By Rebecca Green
Based in India, Guneet Monga has produced 30+ films including THE LUNCHBOX, which became a global sensation, and she was an executive producer on the 2019 Academy Award winning short documentary, PERIOD END OF SENTENCE. Guneet spoke to Dear Producer about how the short film was inspired by a movement empowered by young women, the many ways in which financing comes together, and about her mission to tell local stories that resonate globally.
When accepting the Oscar for the short documentary film PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE, director Rayka Zehtabchi said, “I can’t believe a film about menstruation won an Oscar!” The lack of knowledge about menstruation and sanitary products is a global issue, but yet it is still a topic people are uncomfortable talking about. Tell me about how you got around that challenge and what struggles you encountered trying to make this film.
Yes! The topic of menstruation is taboo. For generations we have been brought up to have hushed conversation about periods, but the reality is this lack of understanding negatively impacts the lives of hundreds of millions of young women around the world. Aside from the health issues due to lack of basic hygiene, lack of information about menstruation leads millions of girls to needlessly drop out of school, forever changing the course of their lives.
The Pad Project was started by 12-14-year-old girls of the Oakwood school in 2014, under the guidance of their English teacher Melissa Berton. When the students learned of the lack of access and education about feminine hygiene in India, they were inspired to do something so they contacted Action India thru FMF and their GLI program. Action India is a NGO based in Delhi working in spreading awareness on menstruation for 40 years and they decided to donate one pad-making machine to a village in India. But then Melissa and the Oakwood girls thought, “how can we create a bigger change and raise the greatest awareness?” That’s when the idea of documenting the journey as a film was born, to amplify the message to the biggest possible audience.
I first heard about the project through my friend Stacey Sher, herself a parent of one of the Oakwood girls. Once I met the young girls and heard their enthusiasm and vision, along with that of the director Rayka, I was totally hooked. I immediately signed on. Guiding them through the process made me realize that there was a revolution taking place on the ground level. This clearly has been a journey in which one girl empowered the other.
I met Action India and brought on Mandakini Kakkar from my team as a field producer for the short. Action India is an organization that has been tirelessly working for women’s health education In India for 40 years. Action India further introduced us to the village Hapur in the state Uttar Pradesh (UP) and that was really one big kickoff moment. Thats where the Pad Machine was being set up.
We shot the film towards the end of 2016 and 2017 on a budget of $40,000 (raised by the Oakwood school girls through a crowdfunding campaign) Rayka and Sam (our director of photography and editor), came to India to film the set-up of the Pad machine and then few months later to capture the process and impact. We had initial challenges of setting up the machine and having regular supply of raw material and electricity. It wasn’t as though we all knew exactly what was in store for us from day one, but that clarity unfolded through the process.
Our short was sent it out to festivals in 2018. We never could have dreamed that the journey would take us as far as it did.
IMDB lists 33 producer credits in total for PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE. What does the role of the producer mean to you? How do you balance working with that many producers who all might fill a different role and have different interests in the film?
Being a producer can mean different things in different countries. In India, a producer means the financier of a film. In the U.S., there are several different types of producers. Broadly, the definition of a producer to me is “someone without whom the film would not have happened.” They can bring the script, the talent, the financing, the production, the distribution, or some combination thereof, but without their involvement, the film would not have occurred. For me, when I evaluate a project I think “What can I bring to this to add value?” It’s an intuitive process. As a producer, I have learned to navigate all kind of challenges while keeping the best interest of the film as my top most priority. I find myself married to films and driven daily to advance them in the right direction. Also, it’s one thing to raise money for a film, however, I strongly feel role of a producer is to have a vision on how far can our movie go. I often ask myself this, ‘what do we need to make this a global conversation if it has the potential?’
In the case for PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE, all the Oakwood school girls had a vision to donate a pad machine and create more awareness by the power of film. A lot of their parents were very supportive in making the film happen. So that’s how so many Executive Producers and Producers came together to empower the short and support it in breaking taboos and making a difference.
As of balancing the multiple producers, it’s very important to have early conversations of roles, responsibilities, and expectations. To have a vision for the film and to be constantly aligned with what is the best for the film than any one person or their agenda.
You are based in India, how does that affect your work and what kind of stories do you want to tell?
