John Owen is the first British director to make a Bollywood movie and Elliot Grove had no hesitation in inviting him to screen The Goa Run (aka Peter Gaya Kaam Se) at Raindance 2014. But that was only going to happen if John was to win a long running `David and Goliath’ battle with producers Disney, who had banned his movie from any kind of public screening. What happened next is a testament to the power of social media and John’s 80 year old mum Thelma, because when she posted a stinging rebuke to Disney on You Tube, she went viral and the global entertainment empire had no choice but to let Cinderella go to the Raindance ball.
The Goa Run is a romantic action-adventure set in the Goan party scene, which tells the story of Peter, a motorcycle taxi driver who falls in love with Mira, a beautiful and beguiling drug smuggler from London.
“Yes it’s a full-on Bollywood movie with great action, romance and drama, superb music and dance and stunning 35mm location photography. ” Says John.
But it’s been a long battle for the Londoner to get Disney India to release it.
“I am the little guy who got caught up in the strategy u-turn of an entertainment giant, ending up in what has become a serious case of corporate bullying”.
Apparently the film is well liked by critics in Bollywood who attended preview screenings and within the industry itself.
“The Goa Run has real pedigree when it comes to the elements the producers put together. We had India’s foremost enfant terrible, director Anurag Kashyap as creative producer. We have a brilliant love song sung by Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn. The ensemble cast we have including Saurabh Shukla (Slumdog Millionaire) is second to none. I remember at one stage I had a casting session with Freida Pinto who loved the script and wanted to do the film but sadly had Slumdog promotion to do. My point is this project was well hyped during production in India and there are a lot of Indian fans wondering what happened.”
It was during postproduction that problems started. Producers UTV Motion Pictures were bought out by Disney and key personnel ‘moved on’, amid rumours of financial mismanagement. A new slate of family oriented films underpinned Disney’s new strategy for the company.
“My edgy, slightly controversial film, with the underlying theme of Goa’s economic addiction to drug fuelled tourism, was not exactly flavour of the month for a fluffy brand like Disney India.’’
But how does an ex-motorcycle courier from southeast London get to make a Bollywood film in the first place?
“I worked for years in the music TV business in India as a director and creative director for MTV and News Corps’ Star TV. So I spent a lot of downtime in Goa and made friends with these mad guys who ferried tourists around to raves and called themselves ‘taxi pilots’. They were all into football and wore pukka Premiere League or la Liga shirts from the hometown of their latest foreign girlfriend. I made friends with a pilot called Sachin and he became the inspiration for my film. Sachin is a rice farmer whose family live in a tiny breezeblock bungalow. He didn’t own a pair of shoes but did drive a brand new 500 cc Enfield and wore fifty quid’s worth of Arsenal merchandise on his back. His bike kept him in debt up to his eyeballs but boy was he having fun, even though he had a hunch it would all end in tears. I knew Sachin when his village was a sleepy God fearing backwater. Then almost overnight there were youngsters from all over the world walking about half naked, popping pills and wanting to give him money for a lift on his bike. The fact is that it did end in tears. People like Sachin and Peter in my film, can’t make tourism pay. Some get lost in drugs and the party lifestyle but most go overseas to work as labourers in places like Dubai and Qatar”.
After five years of writing, pitching, and then finally making the film, John found himself broke and up to his eyes in debt.
“My mum fell in love with my story and encouraged me at every stage. She stood by me while I trashed a pretty decent TV career to get into the film business and it’s been a long and penniless road. Actually, Disney still hasn’t paid my fees.”
But why would its corporate owners not spot a good movie on the books at some stage?
“Once a producer changes strategy or falls out of love with a project it’s going to be hellish for the director to keep the momentum going all the way to release. The same happened at Warner Brothers with Slumdog. So Danny went off and found Fox Searchlight and they loved it. Just like Danny, I asked Disney to let me go find a buyer who might be a more natural fit for the project. Quite a few investors got excited. Sadly they all ended up walking away from the table, convinced Disney didn’t really want to sell.”
