Horror has untapped potential in India, says producer Medha Jaishankar
Producer Medha Jaishankar has become attached to a feature length version of ‘The Bells’ based on a popular YouTube short. The short film (also titled ‘The Bells’) is directed by Virat Pal, a filmmaker from New Delhi. The YouTube short has been rated the #1 short film on YouTube for the last few months and has gained a significant fan following. In this interview, Medha Jaishankar discusses her eclectic background in the media industry, her plans with ‘The Bells’ and future projects.
-Could you briefly describe your cinematic journey so far? And what are your future plans?
I wish I could wax nostalgic about sitting in an art house theatre watching world cinema in my early youth. But to be frank my passion for visual media is deeply rooted in 80’s pop culture. I was born around the birth of MTV - in fact the first words I ever uttered were learned from the end of a music video (‘Hi there’ – said by a colourful monster at the end of the Peter Gabriel’s ‘Big Time’ music video). When I was 5 my father bought a video camera and we would film and edit home videos on a regular basis. It was at this age that I remember watching my first movies. When I was 11 we moved to Japan and I would go to the theatre almost every week. By the time I was 15 I was certain that I wanted to study filmmaking, so I went off to a college in the US that had a film program. In fact, while I was in college I worked as a projectionist – in retrospect this may have been the beginning of my “cinematic journey!”
After college I moved to New York where I worked as a camerawoman and editor, then to Mumbai where I worked in story development, and eventually to LA where I worked in post production and digital media. Even though I’ve had an eclectic background in regards to the various aspects of content making, I’m a producer at heart. Last year I had the pleasure of producing four music videos (including one currently being featured on the official 2019 SXSW Music Video Youtube Playlist) which brought me back to my music video roots. I now plan to champion the projects of a few writers, directors and fellow producers I’ve developed strong working relationships with and produce content of various kinds – from feature films to TV shows, short form content and interactive digital media content.
-What drew you towards the 'horror' genre? Is it your penchant towards such films or you just plan to cater to the needs and interests of audience?
I’ll be honest – horror does cater to the needs of contemporary theatre going audiences. Today I feel like there’s a new horror film every month that makes the top ten box office. But I do love the genre! I remember going to see ‘Ringu’ (1998 Japanese film directed by Hideo Nakata) with my friends and even though my Japanese comprehension skills were terrible at the time it definitely left an impression!
Horror films tend to give you a lot of creative liberty to explore bigger ideas and deeper themes, in an entertaining, thrilling manner. However, the films in this genre today are prone to a bleak and nihilistic approach. I prefer horror films that, despite the uncompromising circumstances, show a ray of hope, a ray of light in the end.
I was impressed by Virat Pal’s short - which has received 450k views on youtube and has been the #1 horror short on Youtube for the past few months. Virat and his producing partner Nehal Gupta really know how to stretch a budget, and so I’m looking forward to learning from them as well. There are quite a few Youtube reaction videos that have popped where we see the viewer squirming and screaming to Virat’s short. They are hilarious to watch! And I hope that audiences will be equally thrilled by the feature version of this film.
The feature version of ‘The Bells’ explores themes like - Do our sins pass down to our children? Do we really have a say in what we inherit from our forefathers? How much do we really think about our actions and how they can affect our future generations? The film also scrutinizes the brutality against women that used to take place and still occurs, in various forms. I was also drawn to the other themes that are present in the narrative like re-discovering motherhood, regaining faith and rebuilding family bonds. And of course a strong female protagonist who saves the day.
-What all other genres you would like to work on apart from horror?
Virat has also written an amazing Christopher Nolan-like thriller with lots of twists and turns that I’d love to produce in the near future (titled “Engraving”). But the two genres I’d like to definitely work in are comedies and films that revolve around music and musicians (like “Gully Boy”). And maybe a combination of the two!
-What according to you is the fundamental difference between Indian cinema and Hollywood?
I recently finished Michael Ovitz and Sherry Lansing’s autobiographies where they talked about the many risks they took to greenlight classic films like ‘Rain Man,’ ‘Forrest Gump,’ ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Titanic’ among others. However American companies have now become much more data driven and thus way more cautious when it comes to green lighting films. I attended a Q&A with Edgar Wright where he addressed the fact that these days there’s so much focus on pre-existing IP and in built audiences rather than original screenplays, he was grateful that he could even find a studio to make ‘Baby Driver’ with!
In the last ten years I’ve definitely seen more structure in terms of the way we approach screenplays in India, however we still have room to take on bold new ideas. Returning to India after several years I’m happy to have reconnected with a lot of writer and director friends who are now able to make their passion projects come to fruition which is very encouraging!
-How do plan to engage Indian audience in your work?
Good content speaks for itself. Today, Indian audiences want content that is new, refreshing and relatable. Take for example (in the horror genre), the success of ‘The Conjuring’ series or ‘The Nun’ in India. ‘The Nun’ made over 28 crores on its opening weekend itself and it wasn’t even heavily promoted!
Virat, Nehal and I were recently discussing how in India we either have ‘horrex’ films - which is a mix of horror and sex - or horror comedies like ‘Stree.’ Another problem is the lack of named stars taking on roles in this genre. It would be great to collaborate with folks like Rajkumar Rao, Vicky Kaushal, Radhika Apte, Sanya Malhotra or even Shah Rukh Khan as a producer on board (I read somewhere that he is interested in making a horror movie) because I think they are willing to experiment and make meaningful and entertaining cinema.
The cinematic landscape has witnessed a significant change since the advent of new media... how important do you think it is and how do you plan to bring it in your work without losing the conventional essence?
Everyone seems to be experimenting with VR and AR and interactive storytelling of some kind or the other - case in point the ‘Black Mirror’ episode ‘Bandersnatch’. However I strongly believe that new media can complement traditional narrative media without - as you put it - losing the conventional essence of the original IP. I’ve been trying to educate myself in the mobile gaming industry for the last three years and it’s fascinating to see daily statistics on mobile games for films and TV shows. There’s a mobile gaming company called ‘Episode Interactive’ that makes games for properties like ‘Mean Girls,’ ‘Clueless’ and ‘Pretty Little Liars,’ and last month it made more than a hundred thousand dollars daily on iPhones in North America! With successful games for shows like ‘The Walking Dead,’ ‘Narcos, ‘and ‘Game of Thrones’ I’m sure we’ll see more mobile games for traditional narratives and genres of all kinds.