Rangrez Films and the fine art of making TV food shows

MUMBAI: Step into Ashraf Abbas’ and Nidhi Tuli’s Rangrez Films’ and foodlooking’s studio-floor-cum-offices in Morya Classic building in Mumbai’s Andheri suburb, and you can gauge that a lot of thought has been put into the design. The office strikes you because of its open space, the clean lines, old wooden furniture, single seater cubicles 10 feet above the floor, each housing an FCP edit suite.

On another floor what greets you is an ingeniously designed kitchen set with a window leading outside to the leafy exterior, lights rigged from the ceiling, scores of cups, saucers, ladles, spoons, pots and kettles with exotic designs, cameras, lenses, dishes, and bowls - all immaculately placed.  

You feel you have been transported to a studio in a European location, not in a crowded office building in a bustling Mumbai suburb.

“I have designed every inch of this office and studio,” says Ashraf, with a shy-yet-full of-pride toothed grin. “I am a carpenter. I scoured Chor Bazar (the flea market) in Mumbai, picked up wood and made the office in the exact image I wanted. I am very keen about getting the detailing right.”

Ashraf is not just a carpenter, both he and his wife are absolute foodies – a habit they developed early on their career when they spent their time backpacking across India filming documentaries. And they are also the two individuals behind the award-winning production house Rangrez Films.

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The husband and wife duo are simply consumed with the passion to create quality content, so much so that often times profits are sacrificed totally at the altar of creating world class content.

“We focus on the right content and its right presentation. To give justice to the content we are creating is our responsibility,” says Nidhi.

“We are almost always making very slender margins, sometimes none at all,” shrugs Ashraf, adding matter-of-factly. “I am pretty anal about getting it right, to the standards I have set.”

(Even as they are loathe to reveal any turnover figures, estimates are that the company notches up double digit crore in revenue annually.)

The duo set up Rangrez Films in 2008. But throughout their journey they have been quite fixated on a couple of key areas while filming: the look and the composition of each frame. “We do not create our products, keeping TV in mind, we make it for the subject,” points out Nidhi. Hence, they take a lot of pains to make their sets look beautiful while creating and lighting them and also behind the framing of each shot. Whether they are filming a food show or a docu-drama, each shot is discussed threadbare with the director of photography.

“It has to look beautiful and has to have the wow factor,” says Ashraf. “It has to look like a feature film production.”

And it is this razor sharp focus on making each scene look beautiful that makes Rangrez’s  food productions stand out.“Food has to look exquisite,” says Ashraf. “And everyone of our productions has to feel right.”

Hence, when Epic Television CEO Mahesh Samat and his creative head Ravina Kohli were looking for a studio to produce a food show for their high on production values channel in 2013, who did they approach? Well, it was indeed Rangrez Films.

Ashraf and Nidhi suggested that the show could be on the history of Indian food. The Epic and Rangrez teams brainstormed and came up with the idea that the show could include food as made in kitchens of Indian maharajas and erstwhile kings over the centuries.

Thus was born one of the shows the duo takes deep pride in: Raja Rasoi aur Anya Kahaniya . Both Ashraf and Nidhi deeply researched different kinds of food that emerged from palace kitchens and they showcased them on the show with a narrative story telling of the entire journey.

“It was the best way to treat the subject,” confesses Ashraf. “Indian royalty is the custodian of ancient culinary traditions. “

Samat had informally and unintentionally given a pat on the back to Rangrez when he had told a couple of years ago that the channel was working with TV producers who were “master craftsmen.”

In the same year, Samat and Ravina commissioned Asraf and Nidhi to produce a series on Indian spies titled Adrishya, with each episode documenting a single spy. 13 iconic Indian spies right from the times of the Mahabharata to post-independence India had their lives unravel on screen in an absorbing and well shot narrative.

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Epic once again commissioned Rangrez Films for another production entitled The Great Escape - about the greatest escapes ever made into India or by Indians.

“For the first time on television we told the story of the escape of His Holiness the Dalai Lama from Tibet into India in 1959 and the brave story of Rezang La’s escape from Indo China was 1962. In many ways this is our biggest production, because these are all individual films and shot on a very large canvas,” exalt Ashraf and Nidhi.

Ravina explains why she keeps going back to the duo. Says she: "The production quality is very high. Extremely dedicated and sincere team, they make no compromise on the content they create. Even though they exactly know what they want, they are very good collaborators. they understand what the channel wants and deliver a high quality production. Abbas and Nidhi are gifted with a visual sense."

