Somen Mishra on revitalising Dharma with new voices, stories: 'I told all struggling artists I had a foot in the door'

Somen Mishra is the Head of Creative Development (Script) at Karan Johar's Dharma Productions and the Head of Fiction at Dharmatic, the digital arm.

Devansh Sharma February 06, 2020 09:18:13 IST
Somen Mishra on revitalising Dharma with new voices, stories: 'I told all struggling artists I had a foot in the door'
  • Somen Mishra claims his job as the head of Content Development is to bridge the gap between Dharma and Versova.

  • Somen says he just picks the right seeds (scripts) in a farm owned by Karan Johar, and supplies water and manure to them on a daily basis.

  • Somen refutes the allegations of nepotism hurled at Johar by pointing out how Dharma has always encouraged countless new talents behind the scenes.

Filmmaker Karan Johar has often candidly admitted how greatly he has evolved since his directorial debut over 20 years ago with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Having produced over three dozen films since then under his banner Dharma Productions, and with around a dozen in development, Johar has nurtured a wide range of talents, from writers and directors to technicians and actors.

Dharma is currently undergoing a 2.0 phase, particularly with the advent of new voices, fresh faces, and a variety of genres, from horror to whodunits. This shift in the content planning strategy coincides with the appointment of Somen Mishra as the Head of Creative Development (Scripts) at the production house.

Somen Mishra on revitalising Dharma with new voices stories I told all struggling artists I had a foot in the door

In an interview to Firstpost, Mishra admits he was brought in to "bridge the gap between Dharma and Versova". For the uninitiated, Versova is a locality in Mumbai, which serves as the hub of struggling artists aspiring to make it big in the Hindi film industry.

"Before I joined, Dharma was known for a certain brand of films (dominated by romantic comedies and family dramas). So Karan discussed with me that my role was to introduce a new kind of films to Dharma. For that, it was important to bring in new voices. That is why when I joined, I told all the writers that I have a foot in the Dharma door but you guys have to create such fresh content that you break the door open and enter the production house," says Somen, grinning.

He came on board at the peak of the allegations of nepotism against Johar. In February 2017, actress Kangana Ranaut had called host Johar the "flagbearer of nepotism" on his chat show Koffee with Karan. The statement snowballed into an incessant barrage of allegations against Johar that he has always only launched star kids in his films. Mishra claims while the "criticism has some merit", it has been "stretched too far and for too long."

"It's unfair to carry on that attack after a certain extent. Yes, there have been familiar faces in Dharma but there are so many people behind the scenes who have no connection with the film industry, yet no one talks about them.

"Even before I joined, Karan had launched a few directors, who had assisted him in his directorials, but had no connection with the industry as such (Nikkhil Advani, Tarun Mansukhani, Siddharth P Malhotra, Rensil D'Silva, Shakun Batra, Shashank Khaitan, Karan Malhotra)," says Somen.

The fact that we are chatting in Somen's cabin in the Dharma Productions office in Mumbai is a testimony to the fact that the production house opens its doors as much to 'outsiders' as it does to familiar faces. Somen's cabin is populated with a lot of bound scripts but is spruced up by a number of merchandise of a lot of popular Hollywood characters, such as the ones from the Avengers franchise.

While he insists those are 'gifts', it is not difficult to imagine him applauding with visible glee during the screening of a Marvel tentpole. He admits he was a mainstream cinema buff but got inclined towards the indie space in the early 2010s. "At that time, I was an entertainment journalist. And the common perception was mainstream films are getting the numbers but are just bad."

Somen Mishra on revitalising Dharma with new voices stories I told all struggling artists I had a foot in the door

However, when he joined Dharma, he says his focus was on not only the high-concept films but also every project that takes shape in the production house. "Karan doesn't need anyone. He can do pretty much everything on his own, whether it is a high-concept film or an event film, or which I call a big idea film and a big film. He's involved in every minor aspect of every project at Dharma. The idea to bring me on board was only to get more hands, more eyes, and more ears out in the market so that we don't miss out on good scripts," explains Somen.

