Guneet Amarpreet Kaur Monga believes in miracles. There is no other way she can make sense of her journey so far. Given the knocks life has dealt her, it is hard to believe that this thirty-four-year-old film producer, with closely cropped hair and large, sparkling eyes framed by a pair of dark-rimmed spectacles, is not bitter. She is serene—so serene, in fact, that it feels like Mumbai, with its frenzied energy and high-decibel noise levels, slows down when Guneet speaks.
According to Variety, the widely read American film magazine, Guneet is one of fifty women from the entertainment industry doing ‘extraordinary things on the worldwide stage.’ In March 2018, the magazine published its first International Women’s Impact Report, and Guneet was one of only two women from India in it. The other was actor Deepika Padukone.
Guneet is on the list for her work as a path-breaking female producer in Bollywood, part of a new wave of Indian film-makers making a global impact. Known for backing strong, independent content that sits comfortably between commercial entertainers and the art house world, Guneet has more than thirty films to her name, which include some of the most critically acclaimed movies in contemporary India, such as The Lunchbox, Gangs of Wasseypur and Masaan. Typically, these are low-budget films with strong scripts that focus on edgy, alternative themes. Fundamentally Indian at heart, these indies have universal appeal.
Of The Lunchbox, Guneet says, ‘That was the dream—of that one Indian film that goes and sells around the world.’ It created history, but that is hardly surprising. Very little about Guneet is formulaic. She is not one to stick to tradition. She breaks it.
‘I am a disruptor,’ she says, a quiet confidence in her deep voice.
Born in New Delhi on 21 November 1983, Guneet’s life has been peppered with loss, depression and death. As a young child, she witnessed domestic violence within her home. Her first film bombed spectacularly. Both her parents died within six months of each other. Yet, the head of Sikhya Entertainment, a company she founded in 2008, is not bitter.
Brimming with ambition, Guneet dreamt of moving to Mumbai after studying mass communication in Delhi. She wanted to make films and tell stories. Her first brush with movies—as an intern on the French-German-Indian independent film Valley of Flowers—had her hooked. Her job involved photocopying and scanning documents, entering phone numbers into a database and doing odd jobs for the production team. It was grunt work, but she loved every minute of it. This stint came after she had tried her hand at umpteen other jobs. By the time she was twenty-one, Guneet had been a DJ, an insurance agent, a sales agent for Laughing Cow cheese, an event planner, a rally car driver and a property saleswoman for her late father. Once she found herself on a movie set, however, she knew there was no going back. Guneet wanted to make a film herself.
Mumbai beckoned. But she needed capital to make the move and a movie. Her neighbour in Delhi, Kamlesh Agarwal, offered to help by investing Rs 50 lakh in her film project. In turn, he suggested Guneet make ‘cute cute films for children’. Guneet heard him out patiently, then replied, ‘Uncle, I think it is a very bad idea.’ Boldly, she proposed another one instead: why not give her the money so she could move to Mumbai and make a film—on a topic of her choice. It was a big ask. Agarwal relented. He gave her the capital.
The aspiring film-maker arrived in India’s heaving film capital with money in her pocket, fire in her belly, but not a clue about where to start. Her persistence paid off. She found a script that excited her. It told the story of four boys with limited resources but an unrivalled passion for cricket. She decided to buy into it through the first production company she founded, Speaking Tree Films. The movie, titled Say Salaam India, released in 2007. It was the kind of film that should have had cricket-mad India going ga-ga.
But fate had a different plan. A few days after the film released, India’s cricket team crashed out of the World Cup in the West Indies. No one foresaw this debacle… A feel-good movie about cricket was not going to draw an audience, so cinemas sent the film reels back to Guneet. Her first film had tanked and she was shattered.
But Guneet was already working on plan B. She was sure that someone, somewhere, would want to see the film. She decided to take the movie to a group of people who always get excited by cricket: students. Travelling across small cities and towns in north India, she arranged private screenings in schools, for which she charged a nominal fee. It wasn’t a conventional strategy, but then Guneet is an out-of-the-box thinker. In nine months, she earned enough to pay Agarwal back in full.
Looking back, Guneet says this setback taught her the single most important lesson a film producer needs to learn—that there is an audience for every film. ‘You just have to find it.’
Today, Guneet is at peace and appears content. She is working on multiple film projects under her own banner, Sikhya Entertainment. Sikhya is a Punjabi word that means ‘to keep learning’, and Guneet is invigorated by her work. ‘I missed that. I missed being inspired. And now I pray: “Keep me inspired every day.”’
Guneet’s goal is to produce content that can find an audience between India and the US. Specifically, English-language films set in India that resonate globally—along the lines of the biographical film Lion or Ang Lee’s multiple Academy Award–winning Life of Pi. Most of the films she has produced under the Anurag Kashyap banner AKFPL or her own company, Sikhya, have had alternative content that challenge the song- and-dance stereotype typically associated with Bollywood.
Gaining credibility did not come easily. Age and gender were not on Guneet’s side. She has a youthful face. During the early years of her career, she would colour her hair grey and wear a sari to meetings. ‘Otherwise, how would a twenty-six-year-old be taken seriously? I just had to fake it—that I know my shit.’ She was often turned away by marketing heads, CEOs and CFOs of companies who had little patience to listen to a young woman peddling stories.
Would they have listened to her if she were a man? ‘Maybe,’ she says, but adds that the discrimination she faced was driven more by age than gender.
Guneet says she often sees people get intimidated by a woman in a position of authority. ‘I think there is a generation of boys that has grown up feeling entitled to their privilege. They are not ready for an independent Indian woman. They have seen women around them serving and being there for their needs. Suddenly, when they grow up and meet women who don’t do that, they don’t know how to deal with it.’
Excerpted with permission from Changemakers Twenty Women Transforming Bollywood Behind the Scenes, Gayatri Rangachari Shah and Mallika Kapur, Penguin Random House.