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It was just another usual day at home, and my mom was on the phone, engaged in a casual conversation with a friend of hers. In India, these phone conversations between aunties tend to be about 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 up to?
Mom: Ah, nothing much. Anu, the elder one, is doing her 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 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 up to?
(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 long torturous 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 mom 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 51 times a day (Yes, 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 Preity 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 mom didn't know about my little company until about three 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 has become easier than ever to do exactly what you want. But our upbringing has instilled in us such a strong sense of fear that very few of us dare to venture out on our own. Most entrepreneurs here are seasoned professionals, having worked for a good 4 to 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.
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.
P.S.: What are you waiting for? It's time to "start up".
More about Varun Agarwal
Varun Agarwal is a filmmaker, entrepreneur and a bestselling author. He is 25 years old and has launched three companies to his credit - Alma Mater , Reticular And Last Minute Films. He has directed the likes of Preity Zinta and AR Rahman in music videos and his films have over a million views on Youtube. He has been featured on the cover of India Today and numerous other periodicals as well as on the CNBC Young Turks Show.