A part of tinsel town’s alluring history turned 75 last week. Famous Studios, set up in 1946 in Mumbai’s Mahalakshmi area, is celebrating its platinum jubilee year. But there won’t be any glitzy star-studded parties at the iconic studios where blockbuster films like Seeta aur Geeta were created, and which was the haunt of the likes of Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar in their heyday. Instead, says Anant Roongta, the third-generation owner and managing director of India’s first air-conditioned film studio, there will be vaccination drives and distribution of PPE kits to mark the milestone year.
However, befittingly, there was a birthday gift — the studio’s first OTT film production, Shaadisthan, released on June 11 on Disney Hotstar. Thirty-four-year-old Roongta, who formally took charge of the family business in 2018, has been instrumental in steering Famous Studios into newer areas like gaming as well as trying to ride the OTT wave. He says they are one of the few Netflix-certified production centres in this part of the world.
A year after he took charge, he started off his big plan for the resurrection of Famous Studios with four clear verticals — film production, co-working, gaming, and readymade sets for advertising films. He also invested in cutting-edge systems like Dolby ATMOS. Though the pandemic has badly disrupted business, Roongta is ready with Covid-care packaging for shooting, opening up many enclosed areas in the studio to maintain social distancing.
At a time when many a legendary studio — think RK Studios or Mehboob Studios — closed down as the business of film production changed dramatically, the way Famous Studios has survived is noteworthy. A large part of it, as Roongta explains, is because of the investments made in technology to stay relevant. It was by no means easy, he admits.
As media and entertainment analyst Karan Taurani, Vice-President, Elara Capitals, points out, when movie production moved away from the set-based systems of the past, the large-budget films transitioned to foreign locations and business suffered for the studios. Very few projects invested the extravagant amounts needed in making sets. “Also, maintenance and cost are two big constraints of studios,” points out Taurani.
Agrees Roongta. Famous, for instance, is spread across 1.1 lakh sq ft. “Managing a massive studio is no child’s play — and, remember, this is a pre-Partition-era building,” he says.
For many studio owners the incentive to sell out was big. Since many of the old film studios were in prime locations of Mumbai, they attracted great offers from real estate majors. “It was more viable for them to be sold as a land bank than being run as a studio,” says Taurani.
In the early 2000s, Famous, too, did get its share of tempting offers from realty firms. But the family held out. “There were discussions, but I am grateful nothing went through,” says Roongta.
According to him, being able to spot new technology is in the family DNA. He points to how his grandfather JB Roongta, who set up Famous, was one of the first in India to get the Mitchell camera. As an active president of the Indian Motion Pictures Association, he was abreast of all the changes happening in cinematic technology.
In the mid-1980s, his father, Arun, took over the reins and he too was quick to spot new trends. “In the mid-1990s, the post-production revolution was taking place and he invested in facilities for that,” says Anant. In 1998, Famous also introduced clay animation, working with Suresh Eriyat, regarded by many as the father of animation in India.
What helped the studio was that, while the number of films may have dwindled, in the 1990s the studio at Mahalakshmi had become a hub of TV commercials, thanks to its shooting floors and post-production facilities. Ad films like ICICI’s Chintamani campaign and MTV’s Poga ad were fully conceptualised at Famous, says Roongta, pointing out how that part of the business still continues.
Rather than shutting down, Roongta says, Famous expanded its studios — adding a 20,000 sq ft post-production facility at Santa Cruz. The digital business has moved there, he says.
Unlike other studios which produced movies, the Roongtas stayed away from production. In 1951, his grandfather produced Sanam, starring Dev Anand, Suraiya and Meena Kumar. His father produced a film called Anubhav, starring Gul Panag and Sanjay Suri.
“But our family is conservative. We never wanted to plunge into investing,” he says. He himself is taking cautious first steps as a producer with Shaadisthan, starring Kirti Kulhari, Nivedita Bhattacharya and Kay Kay Menon, choosing to rope in a co-producer — Sanjay Shetty of Opticus Inc. “I wanted to move ahead with someone I trusted,” he says.
Although Roongta grew up on stories of life at the studios, and entered the family fold in 2014 after graduating in the UK, where he studied marketing, finance and entrepreneurship, he left it to found a company with his cousin. This was a sports tourism business called Fanatic Sports, the objective being to create unique experiences for sports fans, taking them to the Olympics, or FIFA world cup. But in 2018, his father requested him to take forward the Famous legacy, and he exited Fanatic.
Roongta says he took time to reacquaint himself with the media and entertainment space and study market opportunities. OTT players were driving new business and changing the way cinema was consumed; the explosion of hand-held devices and high-fibre internet was leading to both creation and consumption of content.
“I would often sit with my grandfather and listen to his stories about how the studio business supported the industry, created stars, and gave jobs,” says Roongta. These were life lessons, he says, pointing to how they have helped frame Famous’s new vision and mission — that of supporting and inspiring storytellers.
The difference is that from the single screen of the past, the dreams have moved to multiple small screens. The Hindu Business Line