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New Delhi, March 26, 2020
Aerospace scientist-turned filmmaker Ajitesh Sharma, who has largely focused on fashion films for some years now, has just finished his first documentary, "The Chernobyl Saga -- Irish Butter Case of India", and is now preparing for bigger and more ambitious things.
"This is a documentary about a legal case filed in India. The interesting part is that this case was connected to the nuclear incident at Chernobyl miles away from India. This is the first Indian film ever to be shot in Chernobyl," Sharma told NetIndian in an interview.
The release of the film has been stalled by the coronavirus pandemic that has hit the world, but he is hoping it will soon make it to the festival circuit. He is also approaching distributors.
Since making his first experimental film at college more than 10 years ago, Sharma, 39, has travelled some distance, having made short films like "Visible Bra Straps" in 2010, SWEN, feature film, in 2012, music videos like "Ek Dua" and "She & Me" before foraying into fashion films like "Stulkan" for Myntra, "Together" and "The Call of the Tarrots". In 2018, he produced a children's short film "Folk Tale" and has now completed work on the documentary.
As the lockdown clamped across the country to fight the coronavirus pandemic has forced him to take a break from shooting, Sharma is using the breather to work on a variety of scripts and draw up plans for bigger things like a web film, a web series and maybe even a feature film for the big screen -- all of which could pose serious challenges for an independent filmmaker.
Sharma is currently making all his content under the banner of Keep Rolling Films, which is under a parent company called Atiksh Entertainment Pvt Ltd.
Apart from the documentary, he is ready to publish a swimwear-based coffee table book titled "Sunkissed", which he says will be the first of its kind by any Indian photographer. The theme of the collection is swimsuit and lingerie and it is shot at exotic locations in Thailand, the Maldives, Goa, Bali, Russia and Iceland, among other places. The models are just as diverse, from India, Russia, Slovenia, Ukraine and Germany.
Sharma was born and brought up in Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh where, after schooling, he completed his B. Tech. and M. Tech. before going on to do an MBA from the Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad. He also did an online post-graduate diploma in Advertising and Public Relations from MICA, Ahmedabad.
It was a typical small-town life for him in his growing-up years. "Joint families, lots of cousins, lots of neighbors, full-day film marathons on rented VCRs, lots of video games and amid that a bit of study (low attendance was acceptable in schools those days)," he recalled.
He said that, though he was good at studies from the beginning, there was never a constant emphasis in his family on just studies. "I had enjoyed the typical hobbies of video games, match collection and lots of reading. At a young age, I had read the complete Mahabharata (the 5000-page double volume one) twice. My most favorite read was Chandrakanta and allied titles, which I have read more than 50 times, lierally," he said.
Filmmaking and photography were still some distance away, but he had written stories and poems and was involved in the organisation of fun fairs, short plays, contests and so on at the colony, school and later at the college level.
After taking a degree in Mechanical Engineering (he ranked 4th among 75,000 engineers who passed out in Madhya Pradesh that year), Sharma cleared GATE and enrolled for M. Tech. In his second year of M. Tech, he joined the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre of Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) at Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala as an aerospace scientist.
"I worked at ISRO from 2003 to 2007 (nearly three and a half years) and all these years were highly inspiring and eventful. I travelled to all the centers of ISRO in India and had an extensive exposure to rocket and satellite technologies. I wrote and published five technical papers in scientific journals, while at ISRO. I had a chance to work on advanced missions of Indian Cryogenic Stage, GSLV MkIII, and Chandrayaan," he recalls with pride.
"Working for ISRO, working for our nation is a matter of pride and I still hold immense pride about my stint at ISRO," he said.
When he joined ISB, during orientation week, he found that there were many talented students around him -- theatre artistes, singers, musicians, photographers. "An idea sparked in my mind, to make a collaborative film harnessing the talents of ISBians and the beauty and grandeur of the ISB campus. We, some of the students of the Class of 2008, joined hands together and made our first student film; remember we are talking about an elite business school not a film school, so this film was one of its kind; I was writer and director of the film," he said.
Asked if any films had influenced him, he said there were many which had touched his heart. "I love Indian films as well as Hollywood films. However, the films which have impacted me as a filmmaker are World Cinema films -- European, Korean, Iranian, Italian, French, and many other such films."
"I have not studied filmmaking anywhere, so my film viewing is not related to particular directors, wave or movements, as suggested to film students by filmmaking institutes. My school of filmmaking has been self-taught, watching films you enjoy and love for making films. That’s why I can’t quote any particular film or director, I love to watch the art of filmmaking as it unfolds on screen and then interpret my views on a plethora of diverse issues via the films that I direct," he said.
No one in Sharma's family, not even distant relatives, nor any of his friends or acquaintances were related to the film industry or advertising industry or even the media in any way.
After completing his MBA, he worked for some time for Reliance Big Pictures as a Senior Manager, overseeing their international film festival slate of films and the business of films. He was slowly drawn into the magical world of movie-making.
Sharma finally quit his corporate career, returned to Indore, where his parents were based, and set up his filmmaking company. He now divides his time between Indore, Mumbai and other places.
He made his first short film in 2011. It was called "Visible Bra Straps", which was selected and awarded at 24 international film festivals. It was also nominated by the Indian government as an official Indian entry to the Asia Pacific Screen Awards 2011 -- the regional equivalent of the Oscar awards -- in Brisbane, Australia. Shorts International, which is the exclusive buyer of all Oscar-nominated short films, later acquired the worldwide distribution rights of the film, the first Indian film and for many years, the only Indian film, to be acquired by them.
