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Exclusive: Indian origin Singapore-based producer of Award-winning film says Mithila Makhaan is just the beginning

Mithila Makhaan is the first Maithili language film to win National Award for the Best Feature Film. Samir's production house Ashwatha Tree Pvt Ltd in Singapore provides quality entertainment that inspires and brings about social change.

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National Award for Mithila Makhaan. Image source: NewsGram
NewsGram presents an exclusive tête-à-tête with the cast and crew of this year’s National Award winning Maithili film, Mithila Makhaan. In the first part of the series, Shillpi A Singh caught up with the movie’s Singapore-based producer Samir Kumar. Read on as he takes you to the magic of the moment on a glorious night, and shares his dreams of tomorrow and the wind of change that is blowing wild and free to give wings to the regional cinema, taking it many notches higher.
Ages ago, the Bard had said, “What’s in a name?” Perhaps, there’s a lot. A name adds certain qualities and values that a person inevitably happens to live with all through his life. And it is true for Singapore-based Samir Kumar whose first name when translated in Hindi means the wind. And he is living up to his name by bringing along a refreshing change in the world of regional cinema. A technocrat turned bureaucrat, he is currently an investment banker with a leading multinational bank in the Lion City.
Producer of the film Samir Kumar. Image source: NewsGram
Producer of the film Samir Kumar. Picture by SnR Dance&Events for NewsGram
A passionate movie buff, he has also forayed into film production. His production house’s debut outing, Mithila Makhaan, has won the National Award for the Best Feature Film in the Maithili language, a first of its kind honour for a regional language film from the twin states of Bihar and Jharkhand. Ecstatic and overwhelmed at this honour, he said, “It was great to receive the National Award. I had the privilege to speak to the Hon’ble President on the dais. I told him that this was the first Maithili film to win an award. And he politely responded, ‘Yes, I know’. The President wished me good luck. His kind words are still ringing in my ears. This recognition is our biggest motivation; it has raised the bar for all of us and we would keep up the good work in our future endeavours.”
A Good Start, A Good Beginning
Born in Bihar’s capital, Patna, Samir grew up in Sasaram, the second most literate city in the state, completing his studies till Class 12 from the state Board there. A brilliant student, he cleared the tough entrance exam and entered the hallowed portals of India’s top-notch technological institute, the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, in 1997. After completing his undergraduate degree in mining with top grades from IIT-Kgp, he was engaged as a Consultant with the Ministry of Coal, Government of India, for a short stint. From there, he moved on to pursue a management course at the premier management college, the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, in 2002. Armed with the best of degrees, Samir was flooded with offers from companies, both in India and abroad. He chose to work overseas for a while but the best of monetary compensation could not lure him to stay there for long; he yearned to do something for his motherland. Samir returned to India in 2009 to take the Civil Services exam for he thought it would give him an opportunity to make a difference at the grassroots level. The global exposure in his previous assignments stood him in good stead and he cleared UPSC exams in the first attempt itself, but the bureaucratic tag wasn’t enough to hold him to the coveted position for long. Realising that the allied service would not provide him with the kind of opportunities that he was looking for to serve the country, he put in his papers in 2010. “The wind then moved to foreign shores, and for good,” he laughed, fondly reminiscing how he moved to Singapore after dabbling in bureaucracy for a while. Today he is the Director of an international bank in the island state.
Reel-ty Check
He established his production house Ashwatha Tree Pvt Ltd in Singapore to provide quality entertainment that inspires and brings about social change. It may come as a surprise to many that the firm is owned and funded by Samir from his hard-earned income. “Every penny spent by Ashwatha Tree is well accounted. While making the film, I made it a point to keep the accounts clear by making all the financial dealings, big or small, through cheque. It was quite unusual for the industry. But that is how I wanted it. So it was,” he said.
It is the first Maithili film to be extensively shot in the US, Canada, India and Nepal. “There were certain budgetary constraints and operational challenges while making the film, but as they say, all is well that ends well. The Award has made us forget all the lows that we encountered en route our dream of making a sleek movie in Maithili,” said the filmmaker. The film has been produced by Neetu Chandraa’s Champaran Talkies and Samir’s Ashwatha Tree and co-produced by Illuminant Films.
The Dream Seller
But what prompted him to foray into films? “I am a financial markets trader by the day and a film producer by night,” he said with a chuckle. He quickly added, “I am passionate about making movies. I have been learning the nuances of digital film-making as a hobby. Nitin Neera Chandra is a dear friend. I met him two years ago. We bonded well as two of us have common interests — to do something meaningful for the region from where we hail. One thing led to another and Mithila Makhaan happened. And today here we are with the Award in our hand.”
Apart from bagging the National Award for its first Maithili film, Ashwatha Tree has also produced a Hindi film, Once Upon a Time in Bihar, which was a remake of the award-winning Bhojpuri film Deswa. Chandra directed the film starring Ashish Vidyarthi, Pankaj Jha, Arti Puri, Kranti Prakash Jha and Deepak Singh in the lead roles and it was released last year.
