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Debu Bhattacharyya: Making it through movies
Matthew Schneeberger

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September 20, 2007

At 18, Debu Bhattacharyya made his decision, and applied to two film schools: the Film and Television Institute in Pune and the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in Kolkata.

His parents knew nothing about it.

"I didn't let them know at first. I did all the research, talked to all the counsellors and filled in the paperwork without informing them. They found out when the final acceptance papers arrived."

Ten years later, Debu's bold decision is paying dividends. He is CEO and founder of Theme Entertainment, the documentary film production house he started last year.

This August, Debu won the Indian leg of the British Council's International Young Film Entrepreneur of the Year 2007 contest. In October, Debu will travel to the UK to compete against selected candidates from other countries from around the globe in the finals.

In an interview with's Matthew Schneeberger, Debu shared inspirations, ambitions and his opinion of the documentary film industry in India.

Once your parents discovered you were pursuing cinema, how did they react?

Well, they're both officials in the Ministry of Education for the Government of West Bengal. They dreamed that I would one day join the Indian Administrative Services. When I was young, even I thought I would become an official.

But in India, until you are a graduate, you can't even apply for the Civil Service. So I had to pursue my studies, which was in Economics and Statistics. As I got older, I decided that I didn't want to be in IAS anymore. I still passed the prelims and took the exams, but my heart told me to take a different avenue.

So I accepted admissions at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute. My time there only confirmed that cinema was my future, so I went on to Paris to study at La FEMIS, the French State Film School.

At the time, my parents very unhappy with my decision. But years later, they still respect me and I respect them. That's what defines our relationship: respect.

So how did your experiences in film school influence what you do today?

Well, I studied directing while in school, but I became fascinated by the other aspects of cinema as well. In particular, I became intrigued with production of films and the role of the producer.

Studying in Paris at FEMIS was a lifetime experience that I'll never forget.

One of my guest lecturers, Jacques Bidou, had a huge influence on me. He's my favourite producer. If I was pressed to choose an inspiration, I would also select him.

Europe has this great culture of documentary films, and I was keen to learn the lessons it had to offer. I hope to emulate a lot of that success here in India.

But documentary films don't feature prominently in India, how can this change?

It's true. There is practically zero documentary film industry in India. It doesn't exist.

The problem is that documentary films are associated with the growing independent film trend in India. This scares investors off, because they aren't willing to endorse what they see as risky ventures. They want stars; they want songs; they want the sure thing.

It's romantic to think of doing the entire process in-house and by yourself, but it's not possible. Quality suffers dramatically and it creates unrealistic time constraints.

What I do differently is to present my package from the investors' perspective, how it benefits them. My business model demonstrates our capacity to handle films year-round, about 12 documentary films a year plus three feature films.

This is the language you must speak in a cut-throat corporate environment.

Thankfully, I studied Economics and Statistics when I was younger. I employ the lessons I learned in these disciplines every day. You must market yourself, collaborate with others and work towards specialisation.

You see, I'm not directly involved in countless parts of the process. I only produce. I hire experts to direct and outsource other work to specialists. I firmly believe you should concentrate on one thing and do it well.

But what about the ideas for your films? Do those come from you or from someone else?

I don't prejudge. I've had ideas of my own, plenty of them. But if I hear a really great concept, either from a director or from someone else, I offer to collaborate.

For example, one of our first big projects was the director's idea. Upon hearing the idea, however, I knew it would be a great project.

It's a film with two main protagonists: an expert pick-pocketer in Kolkata and the police official in charge of breaking the pick-pocket racket. It's a great way to explore the complex relationship between the people who break the law and those in charge of enforcing it.

Shooting should finish within the next two months. I'm very excited about it. I hope to turn some heads with this offering.

Is this the idea that won you the British Council's selection for the IYFEY?

Actually, we didn't present specific films. We presented our business models -- mine was Theme Entertainment. To tell you the truth, I did not even think I would be selected as a finalist.

Last year, the British Council named me one of the 20 top creative entrepreneurs of India, which was a great honour. But I didn't think they would select the same person for two different awards.

Once they selected me as a finalist in India, I knew that I had a good chance. I'm very proud of my work, and I think my presentation went wonderfully. A few days later, they informed me that I'd be headed for the final competition in October!

Congratulations on that, how do you suppose you will fare?

Honestly, I don't know. I just want to thank the British Council for organising such a great event.

I try to keep an open mind and to dream big. I'm always looking to learn, no matter the situation or environment. And I've never been to the UK, so I'm really excited about this opportunity.

Even if I don't win, I'll still meet tons of talented and influential people in the film industry. So, either way, I consider myself a winner.

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