In an in-depth conversation with American Bazaar, producer and actor Rahul Mittra discusses his cinematic odyssey, challenges, and the power of small-town stories.
In a little over a decade, Rahul Mittra has earned a name in the Hindi film industry, having produced or presented more than a dozen films. With an innate passion for storytelling, the award-winning producer has brought compelling narratives to life on the big screen and carved his niche by backing projects that transcend genres. Based in Delhi but working in Mumbai, Mittra has been a game-changer in Bollywood, with his production company Rahul Mittra Films being part of the movement that changed the narrative of Indian cinema by getting the focus back on small-town stories as opposed to the diaspora-centric song and drama potboilers, churning out fresh stories and novel marketing ideas.
The impressive filmography of the self-made and first-generation filmmaker includes the “Saheb Biwi aur Gangster” trilogy, which featured Jimmy Sheirgill, Randeep Hooda, Irrfan Khan, Mahie Gill and Chitrangada Singh; Saif Ali Khan and Sonakshi Sinha-starrer “Bullett Raja”; Kangana Ranaut-starrer “Revolver Rani”; Amitabh Bachchan-starrer “Sarkar 3”; and Sanjay Dutt and Nargis Fakhri starrer “Torbaaz,” which premiered on Netflix, among others. The first-generation producer and actor has also led Indian film delegations for film festivals across the globe.
Mittra, who started his career as a journalist at The Times of India, is also a branding and communication expert, with his well-known advisory company Brandsmith helping state governments, foreign tourism and film boards, Small and Medium Enterprises and high-net-worth individuals.
The award-winning filmmaker and actor was in Washington, DC, recently as part of a weeks-long U.S. visit about his journey in Bollywood and his US trip. Excerpts from the interview
In a free-wheeling interview with the American Bazaar, he spoke about his journey, the challenges he has faced, and the vision that propels him forward in an ever-evolving industry, among other topics. Here are the excerpts:
The American Bazaar: What’s the purpose of your visit to the United States?
Rahul Mittra: My profiles on social media describe me as a “Traveler, learner, and filmmaker,” and that’s what brought me to the shores of the United States. My earlier trip here a few years back was a short one, when I traveled to San Francisco, along with actor friend Randeep Hooda, to take part in the Indian Independence Day celebrations after which we both traveled to LA and around the West Coast, but for a brief period. Since then, it’s been on my mind to travel across the US, learn about this beautiful country and its people, especially those from the Indian diaspora, and explore filmmaking synergies.
Having produced or presented numerous Hindi films, including critically acclaimed ones, what motivated you to venture into the realm of documentary series focused on the Indian American community?
Rahul Mittra: I feel blessed to be able to make the kind of cinema that appealed to my sensibilities, always trying to choose subjects that evoked in me a sense of emotive narrative which helped me in creating compelling content and marrying it to box-office success. It’s this search for engaging content and learning more about the success stories of Indian Americans that got me hooked on to the idea of profiling this distinguished segment.
What aspects of Indian Americans’ lives and stories are you particularly interested in capturing through your documentary series?
Rahul Mittra: I was surrounded by success stories while growing up in the small town of Chandigarh, with plenty of role models. Right from my dad to my two elder brothers… the list was endless. Probably we were more impressionable. Now I feel the younger generation is bereft of role models that they can get inspiration from, as their favorite heroes often get trolled on social media. A success story that engages, entertains, and motivates can have a magical effect on people, especially the youth. The trials and tribulations of an achiever, the challenges of surviving in an alien land… the rise and fall, and eventually the triumph of the human spirit are what I am looking for.
How did you choose your local partner? Tell us about your experience of working with them.
While making my foray into the United States, I was determined to partner with a local player who not only had access to the illustrious Indian Americans but was trusted by the Indian diaspora. I was happy and fortunate to have signed up with the American Bazaar, which is the most definitive source of all things Indian American and a formidable name in the realm of news, publishing, syndication and media marketing. Having spent nearly a month in the United States, not only did I have a wonderful experience collaborating and working closely with Team American Bazaar but was also elated to see the love and respect they command among the community in the States.
