Saad Khan, is like a breath of fresh air in the arena of movie direction. In a country where music and romantic interludes in a film determine its box-office success, movies based on real life do not fare well. But, out of the blue came Humble Politician Nograj, a political comedy set in Bengaluru, that became a sleeper hit. Kannada cinema revelled in its success because it went mainstream nationally.
The movie connected with all Indians and there was a reason for this. Saad along with Danish Sait's alter ego, Nagraj (pronounced as Nog-raj and a pun on South Indian speech struggle over certain English letters) brought back political satire, comedy, the disenchantment of youth and the shenanigans that make up the narrative of our daily lives, all in one film. Saad is bringing "Nograj" back on screen and this time as a series on a well-known OTT platform. In an interview with YSWeekender, he talks about being a director, artiste and businessman.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
YSWeekender: When did you set up your company and how did you manage creativity and business at the same time?
Saad Khan: We set up our company ‘FirstAction’ in 2012. Maaz Khan and I were aiming to create a new wave media movement in Bengaluru and we became successful, because I directed ‘Station’, the first Hindi feature film from Bangalore which received a theatrical release in six Indian cities. Station was released by PVR Director’s Rare in 2014, and was my debut film as a filmmaker. We also started the first Live Improv Comedy Show in India around the same time called ‘The Improv’ which has been a platform for now, successful comedians like Kenny Sebastian, Sumukhi Suresh and Danish Sait. Managing business was challenging, especially when all you are selling is yourself, your passion and visual ideas, but we were determined to make a difference. We focused only on creating quality content and we decided to collaborate with artistes not just in Bangalore, but across India. One needs a lot of creativity, business sense, a persistent drive and people management skills to work with talented artistes, and we are excited to be a part of this ecosystem.
YSW: What were your major projects?
SK: Our projects were challenging, but where is the fun when things are easy? With a team of just four people, including Maaz and I, we were working 18 to 20-hour days. We were constantly pitching to clients and companies for Ad film/Commercial work, looking for producers for our next feature films, conducting multiple acting and media workshops, doing many live public shows of ‘The Improv’, and introducing the improv concept to corporates. We had to do all this to sustain our business and generate profits for the company. In the first four years, we had successfully released a Hindi feature film, trained over 200 actors, creatively produced over 20 videos and ads, performed over 100 Improv shows in the country, and in 2016 I was setting myself up to make my first Hollywood Independent feature film shot in the US titled ‘Love and She’.
YSW: What were some of your hits and misses and what did you learn about the business over the years?
SK: Fortunately, we have had more hits than misses. Everyone who saw us progress said - we should move to Mumbai. In fact, we did too. In 2015, for 6 months, we moved to Mumbai to set up a film school while still keeping FirstAction alive in Bengaluru. This was a mistake, because when we left, our film work was picking up in Bengaluru, but we felt working in Mumbai would open many new doors. It did open a few, but we couldn’t move past the verandah, if that makes sense.
We realised soon enough, that it doesn’t matter which city you work out of. If your work is good and your ideas are fresh, you will get noticed. With respect to Ad Films, we didn’t have a business development manager. Knowing there is a demand for visual content and with a feature film to my credit, I went to agencies, clients, brands and companies directly. For a few months it was difficult to shake off the feature film director tag, but after directing the Valentine’s Day Campaign for Big Bazar, fashion app Spoyl, Housejoy, Neta App - we started getting a lot of inquiries to create and produce ad films.
YSW: Can you tell us how you planned the script of the Humble Politician Nograj?
SK: Humble Politician Nograj is a feature film that is very close to my heart. Danish and I met after he came for one of my Improv shows and we invited him for an Improv tryout. After seeing him perform in a few improv scenes, I just knew - he was going to be a Star. He joined ‘The Improv’ and we hit it off very well. We both started doing live Facebook videos and digital content, where he played his character ‘Nograj’ with me interviewing him as a journalist.
Most of our videos went viral and soon ‘Humble Politician Nograj’ became synonymous with satirical comedy and we decided to bring him alive on the big screen. Enthused, Danish and I wrote the story in about a month. Writing a political satire was going to be challenging, and in addition to the comedy that was born out of being politically incorrect and funny at the same time. We also wanted to talk about the issues that exist in our society today.
Once we were happy with the story, I began writing the Screenplay and finished it in 3 months. The first good screenplay draft was 83 pages, with dialogues penned by the both of us. Danish put up our title page from the screenplay as a picture on Facebook with a message - “The Script of ‘HUMBLE POLITICIAN NOGRAJ’ is ready. Producers, we are waiting to hear from you.” And, we did hear from them, and the rest, as they say, is history.
YSW: How does a director raise money and how tough was it to sell projects to financiers?
SK: It’s always about the idea and it’s going be like that till the end of time. Once the idea is strong and the narrative promises entertainment value, all the director needs to do is pursue producers persistently. The industry is evolving rapidly and digital content is being consumed at a fast pace and with more distribution platforms, filmmakers today have more avenues to make and sell their films. Even the financing model has more variants now.
Earlier it was a lone producer or financiers or few producers coming together to make a film. Sometimes, an actor to star in a film had to produce his or her own project. With OTT platforms becoming a viable enabler, today an original idea/story can even be financed directly for the web.
YSW: How did the success of this film change you and how did you make it to a well known OTT platform?
SK: ‘Humble Politician Nograj’ became the first Kannada feature film to be on this OTT platform. Danish Sait deserves full credit for this. After the shoot, while I was busy handling post production, Danish was showing clips, teasers and trailers of Humble to every person in the Media industry. Even before we released the film theatrically, the buzz we generated was quite tremendous.
We were lucky to have Mumbai show interest in us and two days into our theatrical release, the OTT platform confirmed that we would be on their platform within a month. We are aware that now we have a greater responsibility not just to our wonderful audiences that have backed us, but also to ourselves, so that we don’t get complacent. We want to continue to churn out worthy content that will keep us relevant and engaging.
YSW. What is next for "Humble" and where are you taking the project now?
SK: We are now planning the Web Series. Season 1 is being produced by Mumbai-based Applause Entertainment spearheaded by Sameer Nair who has produced shows such as ‘Mind the Malhotras’, ‘The Office’ and ‘Criminal Justice’. ‘Humble Politician Nograj‘ Web Series is their first Kannada show. We begin shooting January 2020. Danish and I have written it, and I’m directing all 10 episodes. FirstAction is executing the project and Maaz is also producer on the show.
YSW: As a director and a business person what are you plans for the next three years.
SK: I am a workaholic and I’m happy that I am. FirstAction is growing and this is also due to our brand-new partnership with Mumbai-based Rainshine Entertainment. Rainshine, has significant stakes in FirstAction and as a content and film production company, our vision is to create and produce Web Series for the South market.
As a director, I will be working towards helming projects that are in different genres so that I’m creatively challenged all the time and as a business person, Maaz (my brother) and our team - we are driven to write and produce Web Series Content in Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu.
YSW: What is your advice to entrepreneurs?
SK: Work very hard. Stay extremely humble. Accept your failures. Reward the people working with you when you are successful and remember after all the struggle - there is only one word standing between you and your dreams – and that is patience.
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