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How talent management firms make stars

By Vanita Kohli-Khandekar
October 17, 2018 09:40 IST
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A clutch of professional talent management firms is changing the balance of demand and supply in India's entertainment industry, discovers Vanita Kohli-Khandekar.

Vikramaditya Motwane with his Sacred Games team

IMAGE: Director Vikramaditya Motwane, left, with his Sacred Games team. Photograph: Kind courtesy Datta Dave/Facebook

Vikramaditya Motwane sat down to brainstorm with Datta Dave, partner, Tulsea Pictures, in July 2016.

Netflix had just commissioned Phantom Films, co-founded by Motwane, to make Sacred Games. Vikram Chandra's 947-page novel of the same name was tough to convert to screen -- it features a vast array of characters and a plot that ranges widely across time periods.

Phantom needed good writers. So it called in Tulsea, possibly the biggest talent agency for writers in India.

Of the three people chosen, Varun Grover had already made a name for himself as a lyricist and writer (Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Gangs of Wasseypur, Masaan). But the other two, Vasant Nath and Smita Singh, were still trying to find their feet in the industry.

The three of them went through a 'writers' room', a collaborative exercise in writing that lasted a year, before the screenplay for Sacred Games was ready.

And in July this year, Netflix's first Indian Original opened to 125 million subscribers in 190 countries -- and critical acclaim worldwide. Now, "everybody knows who we are," says a delighted Nath.


Sudip Sharma (NH10, Udta Punjab), Gazal Dhaliwal (Qarib Qarib Singlle, Lipstick Under My Burkha), Akshat Verma (Delhi Belly, Kaalakaandi) and Motwane are among the 110-odd writers/directors of a total of 200 people whom Tulsea represents.

Along with Kwan, Matrix, Bling and Spice, Tulsea is among a handful of agencies that are bringing order and method to a disorganised part of India's booming entertainment business: Creative talent. "We help talent stay focused on what it does best, while we do the other things (negotiating, contracts)," says Dave.

Besides putting together writers' rooms, these firms help talent with brand and endorsement deals and, most importantly, set a price benchmark for their work.

"It makes a lot of difference while negotiating because I don't know the going rate. It is like shooting in the dark," says Sharma.

With the help of an agency, the money finally negotiated can rise by 50 to 100 per cent.

Datta Dave, Partner Tulsea Pictures.
Datta Dave, Partner Tulsea Pictures.
Photograph: Kind courtesy Datta Dave/LinkedIn

"A marketplace for popular culture" is how Anirban Das Blah, founder, Kwan Entertainment, describes his firm which represents 150 celebrities across sports and entertainment including Bhuvan Bam, Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone.

"Earlier, one actor had one manager. Kwan has varied talent across industries so it understands demand and supply better," adds producer-director Dinesh Vijan, who is the founder of Maddock Films, a Kwan client.

If you see shades of William Morris Endeavor-International Management Group or Creative Artists Agency -- firms that dominate the creative ecosystem in the US -- you'd be only partly right.

"William Morris and CAA are in a developed economy where all factors are stable -- where studio power and internal democracy is ingrained. We are still evolving. Our star system is feudal," says Prabhat Choudhary, founder, Spice, which handles branding (at an individual level) for stars such as Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Mahesh Babu and Hrithik Roshan.

Ask him what that means and you get insights on the osmotic relationship between society and stars.

"If an actor goes out and performs according to the script, that is fine. However, if the actor is also a star, it gets more complicated," explains Choudhary.

"Stars are answerable to some abstract expectations that people have from them. And our job is to maintain their relationship with society."

Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone

IMAGE: Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone. Photograph: Pradeep Bandekar

Over the last decade, the film business has grown by 60 per cent and television by 300 per cent.

"The demand for (talent) has increased 200 to 300 times," says actor Rana Daggubati, the managing partner of Kwan South.

Over these years, while the production and retail side became more organised, with studios and multiplexes bringing in greater professionalism, the supply of talent remained disorganised.

Professionally run talent management agencies, which started coming up in the early part of the millennium, are correcting this.

The first thing they do is look for talent.

