After the rather unexpected success of his latest production, Stree, you’d imagine that producer Dinesh Vijan would be taking a few weeks off to celebrate. The horror-laced comedy, starring Rajkummar Rao and Shraddha Kapoor, completely surpassed trade projections to earn an estimated Rs 79.35 crores since its release on August 31.
But rather than putting up his feet, Vijan is already hard at work on a range of projects. An early afternoon interview turns into a working lunch for the 37-year-old producer, who has on his plate, in no particular order of appearance, sequels to Stree, Go Goa Gone (2013) and Hindi Medium (2017), the rom-coms Luka Chhupi and Arjun Patiala, the comedy Made in China, and a biopic of Arun Khetarpal, the youngest Indian Army soldier to have been awarded the Param Vir Chakra.
Vijan’s banner Maddock Films, which was founded in 2012 with Cocktail, is also producing the web series Saas, Bahu aur Cocaine with Cocktail director Homi Adajania and Mimi, an official remake of the Marathi movie Aai (1995).
Stree director Amar Kaushik will pick up the reins of Mimi, which is being developed by Sita Menon. “I was on a flight when I watched Lion, and I felt totally inadequate,” Vijan recalled. “Aai made me feel the same way. It’s one of the best films we are making.”
The titles, writers and directors have been decided for many of these films, and all that is needed is for Vijan to steer them towards completion with the same surefootedness that has marked many of his projects. He has built up a reputation for organisational smarts, and except for some misfires (Agent Vinod, Happy Ending, his directorial debut Raabta), he is firmly on the path of rolling out smartly budgeted films with appealing themes.
“My approach has been that the script, and not the actor, should decide the budget,” Vijan said. “If you follow the script, you can’t go wrong. Badlapur needed to be made on that budget, while Love Aaj Kal needed a different scale.”
Even clunkers such as Agent Vinod (2012), the misfired spy thriller directed by Sriram Raghavan, and Happy Ending (2014), directed by Stree writers Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, are not write-offs, at least in one sense.
“Your mistakes teach you more than your victories,” Vijan declared. “Life is too short to make all your mistakes.”
Some producers would have ditched Raghavan after Agent Vinod, or politely told off Nidimoru and DK after the Happy Ending debacle. Instead, Vijan chose to retain his faith in the filmmakers. He produced Raghavan’s revenge saga Badlapur and retained the services of Nidimoru and DK for the screenplay of Stree.
“Our philosophy is to help the director make his best possible film,” Vijan explained. “It all depends on finding the rhythm. Sriram and I found our rhythm during Agent Vinod. You can’t make a successful film by wanting different things out of it. I felt that Agent Vinod taught Sriram how to make Badlapur.”
A simpler way of doing business might be to bind directors and actors with contracts, but that doesn’t work for Vijan.
“I don’t believe in multiple film contracts or exclusive contracts,” he said. “If we respect each other, and Maddock can mean something more organic, it will be nicer. A contractual relationship is like a bad marriage in which the kids suffer. These filmmakers have stuck by me too.”
A simple-enough thought drives Vijan’s choices. “When I hear a script or an idea or a concept, I cannot not make this movie,” he said. “The ones that have evoked that sentiment have done very well – Badlapur, for example. When I heard the story, the concept of revenge being hollow, I felt I had to make it. Hindi Medium didn’t seem like the most pragmatic choice, but it worked for me. I can’t replace that gut instinct.”
Although it appears that the Stree sequel is an attempt to cash in, Vijan points out that the twisty ending begged for a second round. “The franchise has been set up in the last two shots of the film,” he said.
Some of Vijan’s philosophy is contained in the name of his production banner, Maddock Films. A quick Google search reveals that maddock means maggot, but in Welsh, it also means generous.
“We were making our first film, Cocktail, and we had to come up with a name overnight,” Vijan recalled. “I didn’t want Dinesh Vijan Productions, I would have rather died than called it that. It didn’t sound like what I was trying to do. Maddock means generous and giving, which a producer needs to be – it also has my benefit, in the sense that when I make a film, I own it for life. I found out that it also means maggot after the name got registered.”
