Ritam Bhatnagar

Ritam Bhatnagar

A brainchild of Ritam Bhatnagar, India Film Project was founded in 2011 when Ritam was a 21 year old boy, sitting in his college hostel room in Ahmedabad. Cut to 2021, IFP, as it is fondly called by participants, has garnered immense domestic and international support. What started as simply an idea to host a 50 hour filmmaking challenge, now has 40,000 participants annually making it the world’s largest filmmaking challenge. Ritam’s vision however, does not stop there. He hoped and aimed to create a community for creators, which understands their needs. He delivered on this vision, and how. India Film Project has established itself as one of the largest content festivals in the world, participated and attended by over 65,000 people annually from over 30 countries. 

IFP is a space which truly listens to those it serves. Since its inception, they have diversified into music, art, design, storytelling, photography and seek to amplify anything and everything which holds even a tinge of creativity. Under his mentorship. India Film Project is currently a dynamic community consisting of 7.5 lakh filmmakers, writers, storytellers, musicians, photographers and creators from various backgrounds.

Speaking to Ritam, one is instantly taken in by his gentle yet entirely confident manner. To add to his long list of accomplishments, he has been featured in Forbes and has also been a TEDx speaker. When not at work, he is found between his love for Lego, Hot Wheels and drones. Being a brilliant creator and an entrepreneur, he had a lot to share with us, as we journeyed through the early days of India Film Project to plan for the future ahead.

It’s been a decade since you started India Film Project. What was the initial ideation and vision behind this endeavour?
To be honest, I don’t think a vision existed in the first five-six years. There was a motive of just connecting creators and enabling them, and giving them a platform where they could collaborate. I think that was the simplest thing that we wanted to do, for the first couple of years. We are not funded by the government or any private organisation. We wanted to survive as a festival. 

People love the 50 hour filmmaking challenge that we organise, and that is our differentiating point. Most of the film festivals out there are about going there, buying a ticket and coming back. But this was a festival where you had to make a team and create a film in 50 hours - you have to write a script and make music for it all. And it’s kind of crazy when you’re in those 50 hours. It’s bound to become one of the best experiences of your life. Because when you’re racing against time and creating something original, it’s a different kind of thrill. So for the first five or six years that was probably the larger idea. 

It was only once we started growing much faster, and we introduced multiple things that we started thinking of having a vision in place. Now we do have an idea - we want to become a space that serves creators across every domain, in any possible way. The larger idea is to become a place that is very creator-centric, understands their concerns, problems and speaks up for them. That’s the larger zone that we are now in. So everything that we do now, we keep creators in mind. And when I say creators, at IFP, a creator means any type of person who wishes to create anything at all. 

My idea is that humans are very different as a species, because we could create. We could create the wheel, we could create fire, we could create anything we wanted to. Somewhere in the last couple of decades or even centuries, instead of creators we became consumers. We were not creating our own food, and we were not creating our entertainment, we were dependent on someone else. Our entire idea shifted to, ‘let someone else create the story and I will just buy a ticket and go watch it.’ So the ratio changed drastically. Up till mid-2000s, there were let’s say a 1000 filmmakers in the country who were making content for 120 crore Indians. That ratio felt very weird. How can a 100 people or 1000 people, or even 10,000 filmmakers represent stories of 120 crore people? And that’s across every field. So if people are not creating and if people are only consuming, then the stories are bound to feel less relatable. So that’s why the idea was, how do we get more people to create? And when I say create I mean, either they could become a spoken word artist, or a designer or animator, or anything that requires even a tinge of creativity. So to reach out to those people and empower them has become the larger idea now.

What has your journey been like, over the years? Have there been any challenges?
Most of the film festivals that happen across India or even the world, have a very singular format. Maybe you do one small thing here and there to tweak it and suddenly you appear different, but at the end of the day you’re still a film festival with the same format. Similarly with music festivals there is a format. Now NH7 might play folk fusion, some might play EDM, but it’s still a format - people are going to come and dance in front of a stage. 

