On February 24, the 91st Academy Awards will roll out the red carpet and honour the best in cinema at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre. Back home in Mumbai, Guneet Monga, 35, is not only counting down the days, but also making her way through a large pile of Oscar-nominated films. It is the first time that she will be voting as an Academy member — joining the likes of cinematographer Anil Mehta and actor Naseeruddin Shah — and she is visibly excited. “There’s a lot of viewing to do [referring to the stack of Blu-ray DVDs stacked on a shelf outside]. It’s an honour to have this kind of access and it helps in knowing what the world is doing,” she says.
But Monga won’t be casting the ballot in one category — documentary (short subject) — in which Rayka Zehtabchi and Melissa Berton’s Period. End of Sentence , is among the five contenders. Her company, Sikhya Entertainment, is one of the film’s producers.
Monga got the news of the film making it to the final five when she was buying paan in Indore, where she’d gone to attend the wedding of filmmaker Kanu Behl and music composer Sneha Khanwalkar. So the ensuing celebrations were more about distributing paan than uncorking the bubbly, she recalls, her big eyes twinkling, the mehndi from the wedding still adorning her hands. Life has been peripatetic, as is usual for her. She is just back in Mumbai after attending the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival, wearing an indigo kurta she picked up at the Pink City.
Tucked in a corner next to the Cat Café Studio in Aram Nagar, her small office has a huge dog sprawled on the porch. On my way back, I find a cat giving him company. Inside it’s not as relaxed a world; there’s work happening on the laptops in several young hands around me as I wait and stare at a wall adorned with framed posters of her films, and a picture of Guru Nanak placed in a corner.
Monga has a series of meetings lined up to figure, among many things, how to take two girls from Kathi Khera village in Hapur, who feature in the 26-minute documentary, to the Oscars. I catch her in between two such appointments.
“I have to tell you how I got involved with the film,” she says, with her characteristic infectious exuberance. The documentary is about a low cost sanitary pad-making machine setting off a revolution of sorts in the UP village — where local women, deprived of affordable pads, now find steady income and empowerment by making their own brand called Fly.
Ten teenaged girls from Oakwood School, North Hollywood, had read that girls in rural Indian schools drop out because of periods. They found out about a pad-making machine and raised $3,000 to donate it, with the help of GLI (Girls Learn International), an NGO in Los Angeles, and Action India, Delhi. Later, they decided to make a short film to spread the message.
Cut to 2016 when Monga was in LA for the Oscar campaign for Vetrimaaran’s Visaranai . She got an email from the production head of USC, Rachel Ward, asking her if she could help with the film. Monga had worked on another USC diploma film, Kavi , which was a 2010 Oscar nominee in the live action short film category. She also heard from her mentor Stacey Sher, producer of Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh films, who requested she help her daughter produce a film in India. Both turned out to be referring to the same project. “The backstory gives me goosebumps, it’s truly a story of the human spirit,” she says.
Finding her path
For a fiction film producer — Sikhya Entertainment, the production house she set up in 2008, is behind films like Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox , Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur 1 & 2 , Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan and Danis Tanovic’s Tigers , among others — the world of documentaries has been an eye-opener. “It’s been about how they are structured, fund-raised. They have a long gestation period,” she says.
Meanwhile, back in LA, the teens and their parents are busy doing an outreach programme for the film. For the short film category, Oscar strategy is not so much about the money spent as it is about sustained screenings and striking the right chord on the right issues. Lisa Taback, the guiding light for Netflix’s Oscar campaign this year, and a well-known awards strategist — with La La Land , Moonlight , The Artist , Chicago , etc, behind her — is herself one of the parents and producers of Period. End of Sentence and has been championing it from the front.
When Monga talks about a Stacey Sher or a Lisa Taback, it isn’t mere name-dropping. She could well be the most well-networked, globally speaking, amongst the independent film producers in India, with the most coveted phone directory on her mobile. She straddles both India and the West with ease; when it comes to people as well as processes.
However, when she started off it was an untrammelled path. “I had to always find a route and walk it,” she recollects. She also started at a time when there were no global buyers like Netflix or Amazon. “Initially our journey starts with whatever opportunity we get. Slowly we are defined by the choices we make. I hope to stay relevant as long as one can,” says Monga, who looks up to filmmakers like Ava DuVernay.
2010 was the crucial year when she first got exposed to the global business of filmmaking and began making the key “connections” — with Kavi on the Oscar red carpet and later travelling to her first international film festival, Venice, with That Girl In Yellow Boots . She thought a mere screening would get her buyers, it didn’t. The then festival director Marco Mueller told her to give herself three years to understand the world. And she took off to London, Paris, NY, LA and met every big name in the business. Her films selected at the various festivals helped advance the conversation with the West. “You start picking up pace after 10 years. You can plug and play the right film with the right person. That’s how your taste gets trusted,” she sums up the journey.
Things might feel relatively easy now, but every new film is also about starting from scratch, hustling for funds. Releasing them is even harder. “India needs 50 more producers to do the kind of work I do, for a change to happen,” she says.
In between there was a year-long phase of depression and disillusionment. “I was not able to enjoy the success of The Lunchbox because there were five other unreleased films,” she looks back. People were not willing to sink money on a subject like Tigers . How did she deal with depression? “By doing more work. One day it all makes sense,” she says.
- Zimna Wojna ( Cold War ), the bleak, beautiful love story by Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, which intertwines personal and political histories, has been nominated in three categories at the Oscars 2019 — best director, cinematography and foreign language film. Like Period. End of Sentence , it too has an India connect. One of its executive producers is Cinestaan Film Company, a Mumbai-based “boutique film studio”, as it describes itself. The film has already picked up best director at Cannes 2018, among others.
For a rank newcomer in filmmaking, to reach this stage, has been all about resourcefulness. She tells me how she has already written to the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to raise money for the Oscar trip. Will the government help, I ask sceptically. For Kavi , Prithviraj Chauhan had helped, Air India had done their tickets, she reels off. She is sure to pull it off this time as well.
Meanwhile, Monga is busy finalising a bunch of new series and movies — women’s stories, by women filmmakers. She is also setting up a YouTube channel, ReDo, that is by women, for women. And her first Tamil film, a co-production with Suriya’s 2D entertainment, directed by Sudha Kongara, on the life of Captain Gopinath of Air Deccan, is set to start shooting in March. No wonder she calls this her 2.0 time.