Monday, May 20, 2019

Indian cinema's world citizen

Guneet Monga was at Sneha Khanwalkar and Kanu Behl’s January wedding in Indore when she learnt that the film she had worked on had been nominated for an Oscar. She had been buying paan while checking Twitter. “I immediately told him, 20 paan kar do (make it 20)," she says. “Logon ka mooh meetha kar doongi (I’ll buy something sweet for everyone)."

This was Monga’s second time at the Oscars. In 2010, Kavi, an anti-slavery short she produced, was up for Best Live Action Short. It didn’t win. This time, Monga wasn’t the main producer but played a key role as India producer, helping to see through the shooting. The film, Period. End Of Sentence, was a non-fiction short about women making and selling menstrual pads in a village in Uttar Pradesh. With Netflix pushing the film, its chances seemed strong. Still, Monga knew the field was strong, and personally thought the migrant-focused Lifeboat was the favourite.

Some way into the Oscar ceremony, Period. End Of Sentence was announced the winner in the Best Documentary Short category. As Monga cheered from her seat, director Rayka Zehtabchi and producer Melissa Berton thanked a list of people. One of the shout-outs was for Monga, though she was so overwhelmed she says she didn’t hear it then. The rest of the ceremony was a blur. It was only after it ended that she could relax and celebrate. “I was asking, what is the plan for this party and that party, do we have to be invited? They said, if you win, you and the crew just walk in with the trophy."

We are sitting in the Sikhya office, Monga’s production company, in a leafy by-lane in Versova, Mumbai. Cats are sunning themselves outside, and her dog, Shifu (named by director Vasan Bala), is sleeping in the foyer. Just next door is Cat Studio Café, a feline adoption centre and coffee shop. I ask Monga how she felt when she found herself part of an Oscar-winning team. “I don’t think the world prepares you for success," she says. “It really prepares you for failure—get up again, be resilient." She says the enormity of it hit her during the 20-hour flight back to India. Her phone was full of congratulatory messages—from friends, mentors, people she had worked with once a decade ago.

One of the well-wishers was her former school principal at Bluebells International School in Delhi. Monga credits her time there with instilling in her the leadership qualities that helped her rise in the film world. At 35, she is already India’s best-known producer on the world cinema circuit, with over three dozen films to her name, many of them critical favourites. She is a regular at Cannes: Gangs Of Wasseypur, Peddlers, The Lunchbox and Monsoon Shootout have all premiered there. That Girl In Yellow Boots showed at the Venice and Toronto film festivals in 2010. Zubaan opened Busan in 2015—a first for an Indian film.

Monga started working part-time when she was 16—she wanted to save enough to buy her parents a house one day. She was, in her own words, “an overexcited intern everywhere", selling cheese, editing, working as a DJ. “I was a motivator and hustler bachpan se (since childhood)," she says. She studied mass communication from Delhi’s Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, then got a job assisting Anureeta Saigal, a production coordinator on foreign films shooting in India. “A lot of the energy and the calmness that you need to run a film set comes from her," Monga says. Starting as an “intern’s intern", she worked her way up to gigs as production coordinator, production manager, location manager. When her first film as producer, Say Salaam India (2007), did badly, she sold shows to students at reduced rates until the film made its money.

In 2009, Monga’s career took a turn when Anurag Kashyap asked her to produce his film That Girl In Yellow Boots. He soon offered her a position as CEO of AKFPL (Anurag Kashyap Film Productions Ltd). With Yellow Boots, Monga got her first glimpse of the arthouse circuit at the Venice Film Festival. “I went there with printing stationery," she says. “I thought, I’ll stick posters, like I used to at college festivals. We booked our stay in Venice—we didn’t even know the festival was in Lido, which is 45 minutes by water." Marco Mueller, then director of the festival, explained that she had to book meetings with foreign distributors months in advance. Monga realized she needed to build her contacts. She started visiting the big festival towns in the off-season, armed with a list of industry players to track down and meet.

AKFPL had several projects in the works and Monga found herself handling back-office duties in Mumbai for Gangs Of Wasseypur even as Shaitan and Aiyyaa went on the floor. She also started developing a project that Ritesh Batra had pitched at the Screenwriters’ Lab in Goa. This became The Lunchbox, the film that Monga considers, along with Bala’s Peddlers, the first production she could wholeheartedly call her own. The Lunchbox was a huge global hit (most of its earnings—over ₹100 crore—came from outside India), but the success was hard-won. “We sold the whole world at Cannes in one week," she says. “But when we came back to India, the studios passed." It took the film’s box-office success in the US and Europe for many to realize that Monga knew what she was doing.

Monga’s career was seemingly in high gear, but it was in reality a difficult time for her. In 2014, Kashyap decided to close AKFPL, a decision she says “felt personal". Tigers stalled, she couldn’t get Peddlers released in theatres, and Monsoon Shootout didn’t make the splash she expected. “I questioned myself, my taste, my judgement," she says. There was also unaddressed personal trauma. Her parents had died a couple of years earlier, within 6 months of each other; she had thrown herself into work then. She tried to snap out of it by travelling, learning Kalaripayattu, shaving her head—a loaded statement, considering she used to dye her hair grey to look older and be taken seriously by those who expected producers to be older males.

She flips through photographs of herself from 2010, in a sari and with grey hair. “Who would have said that I look like I’m in my 20s?" she says sadly. “It feels like I was judged and put under a lot of pressure." A renewed interest in spirituality—in particular the teachings of the late Nirmal Singhji Maharaj, known to his followers as “Guruji"—helped her emerge from her dark period. She now attends satsangs regularly (“That’s my happy space").

Sikhya is a 15-member team right now—it varies with the projects they are working on. Monga says she isn’t a micromanager, though she likes to offer feedback on whatever everyone is doing. She describes her approach as “very intuitive and impulsive", and is trying to temper it with experience. She has started taking Sundays and half-Saturdays off, though she adds that the office feels like an extension of home (her own home is 5 minutes away), and that you will often see the team there on a weekend watching a film together. In her free time, she catches up on films and shows she has missed, meets friends, colours books and sleeps.

In the works is a Tamil film with director Sudha Kongara, and another with actor Sanya Malhotra. Monga also has plans for a YouTube channel which will focus on women telling their own stories. The Oscar experience, she says, “feels like a good closure. It has been a good decade. I’m ready for the next, to win it for features..."

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

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