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Indians at the Oscars | Namit Malhotra on DNEG and the Vfx for Dune and No Time to Die

Namit Malhotra, CEO, DNEG, on carving out a niche with Prime Focus in Bollywood and then DNEG in Hollywood, and DNEG's two Oscar nominations this year.

March 27, 2022 / 09:22 AM IST
Vfx company DNEG has been nominated for two films this year: 'No Time To Die' and 'Dune'. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)

Vfx company DNEG has been nominated for two films this year: 'No Time To Die' and 'Dune'. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)

Sitting in his London office, Namit Malhotra has the sleeves of his white shirt neatly rolled up. It is indicative of the departure of dark and cold days in London, and also perhaps his eagerness to grab his sixth Academy Award.

As the chief executive officer of DNEG, one of the world’s foremost providers of visual effects, Malhotra has won Oscars for best visual effects for Interstellar (2015), Ex Machina (2016), Blade Runner 2049 (2018), First Man (2019), and Tenet (2021). This year, he has been nominated in the same category for two blockbusters – the science-fiction movie Dune, and the ever popular James Bond franchise No Time to Die.

“There is always a butterfly in the stomach moment,” he tells me. “We are a competitive group, and of course we want to win.” Through a rather unorthodox entry into Bollywood, Malhotra has scaled the gleaming heights of Hollywood’s orthodoxy. And in doing so he has breached the strongest walls of Hollywood’s ecosystem which is controlled by large studios.

Namit Malhotra, CEO, DNEG. Namit Malhotra, CEO, DNEG.

Malhotra’s family, starting from his cinematographer grandfather M.N. Malhotra and his producer father Naresh Malhotra, have been in Bollywood for decades. He, too, wanted to be a director, but his father insisted on a more structured approach, leading to the birth of Prime Focus in the late 1990s which went on to become India’s leading post-production unit. Just to put it in perspective, the senior Malhotra who had produced the Amitabh Bachchan starrer Shahenshah, had already branched out into setting up India’s first digital audio studio, and the lucrative but capital-intensive equipment rental services. So there was a model he was following.

“When I started, computers were not that big. I initially thought my father wanted to take me off my agenda (of becoming a director). But he wanted me to do something more structured. I am incredibly grateful for his vision and proud of the fact that I listened to him, even though I had some shades of rebellion. He gave me the first 10,000 dollars,” says Malhotra. Usually teachers and professors take students under their wings, but in the case of Malhotra it was the other way round. He recruited three of his teachers from his computer graphics school to work with him in his father’s garage.

Prime Focus ultimately took over senior Malhotra’s rental business and went on to become a trendsetter in India. Having captured the market by successfully identifying niche areas, it became the first visual entertainment services company in India to go public in 2006. The desire to do more and grow further brought Malhotra to Hollywood.

From the mid-2000s, Prime Focus turned its gaze to the west. But it was not easy. “I come from a three-generation film industry background. And if I would have said I have done 500 films, it wouldn’t mean anything (in Hollywood). If I said ‘Hi, I am Namit from Prime Focus,’ I would get ‘who is Namit and what is Prime Focus?’ I had to start virtually from scratch.”

The success of Indian IT companies did play in the background, and Malhotra says that when he set out in the west, he very much wanted to take a leaf out of the successful IT services companies in the wake of Y2K. “I also wanted to use technology to bridge the gap between the east and the west. India and Indians were well-known for being good and successful professionals. But the success of the IT companies didn’t translate into Hollywood. When I was in LA, I came across as a person with a strong Indian accent, and India itself being a comparatively small market for Hollywood.”

A series of smart mergers and acquisitions provided Malhotra a much-needed base. “Acquiring some businesses having a foothold in the US allowed introduce myself and to strike (up) a conversation, so the mergers and acquisitions cut short the journey,” says Malhotra. In 2014, Malhotra acquired the UK-based Double Negative (rebranding it DNEG) which had already won an Oscar for Inception in 2011.

Now, much has changed since Malhotra took the initial steps in the march towards Hollywood. He himself has changed base to London from LA. And this mobility again has much to do with his father’s early advice of mastering the intricacies of technology and becoming a specialist in at least one particular aspect of filmmaking. The entire globe is his playground, and London is his abode now because it has done much to attract studios and film production companies. It is also easier to manage his sprawling empire. "I love Mumbai, but London is not humid."

Starting early and taking the digital arena of filmmaking global has led to a situation where 90 to 95 percent of Malhotra’s revenue comes from Hollywood. And he is incredibly proud of it; for he reached this position taking head-on Hollywood’s attitude of not trusting new entities due to lack of experience, security issues and concern over quality. In the seven years since he took over DNEG, it has won five Oscars.

Malhotra now employs over 8,000 professionals in 16 cities across four continents. “When we see these Oscar nominations, we have India working with Canada and London in a fully integrated way that nobody can say where the work actually happened. This seamless integration means we align with the best of the world working together. It is truly global.”

The revenue stream may be flowing in from Hollywood, but he has never lost sight of Bollywood. “In 1995, my dad said films are evergreen, they will always be made, and there will always be an audience. Once you are ready, you can make a backdoor-entry into film and film production, which is what we are doing.”

Producing mega big-ticket films like Brahmastra and Ramayana with budgets of Rs 150 crore and Rs 600 crore, respectively, is hardly backdoor. Even though the starting point of our conversation was Hollywood and the Academy Awards, the excitement is difficult to miss when we discuss Bollywood.

Speaking with Namit, I am reminded of Ismail Merchant, another Mumbai-born Indian who made his presence felt in Hollywood in his own way partnering with James Ivory and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The St Xavier’s (known for its liberal art faculty) educated Merchant represented an era of independent filmmakers making quality films on shoestring budgets. Merchant’s memoir is peppered with anecdotes of how he struggled with finances. But if the HR College of Commerce-educated Namit were to write a book, the only limitation he would face would most likely be the limits of the human imagination. For everything that the mind can conjure, Malhotra can bring it to the screen!

Just two weeks ago, DNEG got seven VES (visual effects society) awards which is a highly regarded industry gathering honouring the best. “Getting recognised by the VES is very special. It is a testament to the capabilities of our teams.” But it is now Oscar time. I ask him which one is his favourite, Dune or No Time To Die.

“There is a personal and professional conflict,” he tells me. “As kids, we have grown up seeing Bond all along, a very famous and prolific brand. There is a lot of value and excitement around James Bond. Everybody knows Bond - in China, India, America and Europe.”

And Dune?

Dune is not just a nomination for me but a new paradigm of how visual effect is being created. I am not saying this because we did the visual effect, but if anybody else had pulled off a Dune to the level that it is, I would put up my hand and salute. It sets a new benchmark and a new standard of how visual effects are created.”

“Both are my favourite, one I feel closer to and another I am awed by,” he sums up.

Danish Khan is a London-based independent journalist and author of 'Escaped: True Stories of Indian fugitives in London'. He is researching Indian capitalism at University of Oxford.