Television | Interviews | Interview with Director Babu Subramanium

Interview with Director Babu Subramanium

Posted by Vivek on July 2, 2009 | No Comments

What got you to LA in the first place?

Babu Subramanium

I started in India , working with Mahesh Bhatt, I worked with him on his first few movies, Manzilen Aur Bhi Hain, Vishwasghat, Lahu Ke Do Rang and Naya Daur. Manzilen was the movie that gave me the opportunity to interact with Kabir Bedi, with whom I became great friends. So Kabir had become a successful star in Europe and was subsequently doing a movie in Latin America. I told Kabir that I was ready to spread my wings. So one fine day I get this telegram from Kabir…he had hooked me up with the production guys here in Latin America. So I was on a plane in a couple of days. That experience was very challenging, I did not speak the language, but being forced into an environment like this forces you to learn enough to communicate with people around you. While I was there I became very good friends with a guy named Salvo Basile. Salvo was the first AD to Sergio Leone. He was in Columbia to work on a Marlon Brando movie. Kabir’s movie was also being shot in Columbia, so there we were. Because a lot of my work experience with Mahesh was as an AD, was drawn to those kinds of job functions, preparation, planning and execution. So we were supposed to be in Columbia for three months, the movie was supposed to be shot on high seas and they had actually built these two Spanish Galleons, it was a period film. While we were shooting this Galleon hit an underwater wall and capsized. It was like a big disaster. So we had to immediately revamp the schedule and begin to shoot in the interiors, while they built another Galleon. So we ended up being there for like six months. After that movie finished I had a couple of choices, go back to India or go with this company that I was working for, to Italy, or, since I had a tourist visa, go to New York. So I had made a little bit of money while I was working in Columbia, so I showed up in New York and was there for six months. Spent time watching 3-4 movies a day, all the movies I ever wanted to see and finally ran out of money. So now I had two options, go back to Mumbai or go to Italy, with the guys I had worked in Columbia with. So I decided to go to Italy. Replenished my bank account, worked in Italy, did all the odd jobs here and there, finally came back to New York, this time on a student visa, basically took an evening job and went to school there for a couple of years. During that time a lot of the Italian films would come to the East Coast, mostly to shoot in Florida…the Bud Spencer, Terrence Hill films. Now my friend Salvo was hired to come down to Miami to supervise these movies and I would come down from New York, work on these movies and go back to NY. So I did around six movies that way. Finally I applied to the DGA (Directors Guild of America) program when I was in NY, I got selected for the DGA program which moved me to Los Angeles. So I applied under the 90 day rule, since I has approximately 8 years of experience under my belt as an AD, and they accepted me, directly into the DGA, but I did go through the program in terms of the seminars and lectures and workshops, but since I was experienced, once I called into the shows I got directly accepted as a second AD, instead of going through the training hoops, for a television series called THE PAPER CHASE. I worked on that series for three years as a Second AD, followed by extensive television as a Second AD, then moved up as a First in 1987 on a TV series in Paramount called STAR TREK THE NEXT GENERATION. So I did the pilot and then the series and then moved on to do movies as a First AD. That started to take me out of town a lot, by then the family had come around….I have three kids, my son is in Law School in Boston, daughter just graduated from Cal Arts and my youngest daughter is in UCLA. My wife is a Linguistics Major, now back in school, but at that time…. it came to a point where I wanted to find work that would keep me in town, so that took me to the pilot of ER, in 1994. ER was shot as a TV movie and then subsequently they picked it up as a series for 13 shows, the 13 became 22 and so it became a great job. I worked on the series for 8 years, I moved up on that series as a Director, started directing episodes. Then in 2002 I wanted to go and direct fulltime, so John Wells, who’s the main producer on ER had this rule that if you direct shows full time you cannot step back as First AD and direct full time elsewhere. So while it was a great job, five days a week, in town, great pay, but I had decided that this is a business where if you don’t take risks, you don’t grow also if you are looking for security then you are in the wrong business. So I took John’s offer of directing two episodes of ER and then left to build on it. Did a bunch of shows and then it got a little slow getting directing assignments. So now I have this happy medium of doing outside shows, being a First AD and also developing my own projects.

