It is not easy to meet Alan McAlex and Ajay Rai. They are often voices on the phone, distant, matter of fact, and seemingly relieved to be nearing the end of the conversation.
In person and together? It has sometimes been easier to seek an audience with star actors and directors than the two men behind Jar Pictures, the boutique production house behind such alternative first features as ID, Liar’s Dice, Killa and Njan Steve Lopez. Though Jar Pictures is not yet in the league of Guneet Monga’s Sikhiya Entertainment, which has totted up a respectable number of indie credits and credibility, it is slowly getting there. For instance, Jar’s most recent production, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Nil Battey Sannata, will be screened at the BFI London Film Festival that runs from October 7-18.
Apart from producing debuts, such as cinematographer Shanker Raman’s directorial debut Gurgaon, Rai and McAlex are also established producers who work on outside projects, which is why they are hard to pin down. They are always leaping from one movie to the next. McAlex recently came off Meghna Gulzar’s drama Talvar and is now working on Nitesh Tiwari’s sports biopic Dangal, starring Aamir Khan. Rai is handling the production of Abhishek Kapoor’s Great Expectations adaptation Fitoor.
An interview at a suburban cafe in Mumbai reveals the truth behind the maxim “Two heads are better than one.” McAlex, who is 39 and sports a beard, ensures that Jar’s modest slate is hawked at the right international film festivals. Thirty-four-year-old Rai is the clean-shaven face of Jar that looks inward towards domestic markets. McAlex, who grew up in Saudi Arabia and moved to Mumbai in 1991, has worked on several indies. Rai, who relocated to Mumbai from Delhi in 1995, has cut his teeth on mainstream films such as Banarasi Babu, Khauff and Julie as well as studio-backed offbeat titles.
“Ajay knows the industry better, while I know the international market, and that way, we cover both sides,” McAlex said. The duo say they have an instinctive feel for the kind of movies they want to raise money for and produce themselves. “If we feel that we should make a film, we make it,” Rai said. “We trust the trust the directors completely, but unless there is no mazaa, we don’t get involved.”
Festival organisers have been enthusiastic about Jar’s modest offerings thus far. Their first full-fledged production, Geethu Mohandas’s Liar’s Dice, was premiered at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2013 and was also shown at Sundance and Rotterdam. Liar’s Dice was nominated as last year’s official Indian entry for the foreign language category at the Oscars. Avinash Arun’s Killa won the Crystal Bear trophy at the Berlin Film Festival last year. They also co-produced cinematographer and director Rajeev Ravi’s Njan Steve Lopez last year
All these titles are first or second features that have been made by directors who set store by the duo’s reputation for completing productions on time, within budget and with minimum fuss. Their services are of immense value for indie filmmakers who have become savvier about pushing their movies at industry networking events such as the annual Film Bazaar in Goa, making the right festival connections, and finding the most suitable distribution platforms. Having producers who can ensure the expertise usually associated with big-budget projects can make all the difference between professionalism and looking like an amateur.
Rai and McAlex have been adept at converting friends into collaborators. For instance, McAlex started his filmmaking career as a camera assistant, which is how he met Shanker Raman. The cinematographer was working with producer Shivajee Chandrabhushan on a music video, which in turn led to Ramen shooting Chandrabhushan’s directorial debut, Frozen. Ramen roped in McAlex for the production, which was shot in 2006 in black-and-white at the snow-bitten heights of Ladakh and on a fraction of the budget of the average blockbuster. “When the film came out, everybody asked, how did you do it,” McAlex said. “After that, I was flooded with offers to make films in extreme conditions.”
Frozen’s cast included actor and future filmmaker Aamir Bashir, who signed up McAlex for his own debut Harud in 2010. Meanwhile, Bashir’s wife Rucha Pathak, currently heading creative development at Fox Star Studios, had previously worked with Rai at UTV Movies. Rai was production head at UTV between 2009 and 2012, during which the erstwhile studio (which was acquired by Disney in 2012) produced films across budgets, genres and sensibilities and rolled out such midstream titles as Mumbai Meri Jaan, Dev.D, Peepli Live, Udaan, Paan Singh Tomar, No One Killed Jessica and Chillar Party. The circle was small enough for Rai and McAlex to meet on productions, resulting in an almost-inevitable partnership.
