The Outside View
By: Sapna Nair-Purohit Dated: May 01, 2014
This ex-ad man is revelling in the success of his solo directorial debut Queen. Audiences and critics have lauded the movie and his refreshing way of storytelling. In a free-wheeling chat, Vikas Bahl talks about his move from advertising, his love for dogs, his rather simple take on filmmaking and more, over rajma-chawal...
No sooner you walk into the offices of Phantom Films than you know that Vikas Bahl is a foodie and a dog lover. The smell of food wafts through the corridors and two adorable pet dogs goof around the office. Bahl grew up in the busy commercial district of Lajpat Nagar in Delhi and moved to Mumbai to pursue management studies at Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies. Everything worked to his father’s script — an MBA degree, a gold medal, and a placement at Ogilvy and Mather.
As a management trainee in the client servicing department, he would occasionally unleash his creative side. “Piyush (Pandey) and Sonal (Dabral) would keep asking me to move to the creative side, but somehow creativity in advertising never excited me,” Bahl says. “There’s too much pressure to crack a headline everyday and I couldn’t have written body copy because my English wasn’t good enough,” he says with a laugh.
Drawing inspiration from his father’s long association with Indian Oil, India’s flagship national oil company, Bahl too hoped he would work at Ogilvy all his life. But as it turned out, he was there only for five years and soon joined indya.com, then led by Sunil Lulla. “I don’t know why I joined an internet company. I didn’t even have a Hotmail account and I am not computer savy. But I loved Sunil when I met him,” Bahl says. He was proud of having bagged a role in a company that was hiring some of the best from IIMs!
Bahl was part of the team that pulled off the first ever print ad innovation — the first-ever full front-page ad. He had The Times of India give out its front page for one such. It meant exhausting 70 percent of their marketing budget in a single day. “‘The Times of India Can Wait’, was written on the front page and in the next page was the ad for indya.com. I remember waiting for the paper at a newsstand in Bangalore at 4 am because we weren’t sure we had pulled it off,” he recalls with obvious glee.
indya.com shut down in two years but Bahl was among the four employees who were retained. It was here that his tryst with the entertainment world began, as he used to handle the entertainment section of the portal. He later joined Radio Mirchi as the National Marketing Head, only to quit in another four months. “The place was too settled and too big. Just didn’t work for me,” he says.
If a director comes to me with a one-line story and we chat about it for hours, I am able to put myself in the director’s shoes and figure out where he is taking the story. It was very difficult for me to explain DevD to people. But the shots, the colours, the madness... I had imagined all of that with Anurag...
Bahl then joined Contract as Vice President, heading the agency’s Mumbai office. After three years, Bahl moved into television. Sony had just bought over comedy channel SAB TV from Sri Adhikari Brothers and Bahl was hired as Business Head to revamp the channel. “We were totally anti-television in our campaign. We launched shows that were youth-centric. In about eight months, the channel moved to the No. 4 spot and when that happened, people noticed,” he says, referring to the job offers that started coming his way. One of which was from Ronnie Screwvala to join UTV. “Being an executive in a big organisation didn’t work for me because I had got used to running the business independently,” he says. That’s when Screwvala floated the idea of starting a new production house UTV Spot Boy (UTV’s second movie production division) and hired Bahl to run it.
Bahl remembers the first few days at UTV Spot Boy as being ‘clueless’. “I was the only one. I sat in a room thinking what to do and who to call. I didn’t know the names of directors either,” he says, implying his unfamiliarity with the movie business. He started exploring his contacts and that’s how he met Tigmanshu Dhulia who had done a show for SAB TV and had also made movies.
Dhulia met him with a 2x2 cut-out of Paan Singh Tomar’s life history, which Bahl loved and decided to make a movie out of it. Rajkumar Gupta came to him with the script of Aamir, something he liked too and made yet another movie. Both these movies were novel and widely appreciated. “These people probably didn’t know who to meet. Suddenly, there was someone who was making movies and wants to meet you,” he says.
Everyone who was part of Aamir was a first-timer. The movie was shot in 19 days with a budget of less than 10 million. Bahl decided to release the movie on the same day as Sarkaar 2, an Amitabh Bachchan-starrer. “I thought if Aamir gets even a star more, we’ll be up there. And that paid off,” he reminisces.
When asked what works in his favour, Bahl says it’s his instinct, followed by the marketing knack which he learnt from his advertising and television stints. “If a director comes to me with a one-line story and we chat about it for hours, I am able to put myself in the director’s shoes and figure out where he is taking the story. It was very difficult for me to explain DevD to people. But the shots, the colours, the madness... I had imagined all of that with Anurag,” he says.
The much acclaimed film Chillar Party, which picked up 13 National Awards, was a script Bahl wrote during those clueless days at UTV Spot Boy, along with ad guy Nitesh Tiwari, hoping someone will direct it. The story is rooted in Bahl’s love for dogs. “For me Chillar Party is a dog film, not a children’s film,” he states. While everybody seemed to like the story, nobody was keen on spending a year making a ‘kid film’. Bahl narrated the story to Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi through a translator and it was he who insisted that Bahl direct the movie.
“I told him I didn’t know how to direct. He said, ‘If this is the way you tell the story, you’ll be fine’. If he hadn’t told me to, I wouldn’t have even considered it. Film direction was never in my radar,” says Bahl. From this to, ‘directing a movie is the best thing to do in the world’, Bahl has come a long way. “It is like going to work but every day you are creating something. It is a great high when what you have been writing on paper for almost two years starts coming alive. It is addicting. I don’t think I am getting out of it,” he exclaims.
In 2012, Bahl, along with Vikramaditya Motwane, Anurag Kashyap and Madhu Mantena founded Phantom Films. Their first film was Lootera.
His latest, Queen, has earned him a coveted place. The story was born out of his love for travel and a rather random conversation between his parents. “My mom was telling my dad how she really wanted to become a librarian but didn’t. It struck me that in India, everyone has their lives planned. You know exactly what you have to do and what stage. Everyone’s happy doing that. But what happens when that plan goes awry? You are disturbed for a while, but after a while you are thankful for what happened,” Bahl says, about the story of Rani, who after being dumped unceremoniously by her fiancé on the eve of their wedding, then later goes on the planned honeymoon by herself. For Rani it was a journey of self-discovery.
Bahl is an outsider in the industry. And he uses his outside perspective to his advantage. “A lot of the movies that were made earlier were made by people from Bombay, who had a certain perception of India. I have come from the world they’ve been catering to. So my audience is me. I only make films that I will feel like watching,” he says, adding that there is no excuse for making a boring movie.
When not making movies, Bahl spends time with his wife, his dog, and his friends, most of who are not from the industry. That gives him a good break.
"I represent a very normal middle-class Indian mindset. If that changes, I wouldn’t know how to make movies," Bahl says rather candidly.