Johar tells Firstpost how Somen has been an unrelenting creative force in revitalising Dharma.

"Somen is one of the brightest minds I've interacted with. He has a huge bandwidth when it comes to curating and nurturing content. His understanding of narrative ranges from nuance to extreme mainstream. Thanks to him, I feel like I have a huge creative support at Dharma. He's the backbone of many of our feature films and digital content."

Somen recalls his first major contribution to Dharma was to introduce the writer of Johar's short film in the Lust Stories anthology, that eventually premiered on Netflix in 2018. "Karan was looking for a big-idea film then but in a short format. I fixed up his meeting with Sumit Saxena, who's as Versova as they can get. I told Karan not to go by how he looks. But he really gelled well with Sumit, and saw potential in his story. And Lust Stories really worked for us!"

Lust Stories was followed by a film that started as a high-concept film but evolved into a bigger scale with huge stars. "It's unbelievable that a film like Good Newwz, with huge stars, got finished and released within two years! Again, it was a big-idea film by a director who has no links in Bollywood. And again, it has worked really well for us," says Somen.

"I remember it was the first project we put together when I joined. Projects usually take time to finish, and you have to live with that reality. In our industry, the term is called development black hole. I always tell people I'm only responsible for choosing the right seeds, and ensure they get water and manure every day. The farm is owned by Karan. And whether they grow into trees really depend on them. The idea is to develop eight to 10 projects, out of which at least two will translate," adds Somen.

Somen Mishra on revitalising Dharma with new voices stories I told all struggling artists I had a foot in the door

So here is Somen, developing as many as six theatrical releases for Dharma this year, majority of which have a debutant director, including Bhoot: Part One — The Haunted Ship (Bhanu Pratap Singh), Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (Sharan Sharma), and Dostana 2 (Collin D'Cunha). Somen confesses out of these, Dostana 2 has been particularly challenging.

"You know, it's already an established and much-loved brand name. Karan wanted to make this film for a really long time but they weren't able to crack the right script. And it's also a different time we're making the film for. We have to get the gender politics, LGBTQ+ politics right in our narrative."

Beyond the films releasing this year, the most challenging project for Somen in Dharma so far has been Johar's next directorial Takht, slated to release in 2021. "Karan had been looking for something to direct. So we found this story for him. Gradually, it turned into an event film. The struggle then was to balance the many huge stars' roles in the script, and ensure all of them get sufficient screen time."

Takht, set in the Mughal Era, is the first feature directorial Johar has not written himself. While the screenplay has been penned by historian Sumit Roy, the dialogues have been written by Hussain Haidry, who originates from Lucknow. Karan told Firstpost he is grateful to Somen for constructing the writing team of Takht. "As writers, we tend to get attached to our material. But this time, I will direct wit a lot of freedom and abandon. I won't hold on to my material because I haven't created it," he said.

Takht made news with its announcement a couple of years ago not only because of the stellar star cast (Kareena Kapoor Khan, Ranveer Singh, Vicky Kaushal, Alia Bhatt, Bhumi Pednekar, Anil Kapoor, Janhvi Kapoor) but also because it had the names of its writers highlighted by Johar himself. This has been a practice that Somen has encouraged at Dharma. From first look posters (Gunjan Saxena) to full-page ads (Good Newwz), the writers have been given credit across all media for all films, prompting other writers like Varun Grover to appreciate the gesture.

"The idea of a film germinates with the writer. They spend a year or more of their lives to write the script. So it's grossly unfair if their names are not given those two inches of space or those five seconds of time in the trailer or promos. The idea behind the lack of credit wasn't to put down anyone I feel but the system in place was like that. Historically, India has not been a culture of acknowledging the writer before the face, but it also stems from the studio's insecurity of some kind. I know for a fact that Karan is not insecure at all. He's more than eager to give writers their due, especially because he has been a writer himself. He has written all his features so far," says Somen.

