Years back, I stumbled upon a particular interview which caught my attention. The interview was long, detailed and the kind of questions the interviewer had asked exemplified the fact that he had done extensive research before conducting that interview. I loved the interview and went on to read the other interviews on the blog over the next couple of days. These were old interviews done by the interviewer when he was in high school and then, in college but it was so much fun to read them. All these interviews were on put on a personal blog in order to archive them.
This was my first introduction to Nikhil Taneja, the man who had done these interviews. I connected with Nikhil on a social networking website but never really got a chance to speak to him. At that time, he was working with a youth/music based TV channel. Through social media, I got to know about a lot of other wonderful work he had done and was doing. I was highly inspired, not just with his professional achievements but also with the kind of human being he was. A while back, I got an opportunity to speak to him about his eventful journey in the media and entertainment business, creating an entity like Yuvaa, what makes him a socially conscious person, how he manages to watch almost every TV show, love for teaching and more.
You were based in Bahrain and your brother had an important role to play when it comes to you getting into creative arts.
Yes, my career in creative arts started out of insecurity (laughs). There was a magazine called ‘Young Times’ which was a part of the Khaleej Times Group. They used to ask for submissions. My brother used to draw and paint and his work would get published in that magazine. I used to draw too but they never published any of my art work. I used to get very irritated as I was the elder brother and my work was not getting published but his work was. One day, I was very annoyed about it and I wrote a long letter saying, “I send you so much material but you never publish my work”. They actually published my letter in the editorial section. I thought my art was not getting published but my written work got published, so I should probably write more. I asked them if I could do interviews for them in Bahrain and be paid for the same. I was around fourteen then. That is how my journey as a writer started. Some of the first people I interviewed were Junoon and Shankar Mahadevan. These people would come to Bahrain for entertainment based shows and events and I would get to interview them then.
Out of all the interviews you did back then, which was your favourite?
The interview I did with Mohanlal was quite memorable. I was very young, so he looked at me and wondered if I was capable enough to interview him. I, then, showed him a long list of questions I had prepared for the interview. It was a fairly long chat and had a great time speaking to him. Another interview I immensely enjoyed doing was the one I did with Shah Rukh Khan. It was during the launch of the ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’ season which he was hosting. I was just nineteen then.
Despite being inclined towards creative arts, you studied engineering in NIT Kurukshetra.
I always joke about this that after you spend six months in an engineering college, you realise this is not what you want to do. You spend the next three years trying to figure out what would you like to do if engineering does not interest you. I enjoyed doing computer programming but I realised I could not do that for a living as that is not something I enjoyed doing. As you pointed out, I was more inclined towards creative arts. I remember when I discussed this with my parents in high school, they asked me, “are you intelligent?”. When I said a ‘yes’, they said “then, you must opt for science. Only people who are not intelligent take arts.” Back then, there was internet but it was not as prevalent as it is today. You had limited access to a lot of information. Even though I was interested in creative arts, I was not sure if one could make a career out of it.
Your professional journey in Mumbai started with you working as a journalist with a leading newspaper. You, then, worked with a TV channel and a major production house.
Though I continued freelancing for ‘Young Times’ while studying engineering, there was not much scope to pursue creative arts in college. There were some local magazines. One of them was called Graffiti. I started writing for it and soon, became its editor. I also became the official editor for the college magazine. When I started writing for the college magazine, it was a two-page news magazine and used to be pasted on the walls across the campus. It had four satirical articles about what was happening in NIT Kurukshetra and some other material. I got sponsors on board and got it published like a proper magazine. I asked the students to pay just five rupees for it. The magazine became so big that it started getting sold outside the campus. One of the most incredible things that happened to me during that time was IIT Kanpur inviting me to its campus to give a lecture. That is when I decided that I would go to Mumbai and try and work in the entertainment industry. I applied everywhere from news channels to production houses. Finally, I got a call from Hindustan Times. They told me, “you are an engineer. Why should we hire you?”. I told them that I might have studied engineering but I have written thousands of articles too. Khalid Mohamed was the editor of Hindustan Times then. He was my first boss. That is how my career as a journalist started. I started a new column in which I would talk to filmmakers. Anurag Kashyap became a friend and a mentor to me in many ways. I used to cover music and youth. By the time I was twenty-three, I realised my growth will always be in terms of designation but not in terms of what I get to do. I was going to interview the same people again and again.
That is when you started working at MTV.
Yes. I used to write critical articles about MTV. I thought they were never going to call me but they did (laughs). They told me if you like MTV and think there are some things that need to be fixed, come and work with us. I pitched a show to them and that is how things started. I was a creator, writer and executive producer at the age of 24-25. I was the youngest person on the set and I was supposed to lead them but a lot of people did not take me seriously because of my age. Today, I realise that the seeds for my company Yuvaa were sown then. When you are young, most people do not take you seriously. Age is looked upon as a weakness in many ways. They gave me the opportunity to make six films with them which were directed by the likes of Anurag Kashyap, Anurag Basu, Rohan Sippy, Nikkhil Advani and Shoojit Sircar. While those films did not do very well at that time, they were appreciated by those who saw them. Yash Raj Films watched those films and got in touch with me. They asked me to work for them. Y-Films was created when I was working for them. Creating content for Y-Films was a very fulfilling experience as we were catering to the youth. I told them we had to be on the internet to reach out to the youth and they were kind enough give me the opportunity to lead the digital efforts. It was the most brilliant time of my career.
