Shailja Gupta on Park Street. Picture by Rashbehari Das
The moment you meet Shailja Gupta you know that this 38-year-old who grew up in Kankurgachhi isn’t someone who will ever merge into the wallpaper. Shailja, who now lives in Manhattan, heads Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies production facility in the US and has also directed Walkaway, a fun take on Indian marriages. On a break in Calcutta before she heads out to work on SRK’s next two films, Shailja chatted with t2.
Tell us about yourself.
I was born and brought up in the Kankurgachhi area. I studied at Ashok Hall and did college from Bhawanipur. I was never really good at studies, but I was a lot into sport. However, I took to technology very early. I did multimedia and web designing here and then went to Mumbai in 1999. I worked with Rahul Nanda who does the publicity design for most Hindi films.
There, I met Shah Rukh Khan because he was a client of Rahul’s and at that point of time, we were working on Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani. I still remember the first time I met him…. I wanted to jump up and down on seeing such a huge star in my office, but my ego wouldn’t let me. And so I was like, ‘Hello Mr Khan’ (laughs). Later he told me how amused he was by my ‘corporate’ behaviour! We got to know each other a little better after that and out of the blue, he offered me a Rs 2 crore project, srkworld.com, his entertainment portal. However, the dotcom bubble burst and it had to shut down. But we kept in touch and he became my mentor.
In 2004, I moved to the US with a technology company I had founded with a partner, but after two years I got bored. I came back to India for a bit and marketed Chokher Bali for (Shree) Venkatesh Films, whose head Shrikant Mohta happens to be my cousin. I also worked as an assistant to the script superviser on Rituparno Ghosh’s Raincoat (starring Aishwarya Rai and Ajay Devgn). I took Chokher Bali to Toronto and Locarno and that really got me excited about the film festival culture.
I went back to New York and did courses in pottery and sculpture and even held a number of exhibitions. And then I realised that I wanted to make a movie. With Shah Rukh I had spent two years on the sets of Devdas and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. So I just thought I could make a movie! (Laughs out loud)
So making a film wasn’t a childhood dream?
As a kid I was actually scared of films! I would be petrified about getting into a dark theatre. We only got a TV at home when I was in the seventh standard and I gradually warmed to faces staring at me out of the screen. But no, making a film wasn’t ever a childhood passion. My childhood dream has always been to make money!
How did Walkaway happen?
I did a three-month course in filmmaking from the New York Film Academy. I tried for a few film internships, but it never worked out and then one day I got up and said: ‘F*** it, I am going to make my own film!’ I got some funding and put in my own money and made Walk Away in 2010. But I had no money for post-production and I was trying to raise funds.
At that time, Shah Rukh had come to the US and when he heard that I was struggling with the post-production, he asked me to come to India and use the Red Chillies post-production facility. I flew down and he threw open the doors of Red Chillies for me. And then one day, he handed over shitloads of money to me and said: ‘Go finish your film!’ Then I went to (Oscar winner) Resul Pookutty who saw the film and did the sound design for free and so did Vishal-Shekhar and Ram Sampath with the music. But it was solely on the strength of my film… they had no idea of my SRK connection!
You have called Walkaway ‘Sex and the City for men’!
It was actually a reviewer who called my film ‘Sex and the City with a soul’. It’s based on Indian marriages and how most of us are so modern in our outlook in everything else apart from marriage. Growing up in a Marwari household, I have witnessed extravagant weddings and this whole horoscope-matching thing, and I never really wanted to be a part of it. I have always questioned it…. I have always been the black sheep of the family. I live alone in New York, I am 38 and unmarried (laughs). So, my film kind of mirrored all of that.
How tough is it for an independent filmmaker here and there?
Though there is greater acceptability now and people are making different films both here and there, a lot more needs to be done. The monetary risk of making films has gone up and you can’t really blame the producers for wanting to stick to a so-called safe formula. You and I may not like certain films, but many others do and that’s what brings in the money. I saw Vicky Donor and liked it. I also liked the promo of Hemlock Society. Shanghai was such a brilliant film, but when I went to watch it in a US theatre on a Friday evening, there were only four of us and my heart broke.
You worked on the digital and media strategy for Ra.One…
Shah Rukh needed me for Ra.One to work on the film’s website initially and then my role grew. So I did the film’s merchandising and worked as its digital and new media head. Now, I head Red Chillies in the US because at the ground level there is no Bollywood post-production facility there. I am also in the process of writing two scripts. I do freelance work in social media and I will also work on the digital and marketing strategy for Shah Rukh’s next two releases. But despite how much it has made me cry, filmmaking is where my calling is.
How is Shah Rukh as a mentor?
For him, everything is passion. He’s such a passionate man. You give him a gadget and he’s a 12-year-old! I have learnt so much from him, one of which is to sleep four hours a day, just like he does! (Laughs) I am so happy now that he has a special connection with Calcutta through KKR. I was telling him ‘You are from Delhi, you’ve lived in Mumbai and you are a Calcutta boy too and now only Chennai is left’. And he was like: ‘Oh Chennai, I don’t know what to do there!’ He reads a lot and has a superb marketing brain. He isn’t a big foodie… it’s always Tandoori Chicken for him all the time! And he’s always on the go.
What are you writing now?
One is a sexual comedy between two women and I am not sure if there is a market for it because it's a little unconventional. The other is a crazy comedy about three guys stuck in weird situations. I have been a fan of mad comedies like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and Hera Pheri. I am hoping to make a film like that.