India’s Jio Studios Chief Reveals Slate, Strategy: ‘We’ve Hit a Purple Patch, Like Tendulkar Hitting Centuries’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Jio Studios, the content arm of billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), is on a roll with several box office hits in a row.

Almost exactly a year ago, Jio Studios had launched a slate of 100 new films and TV shows. Those efforts have now come to fruition. 2023 saw Marathi-language “Baipan Bhaari Deva” and “Jhimma 2,” Bollywood films, Shah Rukh Khan’s “Dunki” and Vicky Kaushal’s “Zara Hatke Zara Bachke,” and Mithun Chakraborty-starring Bengali-language film “Kabuliwala” become major hits. 2024 has already delivered Bollywood hits “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya,” “Article 370” and “Shaitaan,” with Kiran Rao’s 2023 Toronto-playing feminist romp “Laapata Ladies” also scoring in its theatrical release.

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“We are the only studio to have seven hits in a row. We hit a purple patch, like how [cricket GOAT Sachin] Tendulkar was hitting his centuries,” Jyoti Deshpande, president, media and content business, RIL, told Variety. “We’ve always been champions of stories, and tried to do genre-breaking stuff, the ultimate goal being stories from India that can be taken to the world. And, one of the things that we underlined in April [2023], was that we must make regional films to scale. When we say regional, typically, it’s only the Telugu and Tamil [language films] that make a little bit of noise. The other regionals are forgotten heroes. We’ve been consciously investing in regional cinema as well for theaters, not just tokenism.”

Regional is Indian shorthand for films that are not made in the Hindi-language Bollywood industry. Jio Studios’ upcoming slate includes Pa. Ranjith’s Tamil-language period epic “Thangalaan,” headlined by Vikram; Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi-language “Khashaba,” a biopic of Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav, the first athlete from independent India to win an individual medal at the Olympics, with music by Oscar-winner A.R. Rahman; “Aaipan Bhari Deva,” the sequel to Marathi-language “Baipan Bhaari Deva”; Marathi-language musical “Sangeet Manapman”; and Punjabi-language films “Carry On Jattiye,” “Ardaas 3” and “Manjhe Bistre.”

Jio Studios’ upcoming film slate also includes Riteish Deshmukh’s period biopic “Raja Shivaji,” which will release in Hindi and Marathi-language versions; and Bollywood films including Rohit Shetty’s all-star cast next cop universe film, “Singham Again,” Varun Dhawan’s “Baby John,” the sequel to hit 2018 horror comedy “Stree,” Akshay Kumar air force drama “Sky Forge,” and a brace of titles featuring superstar Aamir Khan.

Highlights of the streaming slate include Abhijeet Deshpande’s political period drama “Union: The Making of India,” where civil servant V.P. Menon and statesman Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel are faced with the challenge of uniting more than 500 princely states into India; and Prakash Jha’s “Sankalp,” revolving around the Indian civil service exams.

Deshpande said that the massive initial slate was to jumpstart the company. “We’re not doing now quantity, now we’ve shifted to our studio hat. From a studio perspective, we want to tell some of the most meaningful stories in as many languages as possible, with as wide a genre as possible. Then on top of that, we’re working with [Oscar winner] Guneet Monga on a couple of films. We are looking to work with Ritesh Batra [“The Lunchbox”], Richie Mehta [“Delhi Crime”], trailblazers in the international markets as well, to say that, how can we take some of our Indian stories and put [them] on the world map, as well as have commercial and critical success here [India] as well as abroad,” Deshpande said.

“In terms of a film studio, we have managed to build something to scale without dropping quality. We’re saying some meaningful stories about India’s narrative to the world and some meaningful stories about women empowerment… some message in terms of social responsibility as well, without being preachy, or taking over the entertaining narrative of certain films,” Deshpande added.

The executive said that despite being the largest studio in the country and belonging to one of the largest conglomerates in the world, the approach is to always take the partnership approach, with all partners having skin in the game thereby ensuring that Jio Studios is not “sitting with all the risk and none of the rewards.”

“Our partners recognize that we go over and beyond to give a film its due, whether it is during the production process, marketing, distribution, we really push the boat out, and, feel as passionately about every story. It’s not transactional for us. And that is valued and recognized,” Deshpande said. “So, we are after critical acclaim and commercial success. Ultimately, we are here for ROI [return on investment] as well. But at the same time, we want to introduce new genres. We are committed to theatrical storytelling and launching new talent.”

Jio Studios is already working with some of the biggest names in the business in India, including Ajay Devgn, Aamir Khan and Maddock Films. The next step is to partner with Hollywood. Deshpande says that this is “something that one is actively working towards, but not really where one is a minority partner in some Hollywood project, but really, how can we bring them into our projects earlier on.”

“We have several ambitious projects that are in early-stage development, that also require technology to make. Reliance above all is a tech company. It’s early days, but we have to see how do we incorporate artificial intelligence and virtual production? How do we learn from where the West is at? And how do we bring some of that into our storytelling to make it cost effective, and relevant, visually, to a larger audience and give it that language-agnostic edge,” Deshpande said. Jio Studios is also looking East and exploring local collaborations to achieve day-and-date releases for its films in those markets.

Deshpande terms the ongoing $8.5 billion merger of RIL group company Viacom18 with Disney as a “fabulous development.” “In terms of our relationship, it’s pretty much arm’s length, the studio is as much open to business with associate companies as it is with Netflix, Amazon or anyone else in the market,” Deshpande said. “It’s very much to try and keep the storytelling house as pure and independent as possible, which is why Jio Studios was not part of that deal to begin with.”

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