Advantage India

By Pickle  November 10, 2020

India now offers a high quality, end to end solution to foreign productions. An entire ecosystem awaits foreign productions in India, thanks to proactive measures by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India. India’s diversity allows a filmmaker to tell both India focused and global stories from here. A rural South African exterior or urban London office interior can be recreated right here with equal expertise and ease. Alan McAlex of Production Scope shares his experience of filming Mira Nair’s Suitable Boy. He chats with Pickle and wants nothing but to go back to making movies

In visualization to match the script, Suitable Boy transports us to fifties of India. What are the behind the scene experiences?

It is great to know every single shot of Mira Nair’s TV series was filmed in India… That’s right; every single shot was filmed in India on location. We didn’t create any period sets in studios. That was Mira’s vision- she wanted the look to be as authentic as possible, depicting post-independence India in the series. As a co-producer, I strive to ensure that the Director’s vision is implemented on screen. For A Suitable Boy, we scouted every nook and corner of the historic cities of Lucknow, Kanpur and Maheshwar. We also shot in smaller towns and villages in and around these cities such as Kakori, Mahmudabad etc. It was amazing to experience the rich heritage of India while shooting at these locations. We shot in several interesting places – tanneries in Kanpur, palaces in Lucknow, forts in Maheshwar. I was quite mesmerized by the beauty of these locations. Every location we shot in had such an interesting history and story attached to it.

With diverse experience in film production, Alan McAlex formed Jar Pictures in 2011 with Ajay G Rai. Together they have been producing commercial and arthouse films. Killa, that opened at the 64th Berlinale in 2015, winning the Crystal Bear; Liar’s Dice, that opened at Sundance and was India’s official submission to the 87th Academy Awards in 2015; and Moothon that opened at TIFF in 2019, are a few titles from their oeuvre. As a part of Alan’s several individual projects as an Executive Producer, he has worked on Dangal, which was the highest grossing Indian film, as well as the Amazon series Made in Heaven. In 2019, Alan initiated Production Scope, a company focusing only on production services that started off with A Suitable Boy, a BBC mini-series adapted from author Vikram Seth’s eponymous book, directed by Mira Nair, for which Alan was the co-producer.

Lucknow also had a rich collection of  vintage cars that were an extremely important part of creating the 1950s’ visual experience on screen. We didn’t realize it at first, but these cars were very popular. On days when we shot with the cars, we had huge crowds gather just to see these cars. Our crew also enjoyed posing with these cars when they weren’t filming.

How has India and its outlook changed vis-a-vis foreign productions in recent times?

In recent times, when foreign producers look at India, they see much more than a country where they shoot one offs such as a Gandhi or a Slumdog Millionaire, in which the script requires a film to be shot here. India now offers an entire ecosystem for foreign productions. India’s diversity allows a filmmaker to tell both India focused and global stories from here. We are able to recreate say a rural South African exterior, or urban London office interior right here.

Productions are also more attracted to India because the overall risk of filming here has gone down significantly. With the formation of the FFO, we have a one-stop-shop to obtain clearances and support. We’ve always been a cost-effective destination for production and now there’s an abundance of talent and skilled professionals in our industry as well. We also have superb postproduction and VFX capabilities.

India now offers a high quality, end to end solution to foreign productions. Over the last one decade, the diversity of films that you have (co-produced/executive produced) is amazing. Some of the Indian films have travelled globally and won awards. What fascinates you in an Indian location?

Yes, over the last decade, we were lucky to find the right scripts and work with amazing filmmakers. Our films went on to garner critical acclaim, Killa that went on to open at the 64th Berlinale in 2015 won the Crystal Bear, Liar’s Dice which opened at Sundance and was India’s official submission to the 87th Academy Awards in 2015 and Moothon that opened at TIFF and MAMI in 2019, would be to name a few from our oeuvre.

Do you see Advantage India in the aftermath of pandemic for filming? What’s possible and what’s not?

In terms of the number of cases, unfortunately, we’ve been one of the worst affected countries in the world and this is likely due to our sizeable population. Efforts of the government and vigilance of the people have helped keep fatality rate relatively low. Productions in India have slowly
restarted with extreme precautions and strict health and safety protocols on sets. Some had to shut down again if a crew member tested positive but
overall there’s definitely progress. Things will slowly but surely get back to pre-pandemic levels. As long as we’re vigilant and keep flattening
the curve, filmmakers will be more confident about shooting in India. We have a cost advantage which definitely gives us an upper hand in these difficult financial times. In the long term, India will certainly be back as one of the top destinations of choice for filmmakers.

Now that India has opened up shooting (to those who have film visas) and business for overseas businesses do you see positive momentum? Are the safety protocols in line with global practices?