Around that time, Y-Films had also announced a film called ‘Darr 2.0’ which was co-written by you.
Yes. That was a time when a couple of their films did not work. They wanted to focus on their film business for some time. That was the time we were planning to make ‘Darr 2.0’. Because of these developments, the show did not take off then.
You have always been vocal about social issues. You spoke out against an ex-colleague during the MeToo movement which broke out in 2018. Where does this sense of social consciousness comes from?
I have grown outside of India. I tend to find people outside India to be more patriotic about India than the ones who reside here. For Indians or NRIs living abroad, India is an idea and not a reality. And, when it is not a reality, you romanticise everything about it. When I came to India, I was not aware of the good, bad and the ugly. Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge mein jo mitti ki khushboo ki baat ki gayee thi, mujhe wahi soonghni thi. Bahrain is a culturally a conservative country. You do not really get to know much about the outside world. India, on the other hand, is a complex country. Similarly, if I feel strongly about something, I will speak about it. I always try to do things which I believe in. Each of us has a moral responsibility towards this world. Each of us must work towards creating a better world. I feel it is important for me as an individual to speak up.
You used to review international TV shows for The Awesome TV Show on Film Companion. A lot of people must have asked you as to how do you manage to watch so many shows.
I do not have much of a social life. I do not party. I get a lot of free time when I go home. I have grown up loving pop culture, so sometimes the reality of our world does not match up to what I would like to see. Films and shows are a good way to escape into another world. I know a lot about people not because I have too many friends but because I watch a lot of content. My life is divided into three things – working, spending time with family and watching TV shows.
You have dabbled in so many things but teaching is something you are very passionate about.
Teaching has given me a lot of purpose in life. I spent a lot of my time pursuing success. Growing up as young boy, you are conditioned to chase professional success. I had this desire to not to be lesser than anybody. I was doing it for the sake of doing it. Money is the means to an end. It cannot be an end in itself. I started teaching because I always lamented over the fact that I never had a mentor. I learnt everything on my own. I did not have anyone to guide me. I started teaching at Jai Hind College in Mumbai. The first couple of years, I was trying to be a godfather to those kids. Soon enough, I realised that all they needed was someone to listen to. They needed a friend. My whole life changed during this time. I firmly believe miracles can happen if you spend some time listening to people. People wish to be heard. They need someone to share their pain with. There are so many young people who go through horrific things like sexual harassment or have attempted suicide at some point. You derive strength by listening to each other.
Is that when you decided to create a company like Yuvaa?
As I said earlier, the seeds for starting a company of this nature were sown a long time back. But, being a teacher to these college kids and interacting with them closely definitely took that thought ahead. Whenever I spoke to these kids, I realised the weight of a certain pain or suppressed thought got lifted from their heart. That is when I realised that if I had to choose what I had to do with my time, I would like to interact with young people and understand their problems.
What exactly do you intend to achieve with Yuvaa?
We want to do things that would make young people feel less lonely. That is pretty much the philosophical mission of Yuvaa. This is a generation that has grown up with mobile phones. They have had access to a lot more information that the earlier generations had. Their parents’ sense of parenting has come from the sense of parenting their parents had. These days, kids learn a lot from Google. Their parents might have certain notions about the world which these kids do not agree with and that creates a conflict between them. These kids actually know better. Imagine a 12 or 13 year old boy who, one day, realises he likes boys. Ten years back, his parents would have told him that it is not normal. You know what you identity is but how do you let yourself have that identity. In India, that is the biggest battle most of these kids are fighting. When they do not find support, they look for communities on the internet and are on phone all the time. We want to give them a community where they can express themselves. It is okay if your parents do not get you. They have grown up in a world that is different. We want to encourage young people to have conversations. The world is not going to fix itself. It is the youth that is going to do it. We just want to equip them with the emotional resources they need.
Amritpal Singh Bindra and Anand Tiwari, your partners in Yuvaa, are filmmakers. Recently, they created the show Bandish Bandits for Amazon Prime Video. Would you like to produce films and shows?
Eventually, yes. I am very fortunate that I have two partners who are into filmmaking. Actually, it was Amrit’s idea that we should have a company. I am very idealistic and have a very fantastical idea about how things should be. Amrit channelized those ideas and motivated me to start Yuvaa. He told me that instead of giving a couple of talks, starting as a coherent company that works on impacting the lives of young people. I am happy to have such friends who have become partners. There are a lot of things I want to do. All three of us come from a background of films. At Yuvaa, we will be doing fiction shows and a lot of other things. Ultimately, we will be creating content for the youth.
Would you like to direct a film someday?
There are a lot of things I want to do. I am scared of trying to make money out of a lot of those things. If I try to make money out of something like direction, I will not be happy. Having been a producer, I know how difficult it is to get a film made. It is also difficult to express yourself without the creative process being guided by monetary factors. YouTubers today are taking on the world because they are doing things without the purpose of making money. When you are making a film, there are many commercial factors that come in to play. I might direct when I am not doing anything else and have the privilege of doing it without thinking of any commercial gains or being under any kind of pressure.