5 April 2018

Despite challenges from an ever-growing cast of video streaming services, the global film industry is booming. One Edinburgh alumnus is making a name for himself behind the scenes.

Worldwide box office receipts hit a record $39bn dollars in 2017. With sales of more than $10bn, the US is by far the largest market, but Hollywood’s output is dwarfed by India. In 2017 alone, it produced close to 2,000 certified motion pictures, and the demand shows little sign of slowing down.

“When people think of Indian Cinema, they think of the heroes, action, music and dance of Bollywood. The truth is there’s just so much more to it”, says Business School alumnus Sushant Desai, a Mumbai-based filmmaker who is carving a niche in Indo-Hollywood productions.

At just 30 years old, he has already produced one internationally award-winning feature film, ‘Ramanujan’ – a UK-Indian biopic of mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan – with a new project starring Hollywood actor Brendan Fraser in the works. But his story could have been very different if economic forces hadn’t curtailed his first career choice. Sushant explains: “After graduating from University of Edinburgh Business School’s MSc Management programme in 2011, I returned to India with grand plans for my family’s real estate business.

“I made the company more efficient by digitising our processes, and entered the fast developing green-property market, investing in six organic farming and luxury housing developments. Everything seemed to be going well, until the Indian economy started to slow in 2012. By 2013, the real estate market had ground to a complete halt.”

Sushant returned to his first love, film, for inspiration: “For as long as I can remember, cinema has been a big part of our family life. Seeing the stunning scenery of Scotland on film was one of the main reasons I chose Edinburgh for my Masters. In the epic scale of Braveheart and the magic of Harry Potter I saw a spirit of adventure.

“Every time we watched a movie, we’d find ourselves breaking down the story, talking about the actors’ performances and discussing how scenes were shot. My mother had an encyclopaedic knowledge of performers and their history.

“My undergraduate degree also gave me an insight into how films are made. Suddenly this dormant passion to become a filmmaker burst into life. With nothing to lose, I approached my father-in-law – who has worked in cinema for the past 15 years – with my savings and a vision. Let’s make a movie, I said. After I’d done everything I could to convince him I was serious, he said yes.”

Initially Sushant faced an uphill struggle to raise finance for a film about the life of a mathematician, in an industry more accustomed to big-budget musicals.

“The film industry is full of ultra-highs and extreme lows. All you have is your dream to work with and – unlike any other product – film is a very abstract and emotional concept. You often feel you’re taking one step forward then two steps back”, he explains.

After a year building networks, Sushant began to receive support from prominent academics, social activists and popular figures like former Indian President A P J Abdul Kalam. Having successfully raised more than $1 million dollars with his production company Camphor Cinema and found more than 200 cast and crew in the UK and India, he was ready to set the cameras rolling. But it didn’t always go to plan, he says:

“As a new filmmaker I made about every mistake there is to make. Your job is to decide where to focus your resources. Anything that doesn’t make its way on to the screen is just an extra expense which can make the difference between a film’s success and failure.

“Even the best film will fail if it’s overpriced, and costs quickly mount if you’re late to deliver. Mistakes we made set us back six months in distribution and almost cost us everything. It was an incredibly steep learning curve. And your film stays with you for life. Even today I’m constantly finding new ways to sell Ramanujan to other markets.”

Watch the Ramanujan International Trailer from Sushant Desai on Vimeo.

Ramanujan was released to critical acclaim in 2014, and went on to receive awards from as far away as Norway. But for Sushant, the most important recognition came closer to home:

“When the President of India, Hon. Pranab Mukherjee invited my team to his official residence, the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, I couldn’t believe it. It was a true honour to discuss with him the potential social impact of the film, and it paved the way for more state governments to screen it to millions of people across India.”

With Sitting Duck Pictures, Sushant is working with veteran producer Sanjay Bhattacharjee to develop feature films, including upcoming title ‘The Elephant Suite’ starring Brendan Fraser. After raising more than $2 million dollars and with six other productions in the pipeline, he also finds time to help corporate clients like Suzuki tell their story. He credits his experience in Edinburgh as being pivotal to his success:

Edinburgh changed me. Not only did I meet my wife who was studying creative writing there, but my studies also gave me a lot of perspective on business. It gave me access to new theories on marketing and finance I didn’t know about, even though I grew up in a business family.

“The negotiation skills I learned have been particularly helpful. I also use the research techniques I learned to understand the people I need to build relationships with, allowing me to speak their language and understand their drivers and motivations.

“I realised it’s all about telling your story in the way your audience wants to consume it. As an entrepreneur you constantly have to look ahead to what will be in demand in 10 to 15 years’ time. 80% of online traffic will be video within the next five years.

“Right now, I’m working on ways to help brands, large and small, use storyboarding techniques from the world of film to help them tell their stories. Whether on the cinema screen or through an online campaign, the same rules apply.”

Sushant Desai is the filmmaker, producer and entrepreneur, behind Sitting Duck Pictures and Camphor Cinema. He completed an MSc in Management at University of Edinburgh Business School in 2011. Read more about University of Edinburgh Business School graduates in the latest edition of Aluminate.