"There is no fixed process (to this)," says Chaitanya Hegde, partner, Tulsea. He routinely visits film schools such as the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune or Whistling Woods, which was founded by film-maker Subhash Ghai, in Mumbai.

Usually the script you write at the end of the course is a new writer's calling card.

In 2013, Smita Singh was doing a screenwriting course at FTII when Hegde visited to listen to some pitches.

Raat Akeli Hai, a love story she wrote, appealed to him and by 2014 she was on board with Tulsea.

"It is not about the story. What we are looking for is people who get the craft, the technique," says Hegde. Singh's script was later sold to a film0maker.

Then there are referrals from existing Tulsea writers; these form a bulk of the new sign-ons.

Every month, Tulsea also receives 30 to 40 e-mails from aspiring writers. Two people in the agency vet their work and revert to them.

Kwan, which takes on mid-size celebrities, has empowered agents who take the call.

The basic principles remain the same, says Blah. Don't take on anyone who seems questionable and don't take on a niche celebrity with limited appeal.

Unless you can create something of size with the celebrity, it doesn't make sense to sign him or her up, he explains.

Pritam, Music composer
IMAGE: Composer Pritam

For example, when Kwan took on Pritam in 2014, he was a popular composer but Blah wasn't sure how much they could scale up with him.

However, Kwan co-founder Vijay Subramaniam, who handles Pritam, was sure that earnings could be scaled up. And they did -- by about 20 times.

"I am a horrible negotiator. The moment a producer becomes close, it is difficult for me to talk money. With Kwan that problem has gone," says Pritam.

The composer, who has done the music for Dangal and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, among over 100 films, says Kwan's 360-degree approach was gobbledygook to him when he signed up. But he soon realised it meant he could explore his creative energies in multiple ways.

He has just finished an American tour where he sang with gospel singers. In 2015, Kwan set up Studio J.A.M.8, a music production company with him. It nurtures musical talent under Pritam's tutelage and eventually launches it -- say, by using their compositions in films (Race 3 is an example), TV/OTT (Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai on StarPlus) or for brands (Close-up, Beardo).

The first few years when you are trying to find your feet is when an agency is priceless, say writers.

"It is very difficult for a new writer to come to Mumbai and knock on doors for work. And I didn't want to go through that," says Singh. She pauses.

"Tulsea tries to understand the writer, so it doesn't send her to the wrong producers. If your forte is, say, comedy, there is no point sending you to someone who wants to make a crime thriller."

Nath adds that being with an agency and going through the writers' rooms forced him to learn.

Also, dozens of scripts are written on 'spec', or speculation -- work that the writers are commissioned to create on the premise that it will be turned into a film or TV show.

Chances of a new writer getting paid for specs are very low if the project does not materialise. But the ones with an agency get paid whether or not a film is made.

Between 2002 and 2005, Sunil Lulla, now the group CEO of Balaji Telefilms, was with Sony. Jeeto Chappar Phaad Ke, a game show hosted by Govinda on Sony TV, had just been taken off air when he joined.

"Whether Govinda came (for a shoot) or not was dependent on God. A management service on the other hand makes sure of the dates and arranges the appearance. It does whatever is required to make the product happen," says Lulla.

The talent on Half Girlfriend and Bose: Dead/Alive, among other Balaji shows and films, is sourced from Kwan.

Lulla and Vijan of Maddock are, however, exceptions. Most studio executives and producers are not open to the idea of talent management firms acting as intermediaries.

There is a "total unwillingness to say the talent (on a show or film) is from Tulsea," says Dave.

"Some producers get very upset when I say 'Tulsea will talk to you'. They say it is not nice. In such cases I don't deal with them; you have to keep the faith," adds Dhaliwal.

Nath seconds that. Faith drives this relationship -- of a creative person trying to find a market for his or her talent and a company that wants to negotiate on their behalf.

"We are like wealth managers -- we are given the equity of stars and we need to increase it on their behalf," says Choudhary.

Amen to that.

After this feature was reported, Phantom Films was disbanded on October 6. Anirban Das Blah was asked to step down at Kwan. Both actions, a consequence of the #MeToo movement.

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Vanita Kohli-Khandekar
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