We were trying to build a content festival, and a content festival is a very unique thing. Even across the world there are hardly any festivals which focus on content as a whole. Most of the festivals are very domain specific - there’s film, spoken word, design etc. But there’s no festival which celebrates all of them under a single place. History has always been a very good witness of collaborations happening not just between people of the same field, but also between people from different fields. Can a musician collaborate with an animator and make one of the best music videos that can come out? Can a spoken word artist collaborate with a documentary maker and put a documentary into a poetry format? What I’m trying to say is that there’s so many things that can happen. However because we have film festivals which see only film fanatics, we only get to collaborate with that particular genre of art. 

So when we were building a festival which was very different, being a content festival, the first time we had to keep in mind was that we had no one to look up to. Which meant that everything had to be built completely from the ground. Right from the 50 hour filmmaking challenge, which in itself was very unique, but it had its own struggles to execute. There were around 40,000 people who participated each year who made 1900 to 2000 short films in just a weekend. It’s a crazy scenario. 

Every challenge we face needs a particular answer. Till we were in our third year, it was compulsory for people to come down to Ahmedabad and shoot the film. Eventually we realised that this doesn’t work, because people from Bombay, Indore, and the neighbouring cities can come down, but how do I expect somebody from Chennai to come? Then the idea shifted to, how do I make sure people participate from these cities without physically flying in? So we had to set up our own platform, our own server which required a lot of coding and investments to make the infrastructure so that everyone could participate from their own cities. And that helped us because two years later when we went international, we already had everything ready for us. All we had to do was go around to people in the world and tell them that now you can also participate in India Film Project. Suddenly we saw 18 countries participating in the first year we opened up. That solely happened because a person from Chennai wrote to us saying ‘I’m very excited but I cannot participate because I can’t travel down with my entire team since it’s a very costly affair for me’, and that triggered the thought.

Since we had nothing to look up to, there were months where we were very clueless and didn’t have a direction. We didn’t know how to expand. We didn’t even know what we wanted to become. Do we want to become a larger festival which also has a music challenge within it, should we start a new festival that caters solely to music - we had all these decisions that needed to be made. Another challenge, which now I would call less of a challenge and more an opportunity was that when we started in 2011, filmmaking was a hobby for most of the people. People were still enrolling for engineering, or to become doctors etc, and filmmaking was a thing that they did with their friends over a weekend because they wanted to look cool. Like how guitar was in the early 2000s, filmmaking was that in 2010s. A lot of people still didn’t take it up as a profession. Now for us the larger idea was that if we wanted to create a creative ecosystem, we needed to make sure that these people are involved in this full time. A lot of pushing and efforts were required initially into telling people why creative fields are a viable option, and that you can still pay your bills while being a musician or an animator. We wanted to make them realise that they can make this their life instead of doing it as a hobby for a couple of months. 

Of course later on YouTube and the internet came in and made things easier. People started consuming content so they also became interested in creating it when they saw people from their age group and people who looked like them and were from the same social strata creating content. That started happening sometime around 2015-16, and suddenly the entire creator aspect of it opened up. So now at least one thing we don’t have to do is convince people why they should become a creator. It felt like a challenge earlier but had we not done that, probably a small part of the creator ecosystem wouldn’t have opened up, and that’s why I call it an opportunity.

Since its inception, India Film Project has expanded from being a platform solely for filmmakers to now having become a space which gives a stage to a host of other artists - be it in the arena of design, literature, music or more. What made you decide to broaden IFP’s playfield?
One thing which we’ve been doing is to follow what the community is trying to communicate to us. Most of the changes we’ve made are because of what the community wants from us. A lot of participants started writing to us on Email, Instagram, Facebook, saying ‘why are you only focussing on filmmaking? I am a writer, I don’t know how to make a film but I can write a nice story. If you have a competition for me, I would like to participate.’ That culminated into this whole idea of having a 7 day challenge for writers too wherein they are given 7 days to write a script. 

When we did the writing challenge, we got messages from two-three people who said ‘I am a spoken word artist, I know how to weave stories but I don’t know how to write them in a film-script format. Do we still qualify to participate?’ So then we thought that we’re missing out on a huge genre of people who are spoken word artists, which was something new. So we decided to have a parallel completion for them then. Also, I think in 2016 we used to tell our participants that along with the film, you also have to make a poster for the film in 50 hours, which was an added twist to the entire challenge. And because it was a mandatory thing, we were surprised that all 1100 people were able to make a poster and put them across. And some people made really really beautiful posters. Then we thought if people can make such brilliant posters in just 50 hours, then what if we give them 7 days and a theme and ask them to design a poster? That’s how the design challenge began. 

