just entertainment. That has been our mission, so to say. Looking back at how much has happened, and the incredible people we’ve had opportunities to work with, when it gets encapsulated into a two-minute video, you realise how much work has been done, and how many people have shared your vision. It’s just been an incredible journey.

Q Many of Excel’s movies, such as Dil Chahta Hai, Fukrey and Gully Boy, are considered cultural milestones. Do you think you have achieved what you set out to do?
In everything that you do, there’s always space to grow and an opportunity to learn something. The realisation of being ahead of one’s time is something that happens much after your film releases, and how the audiences feel about it 10 or 15 years later. When we make films, we want to engage with the audience. Of course, there are films like the ones you mentioned—I’d put Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Lakshya, Karthik Calling Karthik in there. These have found audiences as time has passed. There’s nothing you can do to make that happen or plan it in that kind of way.

RS: We’ve reached a time now when you’re getting opportunities of telling your stories not only within your diaspora with OTT [platforms], but also being able to expand the audience base. You’re not restricted; the audiences are evolving; filmmakers are taking steps to tell different kinds of stories. It feels like you’re starting all over again. That’s what happens with movies. Whenever you have a story, or you have a film [coming out], you have the same amount of excitement, eagerness, and nervousness.
From 'Dil Chahta Hai' to 'Mirzapur', Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani look back on a 20-year partnership
Q Excel was the first production house to get onto the original web series bandwagon in India with Inside Edge (2017). How was that decision made? And how did you anticipate that the pulled content is going to be the future of the entertainment industry?
Farhan and I used to engage with some of our GEC [general entertainment channel] peers for the satellite rights [of our films], and often they’d ask us if we were interested in doing something for TV. I don’t think either of us had heard stories or ideas that we could do justice to, given what was being consumed by TV audiences. There was a real gap where there was no content for a certain segment of people who were wanting to watch a certain [type of] content. We started watching a lot of stuff that was coming on different platforms like Netflix and Amazon. When we came across the stories of Inside Edge and Mirzapur, we said, ‘This is great. We must put it into development’, and we wrote it and kept it ready.

Amazon first said they didn’t have plans of doing originals out of India. Then in six months, they [Amazon Prime Video] asked if we have a show, and we said yes. We knew it was going to happen and it was a matter of time that there would be a demand for long-format content.
From 'Dil Chahta Hai' to 'Mirzapur', Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani look back on a 20-year partnership
Q Apart from theatrical releases, there are OTT releases and short video platforms. What’s Excel’s path into the future?
The important thing is to be able to reach out and hopefully satisfy all kinds of audiences. Be it through big-ticket films for theatres, or maybe more intimate films meant for OTT because they are for discerning audiences. I think it’s not right to put a set of audience aside, saying, ‘If they don’t watch our film, that’s fine’. As creative people, you want as many people to be exposed to your story.

Now, because of OTT platforms, the opportunity to tell different kinds of stories without having to worry about the Friday box office is a blessing. Otherwise, it is so driven by just the [box office] number at times that ideas can get a little lost or put aside or diluted. But now you don’t have that concern anymore; you can stick to your guns and do something the way you want to.

Q Is there no pressure with streaming numbers?
With streaming numbers, you’ll get some data, and you won’t get some data. But, more often than not, the success on streaming is based on the quality of your content. If your content is good, there is a buzz about it, which gives you a sense that the show is successful.

Also, the content drives that piece. Because everyone is sitting with a remote in their hands, if something’s not engaging them, it takes just one click. In the theatre, you can’t do that. You’ve paid money, travelled somewhere, and sat down in a room. You don’t have that luxury of a captive audience when you’re making something for OTT. So your content has to be amazing. Of course, we should try and do that in films as well.

From 'Dil Chahta Hai' to 'Mirzapur', Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani look back on a 20-year partnership

RS: We never got into the trap of advertising what our box office numbers are, because it’s pointless. It is more important for somebody to watch the content you’ve created; you want people to be engaged with the story you’re telling. It’s more about the number of people; it’s not about the box office number. I don’t think anyone should worry about how much money a movie has made. Did you connect with the film? That is more important.

FA: We don’t do it; many other people also don’t do it. Some people like to advertise what they’ve done. But the fact is there is also the view from the entertainment media towards films. Because of the constant talk about numbers and box office, it’s seeped into even the public psyche. People associate a hit film with the box office; they don’t associate it with the success of an amazing film. It’s an unfortunate reality where commerce has completely overridden art.

Q Moviemaking is also a business. How come those numbers don’t matter?
Obviously it is a business, because there is a cost attached. Whether you borrow that money or a studio funds it, you are responsible. But everybody associated with films understands that it is unpredictable. I don’t think anybody is a part of this industry for the money, because then there are other businesses they should go to where there is a constant, where they know that ‘I will produce this much, I will advertise, I will sell this much of my product’. That cannot work in this industry, because you may feel a certain way about the film but people might not.

Where we go wrong is with budgets, not the film. Say, I make a film for Rs. 5 crore and at the box office it earns Rs. 15 crore. Now,  Rs. 15 crore seems low for another film that opens on its first day at Rs. 50 crore. Did it make business sense? It did, because after the theatrical release, there is satellite, digital, and TVoD. There are multiple channels through which the movie can recover its cost.  

Q What’s the most exciting part of being in this industry right now? And what’s the toughest?
The most exciting part is that there’s so much more space for us to grow and discover new audiences, or have audiences discover us. Of course, there’s the storytelling aspect of it. There are so many bridges being formed between India and the rest of the world in terms of sharing and creative collaborations. Our stories are now travelling further than they’ve ever travelled before.

The flip side of it is, how to do that without design? Because, it’s important to stay true to who you are, to be organic in your effort. Yet, at the same time, we have to now speak to an audience that’s not familiar with the way Indians tell their stories or showcase their culture. That’s what’s challenging and exciting at the same time.
From 'Dil Chahta Hai' to 'Mirzapur', Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani look back on a 20-year partnership
File - (L-R) Ritesh Sidhwani, Hrithik Roshan, Katrina Kaif, Zoya Akhtar, Farhan Akhtar, Abhay Deol, and Kalki Koechlin attend the Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara Road Trip 'Mumbai To Delhi' on July 07, 2011 in Mumbai, India. Photo by Prodip Guha/Getty Images

Q As producers, how do you navigate the digital media ethics code?
I don’t think the code is that bad. We were becoming easier targets for anybody; everybody wanted to have an opinion on our work. You can’t go around satisfying a billion people. [With the new code] at least you’re not under the constant fear. ‘Oh, this is going to be pulled off or taken down’. There’s a self-regulation body that was put into place by the broadcasting industry. Similarly, they have done it to digital platforms. As filmmakers, we have an opportunity to explain, because certain people don’t see it in context, and do it for the two minutes of fame. Having the code will bring in some amount of discipline. It’s only going to help us.

Q What’s the secret to longevity in this industry?
Well, it’s a strange kind of paradox or dichotomy, where you have to be sensitive while having a thick skin. You have to be sensitive to be able to understand people. You’re dealing with people all the time. So you need sensitivity and empathy to do your job well, and make people belong in every single project, make them feel that they are not working for you but working with you.  

On the flip side, there’s so much else that happens around us in terms of success, failure, criticism, and the absolute invasion of privacy that can also happen. You have to develop a thick skin to be able to deal with all of that. So it’s about finding the right balance between the two.

(This story appears in the 05 November, 2021 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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