Ashvini Yardi, television’s wonderwoman who helmed the successful launch and climb to the top for Colors, ( a top rating General Entertainment Channel) and now the co-founder and partner in Grazing Goat Pictures, exudes calm confidence at her plush, sea-facing office in Juhu.With a long and very successful tenure in television behind her, and a relatively new but well received stint as a producer before her, Yardi marks the new breed of film entrepreneurs that have recently joined the film industry work force. Armed with creative and business strategies, financial objectivity and of course, passion for films, Yardi got off to a brave start with an unconventional film like OMG: Oh My God! with Paresh Rawal in the lead role.That it turned out to be a hit despite a weak opening is testimony both to her sharp creative and business acumen. She followed it up with two regional films namely Bhaji in Problem (Punjabi) and 72 Miles Ek Pravas (Marathi) and now has an edgy youth flick Fugly coming up. Given her success rate, the industry is coming around to the view that Akshay Kumar’s idea of turning co-producer with Yardi for Grazing Goat Pictures was a good one. As she prepares to meet the challenge of launching her next venture, Yardi, in a freewheeling chat gets talking on mixing business with creativity and getting it right.
Let’s begin at the beginning—you made that difficult transition from television to films rather successfully—how did you navigate your switch in the right direction? Television and movies, after all, are different mediums conducive to different kinds of storytelling.
I was with Zee for 15 years; I had seen pretty much everything to do with satellite television and the changes that took place. To cite an example, shows like Sailaab, a love story, had very high ratings, but cut to 2000, it was saas-bahu, kitchen politics dominating the scene. So, how you perceive things in terms of your audience also needs to change. I think, I have seen the whole change happening from say, a show like Hasratein where you had a woman who has a nice husband, a college professor, yet she has an extra-marital affair with her boss, and she was the heroine! People loved her. She was the number one character on Zee and then later, I am at Colors and I want to do something like Hasratein again and we conduct a survey, and women say, ‘How can she do that?’ And I think, ‘didn’t we do that 15-20 years back and were the number one show?’ So things change constantly and you need to sit back and gauge that.
In Zee, I tried to re-do Sailaab in Kashish and it bombed so badly. If your saas-bahu was like 21 TVR, this show had 0.3 TVR! It was then that I realised that it was not about me, people had changed over the years . So you need to know your audience.You have to look into the society and then figure out what’s needed at that time which is what we did with OMG…!
The film made people sit back and think. At least for some time people questioned their beliefs. It’s certainly a good time now for films that have good content, as they are working at the box-office.
Given that you had such a successful career in television, why did you decide to switch tracks?
I did television for 20 years. I was very successful with Zee and Colors, but then the question was, ‘what do I do next’? I felt that everything I did would be a repetition, it would be yet another season of Bigg Boss or another soap. I didn’t want to do more of the same. Movies were never on my bucket list, I was happy with TV but after a while I felt that I needed a change and it was actually Shah Rukh (Khan) who suggested that I should get into movies. When I started setting up for OMG… all my friends told me that I couldn’t give up a career and a job for a movie like this. But I like to go with my gut instinct and do what I feel. That’s how I work. Even when I moved from Zee to Colors, there was no entity like Colors, or Viacom 18. I was just given a small room in MTV office. That’s me; if I feel there is a challenge, I will do it.
You obviously have a strong creative streak, but does that ever come in the way of being a hardnosed businesswoman?
Actually, I am very good with business but I am not fond of it. I did a lot of that for Zee (English channels). When you wear the business cap, then you are cutting budgets or doing things from a more business point of view saying, ‘If I change it like this, maybe Thums Up would sponsor it’. And now that I have my own company— though Akshay is the best business person you can have—I look at it in both ways. It is not necessary that I will do a concept which does not make business sense.
High content films are your forte and since budget is key for such films, how do you strike that balance between commerce and creativity?
I feel, I can balance both. If I feel that the creative is much needed, then business can take a backseat, and I will just go ahead and do it. The creative and script is the main thing.
I come from the Zee model; I have been trained to keep the costs low, which is a good thing. It was an early lesson in life from a good Marwari set-up that we worked in. I was told by the Chairman that in order to understand the business, the first thing I should do was to go out of my south Mumbai residence and buy vegetables! He said that if I could negotiate with the vendor, then I would be able to handle business. If you take the example of OMG...—it wasn’t really an Akshay Kumar starrer. It was a Paresh Rawal film, so the budget despite Akshay being in the film was on the lower side. Plus we addeed music which wasn’t supposed to be a part of it . That was a big problem between me and the director (Umesh Shukla)—he didn’t want any music and I added all that because that’s business. Of course, you have to do it in a creative way, so I didn’t put an item song. Instead I added a Go-Govinda song which blended well with the film’s subject. So that’s how you balance it.
For Fugly, we have made sure that the budget is much under Rs.10 crore even though the scale that we have given is much bigger—we shot in Ladakh and Delhi so there was no compromise in the scale. We have three songs by Yo Yo Honey Singh. Today, If you want to catch the youth, songs are a big draw, so we have that.
You have also forayed into regional films—how is that working out?
We have only ventured into Marathi and Punjabi films, Marathi because I know that part of it, and Punjabi because Akshay knows the working of that industry. We haven’t gone south because that’s not a niche market and we hardly know much about it. I would not want to step into an area that I don’t know enough about. The business of Marathi films is growing rapidly as movies like Duniyadari and Timepass have shown and the Return on Investment is almost better or at par with Hindi, plus the tax concessions are great.
What is the business model that you are striving for? Given your sharp understanding of the television industry, would you not venture into television?
We are looking at creating verticals; I am even starting television this year, so it’s a full-fledged company that we aim to create. There are big-budget movies between Akshay and Prabhu Dheva (Singh is Bling), then we have Fugly and another medium budget concept driven film. So, we have three movies happening plus we have television going on. Each film has a different business model. Since Fugly is a smaller film we are following the studio model, and are releasing it on our own. There are other films too for which we are looking for partners. We are just two years old and both Akshay and I are investing our own funds into it, so there are different concepts that we are working on.