mid-day`s 42nd anniversary: The lockdown baby

Richa Chadha, 34, and  Ali Fazal, 34

The actor-turned-producer duo have rolled their first film, Girls Will Be Girls, which has been chosen for the Berlinale Talents Script Station programme

When the bustling city of Mumbai came to a screeching halt overnight last March, owing to the pandemic, Richa Chadha and Ali Fazal found some breathing space after months of relentless shoots, chaotic schedules and wedding planning. But within weeks, the curious minds knew that they couldn’t waste the free time holed up in their apartment. Wasn’t this the perfect time to set in motion their long-cherished dream of turning producers, they asked each other. “Both of us have had our distinct journeys, and seen what it takes to run a production house  — be it [roping in] investors or directors, hiring technicians or discovering writers. Richa and I have always wanted to tell stories. We have some great ideas and good experiences,” begins Fazal, who felt emotionally ready to graduate to the next step after a 12-year acting career.

Thus was born what the couple considers their first baby — Pushing Buttons Studios, a boutique production house. In Fazal’s words, the studio’s launch was driven solely by the duo’s love for indigenous stories. “Hamari zameen par bohot kahaniya hain jo humein sunani hai. We wanted to set up a space that’s easy for people to work in. Our vision is to become a medium for artistes from diverse walks of life to come together and make films. It’s like a club where you are tied by emotions, but are free to be employed by anyone else. We believe that art and artistes cannot be tied down.”

But would this have happened without the lockdown? Chadha thoughtfully says, “What helped was us moving in together. It made it easier for us to work together. But setting up a small creators’ lab was something we’ve been [discussing] for the past two years.”

In June 2020, the two rolled up their sleeves and got down to work. Their first step was to send out feelers to friends and frequent collaborators, inviting them to share their scripts. After sifting through almost 100 scripts and step outlines, they struck gold with Chadha’s friend Shuchi Talati’s story, Girls Will Be Girls. Then, it was time for the bigger hurdle — finding investors. Enter French producer Claire Chassagne of Dolce Vita Films, whom Chadha knew since her Masaan (2015) days, and Sanjay Gulati of Crawling Angel Films.

Attribute it to beginner’s luck or their keen eye for scripts, but their maiden project is one of the 10 scripts chosen for the Berlinale Talents Script Station programme this year. “Shuchi and I studied together for a year. Girls Will Be Girls is a story every ’90s kid will relish. She will be one director to watch out for, and the fact that Berlin picked it up gives us the confidence that we are headed the right way,” says a proud Chadha. 

One would’ve expected that her short film would be their first offering. After all, the actor was utilising the stay-at-home period to hone her writing and directorial skills as well. “I am not sure I will ever release it. I am done with the first draft of another script, a surreal film that is a mix of magical realism and comedy,” she explains.

The actors-turned-producers officially launched their banner in March 2021, eight months after they began working on it. As new producers, they are making their way through the teething issues. “It’s a new role, and I have to stop to remind myself, ‘You are a producer now. Think like one.’ I am a bit too generous without realising the constraints,” laughs Fazal.

The duo don’t have an office yet, working out of their Juhu home and connecting with the team of Girls Will Be Girls virtually. “Shuchi is in New York, [Chassagne] is in France, [Gulati] in Delhi and we are in Mumbai. Richa and I do weekly calls to brainstorm on concepts and ideas. I am glad we aren’t acting in our first project because we will learn more as aides on the job. We will be detached as actors and invested as producers, which will help us sharpen our on-ground skills,” he explains.

The couple is waiting to complete their first outing before sanctioning any more scripts. They have unwittingly ventured into storytelling at the perfect time — after all, the content landscape in the country has seen a radical change in the past 16 months. However, Chadha disagrees with the notion, “All the lockdown has done is accelerated the process of the audience moving to a different content design. 

With rising ticket prices and the OTT boom pre-COVID, the shift was unfolding gradually anyway. Private viewing has put the focus on stories over stars because the pressure of selling tickets doesn’t exist. Narratives are winning, which is why Pratik Gandhi, headlining Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story, despite being a fresh face, has been able to shine. As a result of the audience getting picky, the writing will get better.”

Once the production house finds its feet, the couple intends to take it to foreign shores. Fazal, who has starred in international outings, including Death on the Nile starring Kenneth Branagh and Gal Gadot, says, “Without me even trying that door, we’ve done well. Richa is a step ahead in the European sector [due to Gangs of Wasseypur and Masaan doing the festival rounds]. With time, and trust in our work, we will be able to pull in some good studios. It’s a matter of time before people all over [the world] see our work.”

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