The three-film-old director talks about his upcoming sitcom, has big plans for the OTT space and believes it’s necessary to cut across barriers to make globally appealing content
Mahi V Raghav, who forayed into the entertainment industry as a producer and made a mark as a writer-director with three distinct films - Paathshaala, Anando Brahma and Yatra - is taking the next big step in his career. Through his production house Three Autumn Leaves, he plans to take aggressive strides into the OTT space as a director, creator and producer.
While his banner has begun the production of several shows in recent years, Save the Tigers, to release on Disney+ Hotstar, will be the first among them to see the light of day. Ahead of Save the Tigers’ release on April 27, the filmmaker, in a chat with OTTplay.com, discusses the show, his plans to produce 2-3 OTT projects every year and why he believes it’s a step towards the future.
As a storyteller, regardless of the commercial reception for your films, you’ve always tried to give something new to audiences every time...
More than the audiences, I did that to excite myself and live with a story for a long time. I am a storyteller for myself first and audiences come secondary. Life has to go on and you can’t put yourself through a similar experience every time. There are always commercial and creative challenges that influence what you want to do.
Could you share the scenarios that triggered you to make all your three feature films - Paathshaala, Anando Brahma and Yatra?
Before Paathshaala, I had already produced two films and I was bankrupt. I never intended to be a producer but that’s how I learnt filmmaking. I always aimed to be a writer and when I wanted to do my own film, I was broke. My options were very limited and I could afford to make only a Rs 1 crore film with newcomers. I always wanted to do a road film with characters that come of age.
I wanted to tell a story that reflected travel, and inner transformation. While it was a decent story on paper, we fell short in terms of execution. I treat any film that audiences didn’t receive well as bad, they don’t have a grudge towards anyone. Even if they hate you, if you make a good film, they’ll watch it. The experience taught me how to extend the written word onto the screen.
Post Paathshaala, I was back to square one, I didn’t succeed both as a producer and a writer-director. There was no way anyone would make a film with me. However, I chose to do a horror-comedy, a genre I don’t watch/enjoy. The choice was between a crime comedy, a thriller and a horror comedy. Horror comedy, I thought, was a safe bet if I could get good actors and entertain audiences. Within my limitations, I had to do a project that would make commercial sense and it made good money.
The safer path for me after Anando Brahma was to do a romantic drama, find a mid-range hero. When I have an opportunity, I thought it was worth risking a film in the less-explored route. Yatra may be a political biopic but it was a road film based on a pada Yatra. The risk with making a political film is the divided opinions - some will like it, some will hate it and some won’t care only because of their affiliation with a party or a leader.
Had Yatra not been about YSR and a fictional character, it would’ve enjoyed a better reception. People may call it a propaganda film but we had to position it at a time it could grab many eyeballs Except for Gandhi, I don’t think there has been any political film that has received universal acceptance. I, however, like politics and I find a lot of drama in it. Given a choice between a gangster film and a political drama, I’d always choose the latter.
With all the films, you’ve raised the stakes slowly and steadily. How did you deal with the creative responsibilities and pressures of dealing with bigger stars?
My production skills always helped me. My failures as a producer helped me become a better director, in terms of having control over the canvas, the logistics and writing a story for a particular budget. The reason I rarely have any creative conflicts with my actors or technicians is that I see storytelling as a collaborative process - it’s not like playing the sitar or a tabla or painting, that you can do all alone.
Though I might have been the principal writer for my stories, I can’t be adamant that this is how it has to reflect on screen too. From the point of writing to releasing in a theatre, the film goes through a thousand hands and everyone adds their colour to it (making it richer/poorer). When you hire someone for a job, you need to trust them with the craft. I do have a vision at the end of the day but I also need to ensure that the actors and technicians I involve with, experience a sense of creative fulfilment.
Do you have a love-hate relationship with film production? What prompted you to enter the OTT space?
Except for Anando Brahma, I’ve been involved in the production side of all my projects. If I didn’t turn a producer again, I wouldn’t have been able to leverage the potential of the OTT market. I always cursed myself for delaying my entry into the digital space. Now, the OTT market is growing bigger than films and if at all, I didn’t learn the ropes as a producer, I wouldn't have managed a web show now.
In films, it’s the director who has complete creative control while it’s the writer/creator who runs the show in the OTT business. With Save The Tigers, one person who deserves all the credit is Pradeep Advaitham. It was his story but as a co-creator, my contribution is to set the tone of the content. I viewed it as a sitcom.
