Ritam Bhatnagar, founder of Asia’s largest content festival, India Film Project (IFP), grew up with an appetite for foreign films. At the age of six, he was travelling around the world by binge watching these films in his living room in Bhavnagar, Gujarat.
As Indians focussed on welcoming new-age heroes like Aamir Khan and Salman Khan in the late ’80s, a 6-year-old Ritam soaked up the cinematic marvels of filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa, Jafar Panahi and Guillermo del Toro. From horror, fantasy, emotional to comedy, the different genres mirroring society seeped deep into his soul.
The young cinephile’s reverential enthusiasm ignited a soft corner for content-driven cinema, which snowballed into annual filmmaking competition some 20 years later in 2011. Since then, the festival has recorded a participation of over 8 lakh creators comprising filmmakers, writers, storytellers, musicians, designers and photographers.
It comes as a surprise to many that a man, who has birthed a platform for budding filmmakers, writers, designers and transformed the way cinegoers view a content festival, has never directed a movie himself. He does not have a film degree but his experience as a producer came in handy in the initial stages.
Destiny played its role
Ritam’s fascination for movies may have started small but all it took was one life-changing decision that pushed him into the creator’s club.
Having a father who is an astro-physicist had its perks too. His work took him across several countries. His return was marked by different movie-filled ancillaries such as DVD and Blu-ray.
“We got a computer in 1988 and it was the first in the city. Everyone in the city, including myself, was fascinated with this new tool. I would spend hours studying the features and experimenting with edits, CDs and more. I recorded videos on my handycam and transferred them onto the PC. I felt victorious when I was able to record a college play, edit and upload it on the computer. Such experiments were my introduction to pre and post-production,” he tells The Better India.
But Ritam’s tryst with the film industry began during his college days in late 2000s. He and his friend would write to international distributors and acquire rights to screen them in theatres. He also distributed Gujarati movies. This taught him two things, the value of acquiring the right avenues to showcase good films and that the audience was ready to go beyond the quintessential drama.
Despite the successful stint, Ritam pursued an MBA. But destiny brought him back to the world of films, thanks to his first internship. In 2008, he worked with film festival organisers and met several filmmakers.
“Film festivals were still an unheard concept back then but it was a good medium to access foreign cinema. My job was to curate movies into different categories. I learnt how to select and analyse films, which was a whole new spectrum for me. It was a cultural awakening experience that gave birth to IFP in 2011,” says Ritam.
When content & passion are drivers
Ritam wanted IFP to stand out from the other film festivals, a concept where movies are screened in one or more theatres. He wanted people to go beyond just viewing. So he came up with the idea of a 50-hour Filmmaking challenge wherein a registered participant has to write, shoot, edit and upload a film within 50 hours. The purpose behind keeping a tight deadline was to ensure working professionals could participate too. He decided on three categories – Professional, Amateur and Mobile.
He recalls the night of July 2011 when he decided to execute the idea and says, “I knew coding so I set up a single-page website adding rules, timeline and the application form with a registration fee. At 4pm, I was coding and by 10 pm, I shared the link on Facebook. I called it ‘Ahmedabad Film Project’, as I was based there.”
The very next day he was pleasantly surprised to see a person standing outside his office waiting for a registration form.
That year, 600 people from 19 cities flew to Ahmedabad and participated in the fest. Two years later, it grew to 65 cities, and by 2015, they saw participants from 11 countries. The 10th edition in 2020, which was organised virtually due to the pandemic, saw 55,000 creators from more than 30 countries. Initially, the festival had only English and Hindi language movies but with the overwhelming response, Ritam opened it to all languages.
This kind of massive growth in 10 years speaks volumes about the festival that is driven by passion. When asked what brings so many people together despite knowing there are no cash rewards for the winners, Ritam excitedly pulls out his big ‘content’ gun.
He says, “We did not spend a single penny on marketing for the first three years. The concept sold itself. Many people have great ideas, talent and the skills but no platform to showcase them. Here they could come, create something and even if they did not win, at least they learnt something. I know so many people who were from other professions but after making one short film they realised their true calling. Once we got acclaimed content creators like Shoojit Sircar, Ayushmann Khurana, Prahlad Kakkar, Irshad Kamil and more, the participation grew.”
Among the many participants was an engineer called Mikhil Musale, whose short film secured a position among the top 10 in 2012. He then followed his love for movies and four years later he made Wrong Side Raju, a Gujarati thriller starring Scam 1992 fame, Pratik Gandhi. In 2019, he directed Made in China starring Rajkummar Rao.
Sailesh Kolanu is another big name. “He was a final year medical student in Australia and after his friend told him about IFP, he decided to make a film without any experience on his phone in 2018. He bagged an award and two years later his movie ‘Hit’ was a box-office hit. Soon it will be remade in Hindi with Rajkummar. Such stories define the true spirit of IFP,” Ritam adds.
Knowing that participants have put in their heart and soul into making movies, Ritam ensures their efforts are not lost in the noise of content boom. He helps the makers distribute the movies to various mediums like television, film festivals and OTTs. The revenue generated is also passed onto the makers. Recently, he tied up with PVR cinemas to screen the short films before their theatrical releases.
The success of the movies inspired him to scale up the event by including more segments, workshops, mentoring, panel discussions and more. Today, IFP has a 50-Hour Music Challenge where musicians compose music as per the theme released by IFP. The festival, which usually takes place in Mumbai, also has writing, storytelling and design ‘challenges’ conducted over a period of seven days.
Last year the pandemic opened new avenues for Ritam and his team. The festival’s engagement increased by five times as now people could attend sessions throughout the day.
Ritam notes an interesting development of making movies he noticed in 2020. He says, “Majority of the 1,800 short films made last year focussed on real life stories and less on fantasies. The films are getting closer to what is happening around them. The movies are becoming more and more biographical in nature.”
This year, the virtual festival will be in September 2021. The filmmaking challenge will take place from 24 September to 26 September, and the music challenge will be from 17 September to 19 September. The 7-day challenges will be between 4 and 11 September. This year the IFP is expecting participation of more than 50,000 people across five competitions.
You can check out the details here.