Like millions of other Indians, film producer Guneet Monga had covid-19 last month. Her achievements and honours, however, remain singular. Last month, Monga was also conferred the second highest civilian French honour in the Capital. She received the Chevalier dans I’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her contribution to cinema and her work with the cinema collective Indian Women Rising.
In an interview with Mint Lounge in 2019, Monga had said the world doesn’t prepare you for success: “It really prepares you for failure—get up again, be resilient.” She should know. She started as an “intern’s intern” on a French and German film in 2004 called Valley Of Flowers and charted a career that took her to the Cannes Film Festival with films such as Gangs Of Wasseypur, Peddlers, The Lunchbox and Masaan, and brought her Bafta and Oscar nominations. But even when she did taste success abroad, she was not taken seriously in India.
Monga is now one of the first producers from India to be inducted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And one of her recent international co-productions, Period. End Of Sentence. (2019), won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short.
As her production house, Sikhya Entertainment, mushrooms to accommodate new storytelling formats, Monga speaks about the need to keep learning, her newly acquired women’s lens and why she doesn’t need to colour her hair grey any more. Edited excerpts:
You were the first to use the 1985 India-France treaty to co-produce ‘The Lunchbox’ in 2012; ‘Masaan’ won Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2015. So you had a relationship with France already. Did you have any idea you were pegged for French knighthood?
No, it was a complete surprise! And then it all happened very quickly. Because of the pandemic, it was an intimate ceremony at the French embassy in Delhi. The French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian spoke beautifully and then they gave me my badge. I have yet to get it framed.
What advice would you give those looking to get into independent film production?
I tell people to go study producing or start ground up and not judge the process. I have made photocopies, been a line producer…every day it felt like life was not moving but I feel I was able to move a mountain. I had some scholarships to study studios and labs which were very helpful. I tell people to have their eyes wide open, book breakfast meetings at film festivals, etc..
Sikhya means learning and I am still learning. There are so many kinds of funds available for the arts, so many stories that can use those funds or use some kind of mentorship. I have had great mentors, I believe in mentoring. What I miss is a peer group of producers and I am determined to build that.
Sikhya Entertainment has diversified to podcasts, audible shows, interactive shows and more. What’s next in terms of delivery vehicles?
All this while, it has been hard for me to push barriers and tell people what I do. Now, I want to build an army of creative producers. That’s my dream.
We have five divisions now, five new creative producers. We will always do feature films, but we are doing a lot of documentaries and short content. We did India’s first mobile-only interactive thriller show Kaun? Who Did It? for Flipkart. Audiences get to choose who the killer is and there are cash prizes. We recently did Soorarai Pottru in Tamil. We are now working with various Indian languages. There’s a lot to explore in the regional language space.
What ties these projects together?
My goal is to tell Indian stories with the hope of a global footprint. We were the first ones to do large-scale co-productions like The Lunchbox. It’s a lens I have adopted very consciously. One thing I want to do is go beyond India to explore South Asia, transcend these borders. We tried to do that with Tigers, which was set in Pakistan, for instance.
You have spoken recently about adopting a women’s lens too?
To be fully honest, I was running a different company before. I took a break and rebranded in 2015. Post #MeToo my lens did change. I internalised those conversations and I think it will always show in the work I do. If you see our recent releases from Period. End of Sentence., Zindagi inShort, Pagglait, it’s very clear. Soorarai Pottru is a man’s story, but directed by a woman. We are all products of patriarchy and every day we negotiate what we can claim as ours.
Tell me more about how the movie ‘Pagglait’ came together.
Pagglait is one of our first projects under the new lens and it gave me wings. I shared my personal experiences with the director (Umesh Bist). I was 24 when I lost both my parents, I did not cry. Twenty or 25 people came over to mourn. I was caught up with gadda kahan se aa raha hai, halwai kahan hai (where are the mattresses coming from, where is the caterer?). I asked for a Limca in the mourning period and an uncle called me crazy.
When Umesh Sir came to me with the story, I poured my heart out. I was judged then for how I was grieving. But grieving is such an internal process. I shaved my head years later. I feel more close to my parents now than I did in my early 20s.
You see some of that in the movie. For me, storytelling is not transactional. It’s my life’s work. It needs to make an impact.
What prompted you to change tracks? Can you talk about your break and what helped you spring back?
My mother and I launched Sikhya in 2008 and I lost both my parents that same year. I was not inspired to run a company any more, so I threw myself into a string of production jobs. I met Anurag Kashyap and worked with him for five-six years. It was with him that I got my first glimpse of the Venice Film Festival, built relationships in France, Korea, China, etc.
The Lunchbox, the first production I could call entirely my own, was a huge global hit but I still felt misunderstood in India. I was being written about as (among) the top 12 producers in the world to look out for but internally I felt broken.
My peer group told me it was a fluke. I had major self-doubt. I was in a place where I didn’t know what’s next for me. I was depressed. It was also the burnout of not addressing the loss of my parents. That’s when the break happened. I look back and I can connect those dots now. It was a very deep spiritual journey. Sitting down, meditating and surrendering, allowed me to connect with who I am and what I want to do (Monga is a follower of the late Nirmal Singhji Maharaj, known to his followers as Guruji). I came back to Sikhya with a lot of learning. I needed to articulate what I needed to do, how I could add value. You need to define yourself in the international market. And I have found that now.
So how do you pick your projects now?
I have an excellent business partner in Achin Jain. Stories choose us. Then the response comes from the gut. I don’t ever want to make a decision for any other reason other than my love for the story.
As our footprint across formats has increased. I am learning every day which format might be best for a story. Is this a short film or a documentary? Everything is not just “picture banana hai”. I own my hustle, I am proud of my hustle. I have gone from being in deep self-doubt to being extremely grateful for the lows, because that gave me time to think.
In your 20s, you would wear saris and colour your hair grey to be taken seriously. You are 37 now, do you feel at home with your age?
Yes, I own my age now, I am at peace with it. I walk into a room now with my strength and my faith. I feel people have become more well-versed with what a producer does, with OTT platforms even more so, which is the way it should be. In India it has always been actor first, director first. But it’s very common to be an independent producer in a country like France. There, producers are the real tastemakers.
Conversations At Large is a fortnightly interview column. Anindita Ghose is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai.