Sony Pictures’s Vivek Krishnani on taking on taboo subjects with Bollywood production Padman and leveraging the likes of SpiderMan: Homecoming to expand Hollywood’s share of the Indian box office.
The Hollywood Reporter
Sony was the first Hollywood studio to go Bollywood with 2007’s Hindi drama Saawariya. This Friday, Sony Pictures Entertainment India’s latest Bollywood effort, the co-production Padman opens worldwide. A real-life drama tackling the offbeat (and in India still taboo) subject of menstrual hygiene, Padman is directed by R. Balki, and features Bollywood stars Akshay Kumar, Radhika Apte and Sonam Kapoor. Sony co-produced with Bollywood banner KriArj Entertainment and Mrs Funnybones Films, the shingle run by Kumar’s wife Twinkle Khanna, and is handling worldwide distribution for Padman.
The feature is part of a broader move by Mumbai-based SPE India to ramp up its local slate. Following Padman, SPE India announced its next co-production, Umesh Shukla’s 102 Not Out, which stars Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan and veteran actor Rishi Kapoor. Sony will release the father and son drama worldwide on May 4. Up till now, with the exception of Saawariya, SPE India has largely stayed out of local production, preferring to release third-party Bollywood films. But Vivek Krishnani, who previously worked at Fox Star Studios India and Sony’s Indian television arm Sony Pictures Networks Productions, has been pushing the studio deeper into Bollywood since taking over as managing director of SPE India in 2015. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Krishnani says he sees major opportunity in India, both for home-grown films and, increasingly, among audiences hungry for Hollywood fare.
What kind of trends have you seen in the Indian industry since Sony produced Saawariya a decade ago?
Over these years, we have seen the growth of structured studio systems, whether they are Indian or foreign studios. There are far more professionals in the business now and great Indian production houses have been leading the charge. Constructive partnerships are forming between these production houses and [Hollywood] studios. I think the studios are lending support to the creative effort and at the same time, they are also bringing their own input by, for example, opening up new markets (for Indian films). There is more diverse content and a larger amount of risk-taking. On the other side, there has been expansion with large growth in the number of multiplexes in India. Hopefully, we will see this more professional and structured environment continue.
Sony is handling worldwide distribution for Padman and given its offbeat theme of menstrual hygiene, what is the overseas potential of the film beyond the Indian diaspora?
While the immediate focus is the diaspora and the Indian market, in phase two of our distribution, we plan to expand its release beyond traditional markets. In fact, in Russia, Padman will be the first Bollywood film to open day and date with India with a sub-titled version. In March we plan to give the film a wider release covering 23 cities with a dubbed version. In Europe we are already opening in France, Germany, Austria and Luxembourg which is really the first time an Akshay Kumar film is getting such a wide release in those markets. Similarly, in the Middle East, beyond diaspora territories such as Dubai, we are are also opening, for example, in Iraq. In Africa we are opening in markets including Congo and the Ivory Coast. Our promotion activities are also reaching out to wider target audiences. For instance, [the film’s co-producer] Twinkle Khanna recently addressed students at Oxford University with her speech focusing on menstrual hygiene.
How do you view the Bollywood market for China given that films like Aamir Khan’s Secret Superstar have done well there?
We are definitely looking at China and there is a huge opportunity. For now we don’t have a confirmed release plan for Padman but I am sure the Sony machinery will be able to work it out. Padman can have universal appeal because half the world’s population is female and the film is tackling a subject which has been considered taboo worldwide.
India is still dominated by local films leaving Hollywood with a minority market share. What is your assessment for this segment?
The Hollywood market has actually seen growth over the last few years. A decade ago, it used to be around five to six percent market share then it expanded to nine percent and now its close to 13 percent. For us, this growth has really been on the back of great content including tentpoles and franchises and even high concept films like Baby Driver. The horror genre is also growing as are kids films. We had a good run with Angry Birds.
But again, the biggest challenge is the fact that India is a very under-screened market. There are so many films releasing and getting dates is a new challenge. We are hoping that multiplexes continue to grow and give us the reach and depth in more cities [beyond urban areas]. However, on the other hand, there has been progress in 3D screens which are now at 950 compared to less than a hundred about a decade ago. We have also expanded the appeal of Hollywood films with dubbing. For instance, we got Bollywood star Tiger Shroff to dub the Hindi version of Spider-Man: Homecoming. For Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, we got writers to pen the dialogues for the Hindi and Tamil language versions reflecting local nuances. The dubbed versions of Jumanji contributed 40 percent of its India box office take. [India does not report official box office figures but estimates indicate that Jumanji had a strong opening weekend in India.