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Interview with Nitin Das, filmmaker and IIM - L alumnus. Nitin has made a few short films and has won recognition from the UN for his film on environmental conservation.
| After an engineering degree, when Nitin Das went to Lucknow to pursue an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, little did he know that his passion would take him beyond a regular corporate career. Five years into the corporate world after his IIM degree, Nitin made a choice. He took a decision to switch from a regular corporate career to become a filmmaker..
In making this choice, Nitin found his calling behind the camera as an independent filmmaker, and what is significant; he made a switch in his career after having gone through the corporate grind for a few years. He may not be one of those daring professionals who jump into the battlefield like intrepid pursuers of their passion straightaway after their MBA, armed with nothing beyond unusual self belief. Nor is he one of those cautious career changers who hone their skills and refine their experience before making a strategic shift. Caution perhaps wouldnít have made him an independent filmmaker. For someone with a clarity of purpose such as him, his views on choosing oneís passion as a career does comes across as candid and uncomplicated..
Nitin has made a few short films, amongst them a sci-fi comedy film about 3 IITians who use their crazy inventions to solve a murder mystery and find a cure for terrorism. He persuaded IITians to act in this low budget film - made almost entirely with the staff and alumni of IIT Delhi. Nitin has made a series of 8 short films about stories from the slums. Themes of friendship and laughter, of magic and mischief, of ghosts and thieves from a cricket match dominate these stories. He has also done a delicate film on environmental conservation shot in the mountains that won him acclaim from the United Nations..
In a chat with 6bridges, Nitin talks about how he made his career crossover, how he dealt with the conflict between the aspect of creativity in films and the emphasis on structure in an MBA school, the impact of his growing up period, about the movie he made called Love Marketing, on whether he has a parallel career along with the uncertainties of being a filmmaker, on why it is different in making and marketing a film in India compared to marketing films abroad and much more..
6bridges: You graduated from the Indian Institute of Management at Lucknow, and after a few years in the corporate sector, chose to make a career crossover. How did it happen, when did it happen?.
Nitin: While I was working in the corporate sector, I had started a weekend theatre group that performed street plays. Through that group we got in touch with people from Jamia Millia Mass communication studies. Over time we started making very short films. Incidentally, one of the films we made went on to win an international award. After that, I made a short 10 minute film that was selected by NDTV. That is the point when I knew that this would be my calling in life and this is what I wanted to do. After that I went off to New York for a course in filmmaking. This was an advanced course, and by then I had already familiarized myself with different aspects of filmmaking. If I look back, this was the period when I thought about taking the plunge into filmmaking as a career..
6bridges: Filmmaking is a creative activity. When you studied at the IIM, did you ever think then that you would do something as creative as this?.
Nitin: I always had a creative streak I wanted to indulge in. While in college, I was a part of the college festival, and even after IIM I was sure I wanted to be in a media, print and advertising sector career. But in a corporate world, very little creative stuff happens. Therefore, to vent out that creative urge (within me), I began the theatre group. And then one thing led to another..
6bridges: What was that precise moment when you said to yourself - this is when I leave the corporate world and jump into filmmaking?.
Nitin: It was that moment I got selected by NDTV. NDTV has a program where they put an independent filmmaker with an established one. In that program I was put in touch with Sudhir Mishra, who had made ĎHazaaron Khwaishen Aisií.
6bridges: So did he encourage you to take it up?
Nitin: No he just appreciated the effort and liked the story telling. That is when I thought of films as a field I could make a career in..
6bridges: What was the name of the film?
Nitin: Love Marketing. It goes like thisÖyouíre the product and the person you love is the customer. You have to apply the principles of marketing to get the person you love.. Its an amateurish film but the storyline is what you need to look at. Itís available on google videos.
6bridges: Tell us about your growing up a period. How much of a role did your growing up have to do with what you chose later?
Nitin: The first part is that my father was from an army background and therefore we kept traveling to a lot of places. This brought me in touch with different cultures. As far as the growing up period influencing the choice of career is concerned, I feel itís not a specific connection; rather itís more of an individual liking that influences you. Some people like music or dance. I canít put a finger on how I developed the instinct for films. Therefore, you canít really say itís the growing up part that is responsible for where I am. Itís also about meeting the right person or getting the right idea which is responsible for a person developing a liking for a particular field.