I wanted to make a neat show which could cut across age groups and enjoy widespread appeal. Sitcoms have great repeat value and amidst several intense crime dramas and thrillers in the market, I sensed the need for something that’s more slice of life. My role was limited to deciding its treatment, supervising production.
With Save The Tigers, the story revolving around the marital woes of three men, there’s every risk of making a regressive, distasteful comedy…
True, we don’t want to end up making a male-chauvinistic that’ll end up commenting on a gender. It’s important to draw a line on humour and understand what’s acceptable and what’s not. Save The Tigers may not have the most innovative premise but when four married men/women come together, a discussion on their partner and marriage is inevitable. It’s a universal issue and these tropes never fail.
There are a lot of differences between the way a man and a woman discuss their marriage. The men will always complain and crib - I’ve never heard a man who has kind things to say about his partner. However in the case of a woman, regardless of how stupid her partner is, she’ll end up defending him in public. The show basically revolves around a power struggle between a man and a woman in a family setup, because the dynamics have changed.
In comparison to our parents, there’s a lot of difference in the way this generation looks at relationships - their views on independence, and financial stability. Women are more empowered now. Men have grown up seeing their fathers treat a woman in a particular way and they try to imbibe them. However, the women they face is no longer like their mother - they’re stronger and independent.
Though it’s a beaten-to-death story, the conflicts of the six characters in Save The Tigers will be relatable, engage and entertain audiences without being regressive. Even though I wasn’t a hands-on producer, I entrusted the responsibility to Pradeep Advaitham and the move paid off. He was able to get the best out of the director, technicians and actors. He gave a larger vision to the story and held the ship.
Isn’t it a problem that directors don’t get their due in the OTT space? Aren’t they as crucial as the writers in delivering a quality product?
In the longer format, say Game of Thrones, you have multiple directors, and cinematographers and still see consistency in the storytelling and the performance. This is because the pre-production of an OTT show is quite different in comparison to a film. In the digital space, it’s the creator who sets the tone. At the pre-production stage, they’re aware of how the product will shape up and its visual style. Once you have established actors and you give them enough space, they drive the show. At least, at a stage where we’re doing sitcoms, it’s not a difficulty.
Now that you’ve understood the film production, the disorganised way, what was it like to deal with the corporate setup, pitching them stories and interacting with them?
There’s no beating around the bush here - it’s easier dealing with a corporate setup in terms of finances, documentation and there’s transparency in the process. Unlike a production house, they have their own creative team and there’ll be multiple checkpoints where they decide on what story needs to be picked, how it’s developed, executed and even edited.
We’re not used to this setup and we’re still learning how we collaborate with a corporate. There’ll always be creative differences. No three people have the same opinion on anything and the major conflict is about who takes the final creative call. You must respect the platform because it’s their money and they too have to answer to their bosses/superiors.
Creators need to be more accommodating and understand it doesn’t work like cinema. It needs to be a mutually accommodative process rather than making it a war about who’s right and who’s not. It’ll take a couple of cycles for corporates and filmmakers to find a middle ground.
When films are marketed, there’s an extra effort from the team to help the product reach its target audiences. However, are OTTs reducing shows as mere products and not pushing them as much as they should?
For me, it’s serious business. A year or two goes into making a show. OTT or cinema, the medium doesn’t matter. However good or bad, you need to spend time on it and own up to your product. The marketing of OTT shows and films is different, I understand that. Movies, at least here, are a family-driven business. They put their hard-earned money into it and need to recover the sum through the theatrical revenue.
In OTT, they have to recover it through a subscription. These are two different approaches - OTT is still quite new for us and we have some distance to go to understand its nitty-gritties better. It’s like one blind leading to another blind. Neither the creators nor the OTTs have created anything substantial; we’re just trying to evolve.
From Save the Tigers to another OTT show Shaitan to a feature film, you’ve quite a lineup this year as a producer and a director…
In the last four years, we’ve worked on multiple projects and it’s due to a few miscellaneous delays two of them are releasing within a short span (the next is Shaitan, also on Disney+ Hotstar). After Yatra, I did a social satire that’s more of a dark comedy. Initially, the plan was to do an action drama but it didn’t materialise because it needed a larger budget. Coincidentally, all three will be releasing in the same year.
We take the OTT business seriously and we’ve engaged a group of writers in Kerala and have an in-house team commissioned independently, irrespective of the platforms. We plan to do 2-3 shows a year. The turnaround time for an OTT show is two years - it’s a bare minimum from the writing stage to the execution and releasing it at the right time.