Talking about his association with Samir, Chandra said, “I was ready with the story of Mithila Makhaan in 2012 but failed miserably in scouting for financiers. Samir was the first one to come on-board and readily agreed to invest money in this film. I will always be grateful to him for believing in me and my vision.”
It’s Made in India
The award-winning Maithili film is an honest attempt to make a good film in a regional language that is spoken by millions across Bihar, neighbouring Nepal and many other countries of the world. “The film showcases the best of Maithili culture and encourages entrepreneurial spirit among the youth of the region and in a way promotes the idea of Make in India. The Mithilanchal region in Bihar is famous for the Madhubani paintings. It is the largest producer of fox nuts and betel leaves, and a meal for Maithils is incomplete without a generous helping of fish, all of which are an integral part of the Maithili culture,” said Samir.
Big Screen Outing   
The film that stars Pankaj Jha, Anurita Jha and Kranti Prakash Jha has been written and directed by Nitin Neera Chandra and is all set to hit the theatres in September this year. About the plot, he said, “Mithila Makhaan is the story of a young entrepreneur Kranti Prakash, who is based in the downtown financial district of Toronto, miles away from his mother and motherland. On his mother’s insistence, he returns to his native village Darbhanga, Bihar, after 23 years to perform a family ritual. But he is shocked to find that a lot has changed, and not for the good. The Kosi deluge of 2008 has devastated his village. The turn of events during his stay in the village changes his life forever. It is a story of the astute young man’s grit and determination to bring a change in the region, instil pride in the younger generation and revive its glorious past.”
Film Poster. Image source: NewsGram
Film Poster. Image source: NewsGram
Cinema Wise
In some measures, regional cinema often gets a step-motherly treatment from the film-goers and filmmakers alike. The language is spoken and understood by millions, but all those people seldom watch a film in the regional language. This apathy affects the box-office collection. The returns are often minimal as compared to the investments. The lack of infrastructural support for small and medium budget filmmakers has created an unsustainable environment for regional cinema to flourish, especially in Bihar, he said. The other obstacles are online availability of films, piracy, poor marketing and apathy of multiplexes, all of which act as spoilers. But the wind of change is blowing straight into the face of time for regional films in Bihar and Jharkhand. “This movie aims to change that popular perception. It is a baby step in the right direction,” he said.
Future Perfect
The production house is busy with Mithila Makhaan’s release later this year. “But apart from this, there are a few regional language and Hindi films in the pipeline. The team is currently working on those ideas,” he said about his upcoming projects. The filmmaker believes that things are indeed looking up for regional cinema but there is a lot of work to be done to make it popular in the country. He added, “we need good stories, catchy themes that will have an instant connect with the audience, lilting music, soulful lyrics, crisp editing and sharp camera work but all of it set against the backdrop of the twin states with an enviable star cast that will help pull crowds to the theatres.”
On an optimistic note, Samir said, “A closer look at the issues grappling regional cinema in our state can help in setting up a global film industry there. I have submitted a paper to the state government with my thoughts and I am hoping that it is being reviewed.” If it is so, then it will herald good times for regional cinema in twin states that will go a long way in creating meaningful movies from the region.
To cater to the global audience, he has big plans. “The films — Deswa and Once Upon a Time in Bihar — will be available on Muvizz.com, a platform for independent cinema and a boon for cinephiles, in July this year. Mithila Makhaan will also be available there but a little later,” he said.
It’s Trending 
Being the first Maithili film to be feted with the National Award has made people keen and eager to watch Mithila Makhaan on the big screen. “Also, the National Award and its outing at the international film circuits may bring about a welcome change in the way the masses and classes will perceive and receive it,” he said. The film has managed to create the right buzz among the Maithilis across the world. Anupama Jha Kumar, an entrepreneur, model and accomplished classical dancer, who is working for a media company in Singapore, said, “Mithila region is rich in history, customs, food, music, language, literature and art. For Maithils, life is a celebration and this film has given us another reason to rejoice. The film will promote the ancient culture by taking it to a global platform. I am anxiously waiting for its release.”
Livin’ it Up 
A globetrotter, Samir has worked and stayed in different cities but having lived in Singapore for eight years now, he calls the Garden City his second home and has decided to stay put here with his entrepreneur wife Tulika and two lovely children till life takes him someplace else. He has come a long way, traversing the arduous distance from Sasaram to Singapore, but there is no resting on his laurels yet. “The journey has just started. I have miles to go.”
The winds are blowing and Samir is busy harnessing the change and ready to sail off on another adventure. Watch out, world!
In part two of the series, NewsGram catches up with Mithila Makhaan’s Director Nitin Neera Chandra, who has also written  story, screenplay, dialogues for the film. Watch out for this space!
The author can be reached at shilpi.devsingh@gmail.com 
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After Each Successful Film, Question Arises: What next?