Let me step back further, relive your growing up days…what made you join Mahesh and the film Industry at all?

Growing up in Mumbai..Shivaji Park…actually a lot of Saraansh is our younger days in Shivaji Park….the story of a son going to America…I’ve lost my father at a very young age and I am the eldest in my family, have two brothers and two sisters and so when I got this opportunity to leave, my mom was freaking out saying “you can’t just leave all of us here.” Became good friends with Vinod, Shabana, was part of this whole gang in Juhu…….. Kabir, Danny, Shabana, Parveen Babi. Parveen also came to Latin America to visit us. As a kid growing up in Shivaji Park, you know Mahesh and me, we grew up in the same neighborhood, Mahesh went to Don Bosco and I went to St Joseph….we would talk movies, see movies, there was another friend of our’s Hyder Ali…he wrote the story for Jodha Akhbar, Hyder’s mother was Ester Abraham, this Jewish – Muslim family, his family owns a lot of property in Shivaji Park, so we were all part of this group..and Mahesh’s dad was in the movie business already, so there were these two families in that business, growing up met folks like K. Asif, Rajkumar Soni, etc. So Mahesh had just read this O’Henry short story called the Ransom of the Red Cheese and there were a lot of these people in Mumbai, if you are a director or a producer, a lot of people would hover around you. So I still remember, we were in Mahesh’s house and he narrated the O’Henry short story to one such producer, that morning. So that producer immediately took out a sum of Rs 500 and gave it to Mahesh and told him to write the script, so that script was then directed by Mahesh’s dad, but that also triggered Manzilen Aur Bhi Hain. So we took the story of Butch Cassidy and the story of Klute and made Manzilen Aur Bhi Hain. Kabir Bedi, Gulshan Arora and Prema Narayan, Pravin Bhatt was the cameraman, Mahesh directed, Johny Bakshi produced…oh before that Mahesh worked for Raj Khosla films, under Johny Bakshi, so that way all of us connected, Kabir and Vinod had also done a couple of films with Raj Khosla. Johny was able to wrangle the finances, the film was banned by the Government of India, Kabir was very good friends with Mrs Gandhi, she liked the movie very much and she allowed us to release the movie with minor cuts. We campaigned, I had a motorbike at that time, we were like hippies growing up in Mumbai, would hire extras from the Taj. So although the movie did not do very well, it got a lot of buzz and did good for everyone associated with the movie. So those were the growing up years.

So now let us revert to the present. You have plenty of experience in Bollywood, and also Hollywood—where do you take this?

I am really interested…not so much in going back to India, but in doing some projects there, but the projects have gotta happen, what I don’t have is the time to chase projects there. Recently I am involved in a Disney movie called 19 Steps with Bharat Bala. So anybody going from the West to film in India…a good line producer and a good first AD…key elements both of them, I bring the latter skill set to the table. Even big Bollywood ventures in the West, like Dostana, Kites, they bring Indian crew here and the infrastructure in terms of planning and preparation leaves a lot to be desired, that is also an area I would like to get involved in, training and working with these crews coming from India. One of the areas I am interested in, is going back and training some young kids in that game. How to prep and plan a movie and also the execution.

I mean you can go there and tell them this is the way to do it, cause I recently did this musical with Disney in India, 8-9 songs, 30 day schedule shot in Udaipur with two days of shooting in Mumbai and I had not shot in India in a long time. There was me, there was the director, producer and the actors, everyone else was a local hire. The cameraman was from New Zealand. It was interesting for me to kind of work with these guys and …my Marathi came back…all the languages I spoke growing up in India…all came back.

Although chaotic in the first few days, I remember I had to literally stop shooting, gather everybody together and have a conversation….but they were so willing to follow your lead and …it’s all about earning trust, when you are working with a new set of people. It was interesting, cause the director was American and due to cultural differences often times I had to do damage control…to really get the people to overextend themselves and service the shooting company. This was a great learning experience for me and I was very impressed with the way the Indian crew did the job, hard working people and we finished one day ahead of schedule, this is a ten million dollar movie…it’s huge. Another thing I don’t like working long hours, cause to me working long hours is bad planning, so despite that, with this wonderful crew we came a day ahead. Also since this was an action film it was essential to have a seasoned Line Producer, who has done action from all visuals and knows how to prep and plan, action and also to have the Line Producer work closely with the First AD in executing that plan.

