A café on Dover Lane. Mainak Bhaumik, awaiting the release of his next film, has a request straight off. “Please don’t ask me why SVF. No one seems interested in the film. Everyone has just one question: ‘You too?’ I have waited years to make this film. No producer would touch it in the way I envisaged it. Until SVF came along. It’s they who have given me a platform for what I had wanted to be my first film.”
It’s a view diametrically contradictory to what another film-maker has told me, of course on conditions of anonymity: “It’s a mafia. They control everything … the Don Corleone of the Bengali film industry, it’s a monopoly, they will destroy anyone who does not play by their rules.”
It’s a strong statement to make, even if anonymously, and there’s only one way to address it. Beard the lion in its den. And that is what I do.
Seated in his plush office on the eighteenth floor of Acropolis Mall, Mahendra Soni, the affable and articulate director and co-founder of SVF Entertainment, as opposed to the more taciturn co-founder director Shrikant Mohta, laughs. “Let people say what they like. Dev, Bumba da (Prosenjit Chatterjee) and so many others have opened production houses. A mafia wouldn’t have allowed that. We are transparent and bring passion to what we do. The number of first-time directors and actors who have worked with us and have come back to us wouldn’t have been possible if we were monopolistic.”
It’s a thought that Shiboprosad Mukherjee, an independent producer and director, reiterates. “I don’t think that SVF has an unhealthy monopoly. It is the biggest production house in this region. They are the only people who have taken the initiative to launch new directors and musicians like Srijit Mukherji, Anupam Roy, Dhrubo Banerjee, Debaloy Bhattacharya and many more.”
It started around 1993-94, when Mahendra was in his second year and Shrikant in the first year of college, and their families invested in distributing Hindi films with a friend, buying rights to a couple of films like Dosti Ki Saugandh and Elaan. The films didn’t do well but the two friends, bitten by the film bug and with the cocky confidence of youth, made their way to Bombay. A meeting with producer Jhamu Sugandh opened the doors. “Interestingly, we were given the distribution rights of the eastern region, not just Bengal. The film we were given as a test case was a Bekaar Ka Number – maybe they thought we were new and would make a fool of ourselves.” The film became a super hit.
“It was in these initial stages that we realized a couple of things that paved the way to where we stand today. One, we needed to enter the market for Bengali films which was by far the more lucrative one. And two, all single-screen theatres outside Calcutta, in the suburbs like Barasat, Basirhat, etc, were struggling. However, we knew nothing about Bengali cinema at the time.”
So back to Bombay it was, and this time they got the rights to what they thought would be a surefire winner: Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Khamoshi. They paid a premium price for the film, which bombed miserably. Chastened by the experience, they decided to focus on the Bengali segment for the time being.
Around this time, Swapan Saha was emerging as the king of the mass masala entertainer in Bengal with a viewership that penetrated the B and C towns. The two friends collaborated with the director to produce Bhai Amar Bhai (1996) starring Prosenjit and Chiranjit. “We were part of the film from beginning to end, the casting, the scripting, scheduling the production, dubbing, shooting. We were the first to come on set and the last to leave. Somehow in the middle of the madness we even managed to get married – I don’t know which was easier, making the film or getting married!” Bhai Amar Bhai became a blockbuster. More importantly, it provided them the opening they were looking for in the Bengali market.
Emboldened by the success, they even invested in films with Rituparno Ghosh (a room dedicated to the maestro occupies pride of place in the SVF offices, a kind of shrine). However, the market in Bengal wasn’t yet ready for such classy content and they had a series of setbacks. It was the mass entertainer starring Prosenjit, Sasurbari Zindabad (2000), which came to the rescue, becoming the highest-grossing Bengali movie till then.
They had discovered the small-budget, mass-market, remake route to success. “We increased the ticket rates, gave the film a saturation release. It became a big hit and we followed it with back-to-back hits Sathi (2002), I Love You (2007), Chirodini …Tumi Je Aamar (2008), which also earned us the nickname of ‘remake rajas’.”
The Game Changers
When they entered the industry, it was more or less in a shambles, and recovering from the debris of the 1980s looked difficult if not impossible. Mahendra says, “It’s been a long haul … when we started, there was no recovery from theatres to speak of, the TV market was dull, film music didn’t work. But we have reached a stage where we can say that Bengal is an established regional entertainment market. The journey has been from ‘nowhere’ to ‘somewhere’.”
How did they manage it? “Even today we don’t embark on a film with a budget in mind. If we feel that the story needs to be told, we do the film… If you check our filmography you’ll see we have backed Rituparno Ghosh’s Chitrangada (2012), Kaushik Ganguly’s Apur Panchali (2013), Srijit’s Nirbaak (2015) and many others in that vein. A production house releasing fifteen films a year should not look at film-to-film positives and negatives. What is important is that the company should make money overall. One Friday cannot decide success for me. I’ve to look at the whole year cumulatively.” Film-maker Kaushik Ganguly adds, “It’s true that while they produced potboilers with Dev and Jeet, they also had the vision to back Rituparno Ghosh’s Chokher Bali, which made people sit up and notice.”
While expanding its base in Bengali film production, SVF continues to distribute Hindi and Hollywood films, collaborating with Red Chillies Entertainment, Phantom Films, Fox Star, Sony Pictures, Viacom 18 Motion Pictures and Disney, making it the largest distribution house in eastern India. What about driving distribution of Bengali cinema outside Bengal, including those not produced by SVF? Mahendra sighs. “I am a little disheartened with the response to this. I’ve been trying it in the last few years across ten big cities. But the probashi Bangali is missing from theatres. We need at least 80-100 people in a show to make it viable for us. Unless that happens, I am not sure how to address this … I hope someday things will change and we will be able to crack this.”
Having established SVF as the frontrunner in Bengali cinema, it is only natural that innovators that they are, Mahendra and Shrikant would venture into new media. “The digital cinema arm of SVF came into existence in 2007 when the company (then Shree Venkatesh Films) took the exclusive right for installation of Qube digital system across cinemas in east India. There were 320 installations in the first five years of operation, making it one of the fastest roll-outs in India, the fourth largest installation network in India and the largest in West Bengal.”
Then there is SVF music. What used to be the music label for films produced by the company has evolved into a forum for independent music in the last few years. SVF Music has over 300,000 subscribers at present and offers the largest library of contemporary Bengali songs.
And there’s Hoichoi, which has just had its first-year bash. “We thought that the Bengali viewer should have something similar to Netflix and Hotstar.” How does he respond to the bitter criticism of the quality of its content? Shows like Mismatch and Dupur Thakurpo have been called out for their mediocrity. An actor in one such show says, “I am not sure what world the writers of these shows live in. Everything is so unreal, outlandish. Dupur Thakurpo is an attempt at comedy where the laughter is so forced, it’s not funny.”
With a platform as big as SVF’s which gives it the ability to influence viewer’s taste, does it not entail a responsibility to create content that is intelligent and not dumbed down? “Hoichoi is a platform where you can watch only by subscribing and paying for the content. If you don’t like the content, don’t subscribe. Having said that I don’t want to take away the responsibility of creating good content. I feel everything will fall in place. We are experimenting with a lot of things. We also have a section of films by critically acclaimed directors like Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak.”
Today SVF stands as a colossus of the Bengali film and entertainment industry with a finger in almost every pie. As Mahendra Soni says, “We have grown from a two-man unit to a company with over 200 people. The only negative for us is that there is no competition!” Approximately 120 Bengali films have released in 2018 of which SVF has produced 16. Their closest competitor, Surinder Films, has produced 8, of which 4 were joint productions. In box-office terms, SVF’s Ek Je Chhilo Raja has been the year’s biggest hit by a mile and more, followed by Byomkesh Gowtro, Uma and Guptodhoner Sondhane, all SVF films.
“We have made 125 films and will make another twenty-five in the next two years,” says Mahendra. Some of their most anticipated films of 2019 include Sandip Ray’s Professor Shonku o El Dorado, Guptodhoner Sondhane’s much-awaited sequel Durgeshgorer Guptodhon that will bring back the thrill of a treasure hunt with an insight into the history of Bengal, Srijit Mukherji’s Vinci Da, a crime thriller which promises to bring back the flavour of Baishe Srabon, and his film on the mysterious Gumnami Baba, Aparna Sen’s contemporary adaptation of Tagore’s Ghare Bairey, among others.
Srijit Mukherji, who has worked with SVF right from his first film, has the last word, “SVF is much more than a production house. It is like a visionary institution. SVF takes good care of their films. This makes them the best!”