India is a diverse and a vibrant country that is changing by the day. It’s multicultural, with a rich history. We have many film industries in our country; different languages have their own self-sufficient industries. I’m doing a Tamil film right now and developing more Hindi, Gujarati, and Punjabi Films. I really lookout for stories that I connect to and those that connect with the world we inhabit. I also spiritually and emotionally believe that stories choose us. It’s largely intuitive and also what has formed my understanding of content is traveling and seeing films around the world.
As I go on my journey, I realize my role is to be the bridge between India and the rest of the world. I want to tell local stories that resonate globally. I meet such amazing talent from India and abroad that I am always connecting dots and looking at the best way of putting them together. I produced TIGERS by Danis Tanovic (Bosnian) and more recently co-produced WHAT WILL PEOPLE SAY directed by Iram Haq (A Norwegian Pakistani origin) with Norway and Germany, both the films premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
With every project I try to represent India in the best way to the global audiences. I hope I can bring more Indian stories to the world and that ultimately my work is always in service of those stories.
The million dollar question is always, where do you find the money? Being in India, I’m wondering what approach you take. Are you putting together financing at a local level or global?
Being an independent producer is very tricky. The Indian film industry is a 100% equity market, driven by talent. It’s a combination of either private financing or studio financing. I have been fortunate to work with some incredible talent and the studios have taken interest too. With a large equity base, I strongly feel one has to see the right kind of money that will be aligned with the vision of the project and advance its journey. As each project needs a specific way of looking at financing, the story and the package defines if it should be locally raised or internationally.
It’s important to do a co-production for those projects that can have a larger launch/release base. Over the years, I have build knowledge about different kinds of financing options available thru attending film festivals/markets and producer labs.
My first producer’s lab was the Rotterdam Producers Lab. I was selected from Film Bazaar (Goa) to attend the Rotterdam Lab in 2011.
In 2012, I attended TAP (Trans Atlantic Program) which was spread over three weeks over the year. This was a producer mentorship program set in Belin, Helifax, and New York in partnership with IFP. The TAP and IFP peer groups are amazing and meeting everyone across festivals is great. With in the TAP group, a Canadian producer Karen Shaw was producing an independent film KHOYA set in India and I came on board as a strategic partner to support the shoot it in India.
Also, IFP nominated me to attend Producers Breakfast at Cannes. I am so grateful for that experience. As I learned more about co-productions and ventured into it, several teachers from the labs helped answer a lot of question since I was working on raising financing across Europe.
For the movie MONSOON SHOOTOUT, we were able to finance it by selling Arte TV rights on the basis of the script and the balance was equity from Netherlands and from India. MONSOON SHOOTOUT premiered at Cannes in the Midnight section in the main selection.
For THE LUNCHBOX, we were the first to do a tri-party Indo-French-German co-production. The co-production treaties with India were signed in 1985 and we were the first one to use it in 2012. We financed 55% as combination of equity from India and 45% from France and Germany. In France we were supported by Arte and CNC and in Germany we were supported by Median Board and ZDF TV. The film was also supported by Sundance filmmakers labs and the team at Sundance was very supportive in helping us navigate co-productions. We participated in co-production markets in Rotterdam and Berlin where we found our co-producers. We also participated in the script lab at the Torino Film Festival. THE LUNCHBOX premiered at Cannes in 2013 at the Critics’ Week section and did several festivals globally including Sundance, Toronto, Telluride, Doha to name a few.
For MASAAN, the script was a part of the Sundance Screenwriting India Lab and we participated in the project market at Sundance for the financing of it. We went on to do this as a French co-production in 2013 and our French co-producers also got Pathe to gap finance and be world sales agents. The film was launched at Cannes in Un Certain Regard in 2014.
For PEDDLERS and HARAAMKHOR, we were able to make these films in 2011 and 2012 respectively on a micro budget and raise the money thru 10 people becoming partners by investing 15,000 USD each. I did a call out on Facebook for financing these.
PEDDLERS premiered in Cannes in Critics Week and also selected for Toronto in 2012 and HARAAMKHOR premiered at the Mumbai International Film Festival in 2015.
I produced GANGS OF WASSEYPUR part one and part two with a studio, which premiered in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes in 2012. We cut it into an eight part series for Netflix for U.S. distribution in 2014
ZUBAAN and THE ASHRAM were both 100% equity funded from India and U.S. ZUBAAN opened the Busan Film Festival and THE ASHRAM premiered at CineQuest in San Jose.
