Farhan Akhtar, Ritesh Sidhwani Celebrate 20 Years of Excel Entertainment

Indian studio Excel Entertainment is on a roll. There are several films in the works, including the long-awaited return to direction from company co-founder Farhan Akhtar; a continuing relationship with Amazon Prime Video; and a new deal with Netflix.

Excel was founded by Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani, schoolmates with very different backgrounds, in 2001. Sidhwani’s family owned a successful home appliances manufacturing business, which he worked in for six years and developed strong marketing, business development, team building and motivational skills, attributes that would stand him in good stead in his later career as a producer.

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Akhtar’s father, Javed, is one of India’s most celebrated screenwriters and poets and mother Honey Irani a well-known writer-director. Their writing credits include some of the all-time hits of Indian cinema. Javed Akhtar co-wrote “Sholay,” “Deewar” and “Don” amongst several in a fruitful writing partnership with Salim Khan and his solo screenplay credits include “Meri Jung,” “Betaab” and “Arjun.” Irani has “Lamhe,” “Darr,” “Kaho Naa … Pyaar Hai” and the “Krrish” franchise among her credits.

It was perhaps inevitable that Farhan Akhtar, after a stint in advertising and serving as an assistant director, turned his hand to a screenplay. The result was “Dil Chahta Hai,” a tale of three upper middle-class urban friends who are driven asunder by their varying approaches to relationships. Akhtar had lost touch with Sidhwani after school, but a mutual friend informed him that he was keen to explore the film business.

“We were at a friend’s house having dinner, and he said, ‘I’ve written this script,’” Sidhwani tells Variety. “And I went over the next day, and I heard the narration from him. And I mean, at the end of it, I was saying, ‘let’s go ahead and make this’, having no clue or having anything to do with any film, and no idea.”

What sold Sidhwani on the script was the sheer relatability of it. In a Bollywood entertainment landscape then littered with fantastic scenarios or sagas tailored to the moneyed Indian diaspora, here was a script with characters that urban audiences could instantly relate to.

“Everyone identified with one of the characters, or at least identified with knowing somebody like that,” Akhtar tells Variety.

“They were easily identified with, and I thought, this is the best. Farhan knew that I was looking at doing something out of my family business, and I was very inclined towards movies,” says Sidhwani.

“He [Ritesh] told me that ‘you should get on as a producer, don’t just write it and direct it — let’s create a company and let’s create a partnership and do this together, because it’s your work and you should be owning your work,’” says Akhtar. “So honestly, I don’t think I would have gotten into production if it wasn’t for Ritesh.”

The newly minted Excel Entertainment raised finance and the script attracted A-list acting talent including Aamir Khan, Preity Zinta, Dimple Kapadia, Saif Ali Khan and Akshaye Khanna.

Akhtar and Sidhwani had no inkling of the impact “Dil Chahta Hai” would have, except perhaps a moment during the shoot.

“The first time I got a semblance of something special was happening was, weirdly enough, when Preity Zinta and I were shooting a scene together,” Akhtar says. “She just came up to me later after the day was wrapped and she said, ‘you know, Farhan, this film is going to be a cult film. I can just feel it.’ And I had no idea why she said that. You just take it in your stride, and you laugh it off, when someone says that, but I mean, she proved to be right.”

“Dil Chahta Hai” changed the filmmaking grammar of the industry, at least for urban-centric projects, toning down the bombast associated with the genre in favor of a mostly naturalistic approach. It was an approach that distributors balked at, and after an advance screening for them (itself an unusual practice in India then), they ankled existing deals en masse, despite the A-list cast. This forced Excel to set up its own distribution outfit, in partnership with expert Anil Thadani, another aspect of the business that proved successful.

The film was a critical and commercial success and Excel was underway. Next up were war drama “Lakshya” (2004) starring Amitabh Bachchan and Hrithik Roshan, and Shah Rukh Khan starrer “Don” (2006), a contemporary retelling of the 1978 hit film of the same name, both directed by Akhtar.

Excel also looked beyond Akhtar as a director and greenlit Reema Kagti’s ensemble comedy “Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd.” (2007) and Abhishek Kapoor’s musical saga “Rock On!!” (2008). The latter film marked Akhtar’s debut as an actor and musician.

In 2009, Excel also commissioned “Luck by Chance,” the directorial debut of Farhan Akhtar’s sister Zoya, who would go on to make hugely influential films such as friendship saga “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara” (2011) and Berlinale hip-hop film “Gully Boy” (2019), which was India’s entry to the Oscars.

When the global streamers descended upon India, Excel was in the forefront thanks to a wide-ranging deal with Amazon Prime Video that resulted in the Intl. Emmy-nominated series sports drama “Inside Edge,” wedding-themed relationship drama “Made in Heaven” and Indian hinterland crime epic “Mirzapur.”

Going forward, Farhan Akhtar, after forging a successful career as an actor, including the recent “Toofaan” and Toronto film festival title “The Sky Is Pink,” will return to direction for the first time since 2011’s “Don 2” with female road trip tale “Jee Le Zaraa,” starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Katrina Kaif and Alia Bhatt.

The upcoming Excel film slate also includes Arjun Varain Singh’s “Kho Gaye Hum Kahan,” Ravi Udyawar’s “Yudhra,” Ashutosh Gowariker’s “Pukar” and Gurmmeet Singh’s “Phone Bhoot.”

Twenty since they began, Sidhwani and Akhtar continue to greenlight projects together and the process remains organic.

“A decision has to be instinctive — do you connect to something in it? I think for both of us, that’s the first step,” says Sidhwani. “Why is it that we want to tell the story? Is there some kind of an emotional connect to relate to and identify with it? I think that’s the premise. And then the business decision comes next. In what we do, you cannot let business drive the decision to doing a film or a show.”

“Initially, it’s purely based on a creative instinct — do I want to see this? Would I like to watch a show like this, would I like to watch a film like this? And if I do, then I’m assuming that there’s many more people like me out there who want to do the same,” says Akhtar. “Of course, at some point, you have to put the business hat on once you said OK to doing something, because then you have to figure out how it’s going to how it’s going to work.”

Akhtar stresses the need to keep evolving and to keep expanding horizons and genres. “Part of growing a company is not to get stuck in a bubble.”

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