Rangrez’s production slate, while not expansive like other GEC producers, is  nonetheless impressive. It has produced shows for Living Foodz, ZeeQ and Fox Life.  Among its ZeeQ  programmes figure Teenovation, Engineer This, and Art Room. For Teenovation, Ashraf and Nidhi and team scoured the length and breath of the rural heartlands to uncover unique inventions from young innovators.  And they showcased them on the show.

Khaata Rahe Mera Dil is a travel and street food show that the company produced for FoodFood in 2011. Then, Vickypedia with chef Vickey Ratnani is a Living Foodz commission, while Serve it like Sarah was produced for FoxLife. Featuring Sarah Todd (a former Masterchef Australia contestan) it tracks her as she discovers her new home Goa through its food and people.

Zee Entertainment Enterprises’ Subhadarshi Tripathi has also repeated them for several seasons of when he headed ZeeQ and is now working with them at Living Foodz and the Living Network where he is the chief content officer.  Says he: “The work quality of Rangrez is commendable. There are other people also who deliver quality, what stands out with them are other factors from commitment to delivery time, everything falls in place. The team is extremely hard working, that’s what gives them superiority."

Ashraf confesses that the obsession to make the creative product look good – not just good, actually gorgeous – comes courtesy the nine years he spent making ad films and TV commercials for demanding brands like Maruti Suzuki, Honda, Toyota, Gul Oil, and Reliance among many others in the mid-nineties. He worked as an executive producer, production designer, then as creative director for Mumbai-based Lock, Stock and Barrel Films.

Even as Ashraf was honing the craft of TVC making, wife Nidhi was capturing subjects that interested her in documentaries and even being recognized for them. She helmed the much acclaimed documentary film, Ladies Special in 2003 which won the John Abraham National Award two years later, and the George Ragot love the train award at the Cine Rail Paris in 2009. Nidhi has other acclaimed films to her credit: Art In Exile, TIPA, Of Friendship films and swords,  The Saint of Chitrakoot, and The Saroj Khan Story (yes the choreographer). The last was awarded the best documentary featurette at the Fiji Film Festival in 2013.

Ashraf points out that Nidhi is the key script and content person at Rangrez and works with all the writers and also directs key projects for the company. Rangrez has a core team of eight to 10 professionals, including producers, researchers and post producers. “Because of our documentary training our crew sizes have always been small,” says Ashraf.

He has been a producer almost all his life. But he had a dalliance with being part of a broadcasting venture when chef-entrepreneur Sanjeev Kapoor’s office called him in early 2010.  “I met them and found out that they were going to launch a 24x7 food channel and they were looking for the core team,” he recollects with a smile. “Since I had no prior experience in broadcast, it took them nine meetings/interviews (with different people) to decide on me. I guess it was my pure passion for food and interest in the subject that got me selected.”

He went on to join the channel, which was branded FoodFood as a creative director.  “What we managed to do at FoodFood and we take a lot of pride in, is that we gave a brand new look to instructional cooking shows,” he once again interjects. I designed kitchen sets which were realistic and inline with the personality of our chefs/cooks. Kitchens are  always an extension of the homemakers personality. And so I personally handpicked each and every item on every set we made. And that made all the difference, that year we won the award for the best cooking show and also the packaging of the channel was awarded. “

Today, Ashraf and Nidhi are bringing all the cumulative experience to bear as they are going about building their own homegrown in-house funded venture foodlooking, which seeks to set up a food-oriented digital programming platform with some unique shows.

The tagline of foodlooking is: learn, buy, cook.  “It will allow the viewer to immerse himself with the cooking experience like never before, providing him with instructional videos, recipes, and DIY guides,” explains Ashraf.  The tagline of foodlooking is: learn, buy, cook.

Filming and testing has been going on for it for the past year – some 400 clips have been shot so far. Around 50 hours of content has been filmed in 4K and three shows are on the floors right now.  Some 250 to 300 hours of food content is expected to be canned.

The idea according to Ashraf is to fund it through internal accruals for the next year before reaching out to outside investors or partners.  The launch date for foodlooking has been set for end this year.  

Even as foodlooking is being cooked, Rangrez and he are continuing with their pitches for other shows to keep the home fires burning. Ashraf’s visits to markets such as MipCom and MipTV in Cannes over the past two years where he has had held meetings with other producers in other countries and global food television majors such as the Food Network has got them interested in working with him. A commission or a co-production is on the anvil, sooner, than later.

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Meanwhile back home, the kitchen in the foodlooking workplace more often than not turns into a playground. Ashraf, Nidhi and the team of 10 key professionals, including DOP Ankit Trived, production & operations head Akash Thakkar tinker around, experimenting and creating cuisines with expert chefs.  Which will then make it on to one of the programmes on television or onto their digital platform.  And as Ashraf says when “the office has free time, they end up baking a cake.”

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