Working Title The Lawyer and the Film Maker
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Working Title The Lawyer and the Film Maker

Anuj Agrawal

After seven years as corporate lawyer, Pallavi Rohatgi returned to India and set up a production unit for independent, short-films in the country. Bar & Bench’s Anuj Agrawal spoke to the ILS graduate (Class of ’02) on life as a New York lawyer, film school and how the skills picked up in a law firm can help make you a better producer.

After seven years as corporate lawyer, Pallavi Rohatgi returned to India and set up a production unit for independent, short-films in the country. Bar & Bench’s Anuj Agrawal spoke to the ILS graduate (Class of ’02) on life as a New York lawyer, film school and how the skills picked up in a law firm can help make you a better producer.

Bar & Bench: So your pet project Humaramovie is nearly a year old. How does that feel?

Pallavi Rohatgi: Well, we have been working on it since July 2011 – in terms of conceptualizing, meeting people, getting films made etc., but we launched only in March 2012. So, really we haven’t hit the 1-year mark yet. But, so far it has been an amazing journey – meeting so many talented and creative people, actually watching a film come together! It is quite exciting to be in a space where I feel we are creating something that people can see and appreciate.

B&B: Let’s back track a bit. You graduated from ILS in 2002 and then worked in India for two years, right? What after that?

PR: After a 2-year stint with Nishith Desai Associates, I went to the University of Michigan Law School for my LLM. Most people discourage you from doing a LLM saying that you will be a year behind the rest of your class. But honestly, I think it was one of the best decisions of my life. During my LLM I met so many people who had done so many different things before coming to law school. One of my closest friends from UMich Law is a musician and another a philosopher. I would call them life-experiencers (if I can take the liberty of coining such a phrase). In a way, it was during my LLM year that I realized that the world is my oyster – that I can do anything that I put my mind to.

After my LLM, I have to admit that it was a struggle to get a job in New York as many Indian LLMs will attest to. But I was fortunate enough to get one at Ropes & Gray, one of the top ranked law firms in the US.

B&B: What was it like working in NYC? Were there any aspects of law-firm life that you really liked?

PR: New York – as the song by Alicia Keys goes “Concrete jungle where dreams are made of, there’s nothing you can’t do, now you’re in New York!” NYC is one of those cities that accepts everyone and anyone into its folds. One could say it is a lot like Mumbai in its acceptance of people. You never really feel like you don’t belong there.

Working in NYC was a novel experience. Very different from my experience in India. I cannot say one was better than the other – it was just different. Deal sizes were larger and the teams working on a deal were more international, hours were longer, the view from my office was great, I had my own cabin and a secretary (which was a bit unnerving at first!), so on and so forth.

I think what I really liked about law-firm life was the bonding with people over many all-nighters (I cannot say I am a fan of all-nighters though). It is like living in boarding school – you make a lot of friends over shared misery. Ooh – and did I mention the secretary and the view.

B&B: And then, after five years at the 1000-lawyer firm Ropes & Gray, you enrolled yourself at NYU’s Film School in 2010. How did this happen? Were you always interested in films?

PR: No, I wasn’t always interested in films, but you know if you ask someone that it would be totally uncool to say that they were not ‘always’ interested in films. J I was interested in starting something, creating something. I did a few courses in short story writing and photography in New York. I had met a producer during one of these classes and she told me that with my legal background, production might be a good space to get into for two reasons: there is a lot of legal stuff that a producer needs to be aware of and you would bring unique project management skills based on your deal management work. The idea just sort of took off in my head and things just fell in place. I enrolled in a filmmaking intensive course at NYU, learned the ABC of filmmaking and producing. I haven’t looked back since.

B&B: What was film school like? Did you ever find yourself using your legal expertise during the courses?

PR: Film school was a lot of work and a lot of fun. I didn’t really use too many of my legal skills, but I did get thinner lugging all the heavy equipment around and running around during pre-production of my film project.

But on a more serious note, I believe the practice of corporate law teaches you some transferable skills, like managing impossible deadlines, managing people to get everything in place for those impossible deadlines, ability to put in long hours without losing your concentration, understanding the needs of your clients and the importance of communicating up and down the hierarchy, and most importantly not losing your cool when things go wrong. These skills have helped me be a better producer and a better filmmaker.