6bridges: Once you decided, tell us about the transition period when you quit your career and decided to do the course. How much did it take for you to settle down and have a sense of the filmmaking career?
Nitin: The settling down or gestation period in the film industry is at least 5 yrs from when you start off. So I wouldnít say that I am totally established. It takes time to prove oneself, do good work and be noticed. One part of the struggle is to make the film; the second part of the struggle is to get people to see it. I have crossed the first hurdle and the next phase is to market it or distribute it. But again, as we say by way of differentiation, the kind of films I wish to make are different from normal, mainstream movies. Thatís how I look at the kind of work thatís going to be done by my company.
6bridges: When you were making the transition did you pursue anything parallel to the course that enabled you to make a choice and helped take it forward?
Nitin: There was nothing much at a parallel level that I was doing. The thing is that once you take the plunge, do a course, come back and establish yourself. Initially I did try to join an established firm, but I wasnít keen to do the kind of work they were doing, and also the kind of expectations they had of me were more in keeping with Bollywood commercial filmmaking. I moved into a different space where it involves working with these non profit organizations, develop and conduct workshops with different people. That shaped the kind of work I wanted to do for my organization.
6bridges: What were your fears during the crossover period?
Nitin: You have fears everyday (laughs).
6bridges: What was more difficult during the crossover - making the decision or riding the transition?
Nitin: Making the decision was an easy choice. What was more difficult was imagining myself 5 years down the line, had I stayed on in a corporate career. Visualizing that part was a very scary thought.
6bridges: What were the reactions of parents, friends and relatives?
Nitin: They were shocked and astounded by my decision initially. Again, they arenít living my life. And then people do have a different picture of what life would be for someone who passes out of the IIMs and is therefore expected to have a high paying job and is well settled. But thatís a very outsider perspective.
6bridges: But then you would have been prepared for such a reaction. How did you prepare people to take this decision, as you went along?
Nitin: Actually I was quite direct about it. Also I kept sending people the e-links as I made films. And then one day I decided to quit my job and make films.
6bridges: Was there an extreme reaction from your friends or family when you broke the news? How did each one react?
Nitin: All my friends and peers were quite happy and positive about it,. There was a lot of positive energy there. It was the traditional family relatives who were more surprised. Initially there was dissent but my father supported me. There were certain family members who remained unhappy though.
6bridges: How has your father been responsible in supporting your pursuit? Tell us a bit about that.
Nitin: After he retired from the Indian army, he was working for an organization. He then hung his boots and thought of helping me. I was looking into the creative side of it whereas there was someone required to look into the operations side, the business, financial, administrative affairs and legal side of it etc. Thatís where he stepped in.
6bridges: How did you manage the aspect of funding in the initial period? Did you envisage how you would plan to fund it? Did it go according to plan?
Nitin: The first film that I did in IIT Delhi was a low budget film in which no one took any money. Neither the actors nor the technicians took money. The NRIs pitched in with funds, since they liked the concept. I too pitched in with some amount from my end.
6bridges: Did you try and market in to the corporates?
Nitin: We did try and market it to the corporate initially, but it wasnít successful. We tried to pitch in with the corporates who fund these college festivals. We told them that we will make films which can travel from one festival to another, and will also not remain time-dependent. We tried to convince them to invest in a first time filmmaker. However funding wasnít so important in the first film since it was a low cost film. The kind of expense I had to think about was my living expense, forn which I had enough savings from my 5 year coprporate stint. I had saved enough to sail through.
6bridges: What were the other challenges faced initially?
Nitin: One of the challenges was finance. As a filmmaker one of the biggest challenges is the aspect of distribution, which is a little skewed in the Indian film industry. The distribution industry is like an iron fortress which only allows specific kind of films to be distributed. They allow films which they feel are going to be popular with the audience. If you look at the kind of films made in 2008 and 2009, they have been disastrous for the film industry. In the international scenario, none of the Indian films make a cut. So thatís one big challenge.
