Guneet Monga, Mumbai's Cinema Maverick
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Guneet Monga’s mix of hustle and art sensibility are exactly what any good film producer needs.
By Aayush Soni
How’s this for blockbuster bad luck? You make a timely film about an international sporting event — the Cricket World Cup. It’s downright inspirational. That is, until your team gets knocked out of the tournament, and suddenly no one wants to see it anymore.
That’s what happened to one of India’s most important — and otherwise successful — indie film producers, Guneet Monga. Her response? Unwilling to let her investor lose all his money, she hustled to take the movie to smaller Indian cities, markets often ignored in favor of bustling Mumbai. In her hands and with her hustle, the would-be disaster turned a profit.
At 31, Monga is a bit of a maverick in Mumbai’s cinema world. And not just because she goes to every possible length to revive even a dead-in-the-water movie. She’s also been a risk taker in a country where your average movie follows a song-and-dance + melodrama + slapdash comedy equation. Her film company, Sikhya Entertainment, goes for the film festival crowd, often at the expense of movie theater success. Her 2013 film The Lunchbox, shot on a budget of approximately $1.5 million for Anurag Kashyap films, won accolades at Cannes, and got co-produced by studios in the United States, France and Germany. It became the highest-grossing foreign film in the U.S. in 2014, earning $4.2 million.
The film followed a lonely accountant and an unhappy wife in Mumbai, who fall in love thanks to a rare mix-up of lunchbox meals delivered by the city’s famous dabbawalas — men who ride bikes through the city, dropping off over 200,000 meals a day. The story is “so Indian indie,” says film critic Raja Sen — but Monga’s ability to hawk it abroad is a “testament” to her skills.
But Monga’s day-to-day work is also a testament to just how much crap film producers deal with, especially ambitious ones trying to break viewer stereotypes. Take That Girl in Yellow Boots, about a British woman who comes to Mumbai in search of her father, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival. While cast and crew alike were celebrating, Monga was “holed in her room … sending 20,000 emails and making phone calls nonstop to buyers, sales agents, distributors,” remembers Vasan Bala, a colleague at Anurag Kashyap Films.
“I was just a business-minded person who loved taking up a project, owning it, seeing the end of it and seeing where it goes,” she says. This jives with what others say: “That’s the Guneet Monga Show: She goes out, does her talk and walk,” says Bala.
Such a walk-and-talk is crucial, since Monga’s task of ensuring that her films get commercially released is positively Sisyphean. “Only a fraction” of Bollywood movies even make it to movie theaters, says Rudrarup Datta, vice president of marketing at Viacom18, a movie production studio. There are limited weekends, and fans know what they want. So when a movie theater owner has to decide between a populist, Shah Rukh Khan-starring song-and-dance extravaganza versus a Monga film, the choice is obvious.
Monga’s tolerance for nitty-gritty work began in her teens, when she got a job assisting her best friend’s mother at her film production company in her native New Delhi. Her job involved photocopying papers, making Excel spreadsheets, entering phone numbers from diaries into a computer and generally being the extra hand whenever needed. But to Monga, that scene was free-spirited, liberating, nothing like a regular office job — just by virtue of the creativity in the atmosphere. “I just knew that I wanted to be around these people and learn from them,” she recalls.
Don’t think she’s a number-punching drone, though. She’s been a DJ, an insurance agent, an event planner, a rally car driver and a property saleswoman for her late father. In person, Monga is warm, chatty, forthcoming and funky. Dressed today in a black top and blue jeans, with henna-dyed hands and a mop of purple-colored hair, she’s lived in Mumbai since graduating from college with a degree in mass communications. Throughout college, she kept working with that family friend, preparing call sheets, filing daily production reports and handling finances.
Her big break came when she met Kashyap, the poster boy of Indian indie cinema, who was once her mentor and partner at Sikhya Entertainment. (She was formerly CEO of his film production company.) She began as a line producer on That Girl in Yellow Boots, his directorial project; from that she landed a full-time gig.
Of course, none of her get-shit-done mentality can parallel her power of wacky thinking. Like this one time when Monga had her team of 27 paste posters of That Girl in Yellow Boots on their backs and walk around the Venice Film Festival. Or posting the script of one film on Facebook as a stunt to raise money. Or selling off the house she bought for her late parents — a lifelong dream — to be able to fund Monsoon Shoutout, a noir thriller whose financing fell apart due to the economic recession.
“I was like, ‘What’s the point of all these things?’” Well, at least compared to success.