Sony Pictures Films India Nurtures Local Talent While Expanding Hollywood Footprint (EXCLUSIVE)

Sony Pictures Films India has tapped emerging local talent to spearhead its burgeoning Bollywood slate, while simultaneously making moves to aggressively grow its Hollywood footprint.

The studio has handed Aakash Bhatia (Amazon series “Inside Edge”) a feature directorial debut with “Looop Lapeta,” the Indian adaptation of “Run Lola Run,” starring Taapsee Pannu and Tahir Raj Bhasin. Similarly, Satram Ramani, chief AD on Salman Khan vehicle “Jai Ho,” makes his feature directorial debut with comedy “Helmet,” starring Aparshakti Khurana and Pranutan Bahl.

The studio has also given directorial reins to successful screenwriters. “Saand Ki Aankh” and “Mubarakan” writer Balwinder Singh Janjua debuts with an as-yet-untitled romance starring Randeep Hooda and Ileana D’Cruz, while “Toilet: A Love Story” writer duo Siddharth and Garima debut with honor killings drama “Saale Aashiq.”

Sony is also giving feature film breaks to talent that has shone in related fields. For example, singer Shirley Setia, who has 15 million followers across social media, is making her acting debut with “Nikamma,” alongside veteran Shilpa Shetty.

“The idea here is that we are very conscious of growing the industry by infusing new talent, and we are very focused in terms of looking at stories that come with great storytellers,” Sony Pictures Films India MD Vivek Krishnani told Variety. “And this is not just across Hindi – we’re also doing a lot of regional language films as well.”

One of Sony’s strategies is to give stars of local language cinema a pan-India presence. An example is the upcoming “Major,” a film based on the life of Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, who was martyred in action during the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. A co-production with Telugu megastar Mahesh Babu’s G. Mahesh Babu Entertainment and A+S Movies, the film has rising Telugu industry star Adivi Sesh (“Goodachari”) in the lead. Shot in Hindi and Telugu, with a Malayalam-language dub, Sesh, who also wrote the story and screenplay, is being positioned as a pan-Indian leading man with the film.

Krishnani, who has had previous stints at Fox and Turner, was instrumental in Sony relaunching its local production arm in 2018 with the Akshay Kumar starrer, “Pad Man” and “102 Not Out,” featuring Amitabh Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor.

Hollywood movies have enjoyed a growing box office presence as India develops more multiplexes. Hollywood jumped from a 11% market share in 2018 to 14% in 2019, according to the annual FICCI/EY Indian media industry report. (2020 was a COVID-hit anomaly, in which Hollywood titles accounted for only 4% of the Indian box office.) And Sony is a key player in this segment of the market.

Krishnani talks about the “aggressive marketing push” behind Sony’s Hollywood titles in India. “The fact is that if people are not going to see the studio’s commitment behind the film, they will smell it,” says Krishnani. And therefore, you get to see that impact in the footfalls for the film. So when you go behind the film and you promote it like an event, you will see it and then want to be a part of it.”

The studio has long been a big proponent of dubbing and is now planning to increase the number of Indian languages in which it dubs Hollywood releases. “We are not just dubbing it – it’s not transliteration it’s translation in that sense,” says Krishnani. The executive says that for each film they assign the Hollywood characters a regional Indian identity. “It’s basically trying to build in the local ethos, the local colloquial jokes, that colloquial environment,” says Krishnani.

Sony also deploys the popular practice of deploying popular Bollywood stars to dub. For example, in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” Tiger Shroff was the voice of Tom Holland in India.

Sony’s upcoming Hollywood release slate for India includes: “Unholy,” “Vivo,” “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

Krishnani is bullish about the country’s return to theatrical box office after the devastation of the past year. However, he is pragmatic as well. India is now amongst the worst COVID-hit countries worldwide, and cinemas are closed or re-closing rapidly across the land. In 2020, at the height of the first wave of the pandemic, Sony made the decision to open big ticket film “Shakuntala,” starring Vidya Balan, directly on Amazon Prime Video. Now, thriller “Dial 100,” starring Manoj Bajpayee and Neena Gupta, is also going direct to digital.

“We are balancing both the platforms, theatrical as well as OTT,” says Krishnani. “We are also proactively green-lighting content that would be a direct-to-digital release as well.”

With an eye on the spiraling COVID cases in India, Sony’s theatrical slate is all scheduled for the second half of the year, beginning with “Major” on July 2. The studio’s next big push will be into more regional language cinema.

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