B&B: Why the decision to come back to India? When and how did you decide to start humaramovie?

PR: Once I had decided that I wanted to get in to the film space, what better place to be than India. I did work as a production intern on a indie film called “Dark Horse” (directed by critically acclaimed director Todd Solondz) in New York – cleaning dustbins, doing coffee runs, traffic control while the shoot was on, driving the cast in and out of NYC to shoot locations, getting lost and being late for the shoot, getting yelled at, freezing in the NY winter while doing all of the above. You know – all the fun stuff about filmmaking that no one tells you about. But I really enjoyed it. I was very fortunate to get my first filmi job in a film like Dark Horse – with stars like Christopher Walken, Selma Blair, Justin Bartha and Mia Farrow.

After having worked in the indie film space in New York (the Mecca of indie filmmakers), I wanted to create a similar community in India. One evening a few friends and I were talking about the lack of a cohesive indie filmmaking space in India. We just got thinking, how was it possible to have such a thriving film industry in India that was only Bollywood (for the lack of a better adjective), without many indie film productions. We thought of starting with producing feature length films, but without any filmmaking background and network, we figured it would be quite difficult to enter the space. Short films seemed like the logical way to foster a community, create solid networks of talented filmmakers by giving them a consolidated platform to showcase their work and generally bring forth the young talent of India that are out there, but who don’t necessarily get the one big break. That is how humaramovie.com started. We moved back in 2011, started meeting people, invested in a camera, sound equipment, lights, met with a lot of talented people and things took off. The first short we ever produced titled “Adrak” in fact made it to the Indian Film Festival of LA and MAMI in Mumbai.

B&B:  How does humaramovie work? Do you think there is enough space for an indie-film existence in a country such as India?

PR: Humaramovie.com is a creator and owner of quality content catering to the new generation of media consumers. Our vision is asset creation (ownership of content) and distribution through new media (online, mobile, live streaming, pay-per-view). Think of it as Netflix, which is just a trading platform, having an asset base of HBO to back it up!

Greater broadband penetration, 3G and 4G, and a general trend towards moving to individual, choice based media consumption, suggests video on demand is set for explosive growth in India. Humaramovie.com, will leverage quality content, a robust content led platform and superior analytics to capture this growing on-demand audience.

To give you some perspective on the media space in India:

  • 50% of Indians are below the age of 25 and 65% below 35. This audience wants mobility & individual choice.
  • There are 134mn TV households, over 100mn Internet users & around 700mn mobile phone subscribers.
  • Broadband penetration is increasing on the back of a young population & extensive use of FB/ Google/ Skype

India, though over 4 billion video views a month, is still in a nascent stage for video-on-demand and these statistics clearly show that there is a huge potential to be tapped here. We believe that the time for more diverse content is now.

B&B: Best thing about your job? 

PR: Meeting so many diverse people who are passionate about filmmaking, about creating something from nothing. Worst thing about your job? When people say yes, when they really mean no and you spend all your time and energy trying to reconnect with them again to discuss concrete next steps and they never get back to you!

B&B: Do you miss any aspect of your law firm life?

PR: Odd as this may sound, I sometimes miss the structured environment of a law firm. Being an entrepreneur means that you need to be self-disciplined and continue to work without deadlines and external pressures. And of course, I miss the view and the secretary.

B&B: If someone was interested in pursuing a similar career arc as yours, what advice would you give them?

PR: Just do it. It is never too late to do something different and most importantly, just because you have done one thing in life does not mean you must continue doing it. Be ready to start from the bottom and good things will come your way.

Pallavi Rohatgi, is a qualified lawyer of the New York & Indian Bar. She graduated from ILS Pune in 2002 and completed her Masters in Law from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She worked at Ropes & Gray, LLP in the private equity, debt finance team managing and running deals over $12 billion. Pallavi has over 7 years of corporate law experience in the geographies of North America & Asia. She co-founded Humaramovie. You can visit the Humaramovie Facebook page here.

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