Subhash Ghai on welcoming the emergence of OTT with 36 Farmhouse, dwindling star system, and more

Subhash Ghai on the evolving star system with the digital boom: 'This is the last era of '80s and '90s stars. I don't think now people will go to watch a film because of stars, they will come because of a good film, good filmmaker.'

Subhash Ghai, the showman known for spinning magic on the silver screen in the 1980s and 1990s, has now turned to OTT with comedy-drama 36 Farmhouse. With an ensemble cast of Sanjay Mishra, Vijay Raaz, Amol Parashar, Flora Saini, Barkha Singh, Madhuri Bhatia, and Ashwini Kalsekar, the film was shot over three weeks on a tight budget, as per Ghai, who is the writer and creative producer of the film that also has a crime plot.

"There is a farmhouse owned by an old landlady who has three sons who keep planning and plotting to usurp the family property. This is witnessed by a poor father-son and this is how Sanjay Mishra and Amol Parashar enter the story while in search of a job. We have touched upon the labour migrant theme in the backdrop of pandemic. The film is light-hearted as there are colourful characters who add comic relief to the plot of a murder mystery. During the lockdown I wrote many stories, scripts, poems, and music, and participated in many social and national causes. Many people called me to ask if I was writing a story on the pandemic and lockdown. I felt one can write many tragedies on the current situation but I decided to write a comedy," he says.

It was way back in 2001, Ghai whose repertoire is studded with films like Karz, Karma, Ram Lakhan, Khalnayak, Taal, and Pardes among others, had predicted that backing small budget films with "different stories" and no stars alongside big films with big stars made perfect sense. With this belief, the filmmaker has often gone minimalist with films like Joggers' Park, Rahul, Iqbal, Black & White... In fact, while he was working on Yaadein (Hrithik Roshan, Kareena Kapoor), the same year he had also produced Prakash Jha-directed Rahul with newcomers. Obviously so, Ghai welcomes the emergence of the OTT medium and he says, "In the last couple of years OTT grew with television getting stagnant. People started enjoying shows on OTT and eventually, films that were made for theatres also started releasing on OTT. Now people have a choice. OTT has become a parallel medium of cinema. It may so happen that big-budget, 200-300 crore movies will release in theatres, and small budget films will release on OTT. I have always functioned this way. I have in the past made several small budget films and then I also made Taal. Similarly 36 Farmhouse is a small budget film."

Having catapulted the careers of some of the biggest names in the industry like Sanjay Dutt, Madhuri Dixit, Anil Kapoor, Jackie Shroff, Aishwarya Rai, Akshaye Khanna and Mahima Chaudhary, Ghai says that he always had his belief in the film's content, not the star power. "The stars who have worked with me were once newcomers. Jackie Shroff, Anil Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt... were all newcomers. During Meri Jung, Anil Kapoor was a rising star, while Hero turned Jackie Shroff into a 'hero'.

In my 40-year career, I've never relied on stars. I've worked with either newcomers or promising and struggling actors because I never wanted to have the burden of stardom on my head.

In fact, every star knows that only content can make him or her star or superstar. I believe in writing characters. Those who cast big stars are the ones who want to sell their projects to distributors, investors and studios. Whether your film demands stars or not, depends on the story. But now it will be about good actors, mediocre actors and bad actors. This is the last era of 80's and 90's stars. Those actors who have entered the industry recently, say post-2010 will be categorised into good, mediocre or bad actors. I don't think now people will go to watch a film because of stars, they will come because of a good director, good filmmaker. Now the audience, the younger generation, is critical about everything, you can't lie to them," says Ghai explaining about the star system changing with the digital era.

"Look, I have always believed in good content. There is always a need for good content but the tragedy is that even today studios ask for a big star but they will be okay with any story. It doesn't work like this. I know of many studios who ask who the star is, they justify saying it will cover our cost and I tell them to trust the director. What will happen? He will give one or two flops initially but he may give four hits. But the studios and investors are scared," says the filmmaker who considers Taal and Pardes to be his best phase in the industry. "That is because I made those films with a lot of happiness and without any pressure. Taal had a very thin storyline but I enjoyed making it because of AR Rahman's music. We made a lyrical film. It had no crime, no melodrama, no violence, no sex...When you get that freedom then you really enjoy. But when you are under pressure from studios, investors, and the market then you are limited," he says.

Ghai says that he always had this eagerness to learn different creative aspects of filmmaking and with 36 Farmhouse he is making his debut as a lyricist and music composer. "I am very fortunate that even after so many years people tell me that I am making my debut in something be it OTT or composing music. I am blessed with people recognising that I can begin with something new. I always had this jest and eagerness to learn and it will always remain. The art, the kala in you keeps growing. The more you use your creativity it keeps growing in you. Every day I wake up with the thought of what is the new thing that I want to learn. I enjoy writing various shades of human emotions. I love observing people, I am a social person, I love meeting people," says the filmmaker.

Ghai's last directorial was Kaanchi, in 2014, so what has kept him away from the big screen and direction for so long? "There is always a prime period in a filmmaker's life in which one can conquer and after that, he will start feeling that I will make one more hit. But what next? I went through my exciting journey as a filmmaker from 1975 to 2015, from Kalicharan to Kanchi. To grow further I felt it was important for me to share my knowledge and experience with the youth and hence I established Whistling Woods, the film school. The film institute needed my complete commitment and focus, that's what kept me away from making films. It took me 10 years to establish the school.

Today, Whistling Woods is a state-of-the-art institute, its alumni working with top entertainment and media companies. We've developed a strong technical pool of talented sound recordists and sound designers, directors and assistant directors, cinematographers and writers, production managers, coordinators and supervisors. We've given the industry many wonderful actors too. We will draw from this pool for our own productions as I have to move forward. I am a happy person. I feel blessed to be the one who gave 14 blockbusters out of 19 movies made so far, still being watched on the small screen. I am even fortunate that I was able to make movies of varied and different genres, ranging from Karz to Meri Jung, Saudagar, Karma, Khalnayak, Pardes, Taal and Black and White. It fills me with a lot of pride and joy when the youngest member of a family plays and sings a song from Karz made in 1980. What more can you ask for?" he concludes.

Collaboration between Ghai's banner, Mukta Arts, and Zee Studio, 36 Farmhouse starts streaming on ZEE5 from 21 January.

Date: 20th January, 2022