"Visible Bra Straps, VBS as it is popularly called, was shot in India and Italy, and truly started my journey in filmmaking. The idea of making this film came from a fashion article, where I read that the trend of showing bra straps is called VBS and while it is a fashion term in European countries, it’s a taboo for India, especially smaller cities. This contrasting situation inspired me to make this film, and this remains one of my most accomplished films," Sharma said.
He also made a feature film, SWEN, released in 2012. This was followed by a music video, Ek Dua, sung by Javed Ali and later another, She & Me, for which American singer Jill Gloria lent her voice.
Asked about his interest in fashion films, Sharma said that aesthetics was and always would be an important part of his films. "I always follow the work of fashion brands globally, and was doing it even ten years back, when fashion films were not even remotely existent in India. I was doing some small experiments with models while on other shoots and was gearing up for my first fashion film.
"The costume designer of my second film, Jaya Misra, a renowned fashion designer from Kolkata, once spoke with me regarding a photo shoot she wanted to do for her collection ‘India Says’ to be launced in Vancouver in 2013. I gave her the idea of experimenting with a fashion film and she agreed. That gave birth to my first fashion film 'India Says'. It was widely appreciated worldwide. Later, I collaborated with a small Russian studio and made my second fashion film 'Together’ in Thailand in 2014. This film was the only Indian fashion film to be showcased at a big fashion event sponsored by Mercedez Benz in Cape Town, apart from being recognized in other fashion festivals. From there my journey in fashion films started," he said.
Fashion films are made by fashion filmmakers for fashion or lifestyle brands, fashion designers, models, celebrities and glamour events. These films are promoted by the makers on their internal platforms, social media, fashion shows, outdoor advertising mediums and in networking events. The audience for these fashion films are followers of these brands, social influencers (they are on lookout for trends always), other fashion filmmakers and photographers, and people who love watching aesthetic videos, he explained.
"Fashion films are specific and a special kind of short films. The idea is to weave a story around a particular brand or collection and present it in an aesthetic manner. Fashion films are mostly short, typically 1 minute to 5 minutes, so there is absolutely no comparison with features. While short films are centered around a story and characters, fashion films are centered around brands. Documentaries are totally different which are focused on certain issues, persons or situations. The three main elements of fashion film are brand essence, story and aesthetics," he said.
Sharma said that it is only recently that Indian brands have started exploring this medium. "People have started experimenting with ideas and I think we are soon going to see a lot of them from Indian brands," he said.
"Take for example, Myntra, the pioneer of many firsts in India, they experimented with the idea of mixing aesthetics, storytelling and branding and conceived their first fashion film ‘Stúlkan’. It’s an Icelandic word and it means 'The Girl'. I shot and directed this film in the land of fire and ice, Iceland. This film has now won five international awards and overall 10 international accolades.
"Myntra’s first attempt in fashion films has hit the bull’s eye and it means more and more brands in the coming years will embrace the idea of going unconventional and trying their hand at different formats," he said.
Sharma is currently working on several scripts which he hopes to develop as web films and web series. While his company will produce some of them, he is looking for co-producers and partners for the others.
"I am contemplating an offer to make an Indo-Mexican action web-film/series. There are a few potential fashion film proposals also in the pipeline. But any feature length film or series takes a considerable amount of your time, so I am evaluating all my options.
"I am at a juncture where I have made short films, a feature film, a children's film, fashion films, music videos, corporate videos, advertisements and photography. A format which remained for me to try was documentary, which I have now completed with Irish Butter Case. I have had my share of success at the international level also, so now I am just assessing the strategies to increase my visibility in India and also try my hand at popular content," he said.
Looking at the film industry in India, he says things have become a lot easier. "Something which was only possible for studios previously has shifted to the backyards of enthusiasts. The recent success of (Korean film) ‘Paradise’ has again proved that everything is possible. Both making and distributing films is easier than ever and content is being produced rapidly; having said that, not all content suits the audiences’ palate and differentiation remains the key," he said.
However, though it is the best time for filmmakers to make new films and show them to the world, the upper hand is still with the studios, corporates and established names, he pointed out.
"While established platforms, studios and festivals always claim to support independent filmmaking, they have never done that and neither have any intent to do so. I don’t blame them, though, because they are right in their own way because filmmaking is costly and nobody is brave enough to risk their name and money on newbies," he said.
"I remember one of my scripts being liked by one of the biggest studios of India. This script was already well received in the international script labs also and certainly had a good future, if made. The studio kept me on hold for about a year and finally told me that the topic of my film could be similar to an upcoming big production of a known actor. I tried to convince them that it is not the case. But they were not brave enough to take the call and pass the script. Both the studio and I lost out on a good opportunity. I will surely make that film some day, that’s a different story, but taking such risks on independent filmmakers is what I wish studios are brave enough to do," he said.
"If I am able to get better established someday, I will definitely try to change the landscape of independent filmmaking," he said.
Well aware of the uncertainties involved in filmmaking, Sharma has hedged his bets, making full use of his engineering and MBA background.
He is a consultant and auditor in the Fire & Safety Business. He has a company, Technofire Engineers Pvt Ltd, serves more than 300 industrial clients in central India, including some of the biggest names in Indian industry.
"I am a Government of India-approved Safety Auditor, internationally accredited Fire Auditor and I have a name in the Fire & Safety Industry. I take pride in this work because I am ultimately able to save some lives through it.
"Apart from this business and filmmaking, me and my wife (who is a fashion designer) are soon planning to open a luxury swimwear line (Squacle).
Sharma also loves to travel with his family. "At times, I combine work and leisure, and call my family on shoots. We have travelled together to more than 15 countries. Our cross-country 2500 miles-road trip of Iceland remains our most cherished trip. When not travelling and not working, I write and develop scripts," he added.