This includes all - big as well as medium-range producers

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Film, Ideas, Direction
Each filmmaker trying to come out with something different. Pixabay

With the kind of films that unspool every week, one can conclude that there is a dearth of not only ideas but also direction! A varied kind of films are being made. Each filmmaker trying to come out with something different. This includes all – big as well as medium-range producers. The idea seems to be taking a shot in the dark. It is all about taking chances.

Some producers are falling back on period costume dramas, which work out very costly and not every director’s cup of tea. This genre was avoided for a long time mainly because of these two reasons, capability and cost. Yet, we have had period films like “Bajirao Mastani” and “Padmaavat”, “Manikarnika” and “Kesari”. There have been a few flops in this genre like “Mohenjo Daro”, “Rangoon” and “Thugs Of Hindostan”. The backers of such films would do it only on the basis of saleable stars, coupled with a capable director. Still it often proves risky.

Each week, a new kind of film is dropped in the market. For instance, last week we had “Khandaani Shafakhana”, a film discussing sexual problems for those who can make sense of the title! For one, sex and problems related to it are not generally discussed in India. Delhi and surrounding areas do have such clinics but that does not make the subject acceptable all over.

One may have thought if Vicky Donor could work, why not take it a step further? An odd subject like “Vicky Donor” or “Piku”, very personal to people, does work. But they need to be woven into a plausible story and dealt with a fair amount of humour. Recent such films are “Piku”, “Padman”, “Toilet: Ek Prem Katha”. This is called reaching out to personal matters of people. Humour is a must since it delivers the message without making the proceedings seem mundane.

Film, Ideas, Direction
With the kind of films that unspool every week, one can conclude that there is a dearth of not only ideas but also direction! Pixabay

It seems filmmaking is all about inspirational and awareness films. A small film about a person few had heard about, “Paan Singh Tomar”, followed by “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag”, opened up a new genre – the biopic. “Neerja”, “MS Dhoni: The Untold Story” and “Dangal” followed in quick succession. The film industry calls this a �daur’ (trend). It does not last long, though.

Most writers who script stories like “Piku” or “Vicky Donor”, or directors who make films like “Dangal”, “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” and “Neerja”, have always had this problem: What next? They usually have nothing that matches the earlier success. No maker seemed to have a worthy successor. So, they go back to usual claptrap and come a cropper.

There were also some biopics like “Manjhi: The Mountain Man” or “Sachin: A Billion Dreams” where the makers just chose to go with the trend but turned the film into a documentary. A film like “Sachin: A Billion Dreams” costs crores as royalty to the character on whose life it is based, as well as to acquire real life footage. The film on Sachin was a victim of failing to dramatise. The idea is to pick a life story and add a fair amount of fiction along with music as was done with the Dhoni film.

Akshay Kumar has become a torchbearer of the films that convert real-life stories into reel life sagas. He has been greatly successful in his endeavours. His image of being a thoroughbred nationalist probably adds to the acceptability of his films. His instincts and beliefs seem to be paying up so far.

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Then, there is John Abraham. He loves to play the incredible hulk tackling major cases like the Rajiv Gandhi assassination or Pokhran nuclear tests. He has been partly successful.

It is believed that there are only seven basic storylines in this world. Films were made accordingly. There was a time when some makers stuck to making religion-based or mythological films while a few others only made horror movies. The mainstay for most makers, however, was romance and family socials. Action movies were not in vogue in the mainstream cinema till mid-1970 and action, in a measured amount, was a part of regular movies. Otherwise, the action movies as such were rated as B-Grade, released only at designated cinema halls and were left to actors like Kamran Khan and Sheikh Mukhtar. Dara Singh later introduced action movies where wrestling was the theme.

There were a few costume dramas and comedies. While most producers stuck to their formula of catering to the family audience, some even stuck to certain alphabets to name their films with. Producer J. Om Prakash (who passed away last week) named all his films starting with alphabet A as did producer Mohan Kumar. Another filmmaker, Arjun Hingorani, preferred alphabet K to name his films. Filmmakers, like man