Yes, there’s definitely positive momentum. We’re already planning several projects, for next year and beyond. These are a mix of international and domestic projects. There are several companies that offer COVID safety protocols that are at par or even exceed global practices. It’s quite amazing to see the market react such quickly to offer these solutions.

Your reflections on how tough it has been during the lockdown times…

The pandemic has been personally, professionally and financially devastating for everyone and there’s no question that the people on the ground have been the hardest hit. It was very unfortunate to see so many productions come to a grinding halt due to which the livelihood of so many people, especially the daily wagers were several affected.

What are the lessons learned during lockdown?

The biggest lesson has definitely been that we’re all in this together. This pandemic has touched everyone’s lives, irrespective of boundaries. And we need to be cautious together to fight the spread of the virus to protect everyone around us. Another lesson we’ve learnt is that we need to be better prepared for downturns. When an industry such as ours is growing, one doesn’t expect such a bad thing to happen and that too so quickly. But, this
pandemic has taught us that black swan events can happen, so we need to be better equipped to manage them. Ultimately, tough times teach us to be more resilient and stronger for the future.

Do you see visible changes after the formation of Ministry of Information & Broadcasting’s Film Facilitation Office? Is filming in India eased now for facilitation?

When it comes to international productions helmed by companies here in India, the onus to deliver all expectations smoothly is on us and that includes visas for the foreign crew, shoot permissions, initial project clearance formalities with Ministry of Information & Broadcasting to name a few. FFO has been the singular point for all these crucial parts and speed up the process, right from liaising with the visa office to sanctioning permissions for filming in desired regions of the country. Once we have these clearances we can seek local authorities’ permissions for the respective locations.

The government plans to incentivize filming in India as well for co-production Treaties? Will this be advantage India?

Co-production treaties are extremely helpful in creating the right incentives for filmmakers to shoot in India. Having foreign films made in India helps promote the local economy and tourism in the country. It’s a win-win situation. We already have treaties with 15 countries, but it would be nicer to
have more, because nowadays, film making is an exceedingly global endeavor. As an example, Canada has treaties with over 50 countries. In addition to co-productions, production services is also an area that the government can look at for incentivization. In my experience, sometimes the incentives, especially the State/local ones, are limited to feature films. With the advent of digital platforms, there is an opportunity to expand those incentives to web series as well. All in all, we’re on the right track and I am confident we’ll get better and it will definitely be advantage India!

What are the new facilities that you have added to your production especially in pandemic times? What are the best practices followed by Production Scope?

Even before COVID, safety of our cast and crew was of utmost importance to our productions. We followed international safety protocols and standards during the shoot of A Suitable Boy. An ambulance and a doctor were on standby on every shoot day for emergencies. Fire safety is also very important – we had several scenes in which we depicted props being set on fire. So, we had a Fire Brigade on standby at all times. We also had a dedicated safety officer on set that assessed safety risks prior to shooting at any new location. We were pro-active in addressing any safety concerns. In fact, we were ready to stop shoot if we thought that there was risk to the safety or wellbeing of our crew. The lessons we learnt during A Suitable Boy, we’ve incorporated in our Indian shoots as well. These are now a part of our standard operating procedures of our new exclusive Production Services company – Production Scope. Specifically for COVID, our productions have added additional safety measures such as masks, shields, UV tunnels, sanitizers for all crew members. We also have a task force that ensures social distancing protocols are followed at all times on set. We monitor, track and record compliance to all safety protocols as well.

How thrilled are you to going back to shoot…

It’s been almost a year since we finished shooting A Suitable Boy. I’m honestly quite eager to get back to shoot. But COVID is still a risk and we have to be cautious. I am hopeful that things are improving, and that we’ll be back to doing what we love most – making movies!

Films / Series produced by Alan McAlex

  • A Suitable Boy (TV Series) (coproducer – 6 episodes) 2020
  • Children of the Sun (producer) 2019
  • The Elder One (producer) 2019
  • Made in Heaven (TV Series) (supervising producer – 9 episodes) 2019
  • Firecracker (executive producer) 2018
  • Once Again (producer) 2018
  • River Song (producer) 2018
  • Hummingbird (Short) (producer) 2018/I
  • Simran (executive producer) 2017
  • Gurgaon (producer) 2016
  • Dangal (executive producer) 2016
  • Nil Battey Sannata (producer) 2015
  • Talvar (executive producer) 2015
  • Hunterrr (executive producer) 2015
  • Echoes (line producer) 2014/III
  • Njan Steve Lopez (producer) 2014
  • Killa (producer) 2014
  • Mr. & Mrs. Singh (Short) (producer) 2013
  • Liar’s Dice (producer) 2013
  • Fireflies (executive producer) 2013/II
  • I.D. (executive producer) 2012
  • Patang (line producer) 2011
  • Thank You (line producer) 2011/I
  • Autumn (executive producer) 2010
  • Peepli [Live] (line producer) 2010

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