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Nikkhil Advani: Looking for the big picture

The co-founder of Emmay Entertainment and Motion Pictures on film-making, juggling web shows and feature films, and why Govinda is such a fine actor

Filmmaker and producer Nikkhil Advani
Filmmaker and producer Nikkhil Advani (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

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The vibe in film producer Nikkhil Advani’s south Mumbai home is very different from the stereotypical image of a film producer’s residence: no ultra-chic minimalist furniture, splashy paintings by famous masters or designer accessories. Instead, there are dozens and dozens of books, rustic furniture, a collection of jazz records with a turntable, and curios.

We are meeting ahead of the 4 February release of Rocket Boys, a series about Homi J. Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, who engineered India’s nuclear and space programmes, and Nikkhil is super excited. “It is about making sure a younger generation is aware of heroes who have not been given their fair share of attention.”

Nikkhil, 50, himself looks every bit the film-maker, with his Coppola-like beard and cargo pants. He has made over 25 films and web shows since 2003, most of them under the banner of Emmay Entertainment and Motion Pictures, which he set up in 2011 with elder sister Monisha Advani and their friend Madhu Bhojwani.

“Growth has been huge—the company started with three people and today there are 80 full-time employees,” Nikkhil says. At any given time, though, it creates gig employment for several hundred people (set builders, art and costume designers, junior artists, etc). Over the years, they have got funding from firms like T-Series and partners such as UTV, Disney, Amazon and SonyLIV. Emmay officials refuse to get into the finances, merely stating that revenue is more than 200 crore.

Nikkhil’s entry into the film world wasn’t planned, he suggests, as he travels back in time 25 years. “Before I took the plunge and started doing films or gigs or started assisting, I was doing everything that was meant to be done from a boy who was convent-educated, had gone to St Xavier’s College, has a bachelor’s degree in science and was going to either continue his science degree or do an MBA,” Nikkhil says. “So, I was reading all the Peter Drucker and Thomas Peters management books and the trajectory was to go abroad.” His father had worked with Colour Chem (Hoechst) before moving to Novartis, while his late mother, who had a degree in fine arts from the Sir JJ School of Art, ran an advertising consultancy.

His plans changed midway. By the time he finished college, he realised he wasn’t really interested in pursuing a technical degree and was ready to try something as far out as cinema. It was during this phase that he met Suparna, now his wife.

He was not completely unfamiliar with the film world—his father is a cousin of director Ramesh Sippy and Shobha Kapoor, who runs Balaji Telefilms with her daughter, Ekta Kapoor. And amongst his mother’s clients were Harun and Rahila Mirza, the children of film producer Aziz Mirza, most famous for films such as Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992) and the TV series Nukkad in the 1980s. To hear Nikkhil recall it, he got Mirza’s address, landed up at his home in 1994—and got a job as an assistant with him.

Over the next couple of years, “assistantship” with producers and directors he calls his “five masters” followed: Saeed Mirza, Aziz Mirza, Kundan Shah, Sudhir Mishra and Manjul Sinha. At the time, all five directors were working on different episodes of Naya Nukkad. He also learnt a trick or two from Renu Saluja (Parinda) in post-production.

He went on to co-write Iss Raat Ki Subah Nahin with Sudhir Mishra and was his chief associate in making the film. He worked as an associate director with Dharma Productions—on films such as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham—and Yash Raj Films—on Mohabbatein. In 2004, he branched out independently, though his big break as a director came with Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003).

“The experience left me longing to apply what I had learnt in the decade gone by. I knew I wanted to produce films. But I also knew somewhere intrinsically that I had been blessed as a struggler, first-generation aspirant in this very possessive world of multi-generation film-makers, that I needed to enable more like me,” Nikkhil says.

In 2007, he started People Tree in partnership with producer Mukesh Talreja, producing a handful of movies like Salaam-E-Ishq, Patiala House and the animation film Delhi Safari, which won a National Award. Sometime around 2010, though, he realised he wanted greater “production control”. “It was providence that Monisha and Madhu had just exited their previous business (a staffing company they sold to Randstad) when I approached them to form a production company” as equal investors, he says. And Emmay was born.