Rai initially set up Jar Entertainment, which morphed into Jar Pictures at the time of Liar’s Dice. Jar stands for “Jehaan Ajay Rai” – Jehaan is the name of Rai’s son.
“We never intended to be partners, it was organic,” McAlex said.
McAlex and Rai have been “growing along with indie films in India”, observed Rucha Pathak. “As more and more people want to make such films, their importance has only increased since they have the contacts and the experience,” she added. “They raise money for their productions and put in their own services at no cost.”
While McAlex takes Jar’s wares abroad, Ajay has useful contacts with the mass market, Pathak added. “I had a great time working with Ajay on Mumbai Meri Jaan, and I introduced him to a lot of directors who were working with us at UTV, such as Anurag Kashyap and Tigmanshu Dhulia,” she said. “Meanwhile, Aamir [Bashir] told me he would start Harud only if Alan came on board as an executive producer.”
McAlex is from Kerala, rather than Scotland (McAlex is a contraction of the family name Alexander), but he doesn’t mind the confusion. “When I travel to various film markets, people think they are at the wrong table when they see me,” he said.
McAlex realised during his early years as a camera and production assistant that he had a flair for organisation, for “just putting things together”, as he said. He could predict and therefore fix in advance a production’s problems, a skill cherished on movies where the flow of money is tight.
Both the partners maintain a firm foothold in Bollywood – a Peter-Paul approach that helps them float their tinier boats into the mainstream. “When we work on large-scale films, it gives us our edge when we are doing our smaller films,” McAlex said. “It also pays the rent.”
Rai’s experience with the distribution side of the movie business has helped Nil Battey Sannata get a release deal. The comedy, in which a single mother (played by Swara Bhaskar) enrols herself at the same school as her daughter, has been acquired by Anand L Rai’s production company Colour Yellow Pictures. Nil Battey Sannata will be released early next year.
In a by-now familiar narrative, a previous connection brought Nil Battey Sannata’s writer and director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari to Jar Pictures. “I know Ajay from when he was the executive producer for Chillar Party and Bhoothnath Returns,” said Iyer Tiwari. Both films were co-directed by her husband, Nitesh Tiwari.
“There is a comfort factor in working with Jar, you know your production won’t have any issues,” Iyer Tiwari said. “They have a damn good crew, a good relationship with almost everybody who is important, and a good eye for stories. If you get a chance of working with them, it means that you can understand all the technical aspects without feeling any pressure.”
First-time filmmakers feel especially comfortable working with production companies like Jar since they don’t need to worry about extraneous factors. Harshvadhan Kulkarni, who made his debut with the adult comedy Hunterrr this year, knew McAlex through cinematographer and Njan Steve Lopez director Rajeev Ravi. “Alan did the budgeting and we hit it off very well,” Kulkarni said. McAlex was approached when Hunterrr was finally being funded by Phantom Movies. “Alan is superb not just for indie filmmakers but also for big-budget films,” Kulkarni said. “His process is crystal clear. There is no ho jaayega [let’s see], leave it to the last minute.”
The small movie seems to be a headache nobody wants, but it can actually be “a lot of fun”, Rai said. “All our experience comes from the past, from the films we have done,” he said. “We keep budgets under control to keep our risks smaller, we manage to cover our costs, and we have never really gone into a loss.”
The duo might be at the top of their game, but they continue to fly under the radar. “We don’t really network, and we don’t tell people we have made a film unless the edit is locked. We stay behind the scenes and let others do our publicity for us,” Rai said.
“The film’s objectives are being met – by whom doesn’t matter,” McAlex added.
And with that, they disappear into the sultry Mumbai afternoon.