Bollywood movies have a global fan base, including in the United States. How do you perceive the potential of Bollywood movies to resonate with audiences in the US and beyond?
Rahul Mittra: The Indian film industry today leads the world entrainment scenario. Apart from being India’s biggest soft power, the Indian cinema and entertainment industry is today loved across the globe, especially in America. I would say that Shahrukh Khan first started this trend of popularizing Indian films among the burgeoning viewer base of Indian origin here in the late 90s. Our stories back then were specifically catered to this target audience which was met with great aplomb. Years later, I entered the film Industry to change the narrative of Indian cinema and tell the small-town stories I grew up with. Today, Indian content has come a full circle and the Indian American audience has matured too after watching so much of American and world cinema. The above scenario makes the US market a great grazing ground for Indian filmmakers and content creators like me.
Bollywood often plays a significant role in the lives of Indian Americans, serving as a cultural bridge and the diaspora has a deep-rooted love for Bollywood. Do you have any plans to film any movies in the US? If so, on what theme/s?
Rahul Mittra: The real hero in all my films has been the location; I’m someone who likes to shoot in real locations as opposed to a set in a studio. During my trip to the US this time, I traveled thousands of miles by road and thoroughly enjoyed it. This also gave me an opportunity to check out locales en route, apart from interacting with the people. Picturesque locations, friendly people and safety is what make the US an ideal shooting destination. After this amazing trip, I would love to come back and shoot a film in America.
It was a delight to watch you act in the popular police series “Inspector Avinash” recently. How has it been being in front of the camera?
Well, the offer for this came out of the blue from writer-director Neerraj Pathak who approached me for this role as he thought I could carry out the character of a Bahubali (strong-armed) politician well for these series on Jio Cinema which became a big hit. I thoroughly enjoyed playing the role of politician Jagjivan Yadav an got a great response from the audience too. I also enjoyed playing a cameo in Imtiaz Ali’s “Chamkila” along with Diljit Dosanjh, Honey Threhan’s “Punjab 95” and Mayank Srivastava’s “Love Hackers.” Interestingly I’m essaying the role of a cop in all these three films which are up for release early next year. Besides I’ve been approached for some other key roles in upcoming web shows & feature films and if time permits once I like the script, I’ll look forward to taking up the assignment. Since this is an area of interest and hobby rather than vocation, I try to choose acting projects carefully but I must admit, I’m enjoying this new phase immensely.
With your vast experience in the film industry, how do you see the landscape of Indian cinema evolving, especially after the advent of streaming platforms (OTT)?
Covid-19 has changed the viewing preference of the audience. Traditionally, movie buffs in India have eagerly waited for the films of their favorite stars and this factor would contribute largely to a sizeable opening weekend business. Still, now they don’t mind waiting for the reaction of cinemagoers and critics to get a whiff of what lies in store. Also, should word of mouth is not favorable, the discerning audience doesn’t mind waiting to watch it on OTT after a few weeks of release. Just like a growing number of filmmakers are following a clear demarcation with regard to the content they are creating, for the cinemas and for the OTT, viewers have begun to do the same. Only larger-than-life action films with catchy songs warrant the cinema-viewing experience. But one thing is sure, though there is no formula to decide what goes where (theatre or OTT), there’s clarity that OTT can no longer be considered the dumping ground for sub-standard content.
While OTT has been getting the eyeballs, cinemas are running to full capacities with moviegoers hitting theatres with a bang. This year, 2023, has been a golden year for Indian cinema as films like “Pathan,” “Gadar2,” “Jawan,” “Animal” and “Dunki” soon churned out the amazing business of more than 500 crores (approximately $78 million) globally for each film. Hence OTT and movie-watching experiences in cinemas will not only co-exist but co-thrive.