The Bollywood star talks about his first film as producer, Watch Indian Circus, which scooped the audience award at last week’s Busan International Film Festival. 

A major Bollywood star, whose credits include Omkara and Shootout At Lokhandwala, Vivek Oberoi has recently turned producer with independently-financed drama Watch Indian Circus.

The film, about a poor family’s attempts to take their children to the circus, was awarded the KNN Movie Award, also known as the audience award, at last week’s Busan International Film Festival.

The director, Mangesh Hadawale, won a string of awards in India for his Marathi-language debut Tingya. The cast of his first Hindi-language film is headed by Tannishtha Chatterjee (Brick Lane), who plays the mother, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Peepli Live) as the mute father of the family. Music is by leading composer Shankar Mahadevan with lyrics by Prasoon Joshi.

Oberoi produced the film with Chirag Shah and Mahaveer Jain of Sundial Pictures and Indian politician and businessman Anil Lad.

How did you get involved in this project?

I was approached by Chirag and MJ [Mahaveer Jain] – two excellent advertising professionals who’d had enough of the constraints of the advertising world. This is the type of project that I’ve always wanted to get involved in, but if I got involved as an actor, it would overshadow the film. So I very quietly became involved as a producer. We’ve kept it quiet in India during the scripting and production, because we didn’t want to build up too much expectation. But when the time is right I’ll leverage my equity as a star to support the film.

How was the film financed?

Sundial put in some seed money and part-financed but most of the financing came from Anil Lad. The budget is $1.3m, which is expensive for an arthouse film, but we wanted it to have the best of everything, so we went to the best technicians, best lyricist, best composer and begged them to give us a good rate for the film.

Are Indian investors more open to smaller films without stars now that some have been hits?

Stars are helpful to a certain point but of course you still need a good story – the audience wants a good story, not just a star. The reason we became stars in the first place is because of a good story. In India, finding an investor is not the difficult part – this country has a fascination with cinema, so eventually you’ll find someone to invest in your film. The difficult part is securing distribution and finding enough screens.

How are you positioning the film? It’s not Bollywood, but it’s not a bleak arthouse film either.

Sundial’s idea is to make thought-provoking commercially-viable cinema – so we’re not pitching it as a Bollywood film, but as an Indian film. It’s not dark, but it has the sensibility of world cinema and the idea from the beginning was to reach out to global audiences.

What are your plans for international distribution?

We’re talking to sales agents here [in Busan] and we’ve had a lot of interest.

And distribution in India?

We’ve kept my involvement quiet so far, but when we go home to India, I’ll call everyone and that’s where I can use my equity as a star. There are two routes that we can go – there’s the international route, but also India now has so many great international tie-ups, that we can talk to a local company like UTV or Viacom18 and at the same time you’re talking to a Hollywood studio.

Do you think Indian audiences will respond to a film like this with a strong social message?

Absolutely. The ethics of India started with Gandhi – that’s the original seed in the Indian mindset – and now we have huge movements headed by people like [social activist and anti-corruption protestor] Anna Hazare. The audience is also changing – now you have families flocking to the multiplex to see unusual films.

How did Mangesh Hadawale get started in the business? How does that compare to your experience?

He made Tingya for 35 lakhs (around $70,000) and called 41 producers before he got it financed. He was literally calling people from a phone box and standing there waiting for them to call him back. Then the film got recognised by local government and India’s National Film Awards and by the time it was released, everyone was talking about it. The box office turned out to be $1m.

It was a different start for me – I grew up in a big house, was educated around the world and had a famous father who wanted to launch me in this huge masala movie. But I told him I didn’t want to be launched – I’m not a rocket. So I dropped my name and worked as a coffee boy for Farah Khan.

Is this a one-off or will you produce other films?

I’m already talking to Sundial about other projects. This is new concept for India but we want to develop a script bank where we raise funding to nurture new talent and give writers enough time to really work on their scripts.