I have produced 30+ movies with each of them financed differently, ranging from 100K to 10mil USD. Some were by a studio, some by combination of grants and by private equity. Early on I even sold my house for a project I was passionate about. I have to say distribution has been the hardest part.
In 2012, it was very new for Indian distributors to hear that our movie premiered at Cannes and must be distributed. It was in the early days of setting up business protocol for the new age independent films. There has been a long standing way of doing business in Bollywood and I was questioning it. For example, TV rights need to be sold in India for the world and I was beginning to work with world sales agents for our titles. It was very frustrating to say the least, but now over the last couple of years with the digital boom in India, we do have more financing options and support for independent films with the rise of OTT platforms. The local is becoming global now.
The industry tends to take more notice of you when you win an award, but you have had multiple films at major festivals which have also won awards over the course of your career. What advice can you give on building a career as a producer and thinking about the longevity rather than just living from film to film?
Producing is not just something you do to make the movie, it’s a constant approach to life. You have to constantly be problem solving and navigating obstacles in your journey. In 2008 I had produced a short film called KAVI as the thesis film for USC for director Greg Helvey. In 2010, it was nominated for an Oscar in the shorts category and I didn’t have enough money to attend the ceremony. I ended up writing to the President of India seeking sponsorship (who granted it to me). It was my first trip to U.S. and I was ecstatic to attend the ceremony.
There’s a common misconception that if you’re a producer, you must be rich. But the reality is, with the exception of a very few, most producers are struggling to get by. Producing is a lot of hard work. It’s easy to see a dream of making a film happen, but then you hit a zillion road blocks delaying the process. It’s very frustrating. You have to be ready for rejections and own the hustle. As I shared above, I have been that person who sold my house to fund a movie, which then took more than five years to get made. I am very proud of our movie and the team. It was selected to screen at the Cannes film festival but did not find distribution.
I was devastated only to realize over a period of time that one movie does not define my journey and my being. As a producer you have to keep knocking on doors and sometimes even break them. One has to totally love doing this and that comes from deep passion.
I have meet so many independent producers who get disappointed after one film. We have to be ready to overcome self doubt and keep going. One has to be sure as to their reasons for going on the journey. For me the joy really is in getting the film out there. My personal high point is when I manage to secure the right distribution and get the film in as many places I can. I feel a sense of immense pride of taking Indian stories to the world.
Also for sustainability I pick up consultancy gigs. I am currently consulting the Mubi.com for their acquisition strategy for their upcoming launch in India.
One day all the dots do join and it all makes sense and yes the awards do help boosting the morals and validate the struggle every now and then.
Producing is not just making a lot of money through a project or just being a part of the glamour world. It tests every bit of resilience. Anyone venturing into producing must ask himself or herself, ‘why am I doing this?’ What about this film grips you and says this needs to be told, right now?
You’ve jumped back and forth between short and feature films, fiction and documentary films, what does the future of storytelling look like to you?
The way people consume content is changing and that changes how we create our stories too. There’s a move towards for short form content, there’s a boom in documentaries and doc series, and there’s traditional feature format.
And that’s the power of story telling. It lends itself to many mediums. I feel very lucky that I have been able to dabble in various formats best suited for each story. For example, PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE, a short documentary, has opened a large conversation globally and has made deep impact not only in India but around the world. The fact that a doc short that won the Academy Award can now be distributed on Netflix around the world is a testament to how quickly things are changing.
As I do this interview am producing an audio show. If you had asked me even five years ago I would never have guessed that I would be producing podcasts and audiobooks. But that’s what’s exciting – there’s new opportunities everywhere.
For me it’s very exciting to tell stories and the format takes shape organically. I am open to the constant change and re-invention. I feel that allows us to stay relevant as storytellers. Having said that, whatever format it is, whether it’s a two-hour film or a two-minute video, the fundamentals are still the same. Who is the character? What makes the story compelling? What are we taking away from the experience? Is it entertaining?
What do you think audiences want?
In my journey of filmmaking, every one in India told me THE LUNCHBOX wouldn’t work. It’s a film with no songs, no Bollywood stars, and every executive said that 16 to 25 years old moviegoers wont relate to the film. THE LUNCHBOX went on to be a big hit only in India, but around the world.
I have never produced a film thinking “Oh! This will breakout and be an international hit!” It always starts with a gut-feeling. At the very core, I aspire to entertain people with real stories. I strongly feel it’s important to have relatable characters.