Somen Mishra on revitalising Dharma with new voices stories I told all struggling artists I had a foot in the door

The respect for the written word can also be witnessed on the white board he faces every day in his cabin. It is full of quotes said/written by writers and filmmakers that, he confesses, often show him the way out when he is stuck in a creative predicament. He takes my attention to a specific quote that filmmaker Sriram Raghavan brought to his knowledge, "The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense."

The quote may come in handy in his new role as the Fiction Head at Dharmatic, the digital wing of Dharma Productions. While it was announced last year, Dharmatic will see its first release this year with the film starring Kiara Advani in the lead role, Guilty. Along with that, an untitled relationship thriller has been announced, with Madhuri Dixit-Nene and director Sri Rao.

Among other rumoured projects is a spin-off of Kareena's character from Johar's 2001 family drama Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, reportedly titled Poo Diaries.

"We're still writing that. Once we complete that, we will approach Kareena with the full script, although it's difficult to imagine anyone else playing Poo," says Somen.

Dharmatic has signed a long-term deal with Netflix, where all their projects will find a home on the global streaming platform. Besides the two shorts Johar has directed in Lust Stories and Ghost Stories, Dharma has not had a good track record of direct releases on Netflix. Tarun Mansukhani's Drive, starring Jacqueline Fernandez and Sushant Singh Rajput, was reportedly released on Netflix last year after it was deemed unprofitable as a theatrical release.

However, that blot does not really concern Somen. "I think that's unfair to say. Sometimes, films don't turn out the way you want, but that doesn't mean that they can be dumped on Netflix. Streaming isn't a dumping ground. Sometimes, a producer has to incur losses if the film is directly released on streaming. But there are unavoidable situations sometimes, like the unavailability of a good date without a major clash, that factor into such decisions. The way an outside would look at this decision is very different from how it's from the inside."

Somen Mishra on revitalising Dharma with new voices stories I told all struggling artists I had a foot in the door

Another project that was initially planned as a theatrical release is the biopic of Ma Anand Sheela, the close aide of contentious spiritual guru Osho. "Yes, there were talks with Shakun on whether to make a film or a series or something else. It's also a co-production (with Netflix) so taking permissions becomes a little difficult. But Shakun was very keen on exploring this since his parents have also been ardent followers of Osho. So now he is the showrunner of a documentary on Ma Sheela, it's under (the purview of) Aneesha now."

Aneesha Baig is a former journalist, who has been roped in as the Non-Fiction Head at Dharmatic. Interestingly, Somen recalls how they were once part of rival organisations. "She worked with NDTV, and I was in CNN IBN. So we used to keep bumping into each other at events and press shows. But I'm glad we're working together at Dharmatic now. The areas might be different but the kind of content we want to support is more or less similar."

Somen, who began his career as a journalist, says he was always interested in cinema. "I always knew I had to enter movies. But coming from a small town, and with a middle-class family, I didn't know how to do it.

"At that time, a sound design course had the requirement of a Physics Honors degree so I signed up for that. Then I did Mass Communication, and entered journalism. I worked at Zee News, and then CNN IBN. But journalism got depressing and disappointing after a point of time."

Somen Mishra on revitalising Dharma with new voices stories I told all struggling artists I had a foot in the door

He recollects when a friend quit Junglee Pictures, he joined the production house. "Junglee was starting from scratch at that time. The idea was to make mainstream films more nuanced to get both the praise and the numbers. So we did Talwar, Bareilly Ki Barfi, and then Raazi."

Somewhere between Bareilly Ki Barfi and Raazi, Somen says he jumped ship when Junglee collaborated with Dharma on the Meghna Gulzar directorial.

Since then, he has not looked back. Nearing the completion of his third year at Dharma, Somen hopes to make the production house a more inclusive place, both in terms of the people working there to the kind of films it bankrolls.

He clearly has a great knack for the same, as his past collaborator Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, director of Bareilly Ki Barfi, tells Firstpost, "Somen is someone who respects creative people and their qualities that contribute to the development of a script. He's honest, fights for what's right, and ensures creative people get their due. He's a team player and an avid reader. His knowledge of world cinema brings new approaches to Indian storytelling. And as much as he loves his cats, he loves his stories too."

Photos by Rahul Sharda.

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