'Indians have a problem of over-commitment'
Former Hollywood exec, Prashant Shah, chats with us about Jungle Cry, the first India-set venture of his LA-based company Bollywood Hollywood Production
The United States of America has been a prized location for Bollywood movies. However, Mumbai-based companies are rarely equipped to handle expansive foreign schedules on their own. Too often, they rely on a local producer to collaborate on a project. Prashant Shah, former Vice President of Benaroya Pictures, has been doing just that since 2003.
An erstwhile tech entrepreneur, Prashant turned line producer with the Dev Anand-starrer Love at Times Square. He continued with big-budget films like Jaan-E-Maan, Ta Ra Rum Pum, Dostana, My Name Is Khan and Kites and turned executive producer on the Shah Rukh Khan-led superhero film Ra. One (2011). In recent years, Prashant has executive produced Half Girlfriend, A Gentleman, Padman and Zero, besides churning out Hollywood titles under Benaroya Pictures.
Prashant floated his company, the LA-based Bollywood Hollywood Production, in 2018. He has produced his first India-set film, Jungle Cry, under the banner. In this conversation, the producer talks to us about his decision to venture out independently, his relationship with the Hindi film industry, the challenges of shooting in India and the status of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s shelved Inshallah.
What is Jungle Cry about?
It’s the story of underprivileged tribal kids from Odisha who won the Junior Rugby World Cup in 2007. The film is based on the lives of rugby coach Rudraksh Jena and Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS) founder Achyuta Samanta. The script was brought to me by (producer) Shabbir Boxwala. I made my visitations to the Kalinga Institute and met the children who had won the world cup. Based on my observations, we rewrote the script in tune with an international format. Finally, we got Sagar Ballary (Bheja Fry, Bheja Fry 2) to direct the film.
Abhay Deol plays Rudraksh Jena. What led to the casting choice?
It was a choice between getting someone glossy-looking or someone who could act. Abhay, like we know, is a critically-acclaimed performer. Indian sports films are usually about showcasing a star and not the actual sport. We did not want to do that with Jungle Cry. We wanted to make an authentic rugby film where the children are the actual heroes.
You also have an international cast on the project.
The film travels from India to London. There’s the character of an English rugby coach who brings the sport to the institute. We got British actor Stewart Wright (People Like Us) to play the part. Stewart, co-incidentally, is a rugby player. We also have Welsh actors Julian Lewis Jones (Invictus) and Ross O'Hennessy (Lord of Bones in Game of Thrones). Additionally, my daughter Emily Shah is making her debut in the film.
You’ve been a successful Hollywood exec and studio head. Why did you choose to float your own company?
Over the years, I’ve worked with several industry legends like Dev Anand, Karan Johar, Shah Rukh Khan and Rakesh Roshan. The reason they work with me is because I understand how creativity converts into the commercial aspects of filmmaking. Having said that, I also have my core interests as a storyteller. That’s why I decided to step out and produce my first film according to my vision.
What are the challenges of shooting an international project in India?
Indians have a problem of over-commitment. It’s always, “Ho jayega… mein hoon na…”. I remember when Brad Pitt and Angelia Jolie were filming A Mighty Heart (2007) in India, I got a call saying they were have a difficult time in Mumbai and Pune. At the time, Brad Pitt had the rights to make Shantaram in India. However, because of his experiences on A Mighty Heart, he decided not to come to Mumbai and was willing to recreate India in Australia. If you see the recent film Hotel Mumbai, that’s exactly what they did.
You were set to collaborate with Sanjay Leela Bhansali on Inshallah. What’s the status of the film?
All we know is that Inshallah has been pushed back, not cancelled. There are some people in the industry I cannot say no to, including Sanjay, Shah Rukh, Karan Johar and others. For them, I am always up for a collaboration.