Dharma Productions’ Karan Johar, who knows all three from their school days, says: “While he may seem a little grumpy, he has a constantly ticking mind, is very efficient with schedules and knows how to instil fear on a set. Emmay is beautifully boutique in its ethos and oration.” Success has been mixed, though. For instance, Airlift, starring Akshay Kumar, cost around 30 crore and generated 129 crore. Batla House, made for a similar amount, generated 99 crore in revenue, Nikkhil says.

Monisha is the company’s public face in many ways, managing the teams, the administration, and using her sense of people and talent. Bhojwani, who oversees finance, is Emmay’s “enforcer”.

Of late, Emmay has been focusing on OTT platforms: Mumbai Diaries 26/11, The Empire and Rocket Boys. Does that mean they will avoid big-budget, star-driven films? “Both exist as consumer choices, both afford a different entertainment experience. Both serve an audience. As film-makers, we need to make wise choices on which story is best told in which format,” says Nikkhil. Both have distinct production processes. Metaphorically, making a film is like running a sprint and making a web series, like a marathon.

The strategy, says Bhojwani, is to go for “stories that are realistic. Semi-realistic. Inspired from true life events, which have characters that you tend to recognise as people; in the case of Mumbai Diaries, as people whom you know or people that you have met, or in the case of D-Day and Airlift, it’s just very, you know, just being able to take real-life stories and real-life characters and create some sort of a fictional account out of that.” This is not only cost-efficient because it sidesteps the acquisition costs that come with book rights and options, it also avoids potential legal pitfalls.

Nikkhil’s recipe for success may not be for everyone, however. “One trick is to be able to never say no to a great story. The other is to work round the clock, and while being overworked is stressful for some, for me it’s the opposite,” says the man who enjoys hiking and spending time with his wife and daughter. “The other factor that allows me to swing like a pendulum is having good teams in place and keeping things in place so you can see things from an external view. Also, the same team that is working on a web show won’t work on a movie at the same time. The third big piece is technology. I can read an episode while stuck in traffic on an iPad.”

“It helps that we function as a Monday-to-Monday company,” says Monisha. “Irrespective of the uncertain outcomes, business continuity has been built and assured to enable our teams to return to work every day.” How has that been achieved? “Back-to-back, concurrent high volume of projects,” she says. “Also, we have consciously widened the talent pool by grooming new directorial talent and technicians, so the dependency on one or two directors, including Nikkhil, gets de-risked.”

Nikkhil, who still gets starstruck every time he sees Amitabh Bachchan or works with Konkona Sen Sharma, regrets not having been able to work with actors such as Smita Patil and Farooq Shaikh. But he has learnt a lot from actors like the late Irrfan Khan (whom he directed in D-Day). “Irrfan made me the film-maker I am today,” he says, adding that he taught him to trust his instincts, sit back and watch technicians and actors do their work, and rein them in when required. He believes “one of the most talented” actors around is Govinda, who voiced the part of a monkey in Delhi Safari, the film Nikkhil made with some tech entrepreneurs in 2013. “He was unbelievable. I would explain the scene to him. He would say, ‘Okay but I will show you five other ways to do it.’ It was like a buffet.”

In an industry where competitive disruption is knocking on the door, is Emmay ready? Bhojwani says Nikkhil is a film-maker with clarity. “What floats his boat is true grey drama, and in that sense he’s in a very interesting place and knows what he wants to do, and he is also very resilient.”

The pandemic has, of course, brought its own challenges. “Projects that should have been ready in 12 months had taken 24 months but when a platform comes to you and says, guys, we need to release, being collaborative and being a partner, you have to understand that what they have also projected as a 12-month window has also gone into the second year. So that means the window to do your post-production gets squeezed,” Nikkhil says.

The pandemic also showed how vulnerable those who work in the industry are. Emmay tried to contribute monetarily, and by organising vaccination, but Nikkhil believes the sector has to start insisting that production companies offer provident fund, insurance and medical support to employees.

In an industry known for its cliques and egos, being a team player is now a must-do rather than a nice-to-do option. According to Johar, one of Emmay’s key strengths is the ability to collaborate with multiple producers and directors in a world where OTT and film producers are churning out shows and films at breakneck speed. Indeed, that list includes T-Series, Netflix, Amazon Prime, SonyLIV, Zee Studios, Disney+ HotStar. Going forward, Nikkhil will have to keep his eye on both the big picture—and the finer details—and keep the stories coming.

Pavan Lall is a Mumbai-based business journalist and author of Yes Man: The Untold Story Of Rana Kapoor.

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