Interview: Court Producer Vivek Gomber

Neither his Singapore schooling nor his theatre course from Boston’s Emerson College, nothing, had prepared Vivek Gomber to face what it would be like to produce an Indian film. The 36-year-old actor had to fall back on to bare basics like patience, passion, hard work, hope and faith to get through one of the most challenging phases of his life and career. With 18 international awards and the National Award for the Best Film in hand, Court has become one of the most celebrated Indian films of recent times and Vivek is the reason that the film got made. What started off as just a piece of encouragement to a talented friend and the desire for a good story to be told, slowly transformed into the biggest success story of his life and contemporary Indian cinema. It wasn’t all hunky dory, there were tough times. But the crew, largely filled with first-timers, stuck through it all and thankfully so. As Court awaits its Indian release on April 17, actor-producerVivek Gomber shares with Long Live Cinema the lessons he learnt while making his first film.

Have faith in your director
I had acted in films, ads and a few TV series before, but I had no clue what a producer actually does. The closest I got to the production department was with the line producers who would sign my cheque after an acting assignment. I never had any intention of producing a film. It all just happened very organically. I had known Chaitanya because I had done a play with him called Grey Elephants in Denmark in 2009. The good thing about theatre is that the relationship between an actor and director is deep. Your egos are stripped off and you start trusting the other fully. So when I met Chaitanya again in 2011, I could sense that something was wrong. He was upset about something. That was when he told me about family pressure and that he wanted to continue on his creative journey. I just wanted him to be able to do what he was best at, so I offered to pay him Rs 15,000 every month for finishing the story he had in mind. At that point, neither of us knew whether it would be a play or a film, but I trusted his instincts. One thing about Chaitanya is that he is an original. That is so difficult to find these days. He has original and novel ideas. When finally after a year he gave me the script he had written, I was blown away by its simplicity and the humour in it. I told him I would take some time and get back to him about how exactly I wanted to be associated with the film. I then checked my bank account and came up with a plan and decided to produce the film. But it wasn’t an easy decision because we were all new to this world. Chaitanya had never directed a film before, I had never produced one. We couldn’t have done it if not for mutual trust.

Be clear about what you do not want and work around it
We did not know a lot of what we wanted but we were sure about what we didn’t want the project to be like. I started my own company, Zoo Entertainment, because we did not want to compromise on creative decisions. We wanted to make the film that Chaitanya had envisioned. And, we didn’t want to be embarrassed of our final product. We didn’t even have an office initially. We used to conduct our meetings at Chaitanya’s place and some random coffee shops. But we started hiring people and we got on with the pre-production process. We didn’t want to waste any time. In June 2013, we went for the NFDC Film Bazaar, but although the film got some attention there, we didn’t find any takers. We had to make a call whether we wanted to wait to get a co-producer on board. Both of us didn’t want to delay the project any further, so we just went ahead with it.

Hire the best heads of departments and trust them completely
The biggest lesson I learnt while making this film is to hire the best team, delegate work to them and trust them fully. We had so many talented people on board, like Kishore Sawant, our location manager, Mrinal Desai, our cinematographer, Ganesh, who was kind enough to provide us with all the lights, Anita Kushwaha who did sound, Pooja and Somnath, the production designers, Satchit, who did the casting. We had good ADs. All what I had to do was let them do what they did best. I had to make sure that they were all comfortable and thus gave the right kind of energy to Chaitanya. As a producer, I learnt that you should be both like a mother and a father–sometimes soft, and stern at others.

Respect your crew and give them confidence

I have been on many a Bollywood set as an actor and I have seen and experienced the kind of inhuman and ridiculous treatment that the people on set are subjected to. When I started my company, I was particular that everyone on my set should be treated with respect. This, I think, comes from my theatre background, as it inculcates a natural respect for the ensemble. There were people who couldn’t adjust to our style of working, but then there were more number of people who stuck through with us and made it happen. We were working with a lot of non-actors, so I wanted to make sure they were comfortable. A lot of credit for this goes to Satchit, who during the auditions made all of them feel at ease in front of the camera and among themselves. I have seen producers come on set and throw their weight around because they were the ones spending the money. But I knew that the film cannot be made with just the money. I had to give my people confidence, and thanks to my upbringing, I could easily interact with all kinds of people. It was a long shoot and I had to make sure everyone in the team were in their best spirits. A lot of problems crept up, but I had to make sure that it didn’t even reach Chaitanya and disturb his process.

Be in control

I would strategise and delegate work, but I also tried to retain a sense of control over the budget. I was very particular that I would be the only one who could sign cheques, so that I could keep a track of and be aware of the inflows and outflows. Moreoever, I was acting in the film, too. So it was doubly difficult for me, but I didn’t want to jeopardise the production just because I was part of the cast. There were times when the producer in me would scold the actor in me. But after every day’s shoot, I would change out of costume, and then go through the accounts and sit to complete my duties as a producer. It is an Indian thing that every Tom, Dick and Harry would have an opinion about how you should get ‘your’ work done. So another thing I learnt is to lend a ear to every one with an opinion, make them feel heard, but know what is best for your film and stick to your instincts.

Be ready for contingencies

Life is uncertain and you cannot be sure of anything. After the shoot was done, Chaitanya started working on post-production and I went ahead to act in a play by Atul Kumar. I had put on a lot of weight to play Vinay’s character in Court and for the play I had to lose all that weight. I started getting back into shape and that was when we had an emergency. One of the hard drives crashed and we lost a few scenes. Then, we had to re-shoot 3 scenes in 3 days time. So always be on your toes and expect the worst.

Network in the right circles
This was our first film and the first question we asked ourselves is who would watch the film. We thought the Europeans would be the best target audience. But we missed the Berlin deadline and Cannes, Locarno and San Sebastian rejected the film. So Venice was like our last straw of hope. Chaitanya had travelled to a few festivals with his short film Six Strands, so he knew the language of these festivals. He used to send out cold emails to sales agents and wait for them to reply. What I learnt was that we should not be shy to network, because the right contacts make all the difference. I am really bad at it, but this is something I want to change. For instance, while we were at Film Bazaar, a gentleman named Paolo Bertolin walked up to our table and told us our project was interesting. We then came to know that he was part of the Venice selection committee. I later ran into him when I attended the Producer’s Lab at Rotterdam International Film Festival. He asked me about the project again and I told him I was producing it. And, then coincidentally many mutual friends kept bumping into Paolo and he kept inquiring about Court. Finally, when we applied to Venice, he was the one who made sure that our film was watched by the programmers. A lot of times, in big festivals, not all films even get watched. So having been in touch with Paolo helped the film a lot. The Venice win was the biggest turning point in our journey and the rest, as they say, is now becoming history.Making Court was a big decision for me, a big risk, but the biggest lesson I learnt from it was that miracles do happen. The only thing you have to do is to believe in yourself and never lose hope. It is a very liberating feeling to have been through the entire journey and reached the stage where we will see the film being screened in India. It was one hell of a ride, but a deeply fulfilling one.

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