To me it’s not about catering to the audiences’ recent taste or a trend, but telling sincere stories that connect on a human level with audiences. Of course the audience experience needs to be considered, but audiences are very savvy and can tell when they are being pandered to. Ultimately it’s very hard to make a good movie, but it has to come from a place of personal truth for it to reach a universal truth.
Why are you a producer? What do you love about the profession?
I strongly believe that as producers, we don’t pick stories, but rather the stories pick us. Producing is about enabling powerful stories to come into the world. It’s about creating an environment where everyone can perform at their very best, in service of a singular vision. Filmmaking is truly one of the most powerful mediums in the world. It’s the fastest way into people’s hearts and minds. I truly believe a great story can impact the world and for me, it’s about finding those stories that move my soul. I feel a burning desire to realize a vision and support a filmmaker, this keeps me awake at night or gets me out of bed in the morning, I feel a responsibility to do everything in my power to bring that story to life to the widest audience.
I produced my first feature film at 21 called SAY SALAAM INDIA. I raised money from my neighbor in Delhi, moved to Bombay, and ended up self-distributing it. I spent 9 months going around the country, assembled a small team, and booked over 350+ screens, and ultimately we made the investment back. No one told me to do it, or how to do it, I just knew it needed to be done. You have to honor that voice inside you because if you fight it, you will never be happy.
Coming from a humble background, I am so grateful that I got the money back in 2006 to move to Bombay to produce and the sense of wonder has not left me. That’s why I produce. I am able to see thru the potential of a story and the talent and I usually find myself expanding the whole vision on where we can take a story. I follow my intuition and sign up for the adventure. I love the sense of immense responsibility and the challenges that comes with it and absolutely love overcoming it. Nothing makes me happier than working with a team to overcome an obstacle and do the impossible. That feeling alone makes the hardships all worth it!
Being a producer I get to meet so many wonderful people around the world and share so many lives as stories. It’s precious. The business has taught me new things with every project and just the fact that you are a part of constantly nurturing so much talent around you. It’s very fulfilling.
I’ve realized over time that cinema is actually a conversation. Your film is filtered through the audience’s life experience, what they are going through, and what it stirs in them is unique. That’s the magic. Films can dazzle, break hearts, inspire, shock, raise awareness, comfort… And for me there’s nothing more powerful than being a part of that.
Voted as one of the top 12 women achievers in the Global Entertainment industry by the Hollywood Reporter and among the top 50 Indians changing India by India Today, GUNEET MONGA has been a force to reckon with and a game-changing producer in Indian cinema.
Guneet started her career in production with international projects like MURDER UNVEILED, VALLEY OF FLOWERS, and PARTITION. She has since been associated with a number of path-breaking films in India, SAY SALAAM INDIA being her first venture as a producer followed by DASVIDANIYA. In 2009, Guneet Monga partnered with visionary director Anurag Kashyap and produced 23 feature films in four years, including the critically acclaimed GANGS OF WASSEYPUR I & II that had a much talked about premiere at the Cannes film festival and was a major success at the Indian box office, which was later released as an eight-part series by Netflix in the USA. The film carved a journey which was unheard of for any Indian film before.
Guneet Monga has been redefining films and their journeys with diverse new-age projects like MONSOON SHOOTOUT, THAT GIRL IN YELLOW BOOTS, SHAHID and PEDDLERS amongst others. A torch bearer for Indian film industry, Guneet has emerged as one of the most successful Indian producers for global projects with films such as Ari Folman’s THE CONGRESS, Michael Winterbottom’s TRISHNA and Danis Tanovic’s TIGERS. Her short film KAVI was nominated for an Academy Award for Live Action Short and won Best Narrative at the Student Academy Awards.
In 2013, Guneet produced the THE LUNCHBOX, which became a global sensation, premiering at the Cannes film festival (Le Semaine de les Critiques), the film was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, garnering 23m USD in global box office. It was also nominated for prestigious BAFTA awards in the best foreign language film category.
Guneet’s Indo-French Co-Production MASAAN (Fly Away Solo) won the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes in 2015 besides numerous prestigious awards in India and across the globe. An innovator at every level, Guneet is the youngest person to be conferred with the ‘Most Powerful Woman in Indian Business Award’ by Business Today in 2014.
This year, Guneet was able to take home incredible back-to-back awards on two different shorts. An Oscar in for PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE and two weeks later, a Filmfare award for PLUS MINUS.