Last year John had to call it a day on his efforts to find a buyer, so that he could spend more time in the U.K looking after Thelma, whose health was continuing to fail.
“Its tough trying to broker a deal under your own steam. I don’t have a name in the industry like Danny nor a posh sales agent, so it was very hard. I think people thought I was bonkers doing it on my own and they couldn’t work out why Disney was trying to sell-on a perfectly decent product.
But now the plot thickens because once back in the UK John decided to look up an old ally.
“Elliot and I met ages ago, when I went to one of his pitching workshops in 2008. In fact it was those sessions that inspired me to go pitch the movie back in India. Last November we met up and he said he would love to take The Goa Run for the 2014 festival. It was then that I realized it would be a great chance for mum to see the fruits of her sacrifices over the years, before she became to ill to travel.”
John wrote a personal plea to the MD of Disney telling him about Thelma and asking if he would allow the film to be screened at Raindance. The answer eventually came back as a clear and resounding NO.
“I took counsel from a lot of Indian film directors and producers and they were all baffled by the refusal. All we could conclude was that maybe as a result of the UTV-Disney deal, some financial stones were best left unturned. But Mum and I had already talked about Raindance and a grand screening in Leicester Square. Mum being mum wont take no for an answer and she really doesn’t like a corporate bully. “I’d really like to give them a piece of my mind” she said. So that afternoon she did just that. We shot a video on a battered old I-phone and then uploaded to You Tube.”
In the video, Thelma does not spare her words.
“Hello Mr Disney. I just can’t understand why you won’t release my son’s film into the Raindance 2014 up in London, because I was looking forward to being able to go and see that because I’m not keeping very good health now and I would like to see it before I get too old to travel.’’
And she signs off by saying:
“If I could see you face to face Mr Disney, I’d give you a piece of my mind.’’
Within 24 hours the local paper got hold of the story and posted it on their website.
“I think the journalist (whose name is Oscar !!) spent the whole week on the phone trying to get a quote from Disney executives, who were in Cannes at the time. That’s when the social media response went crazy because the article really boosted our reach on Twitter and FaceBook. Everyone fell in love with Mum; she became an Internet star overnight. Not only that but the films leading man, Rajeev Khandelwal has a huge global fan base and they really got busy too, connecting up all the fan sites around the world and setting up a support page and then a ‘Road To Raindance’ page on FaceBook.”
After a few days John got frantic e-mails from Disney and then a week later a call from the MD.
“He rang me to say, we will give you permission but can you please call off your Mum or words to that effect.”
Thelma had done it. Permission to screen at Raindance 2014, John’s first ever public screening for his film.
“It’s a lonely experience having an unreleased film. When the momentum of a project falters it quickly gets kicked into the long grass in a corporate set up and before you know it everyone’s been moved on. It’s traumatizing and heart breaking. But this experience with Mum has made me realize that The Goa Run has an audience out there. Mum and I were so chuffed at all the love that came our way. In fact as we speak, I am being encouraged by a fan-site in India to crowd source the £500,000 we need for a buyout from Disney ”
So is all well that ends well?
“Disney were as helpful as they could be under the circumstances, so I flew out to Mumbai, re-mastered the sound and got a posh digital cinema print done with subtitles. I had to foot the entire bill and I spent a lot of money but it will have been worth every penny to be able to sit with Mum in Vue Piccadilly Circus as she sees the years of worry and sacrifice bear fruit on the big screen. It is a blessing.”
So would you do it all over again?
“Every single phase of making The Goa Run has been a real slog. No one said making movies was going to be this tough. Actually I am just finishing up a screenplay for a film about an Indian football team from the slums with big dreams. It’s inspired by a documentary I did about an amazing couple in Mumbai who started up India’s first football academy. It’s an inspiring, heart-warming story and one that I am really looking forward to telling.
Here we go again?
“Yes but now I am older and wiser.”