Seema Mohapatra and Jahanara Bhargava: They’re new. They’re talented. And they are raring to go.
Rhea Srivastava -
They’re new. They’re talented. And they are raring to go. They are Ten Years Younger, the brainchild of Seema Mohapatra - a media marketing & salesperson who is fulfilling her lifelong dream of being a filmmaker, and Jahanara Bhargava - an advertising executive who grew up on her father’s ad-film sets.
Both met on the set of a film seven years ago and their common love for storytelling was enough to culminate in a company which has since its inception produced two critically-acclaimed movies for streaming service Zee5. Barot House and Posham Pa were thrilling experiences for their audience, and enough to prove that the two creative producers at the helm are here to stay. Both Seema and Jahanara are eager to learn and have the energy of true debutantes. “That’s why we’re called Ten Years Younger,” they say.
LetsOTT caught up with these vibrant ladies in a chat about the company’s ethos, their individual and collective motivations and hopes for the post-corona world.
Q. Now that production of any kind is halted, how is work progressing?
Seema: Right now, we're doing all of our work through Zoom calls. But I guess we should look at the silver lining because we get to sit and brainstorm on ideas, develop scripts and pitch to platforms more easily. We're lucky that none of our shows or films were halfway through or in the middle of production, because I feel those guys would have been affected much more.
Jahanara: It's a great time to pitch and write. And we're also trying to get a head-start on some projects by doing some level of pre-production.
Q. What got you started on content producing? What was the biggest motivator to join the industry?
Jahanara: I am from advertising, a completely creative background. My father is an ad filmmaker, so ever since I was a teenager, I was in and around film sets and even assisted him on many of his projects. I always wanted to be a filmmaker. Amole Gupte (Director) is my father's friend who told me to join the crew of his film Hawaa Hawaai (2014) saying that it was the best place to learn how to make a film - on a film set, and on a small film set because you get to try out so many roles. So I joined him as an assistant and that's where I met Seema.
Seema and I have a lot in common. We started talking and realized that both of us wanted to tell similar stories. Our journey began from that point where we understood basic concepts of how to put a film together with each other, but the production house really kicked off last year.
Seema: I'm a bit older and not wiser (laughs). I'm from a media background and started my career when satellite television had just begun. I was first with Star Network and then running BBC World News channel & BBC.com. I was one of the people responsible for launching BBC Entertainment in India (from an advertising and sales perspective). I've always been from the business side but I've wanted to make films since I was 20. My mid-life crisis was - completely give up on the best opportunities I was getting, take a break, and figure out what I want to do. I had forfeited all my dreams of going to drama school in lieu of a more stable professional degree.
I wanted to learn the ropes of being on a film set. Gauri (Shinde, Director) was someone I knew through a friend and I requested her to introduce me to Amole. I wanted to work on a children's film. That's how I went and worked on Hawaa Hawaai, first as an Assistant Director then assisted on all fronts, marketing, etc. That's how I met Jahanara. What we learned on our common set experience is that we can make good films without spending some exorbitant amount.
Q. How did Barot House and Posham Pa come about?
Seema: We initially launched a company where we would pitch stories to networks. When we approached Zee5 with our idea about a series on serial killers, they told us... why don't you make a series of films? We had to change the name of our company to Ten Years Younger from its previous name due to copyright issues. But that's how we became an organisation. Then we put a team and crew together to make the films happen. The shooting happened during the monsoon and the cyclone but both the films were possible because of the hard work of the teams.
Q. Most collaborations between friends hardly ever reach fruition beyond a few scribbles on a piece of paper, maybe. What saw your plan of starting a company together through?
Jahanara: It takes a lot to see a plan through to the finish line. For us, we're propelled by fascinating stories, but also by our professionalism. Both of us play off each other's strengths - her business acumen and my creative streak. We're also called the 'dragon ladies' in the way which we push to make things happen. What drives us is our passion more than our ambition.
Seema: Many production houses want to tell stories but many of those also run as businesses. There are very few creative producers in India, Karan Johar being a prime example. And we are also one of them where we want to use our abilities to tell the story in the best possible way, where the quality of content is prioritized over everything else. We don't necessarily have the resources, but we have the sense to collaborate with people to create those resources. Our main agenda is that the quality never suffers.
Jahanara: I guess the misconception here is that a producer is someone who does line production or provides finance.
Seema: What we've been able to do is to identify the spark in a story and take it forward.
Q. Is that 'spark' something specific?
Seema: I guess we have a knack for knowing which story will turn into good content. Sometimes we see it as relatable, sometimes we see it as intriguing, but sometimes it's also important to know how well a platform can engage with it, and if it's relevant at the time for them. Often we come across such scripts that we don't think are relevant in context, so we encourage writers to seek other avenues because it would be a disservice to them if we held it and weren't able to work on it soon.