So why is that that when Disney did Roadside Romeo, Sony did Saawariyan and Warner did Chandni Chowk to China, all of them got wiped out in the box office? Do the American studios not get the Indian audience and market?

Actually the studios have left the decision on the story they want to tell, to their Indian counterparts. So if anything, it is the fault of the Indian companies on story selection. The studios have decided on a non interference in content policy and actually had stuck to that. Will that change going forward…not sure, see the movie business is all about the numbers that can be generated, example Gajini has made some huge numbers, like $25 million, so Fox has signed the Gajini director. So if the studios continue to see that potential, then irrespective of the first few films, they will continue to do business in India. Also Disney has a deal with UTV, but they also have independent deals, like the Asin project….however, one of the struggles the American studios are having is the lack of transparency in the production management, it is getting better, but there are still issues of lack of completed scripts, etc, before you start principal photography. But I am sure it will get better.

The Indian Television industry is exploding and going places…has been for a while, any desire to utilize your years of experience here in the US, in Indian television?

Absolutely! Television to me is the key. What I would like to do is actually English language content, which I can shoot in India but more catered to an English speaking global audience, more specifically UK, Europe, Canada, Australia, Middle East…the US is a secondary market for Television content coming out of India. There is enough money to be made outside of the US. The way Television works is there is not much private equity in television, a lot of the money stems from advertising. One of the biggest issues with Television in India is the kinds of budgets they are used to dealing with, which is miniscule compared to the budgets in Australia or Europe or even Latin America. The key is to find the hook that appeals to the English speaking South Asian audience, including in India and then it extends itself to go beyond borders. So India has a co production deal with Canada, with Mexico..these have not been exploited or tapped as yet, so I am looking into that. There are two phases in content creation…writing and directing, you want to make sure that it’s top notch and it’s to international standards. Writing is the hardest part and that is where India has to come up..not that they cannot…they just need to be trained in that direction. That’s why most American shows do well internationally, cause there is good writing. Writers in India are not paid well, there are minimums in Canada, in the UK, out here, but not in India. So for the Indian channels getting a co production partner will only help.

So having seen Indian cinema for a while, where do you see the overall quality?

I’ve seen some good stuff come from India, but there is still a long way to go, overall I’d say C to B+, from a global perspective that it. It’s the writing again, that is key.

With the evolution of the RED camera and costs subsequently going down, will that be of benefit to places like India? Also how do we overcome the copyright issues?

Absolutely, lower costs are going to benefit India tremendously. See the name of the game is to tell a great story, also there are some very basic formulas, so let’s take television…if you want to cater to a mass audience you have your soap operas..the Saas Bahu series, now for India to break new ground and create like a Roots into the West or create a Jewel in the Crown that the UK shot in India..so copyright is directly linked to the way writers are treated. There are a lot of Indian writers working in Canada and the US, because they are treated better here, have health and pension benefits, I mean if I retire tomorrow…I’m good..not so in India, so treating writers well there is one way to motivate them to create original content…it’s getting better though.

You had aired a view as an audience, in a panel I had done sometime back in LA, wherein you had said that there is no difference between Television and Film actors, giving an example of Clooney and that despite the big budgets there will always be a need for the smaller stuff too. Do you still hold that view?

There isn’t a difference between Television and Film actors…I think it is all part of a learning curve…in fact Television is great training ground for actors, actors that work in soap operas it’s the hardest, they have very little time to prepare, it’s like shooting in instant time…show up on the set, get the scene, get the dialogue and then go enact it…that is soap operas, next level is episodic television, there is an incredible amount of work to be done in a very limited period of time and the quality of work has to be of very high standard. Top global TV shows have a combination of good writing and good performances. It is made up of professional actors…television is. For Indie film makers armed with a good script, they can have access to these great actors and they also get a certain visibility to the project since they are known faces, which can allow them to sell the movie. Actors that come or dabble in theater have a great career in television…in this town, all the quality work for actors, for writers, for production designers, it is all in television! The difference is that work on episodic does get repetitive after a while, whereas in a movie, you work on it for six months and then move on to something new.

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