Meet Karnesh Ssharma, The Producer Behind NH10, Paatal Lok, And Bulbbul
Man With A Mission: Karnesh Ssharma

One of the most popular names in production today, Karnesh Ssharma talks about Clean Slate Filmz, his transition from Merchant Navy to movies, and his latest move of launching his own OTT platform

One of the most prolific producers in the industry today hasn’t grown up on the diet of DDLJ romance or the pyaar dosti hai funda like the rest of us. And that didn’t stop him from delving into the industry with his own idea of content. Karnesh Ssharma heads Clean Slate Filmz, and has delivered hits like NH10, Paatal Lok, and Bulbbul. He recently signed a production deal worth Rs 400 crores with Amazon Prime Video, and Netflix, and has no plans of stopping there. He is set to launch his own OTT platform, called Clean OTT, in the first quarter of 2023. Clean OTT will focus on original content featuring stories of women, for women, and by women, at the heart of the service. It seems the sailor-turned-producer is finally on his feet in the business, and is planning a long one on the Bollywood pitch.


A decade of being a producer, Ssharma believes that every job he’s done before has helped him become what he is today. He has been a cricketer, a Merchant Navy officer, an assistant director, and a unit manager at Yash Raj Films. He reminisces, “I was a professional cricketer in the beginning. Cricket made me realise that you need to back your strength, play on the front foot, and work with others. The Merchant Navy was a thrilling experience because it exposed me to many cultures when I was 16 years old. I got to travel around 60-70 countries across the globe, so I met people across countries, languages, and cultures, and saw their content from Scandinavian countries to Latin America. In the early 2000s, the internet and broadband weren’t as advanced as they are today, so watching films from the ship’s library was the only source of entertainment. Those films were very different from Indian films.


“When I joined Yash Raj,” he continues, “I had not seen half of their films. I learnt ethics from them. They were very professional and thorough in their approach. I learned management, tricks of the trade, and how hard the whole ecosystem works. The biggest learning was that common sense is not that common. Freedom puts you in a position to make decisions, and those decisions affect the film and other processes around it. I learned that responsibility there. I was supposed to work on Jab Tak Hai Jaan, but Maneesh Sharma fell ill, and Shuddh Desi Romance was revived, so I worked with him on that project. My perception of what producers did completely changed. It is not just about putting in the money. When every aspect of film-making is well looked after, nurtured, and taken care of, you get a good film. I learned all of that, and then we (Clean Slate Filmz) started making films.” Barring Paatal Lok, most of the company’s projects have had female-led narratives, be it NH10, Phillauri, Pari, or Bulbbul. “Primarily, the story has to be engaging. When we did NH10, we discovered the strength and power of good storytelling. It so happened that not much focus was being given to stories with women protagonists. They were fresher stories with films like Kahaani and Queen. These stories were inspiring because they were trying to tell something new. A woman’s perspective is very important because it is mostly overlooked.”



A still from Bulbbul


One would wonder why a production house with so much success in creating content for established platforms would go in to make its own OTT. “It is not about the money. Money is not the driving force. I’m looking at it from a cultural point of view. Yes, we have deals with multiple platforms, and we are doing well. But I still have to depend on an executive in a studio to be convinced about my story, and greenlight the project. We don’t have a system where you can experiment, sample a story, and see it come alive on screen. So, the idea was to have a platform where ambitious stories and ambitious people would be given a free hand. I think now we have that experience in identifying such stories. Stories that would not be made anywhere else would be made on Clean OTT. The idea is to create a talent pool and an ecosystem where everybody feeds off each other. Some of the titles will be produced in-house. For some, we would collaborate with other producers and film-makers. Clean OTT is a separate entity from Clean Slate Filmz. Clean Slate Filmz is still a production company. But yes, we will be like Netflix, Amazon, Hotstar, Zee5. We’ve got investors from across the globe backing us. We have a structure, people, and 18 IPs, which we’ve developed over a period of time.”


Anushka Sharma will be seen next in Chakda Express, produced by Clean Slate Filmz. It is a biopic on the life of an Indian cricketer, Jhulan Goswami. One might assume that since Ssharma was a cricketer and Virat Kohli is a cricketer, making a film on cricket was the easiest decision. Ssharma dismisses, “I have two more films on cricket, and we chose the story of Jhulan Goswami because it is the most inspiring story. Being a woman playing cricket, fighting for her place in the system, fighting for people around, and at times, playing without money for years. Anushka, just like Jhulan, has a very dynamic personality, and was the right choice for this role. Thankfully, when we approached her, she agreed.”



A still of Anushka Sharma from Chakda Express


Anushka was barely 25 years old when she decided to turn producer, and asked her older brother, Ssharma, to join her. At that point, she had only spent five years in the industry, and it was a big decision. Did he have the big brother talk with her? “We have the big brother talk about other aspects of life. Even though I’m older, I was a newbie to film-making. She was guiding me. One of the topics we would discuss a lot was how women had no agency in films. They were usually the pillars of strength for the men. They were entertaining for the public. They were dancing and singing in the rain, and showing off their navel. It was also about getting women to do more meaningful roles in cinema. At Clean Slate Filmz, the idea was to promote new voices and have more people, and that is what we’ve built our production company on. I think Clean OTT is a natural progression,” he says.


The actress took to Instagram and announced the passing over of the company to her brother. She would be focusing on her acting career, and her duties as a mother. Commenting on her decision, Ssharma says, “Anushka and I have thoroughly enjoyed working with each other, and many years of success with Clean Slate Filmz. She is going to turn her focus on her acting career, and for that, I wish her all the possible success. I will continue to support her always.”


One look at the filmography of Clean Slate Filmz, and you would notice that the team loves to work with people they have worked with before. So, is it more of a trust factor? “We are in the business of storytelling, so you only take people who are right for a certain kind of story. Anvitaa (Dutt) has a very peculiar way of presenting a story. Anshai (Lal) is great with larger-than-life stuff, and he’s making a big action film for us. He’s also made Mai for us. It is always about being professional and choosing the right people to tell the right stories. During the making of Bulbbul, Virat Kohli pointed out a couple of very interesting things, which we incorporated, and it worked. Virat watches most of the stuff we produce, and has a very sharp mind,” he shares.



A still from Mai


No one would deny that that pandemic has changed us, especially with the boom of OTT. How has it changed the audience, but? “We were the early movers into the OTT space, where deals for Sacred Games and Paatal Lok were signed at the same time. I had foreseen OTT as a major force at that point in time. We knew that we would have a big enough market and viewership on OTT.



A still from Pataal Lok


When the pandemic hit, it changed people’s viewing habits in India. Very soon into the pandemic, we ran out of content. That is when people began exploring content from other countries in a big way. I feel it changed the way people perceive and consume content. There is a lot more demand and desire for content now. We knew our idea of telling a story had to be that precise and on point for OTT. The demand is different. It fits naturally into our form of storytelling. It’s wonderful, and very rarely do you get this kind of mixture in life,” he signs off.


(Lead Image: Karnesh Ssharma)

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