Jahanara: Every story has value but we have to identify what the audience is looking for. It's important for us to know that we can add value to something. We try to approach each story with a level of organisation and honesty.
Q. Have you both ever disagreed on something? If yes, who takes a step back?
Jahanara: Honestly, it sounds like a fantasy but we've rarely had any disagreements (laughs)!
Seema: We've been pushed around from the outside a lot. We're novices here with no contacts whatsoever. Everyone thinks we're mad for doing this anyway! We feel like such underdogs together, we can't afford to have disagreements (laughs). We respect each other a lot.
I wanted to direct at one time and still do, and not many people would give me that opportunity... while Jahanara wants to produce. She'll back me up and we'll be a proper team. We're in a good space that neither does our current capacities in our company overlap nor do our future plans.
Q. What are the kind of projects that Ten Years Younger is working on at the moment?
Seema: After Barot House, we're seen as people who can put good digital films together so we may focus a bit on that space - a couple in development, a couple a bit further along. There's also a series and many other collaborations with other production houses (including one international company which we want to adapt for the Indian screen).
Jahanara: And these are across genres, nothing specific.
Q. As long as we're women and we're in a historically male-dominated industry, our experience of work will always be relevant. Have you ever had to face discrimination due to your gender?
Jahanara: It hasn't happened yet, but it could also be because we collaborate with so many other women who are incredibly supportive. We've all heard the stories and we believe them. But we hope that people become more aware as we go along and sensitize themselves to the equality of men and women at any workplace.
Seema: Coming from a corporate background, I've seen many strong women, especially in positions of power. But now as a creative producer, I'm someone who rolls up my sleeves and joins the team in the actual work. I think we've self-preserved in a way.
Q. I'd love to know your opinion on how OTT platforms have changed the way we produce and consume content since you're a young company working exclusively with digital platforms.
Seema: Consumption is easier, for sure. I left my job with BBC just as viewing was becoming platform agnostic, but at that time I was in marketing. Now that viewership is completely mobile, I am on the producing side.
It's a great time because we have the opportunity to pitch all our ideas simultaneously, and it’s possible that more than one of them gets picked up. This era is certainly a great equalizer. We shouldn't rule out other free platforms which give regular people the opportunity to become a content creator and social media star. As a content creator, we have so many avenues to be able to connect to a specific and varied audience.
But competition also increases as opportunity increases. Everyone feels 'we can do it too,' so they do try.
Jahanara: From the outsider's perspective, it's not an unattainable dream anymore. Earlier, there were just a few key players and people like us couldn't possibly infiltrate that dynamic. Now, at least we have a chance.
Seema: It's also great for being exposed to more genres and languages.
Q. Do you now have more confidence to be experimental in what you make?
Jahanara: Absolutely. There are no restrictions now.
Seema: But the balance is how to understand what is saleable and likeable. Ideas are aplenty but not all of them are good.
Q. What do you think are the changes that the post-corona world will bring for entertainment?
Seema: The entire industry is grappling with understanding this unprecedented situation and the thing is that this industry works as a team, that's the only way. But we also thrive in chaos. I feel eventually we'll all find a way to execute our ideas in the best way possible. People have already started making films on Zoom! We don't want to worry. We will take all the precautions whenever production is possible but best to wait and watch at the moment. We also believe in respecting everyone's personal preference of when they choose to return to our sets in their specific capacities.
Jahanara: This is unchartered territory. We can't really make the rules until we're there. The process will constantly evolve as and when more information comes out.
Q. You have very different backgrounds in education and experience but are both creative producers. What is the advice you can give young people who also want to make it in this field?
Seema: Education is great but nothing beats hands-on experience. Be professional and true to the craft by being able to balance both balance and creativity. India is unique in the way we create content so being on-set would be most beneficial.
Jahanara: You have to be in this for the right reasons. It's really hard so you have to really love it. It's something like what my father's then-boss Alyque Padamsee told him - "Show-business is 99% 'no' business. If you can't take those 99 'nos,' then you don't deserve the '1' yes and shouldn't be here." You have to be strong and pick yourself up and keep going. Take as much experience as possible and learn as much as you can. The film that you write may not turn out your way, or be the film that eventually gets made. That's the process, enjoy it. Nothing is insignificant.
Q. Do you have in-house writers or are you open to any pitches?
Seema: People pitch to us all the time and we wonder why... Anybody can write to us. Please send us your ideas! We give some serious advice as well, not just from a film-making perspective. Get ready for some feedback.
Q. Is there anything specific on your bucket list?
Jahanara: There's a film that's very personal to us. We can't share details but we want to see it happen soon. It'll be a hard journey but that's a pet project. It's a pure drama.
Seema: That's the story which has never been done here, only once or twice internationally. It's the kind of film that can have a global impact.