6bridges: The way you want to brand yourself, can you be more clear on the aspect of the type of films you want to make. At some places you have said that you want to make movies on social issues? So why have you decide this and why not feature films, lucrative films?
Nitin: Thatís the point I want to make. At Filmkaar, we want to make fun films, but with socially relevant messages. Say for instance, Taare Zameen Par was a film that had a message. We are looking at films with similar genre, but the difference is that TZP was more of a serious film not meant for children, whereas our films are going to be for children - school going children. We are targeting social issues but more in a fun way, more like Panchtantra. Because of the problems in the Indian industry, my target audience is going to be more international.
6bridges: You say that you want to target the international market. What is the funding strategy?
Nitin: You see for the past two years, we have been working on childrenís films. I have been working on films in the slums of Mumbai. If you notice the look and feel of my films, youíd find them similar to Slumdog Millionaire, the difference is that they arenít as dark as Slumdog but instead show the brighter side of slums. Unlike the pimps, touts, goons, riots and crimes, my films show how there is a lot of love and respect, faith and friendship in the slums. 99% are honest, hardworking people. I wanted to keep it simple. Itís a film that looks at life through the eyes of children. The film tells some interesting stories, which are also fun stories. The filmís called Jadooi Pankh. It similar to the film Crash which has different stories woven together into a full length film. Itís available on www.magicfeather.filmkaar.com.
So when we went to Nokia and Deutsche Bank, they sponsored half the budget of this film. There were international sponsors too who contributed small amounts. At least we had enough finance to complete the film. Now we have to market it. My marketing strategy and target audience is quite clear. Itís meant more for the international audience and focusing on childrenís channels in US, UK and Europe.
6bridges: Whatís your revenue model, going forward?
Nitin: Well, itís something like this. Once you have a Slumdog or a Gulaal, then people come forward and want to know more about Danny Boyle and Anurag Kashyap. Filmmakers find more takers once they are established as brands. But getting that first break is a tough part. So I need to establish myself first, and it only going to happen when people see the work and like it. I have already been into my project linked to environment conservation and protection. The film I have made is one part from India. There would be similar stories across the world. I am looking to connect with filmmakers in fragile ecosystems around the world and make films based fables with environment-related messages. I already have tied up with 15 environmental organizations in South America, Africa, Europe and Philippines.
6bridges: Have you also been able to connect the filmmakers in these places?
Nitin: No. The idea is to first have the team in place and then have the funding to connect people.
6bridges: Who are these films targeted at?
Nitin: The fables are targeted at a younger audience. The point here is that the films are language independent - because the story is told in the background, which means the voiceovers which narrate the story can be changed in any country and marketed to suit the local language. But my prime focus is the home video market - VCD market in US, Europe and UK.
6bridges: So, is it not so much the TV market?
Nitin: WellÖ.in countries like India etc; there is a need to use the social medium and therefore the TV comes into play. However, I am targeting through the online route, especially youtube. Therefore when you put it up on youtube, the TV channels tell you that the films are already available on the net.
6bridges: As we understand, you plan to go forward partially through social charity inputs, social messages and also at some level through sales. Is that so?
Nitin: Thatís true. At the moment none of our guys in the group are well known. So the aim is to reach out to people through our work. You could have a Times Warner or someone smaller taking interest in our film, but then that is a subjective thought at this point.
6bridges: What kind of time frame are you looking at, considering the uncertainties you have to deal with, in your profession?
Nitin: A year and a half or so to make a film and then a year and half or so to market it. At the same time, we start work on the next film too - in terms of the funding bit. Typically, while making films we look at a 3 year cycle.
6bridges: Is there any model filmmaker or style that you look up to or want to emulate?
Nitin: None really.
6bridges: Where do you usually look for ideas for your films? For instance, how did you get the idea about the story where a small boy gets lessons in environmental conservation from a monk sitting high up and alone in the mountains? Did it generate from any personal experience?
