Hombale Films' Vijay Kiragandur, Chaluve Gowda and Karthik Gowda developed a handbook for their future projects, with dictums that drew as much from their past failures as their successes.
Hombale Films' Karthik Gowda (L) and Vijay Kiragandur
Subha J Rao
Last Updated: 10.44 AM, Nov 08, 2022
In 2013, a brand new production house backed Puneeth Rajkumar-starrer Ninnindale, a US-set love story. They gave it their all — roping in a good cast and a sound technical crew, but ended up losing 30 percent of their investment when the film tanked. Cut to 2022, and that same production house has had two films that have raked in combined box office earnings pegged at Rs 1,600 crore as per trade estimates. The films are KGF 2 and Kantara, and the production house is the Bengaluru-based Hombale Films.
Hombale Films is led by first cousins Vijay Kiragandur (46) and Karthik Gowda (35), along with their partner Chaluve Gowda (47). (Kiragandur and Chaluve Gowda founded the production house; Karthik is the creative producer.) The company’s name is derived from Vijay and Karthik’s family deity, Hombalamma.
Years before foraying into production, Vijay had come from Mandya to Bengaluru to begin a bunch of businesses, including a microbiology laboratory. Films were something Vijay loved, and decided to invest in after a point. Karthik moved as well for college, and got into software before joining the film business.
After a misfire like Ninnindale, any other small production house would have disintegrated. But Hombale regrouped. They’d already decided to produce the Yash-starrer Masterpiece; all of their learnings from Ninnindale were put into that. Masterpiece released in December 2015 and worked well at the box office. Eight years and multiple blockbusters later, the reticent Vijay says nothing much has changed in the way Hombale does business.
Even today, when a director comes in with a script, it is first narrated to a close-knit group comprising Vijay, Karthik, and some of their friends. (Recent additions are former Amazon Prime Video India head of content Vijay Subramaniam, and Prashanth Neel of KGF fame, who is almost family after two films.) “We all listen to the story from the audience’s point of view and decide if we want to get involved or not,” says Karthik.
Once this is done, due process kicks in. “When Ninnidhale failed, we had to get back to the basics. We created a handbook that works for us. It does not contain traditionally accepted wisdom but things we have figured out along the way. Now, after Kantara, some more things will go into it,” Karthik says, with a smile. We conducted this interview when Kantara was inching closer to the Rs 100 crore-mark at the box office. At the time of publishing this piece, its collections are said to have crossed Rs 300 crore. Karthik’s smile is sure to have gotten wider.
Would Kantara have become such a massive success story across languages (Rs 45 crore net in Hindi; gross earnings in the range of Rs 50 crore — Telugu, Rs 8 crore — Tamil, Rs 10 crore — Malayalam) had it not been for Hombale? Not quite, because after KGF, Hombale seems to have a pulse on what works where, and how to best peg a film. Critically, Hombale knows its directors need plenty of breathing room.
Take the case of Prashanth Neel, who walked into Hombale in 2014 with the story for KGF (Part I released in 2018). “We had seen Ugramm, his first film, and knew what we were investing in. He wanted that time for pre-production. Prashanth is not great with narration, but he told us about 4-5 scenes and we saw what kind of world he was planning to build. We knew he was creating a hero who rises from the ashes, and is flamboyant and ambitious. We were all ambitious. Prashanth was recreating an era and that takes time. We literally stayed in the office in RPC Layout during those years and were witness to his hard work. Vijay lived barely a mile away, and we would have frequent discussions. On the second day of shooting, it was decided that KGF would be made in two parts. We knew the screenplay and we knew it would work. Prashanth translated that 100 percent on screen,” says Karthik.
Despite the appearance of having a winning formula, Hombale’s honchos say it is very difficult to predict success. “That is always left to the people. They have the final say,” says Vijay, who grew up on a steady diet of Rajkumar and Vishnuvardhan movies such as Naagarahaavu and Bangaaradha Manushya. “I liked films with social messages, and films where the leads had a certain character,” he adds.
Karthik was an avid movie watcher too and he observed that even a bad film could leave you thinking of a good character, as you saw the narrative from their point of view. Karthik also runs KRG Studios, which made its debut with Dhananjay-starrer Ratnan Prapancha on Amazon Prime Video. Two other films are in the works; 70 have been distributed.
Despite a 10-year age gap, the cousins had bonded at family get-togethers. Combined with their enthusiasm for cinema and their business savvy, it’s easy to see how Hombale Films represents the culmination of the cousins’ mutual attributes. However, Vijay emphasises that a career in the movie business was not what he dreamt of, growing up. “But,” he adds, “even when I was 24 or 25, I knew that with the kind of population we have, we needed better entertainment avenues. We had our village street plays and Harikathe (a religious discourse), which generated social and cultural awareness… I felt I wanted to make movies that showcased stories that were rooted. When smartphones became a thing, I knew that would be the next platform for entertainment.”
Hombale is particular about locking the content of a project, and ensuring that what is said is what is executed. Its strength also lies in smartly packaging and marketing a film: If it went all out and took the carpet-bomb approach for the KGF films (especially Part II), it went slow on Kantara. “Its strength was language and culture and we felt we should first release it in Kannada and then see how it works. After the premiere show, we knew we were on to something big. It was not as if people had decided they are going to watch Kantara on September 30, especially since we were competing for space with Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan - I in Tamil, and Vikram Vedha in Hindi,” says Vijay. “We knew we had to show this to people.”
The Friday collection of Kantara was Rs 1.25 crore. The premiere shows alone brought in Rs 30 lakh. “We decided that based on word of mouth publicity, we will increase the screens and then dub and release on OTT in the second or third week. But the film took on a life of its own. And the reason for that is how Rishab Shetty went about executing the project. He knew how it had to reach the audience. Like I say, the script and the director decide the value of the film,” Vijay notes.
The film’s per-day collections increased the longer it stayed in the theatres. Stars like Prabhas, Dhanush, Karthi, Prithviraj watched Kantara and mentioned it on social media, spurring greater curiosity among viewers. “We knew we had a good film, but we did not gauge this level of success,” says Karthik.
There’s a definite Before and After in the perception of Kannada cinema since KGF. But Hombale’s founders say their objective is for every technician to grow and for the industry to succeed as a whole.
After every release, Karthik and Vijay do a routine round of theatre visits to observe the audience response and if it matches their forecast. “And yes, all the learnings go into our handbook,” says Karthik. “Every film offers learning of a different sort. It teaches us the latest dynamics.”