What’s in a name, after all? “Clint Eastwood calls his production house Malpaso, which means a bad step in Spanish,” Vijan pointed out.
Before Maddock Films, Vijan and Saif Ali Khan ran Illuminati Films. Founded in 2009, the company struck gold the same year with Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal, starring Khan, Deepika Padukone and Diana Penty. The banner produced six films before folding up with Happy Ending in 2014.
Vijan had met Khan while producing Homi Adajania’s Being Cyrus, a dark comedy about betrayal that is set in the Parsi community. “Saif and I got along like a house on fire,” Vijan recalled. “He is unassuming and is one of the most entertaining human beings. The idea of making films just happened. We had to come with a name. Saif came up with Illuminati and Lucifer. I preferred Illuminati.”
In the popular imagination, Illuminati is an underground society that plays a shadowy role in world affairs, not unlike the mastermind in Agent Vinod.
Illuminati’s debut production was to be Agent Vinod, but since “Sriram was taking his own time”, the producers backed Love Aaj Kal, which Vijan described as the “Z to A of love, rather than A to Z.”
Come to think of, “Even that film could even warrant a sequel.” Add that to Maddock Films’ already heaving wishlist.
The split between Khan and Vijan was amicable and the result of moving in opposite directions, he says. “We had a dream run at Illuminati, but sometimes, you outgrow relationships,” he said. “It was quite sweet and organic. We wanted to do different kinds of films. I wanted to do films with and without Saif. What we wanted to do at that point was different – that is the best way to capture it.”
Vijan is the first member of his family to be in the movies. “I have no film connection, except that my family and I love them,” he said. He is often described as an investment banker, and he was one – for six months. “I was at ING Bank, but I entered the industry at a time when the market had collapsed,” he said. “I realised I could not do a nine-to-five.”
He is the only son of his parents, and his father urged him to join the family’s transportation and logistics company. “But I said I wanted to make movies,” Vijan recalled.
His instincts have largely held him in good stead, and have taught him important lessons about what works and what doesn’t at the ticket windows every Friday.
The Hindi film industry is obsessed with the idea that a top-line movie star can make even dross shine, but Vijan doesn’t agree. “We want to become more of an actor-driven company rather than a star-driven company,” he said. He is also sensitive to shifting audience tastes, which seem to prefer local stories over extravaganzas playing out in foreign lands.
“There has been a huge shift in India – initially, we were very aspirational and were looking towards the West,” Vijan observed. “We wanted foreign locations, but we don’t need them anymore. We are the fastest growing economy, although there are many things that are wrong, of course. In terms of stories, we have a khazana, more content than any other culture.”
Some of these concerns are reflected in Vijan’s future projects. Laxman Utekar’s Luka Chhupi, which will be wrapped by the end of the month, star Kriti Sanon and Kartik Aaryan. “They look so good together, and the film also has a wonderful supporting cast,” Vijan said. “The film has small-town simplicity portrayed with realism.”
Script-reading sessions have started for Made in China, starring Stree leading man Rajkummar Rao as a struggling Gujarati businessman who hits gold after travelling to China. The comedy is being directed by Mikhil Musale, who made the Gujarati thriller 2016.
Vijan is also excited about Arjun Patiala, starring Punjabi movie star Diljit Dosanjh. “Diljit has been known for serious roles in Hindi films, but he does a lot of comedy in Punjabi films, and this film showcases his comic side,” Vijan said. “It is in the Andaz Apna Apna zone. It’s like jumping from the twentieth floor and not knowing whether we are going to fly or break our bones.”
The title and tagline of the Arun Khetarpal biopic is in place. Ikees will ask, “What were you doing at 21?”
Sriram Raghavan will direct the biopic of the soldier of the 17 Poona Horse regiment who died in the 1971 Indo-Pak war at the age of 21. The film weaves together battlefield bravery, a father-son relationship and tanks. “Ikees is a responsibility – when I heard it the first time, I felt I had to make this,” Vijan said.
Ikees will mark a change in the scenery for Raghavan, who is known for crime thrillers. “Sriram should not think once more about where to hide the body,” Vijan joked, adding, “Ritesh Shah is writing the film – I wish Ritesh all the best.”