ADLAB HEIRS AARTI SHETTY AND POOJA SHETTY- DEORA ON FILMS, FRIENDS AND SETTING UP INDIA’S OWN DISNEYLAND
Sisters Pooja Shetty- Deora and Aarti Shetty have just returned from a much- deserved break. After spending four years developing the entertainment theme park, Adlabs Imagica, which opened in April this year, the sisters took off for a vacation. Aarti, 32, joined her sister in New York after spending time in Ibiza and Barcelona with her buddy Ayan Mukerji, who was unwinding after the success of his film Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. Meanwhile, Pooja, 35, took a three- day break in between the trip to visit her husband Milind Deora, the Congress politician and Member of Parliament from South Mumbai, in Iceland. The sisters shared some highlights from their trip such as catching a Beyonce concert, watching Woody Allen’s latest film Blue Jasmine and visiting Six Flags amusement park in New Jersey, where Aarti Shetty sat on Kingda Ka, a 452- feet- high roller coaster, the world’s tallest and second fastest, twice. As the younger sister beams about her latest adventure, the elder one says, “It was the worst day in my month- long holiday”.
Daughters of Manmohan Shetty, founder of Adlabs Films Ltd, Pooja and Aarti didn’t grow up with the camaraderie that they now share today. They studied at different schools in Juhu: Pooja at Maneckji Cooper and Aarti at Jamnabai Narsee. Pooja admits she was “nervous, shy and nerdy” as a kid. “Studious,” adds Aarti. “By the time I’d return from school, she’d already be doing her homework.” Deora- Shetty replies, “Aarti was a constant distraction. She’d return from school singing randomly.” A chunk of their childhood was spent in attending many classes, bharatanatyam and tennis to name a few, watching films and seeing their father’s friends, filmmakers such as Govind Nihalani, Basu Bhattacharya and Prakash Jha visit their house. “We were quite indifferent but it’s not like we hated each other,” says ShettyDeora. “It’s only when I left for university ( Purdue in the United States) that we started understanding and trusting one another.”
Today, the sisters complete each other’s sentences and crack up at childhood memories. Seated at their parents’ house in Juhu, where Aarti also lives, they are currently putting final touches to a hotel and water park, which will emerge in the vicinity of Imagica. An initiative of Manmohan Shetty, Imagica is the first time that Aarti has worked with her father. While Pooja always knew she wanted to join her father’s business, which she did in 2000 after completing a course in science in management in US, Aarti wanted
to do something involved with films but wasn’t sure how to go about it. “Films were the only thing we were exposed to,” she says recalling a time she used to get VHS tapes and later box sets of classic movies as gifts from her father. “Lab work and school books were not for me.”
Even as Pooja helped her father expand the Adlabs brand with IMAX, multiplexes and distribution ( it was ultimately sold to Anil Ambani in 2007), Aarti assisted Ram Gopal Varma on Bhoot ( 2003), Shimit Amin on Ab Tak Chhappan ( 2004), did a six- month course in filmmaking from New York University and worked with Karan Johar on Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna ( 2006). “Aarti and Ayan owe their life to me because both of them got that job [ with Karan] because of me,” says Shetty- Deora, who’s known the filmmaker for ten years now. “Karan thought I was completely useless at that point,” says Aarti. “He had a lot of film kids, who are quite bratty and spoilt, as assistants. And he viewed me as one of them. [ But] I didn’t want to work on any film that my father was funding. I could have easily done so. I was very clear because you don’t learn that way.”
At Imagica, the sisters have divided responsibilities equally. Pooja, the joint managing director of Adlabs Entertainment, is the more businessminded and marketing- savvy of the two, and looks after the brand, merchandise, the park’s restaurants and promotions among other things while Aarti, the creative director, concerns herself with aspects such as deciding which rides to include in the park, developing concepts and selecting the right technology for them.
“I am fortunate that I have worked with my father on a new project,” says Aarti. “When you start something new, you can start on the same foot. [ As opposed to] when you enter a set business, it is harder to get into the system.”
Working towards making Imagica a reality came most naturally to Aarti, the family’s daredevil and veteran of many formidable rides. “When I sit on the coaster, as a rule, I never shut my eyes,” she says proudly. No wonder the younger Shetty’s experiences came in handy when it was time to develop one of the most daunting rides at Imagica— Scream Machine. “It looks scarier than it is,” says Aarti. “It is a feeling of air. None of the rides that I have selected [ for the park] are jerky. But her father wasn't convinced about Scream Rider. He felt it was too high as it swings at a 125 degree angle leaving riders facing the ground and wouldn’t find any takers. Aarti agreed to lower the height if she was unable to convince Pooja to sit, and more importantly survive the ride. “I physically pushed her onto the Scream Machine,” laughs Aarti. Pooja Shetty- Deora adds, “I came out shaking but Aarti got her way.”