In the 50 hour filmmaking challenge what also happens is that people need to create original background music, they can’t use music which already exists, because these films go on television and a lot of other platforms so that might become a problem. So I used to get a lot of queries where people used to tell us that ‘I composed original background music and an entire song for the film so is there a separate award for the music that is being created?’ Again that triggered the thought that maybe we can have a music challenge where they compose a track in 50 hours. I think that’s how we kept on evolving. A lot of ideas most of the time came from this space itself and people who were already a part of the larger IFP community. A lot of festival modifications have also happened because people came to us saying this is what I am looking for, can you please do it, and we think wow this is a really cool idea to work on. And if one person needs it then we can always approximate how many others might also want the same thing. So a lot of our growth and initial ideation has happened in this way.

Over the years, has there been a change in the space, recognition and appreciation that independent artists - be it filmmakers, musicians, storytellers, graphic designers - have gotten?
Definitely, and in a very big way. It has started happening even on an annual basis, we see how things are changing. Independent artists are getting recognised and there has been a continuous behavioural change that has taken place even in the kind of content that is coming in, or even in the kinds of people who consider themselves independent now. At least for the last four-five years this change has been happening drastically. One very interesting change that I’ve seen is how people have started expanding and exploring. Earlier people would label themselves as either an editor, or a spoken word artist or a filmmaker, a storyteller - everyone was something. Since the last two-two and a half years, what started happening is that people have become shape-shifters. A person who is an editor is also a spoken word artist. A graphic designer is also a stand-up comedian. A musician also knows how to shoot a video. People have stated learning multiple things to stay competitive and also be less dependent on someone else. And that triggered the way people were creating content. When a director is also a dancer, their content is going to see appreciation from two stratas. As the creators keep evolving, the line that currently says independent vs non-independent artists will also blur. Maybe three or five years down the line that line won’t exist and the transition would appear seamless.

Lastly, as an innovator and an entrepreneur, what’s next for you?
I won’t say I am an innovator because the people who are innovating are at another level altogether. But, I think right now things are very simple - this year is all about survival. The media domain and the entertainment domain has been hit very hard. A lot of media and entertainment companies around me which were small scale have either fired most of their strength, or have gone bankrupt or closed down. So this year the aim is to somehow survive and come out of it.

As India Film Project, we also diversified ourselves this year. Now we have two different departments. We have one department that runs the festival and the community, and our social media which is internal; and the other department now works very closely with brands and creates tailor made content for them. So that is a space wherein we are competing with very very few people in India - there are hardly two or three companies who are creating those kinds of things. We are working with brands and giving them campaigns which are unique, which are different and which are very much customised for them. The idea now is to grow internationally in the next two years. 2020 was the time when we wanted to take IFP into a different continent as well. We had planned and made partnerships but since 2020 and now even 2021 is going sideways, hopefully 2022 we will take IFP to a new continent as an international festival. We want to build a large community of creators and nurture them in a way that no one else has done. 

Also a lot of focus goes into my own personal time now. I have been very much devoted to things which I wanted to do, apart from the work aspect of it. I have been building a Lego City. The idea is to build the largest Lego City in India in the next couple of years. That is what I am personally working on. These things keep me occupied all the time. Being an entrepreneur gives you an edge in that you get a lot of personal time, or energy to focus on things which make you better each day. The better invested you are into yourself the more it reflects in your work. I have been telling this to a lot of entrepreneurs as well - invest energy into yourself as well, not just the business. I take my hobbies and build around them, set an aim for them. I’ve loved playing with legos since I was a kid, but what next? So now by the time I’m 35, in the next five years, I want to build the largest Lego City in India. Probably post that I’ll look at making it the largest in the world. I just aim that when I am back home, there is something to look forward to, as much as I look forward to going to work each day. So that’s the larger aim now as an entrepreneur.

Text Devyani Verma
Date 05-04-2021