Nitin: Actually I donít know where a creative idea comes from. As a script writer or a film writer, an idea happens. It difficult to explain how it happened to me. One doesnít know at times what the source of an idea is. It sometimes happens in a subconscious state. In my case, I canít point to any particular incident or moment that defines the origin of an idea.
6bridges: Do you think independent filmmakers like you will be able to bring about interest towards issue based films in the country?
Nitin: I am a small player in this area. However there are independent filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee (directed Khosla ka Ghosla) who have come up and then there are some small films like Bheja Fry which have done well. Production houses are fast realizing the profitability of such models. Thereís definitely a scope for independent filmmakers. At the same time, it is tough since there is a lot of competition and the available avenues are limited.
6bridges: Do you plan to go the Anurag Kashyap way - I mean making hard-hitting feature films about compelling subjects?
Nitin: Not right now, considering I have taken up the subject of environmentalism and conservation. However, depending upon how the audience receives my work, I shall make changes to the kind of films I make in future. There is also another way where you take a commercial star, and make a socially and environmentally impacting film, and therefore it reaches a wider audience. But then again, my target is more of an international audience since the industry here may not be able to appreciate or support the idea.
6bridges: Tell us about the industry - do they appear to be more unstructured.
Nitin: That problem was there in the 1980s. However there are people from the IIMs also in various film companies and therefore people are quite adept at aspects like marketing etc. Thatís not a problem. The problem is creativity, which is a subjective call. I might show you a painting to which you might say, Ďhey what the hell is this painting about.í Ironically, the same painting may sell for a crore! People who control the industry prefer particular type of films. They have their own preferences and tastes. Thatís why you have a Chandni Chowk to China or a Singh is King being churned out, and then people are willing to invest a lot in those kind of films. If those people feel the market is like that; its their perception. You canít change the way some people think.
6bridges: Is that the reason you decided to go to an international film academy rather than go and join as an apprentice to an established filmmaker in the industry?
Nitin: Itís important to get an international exposure. Had I been here I would have thought that it takes crores to make a film and hundreds of crew to support it. I would then have never ventured into it. Itís only when you go outside India that you realize the kinds of films that you can make.
6bridges: Why did you choose to return to India and make films and not work there itself after your course?
Nitin: Well there are work permits and you have your limitations in terms of time and work that the visa imposes. Yes, I did make some short films there though.
6bridges: How do you hope to find buyers to your films internationally?
Nitin: Before the Slumdog Millionaire hit the screen, that was also my concern. You know there is a lot of interest about how people live in slums here. The idea was to show a different picture from the popular perception. Youíve seen how Slumdog Millionaire did and how far it went.
6bridges: You came back and set up Filmkaar. Tell us how you thought of an organizational setup and why not an individual filmmaker route? And why the training part in the organization, especially since you were planning to make films.
Nitin: WellÖif I had come back and joined the industry, I would have been doing the kind of work that has been done, which I was clear I didnít want to do. Therefore I set up my own firm so that it has a legal entity that people can fund, and which you can market better.
Filmkaar is like chitrakaar or patrakaar, where one person can make an entire film, and he is responsible for conceptualizing, lighting, directing, managing the post production bits etc. Its not a huge crew and there are 10 people doing things. Filmmaking is more of a personal thing.
6bridges: You also got a few people from IIT interested onboard making films. Was it after Formula 69? Tell us about it.
Nitin: There was a huge interest after Formula 69 and there were some people in my filmís cast who wanted to get into filmmaking. Thatís how it had an impact on the IIT Delhi circuit.
6bridges: Where do you see Filmkaar 10 years from now?
Nitin: Hopefully we make a big budget international film.
6bridges: What makes you nostalgic about your IIM days? What do you cherish most?
Nitin: I think the cultural get togethers and parties were enjoyable where you could chill out, hang out and discuss ideas.
6bridges: Nitin, do you think going to the IIM helped in your current choice of career?
Nitin: Absolutely. In our country, all these actors become politicians and become good at that, and thatís because all politicians are good actors too. Similarly, every filmmaker also needs to be a good manager also. One of my films is amongst the most viewed films in India on youtube. The filmís called 500 and itís got a large number of hits on youtube.
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