There may be occasional disagreements with their father, but both sisters appear in awe of him, especially his work ethic. “He never takes a holiday,” says Aarti. “When he finished selling [ Adlabs], we were like, ‘ Let’s take you on a holiday.’ He said, “Let’s go to America, I want to do research for my next project. I am planning a theme park.” Manmohan Shetty was 60 then. During the 10- day holiday with Aarti, he saw a few amusement parks and decided that on his return he would begin working on establishing a park on the lines of Disneyland and Universal Studios. He didn’t want to bring in a franchise but wanted it to be distinctly Indian. Even though the project hit many roadblocks and got little support from the government, Shetty remained calm. “He is a cool guy, he doesn’t get worked up about anything,” says Shetty- Deora. “He was very excited with the idea that India had not seen
anything like this theme park before.”
The sisters have also followed their father’s footsteps and ventured into film production. In the past Manmohan Shetty has supported independent films like Ardh Satya, Chakra, Aaghat and Holi. His production company, Entertainment One, also backed films like Gangaajal, Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon and Munnabhai MBBS. The sisters established Walkwater Media with the same vision in 2007. Their first film Tere Bin Laden, a political satire directed by Abhishek Sharma, released in 2010. The film’s sequel, also starring Ali Zafar, with the sisters in a cameo, should hit screens in 2014. The production house has also acquired rights to Anuja Chauhan’s popular chick- lit title The Zoya Factor and plans to develop a biopic of the legendary hockey player, Dhyan Chand. Also in the works is Sharmaji Ka Atom Bomb, a quirky comedy, which already has Anil Kapoor on board. “At this stage we do not want to impress anybody,” says Pooja. “There is no pressure. We have four really good stories, which need to be made properly.” Aarti hopes to turn director for the home banner once she can relinquish some of her responsibilities at the theme park.
Even as their professional lives keep them busy, they have found happiness in their personal lives as well. Despite being the wife of a busy politician Pooja insists nothing much has changed “We both have very demanding careers,” she says, but “have managed to keep our work separate from our private life. Interestingly, Pooja first met Milind Deora on a photo shoot for India Today magazine, in which both were featured as leading youth figures. They married in 2008. “Milind spends half his time in Delhi and half in Mumbai but we manage to spend time together. I don’t think the outside world’s expectations have intruded into our marriage as yet,” Pooja says admitting she is lucky to have a husband who respects her work space. She indulges in Milind’s passion for music— they have attended concerts by Eric Clapton, Metallica and Kings of Leon. He, in turn, makes time to watch films the duo have produced like Tere Bin Laden and Raajneeti.
Meanwhile, Aarti says she has no plans to wed. “Sometimes, my dad says, ‘ Why don’t you want to get married?’ and then he instantly changes his mind and says, ‘ Very good, you don’t want to get married’,” she laughs. “From a very young age, I used to say that I am never getting married and that I never will leave this house and they used to think it was a joke and that I would change my mind when I grew up.” She is content looking after the theme park, having friends over, and throwing parties for some of them such as the recent bash she threw for Ranbir Kapoor on his 30th birthday last year.
“I don’t have time for anything,” Shetty- Deora says, when asked about her other interests. “I live on Peddar Road, my parents live in Juhu, the office is in Andheri, so half my time is spent in commuting. The park is in Khopoli, Milind is in Delhi.” Her publicist thinks that she spends most of her time travelling in SUVs and accumulating frequent- flyer miles.
Amidst all the talk about their father, the Shetty sisters acknowledge the instrumental role their mother, Shashikala has played in their lives. “She has been the main reason why we both are working and doing anything with our lives,” says Aarti. The sisters recall their mother shuttling them from class to class when they were children, picking them up from school and accompanying them on vacations while their father was away on work. “We can’t imagine how she did what she did,” says Aarti. “It is partly ridiculous and partly incredible,” adds Pooja.
With Aarti’s pug, Muddy, napping and snoring on the couch, and Pooja’s
INTERESTINGLY, POOJA FIRST MET MILIND DEORA ON A PHOTO SHOOT FOR INDIA TODAY MAGAZINE, IN WHICH BOTH WERE FEATURED AS LEADING YOUTH FIGURES. THEY MARRIED IN 2008.
pug, Dumbbell, wandering about the house, the sisters talk about what lies ahead. There are things to do — unveil the water park, the mid- budget hotel and Nitro, the bright orange roller coaster, the biggest of the four at Imagica. Then there are films to make, of course. They say they are happy working together. In a sense, they make a good team, comprising of two distinct individuals who make the best use of their diverse strengths to attain a common goal. For instance, Pooja doesn’t have the patience to sit through long meetings. While Aarti, Pooja says, “can get into a five- hour- long meeting, which will run for five hours with some hundred ideas thrown about. My job, as I see it, is to bring structure to the creative process.” Aarti laughs good naturedly at this observation, demonstrating once again why their partnership works so well.
LET ME ENTERTAIN YOU: The sisters have spent four years developing the entertainment theme park, Adlabs Imagica, which opened in April this year
HAPPY TRIO: Pooja and Aarti with their father Manmohan Shetty; Rajneeti and Tere Bin Laden, two of the films the duo have financed.
FAMILY TIME: Pooja and Milind Deora at home