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In July, Sanjay Bhattacharjee was appointed CEO of privately held Phat Phish Motion Pictures. The 2006 spinoff of director Anand Surapur’s 10-year-old advertising and music video production house made its first splash in Toronto this year with the well-reviewed black-and-white feature “Frozen.” The Mumbai-based startup arrived at the American Film Market, where Bhattacharjee told The Hollywood Reporter Asia editor Jonathan Landreth that he is in talks with veteran sales agent Kathy Morgan to help secure international distribution for his next project, including the U.S.-India co-production “The Stamp Collector,” by Los Angeles based director Francesca D’Amico.
The Hollywood Reporter: Tell us about “Frozen” and Phat Phish’s hopes for its biggest film yet.
Sanjay Bhattacharjee: It’s a relationship between father in daughter living in harsh conditions in Ladakh. The father is an apricot jam seller and their life is tough, but they are pulling along. Then the Indian army moves in to this battlefront for India and Pakistan bordering Tibet and it changes their lives. We felt it’s such a universal film. It’s happening in Iraq now. It’s the same story. It’s about how they deal with this.
THR: Black-and-white features are rare today. Why’d you do it?
Bhattacharjee: Interestingly, we shot the film in color, but then we did the post to make it black and white in L.A. Because we weren’t happy with what we shot in India. People who have paid money to see the film, their first reaction has been, “Stunning!”
THR: The film was shot in Hindi and Ladakh. What challenge does that present for North American territories?
Bhattacharjee: The European audience is used to reading subtitles — the film has English subtitles throughout — but it is America where you find the real challenge. Post-Toronto we had some (North American) offers, but European territories will be more easily accessible. Our challenge, and we are absolutely positive about it, is getting distribution in America. Cameron Bailey, the Toronto Film Festival director, said when he saw “Frozen” in Bombay that the film could have come out of Tibet or Tokyo or Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, anywhere. If we are not able to get it to the American public, it will be a failure on our part. Finding distribution on the American East Coast and West Coast will be relatively easier than in the Midwest.
THR: How will you make “The Stamp Collector,” the 1947 coming-of-age story about a Hindu girl from Pakistan being moved to a Christian missionary school in India?
Bhattacharjee: Carli Posner, the American independent producer, is based in L.A., but the entire story is in India. Phat Phish will get below-the-line production funds, and the American side will do the above-the-line funds. It was shortlisted for development at Sundance, but Sundance or no Sundance, we’re completely committed.
THR: Why don’t you like the term “Bollywood”?
Bhattacharjee: A country that produces a thousand films a year … could have come up with a name of their own. That’s my only issue, nothing else. Being a copycat, maybe that’s why Phat Phish is not part of Bollywood.
THR: You describe Phat Phish as alternative. To what?
Bhattacharjee: We are trying to make independent cinema. The challenge is big. There’s a huge thing called Bollywood. It’s cash-rich and can swallow you up. They are tested and proven, there is a track record. But what’s interesting is that there’s no competition because everybody wants to play it safe. Everybody wants big stars, but for us, what we are focusing on is the script. That is our star. A personal example: I was watching “Forrest Gump” in Delhi with my mother and I saw her crying. I actually first saw it as a student at UCLA in a Westwood theater, and I saw people crying there, too. It’s a story that is connected. The challenge is to find those stories.
THR: Has “Frozen” done well in India?
Bhattacharjee: We have not released the film in India. We had offers from big distribution companies, even before Toronto. I have to give credit to Mira Nair. She is showing us the way. Because we don’t have big fund resources, what we are doing is going to the festivals, piggy-ridig on the festival branding, then we try to find distribution in the West first, then take it to India. The only references for a film like “The Stamp Collector” has references like “Motorcycle Diaries,” or “Amores Perros” or “City of God” or “Amelie.” These are the kinds of films we are trying to make. Because the language of our (future) films is English, we can go to the West first, like “Monsoon Wedding,” a good reference.
THR: India’s most successful films this summer: “Heyy Babyy” ($20 million) and “Partner” ($18 million). How do they relate to your vision of Indian cinema?
Bhattacharjee: These are big-star blockbusters, but I am not trying to get these eyeballs in India. We have a term called NRI, non-resident Indians. They are hugely based in the U.K. and in the U.S. You need to find that story which will cross. Then you do sales and marketing. For me, the NRI and Indian audience are not my primary audience. I will bring it to them once it gets recognition outside, but not now to start with. I never said it would be easy. It’s a challenge. Somebody somewhere has to start, otherwise we’ll keep on saying, “No, America doesn’t open to foreign-language films,” though we are not making foreign-language films but English films. Today, when the world’s boundaries are falling apart and people are getting much closer, a unique story with roots in its indigenous country is much more exciting than a typical story without roots.
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