It was just another usual day at home, and my mum was on the phone, engaged in casual conversation with a friend of hers. (In India, these phone conversations between aunties tend to move in the direction of the accomplishments of their children, whether they are in school, college, working, or even married).
Returning to the latest phone conversation, which went something like this:
Aunty: So Purnima, what are your children upto?
Mom: Ah, nothing much Anu, the elder one is doing an MBA, and the younger one is studying at Christ.
Aunty: OMG, I still remember them as little kids Poo! But what about Varun?
Mom: He is doing some work ya. What’s Aparna doing?
Aunty: Oh she is a marketing manager with Goldman Sachs Purnima. They just promoted her, you know. She is thinking of going for an MBA also. To America. Oh, I can’t wait to start looking for her!
Mom: Arre wah. I’m so proud of Aparna. (She isn’t really). Why don’t you get her home sometime?
Aunty: I will, I will. But what is our Varun upto?
(This is the moment most women wait for all their lives. The comeback. This is what my mom wanted to say: “Oh, your daughter is working for Goldman Sachs ? My son’s working for Microsoft in USA. Haha. Beat that.”)
This is what she actually said.
Mom: He makes some films and music videos And he is selling T-shirts.
Aunty (shocked): What are you saying Purnima! Selling T-shirts?
Mom (depressed): Yes.
Aunty: Is Varun a salesman, Purnima?
Mom (almost going to cry): Something like that.
Aunty: Haw. Should I speak to Varun?
Mom: Will you? Oh I’m so worried all the time. He doesn’t listen to me ya.
Aunty: Arre, I can’t believe this. I must ask Aparna to meet him sometime also.
Mom: Thank you ya I don’t know what to do. Who will marry him now??
Conversations like these aren’t new to me. When I was in the 12th standard, I decided I would study filmmaking. I applied to a bunch of colleges, but forgot that it wasn’t so easy to do what you like in this country. My parents were quick to trash all my plans, and I was forced to study four torturous long years of engineering.
I naturally didn’t want to give up on my passion, so I started making films whenever I got the time during engineering – which seemed to be filled with never-ending tests. There were times I got so depressed I was on the verge of breaking into some tragic Bollywood song. Using the best “filmy” emo dialogue I could muster, I got my mum to buy me a camera. After I got the camera, I taught myself to write, shoot and edit film.
In 2007, I made a music video for one of India’s top rock bands, Pentagram. The video got noticed, and was played on VH1 like 51 times a day. (Actually 51 times a day!). A production company in Bombay saw the video, and flew me down to offer me a full time job to direct. Not to be some assistant or intern, but to actually start directing. I was 20 years old then. My mum still wasn’t convinced, and asked me to come back to finish my engineering.
In 2008 barely a few months out of college I was directing videos for Phat Phish Productions in Bombay. Within a few days of joining I found myself in Chennai at the studios of AR Rahman directing him in a video. A few weeks later I was directing Priety Zinta in music video for a song by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. In spite of this my parents were very skeptical.
In 2009 I decided to start a company with one of my friends. Yet again, I faced a lot of opposition from both family and friends. It was an E-commerce company, and no one around me got it. The idea was born over a drunken night at one of Bangalore’s famous pubs ‘Noon Wines’. We actually wrote down the entire business plan on a piece of tissue. Ideas like these are born every time young, enthusiastic entrepreneurial minds meet up over drinks. But in the light of day, everything fizzles out.
Thankfully for us, it didn’t.
My mum didn’t know about my little company until about 3 months into running it. When she did find out, she freaked. My dad thought I was a t-shirt salesman only until recently, when we were profiled in the Economic Times.
Be it filmmaking or starting my own company, I have gone through a lot, which only makes me wonder at how difficult it is to pursue your own dreams in this country. To me, India at 64 is a country which is still very insecure. Success here is defined by a plush job with a multinational, or if you have aced your CET. Right from school, we’ve always been taught to follow the system, and to be very afraid of going against it.
With the advent of the internet it’s become easier than ever to do exactly what you want. But our upbringing has instilled in us such a strong sense of fear that few of us dare to venture out on our own. Most entrepreneurs here are seasoned professionals, having worked for a good 4-5 years for someone else. There are no college dropouts like Zuckerberg or Gates, and you’re treated like an outcast if you even dream of doing so. Our generation talks like the American, acts like him, but when it comes down to actually doing what they want, most turn into pussies. We can’t boast of 18-year-old inventors, or 24-year-old billionaires. In fact, even now when my partner and I go to meet potential investors, the first question we are asked is, “How old are you?” In spite of the fact that there is a 25-year-old guy who started Facebook when he was 18, and is now worth 10 billion dollars.
Things are changing no doubt, but in remote pockets. What needs to be changed is the way we are brought up. I believe that this country will grow up the day our kids are taught not to be scared. The day the students of this country are encouraged to learn, and not ‘mug’. The day we are taught to lead, and not follow. The day we are taught to think, and not just write exams. I wait to see that day, because when that happens, India won’t be entering retirement age, but will actually be born again.
We will be waiting for you, India.
Varun Agarwal, (www.facebook.com/varun.agarwal1)
P.S : But what are you waiting for?? Its time to “start-up”.
(This is a guest article I wrote for Yahoo India! Thank you Anisha.)
Varun Agarwal is 25 years old, and has 3 companies to his credit: Alma Mater, a memorabilia company for schools and colleges in India; Reticular, a Social Media Marketing Agency that has worked with some of India’s top brands, and Last Minute Films, an independent production company founded in 2008. His first book “How I Brave Anu Aunty and Co-founded a Million Dollar Company” is out in stores.