Meet the "small-town-girl" who debuted with Karan Johar, Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, and Dibakar Banerjee at 24

13th Jan 2018
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Ashi Dua's second film, Kaalakaandi, starring Saif Ali Khan, hit the screens today - and she tells us how surreal it is that a small-town Bareily girl, once absolutely alien to Mumbai, became part of the inner circle.

It wasn't all that long ago when Ashi Dua came to the heart and soul of Bollywood, Mumbai city, with stardust in her eyes.

The Sherwoodian - that happens to be a distinction Amitabh Bachchan also has to his credit - harboured an unexplained adoration for Bombay, and seemed undeterred by the fact that the city has been as ruthless as it has been life-affirming to the thousands of aspirants that come to its shores every day.

But her death-or-glory spirit paid off after all.

Four years hence, life came full circle for the hopeless B-town romantic, when her maiden venture, Bombay Talkies, brought four veteran directors together to tell the stories of four individuals in rose-coloured glasses, much like Ashi, dotting the fringes of Bollywood.

After the film was a runway success, she's all set to release her second and third strides in cinema - one of which, Kaalakaandi, starring Saif Ali Khan, hit the screens today. But she reminisces as if it were only yesterday, that she was the new girl in the city.

Ashi dua

Not your average small-town girl

Born in Bareilly, a small town in UP, Ashi completed her schooling at All Saints and Sherwood college, a boarding school in Nanital, and went to Delhi University for college, during which, she interned with NDTV on We the People and The Big Fight, and even with a publishing house and an event company, which used to work for Lakme Fashion Week.

Even as she was dabbling in journalism and events, something inexplicably pulled her towards Mumbai. So, she joined St. Xavier's College and Bombay being “such an addictive place” as she puts it, she never looked back, since she first arrived in 2005.

“Honestly, when I moved to Mumbai I did not think I was moving to pursue a career in Bollywood. After her course, she got an internship with Percept in the Advertising and PR department and worked on marketing for the few films that they were producing.

She was all of 22, and in the middle of an internship in an almost alien city, when it struck her she could do things differently, and perhaps – more inventively.

Flying Unicorn was thus, established out of pure impulse, and even sustained itself in the first few months purely because of Ashi’s survival instincts.

“I did not have much to lose, so that was liberating. I wanted to work in entertainment, and streamlined the work along the road – but at the start, I took up everything that came my way, marketing small brands, small hospitality projects, etc. I would pitch for everything possible in the beginning, till I realised that I needed to focus in one direction for it to go somewhere,” she explains.

The first big break came from the show, The Director's Cut, on Zoom TV - where they brought 45-50 film-makers together to deliberate on the gaps that plagued the corporate and independent industry - mediated by Javed Akhtar, no less. They went on to bag yet another show on Zoom TV – Cinematographer's Cut, where filmmakers and directors honoured Directors of Photography, who are actually the most critical people in a film after a director.

Another project close to Ashi’s heart is Wave, a concert championing the cause of women empowerment, on Sony, for three years in a row – meant only for women and graced by over 5000 people.

“We had celebrities like Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, Saif Ali Khan, Priyanka Chopra and a lot of actors who performed for these women. We honoured women from ten different walks of life, so that was a massive highlight for us as our company,” she says.

Till today, though, it has intentionally retained a small team and kept its status of being a boutique company. Ashi says that she still likes (wo)manning most of the functions of the company, herself – right from scripting, finding a studio, setting it up, etc.

One thing led to another...

Having done so many shows that grappled with subjects surrounding the film industry, venturing into the film industry was a natural progression for Ashi.

Right at that time, a writing workshop being conducted by Anurag Kashyap, before he was on the map, became Ashi’s first real tryst with the nitty-gritties of the world of movies and film-making and convinced her that she was thinking in the right direction. “I think he played an instrumental role in making me realise that I could write and be a good producer someday,” she tells us.

Working on the script for Dev D at the time, Anurag happened to call her for a reading; and she was hired to work on the production of the film.

The idea for Bombay Talkies came to her on a flight, when she read somewhere that 2013 was going to mark 100 years of Indian cinema, and how excited the patrons of the industry were about the upcoming celebrations.

With some brainstorming, she came up with the interesting concept of roping in four film-makers, who had entirely different takes on cinema, for one film.

“The first person I went to was Anurag, as he was the only one I knew, and asked him what inspired him to be a part of the movies. He started telling me stories of how when he moved to Mumbai, he knew of people from Allahabad who would wait outside Amitabh Bachchan’s house every Sunday or the other, with Murabba,” she recounts.

This struck a chord, and she asked if he could make a movie in 22-25 minutes, depicting this story. He agreed, and she had her first director.

The actual challenge, however, was to get the other three film-makers, funding, and a studio to back her.

But the 24-year-old neophyte won hearts with the novelty and ingenuity of her concept. “I honestly think what worked in my favour was the concept. Had I started with a massive mainstream movie, I don't think I would have gotten noticed,” she recounts.

And just like that, Zoya Akhtar, Karan Johar, and Dibakar Banerjee, filled the remaining three spots, and Viacom 18 supported the project.

Nearly five years after Bombay Talkies, Ashi’s second film hits the screens today, which she has co-produced with Rohit Khattar. Ashi said she was gunning for Akshat Verma, the writer of Delhi Belly for this venture and tracked him down in Los Angeles to create a script for her. He had a script ready - a film called Kaalakaandi, and Ashi asked to read it. "When I read it, I immediately called him and said that I wanted to make the film,” she recalls.

Kaalakaandi, a black comedy stars Saif Ali Khan, a simpleton with a clean track record who is informed he only has a few months left to live. “It was a challenge dealing with the censor board, as the film has a lot of language that is not acceptable to their standards. I hope it opens up newer avenues for Hindi movies and does well,” she tells us, as she eagerly awaits the junta’s reactions to this passion project.

Up ahead this year, she’s attempting to pull an encore of her debut, and has roped in the same four directors – this time exploring the themes of love and lust, and their unique takes on it. “All four stories have already been shot, and it’s turned out really well,” she reveals.

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