The Legend of Siddharthby Vinta Nanda January 30 2020, 8:54 am Estimated Reading Time: 16 mins, 36 secs
I wanted to interview Siddharth for The Daily Eye for some time now and although he was reluctant and shy, I managed to corner him the other day. I wanted the world to know how it is that; all it takes to achieve a dream is to have one.
Siddharth’s father was a professor of accounts at the University of Kolkatta, where he grew up as the youngest sibling of four brothers. He was aware that he was the son of a teacher and therefore careful from the very beginning about the impression he gave of himself to the rest of the world around him. One thing he always cherished was the respect that his father had earned and he loved the way that his father’s students were in awe of him. He strived for that himself because earning appreciation was his ultimate goal and still remains. But by no means was he a studious sort who can be called a nerd because along with his brother Rahul, Siddharth was quite notorious. It was the movies, which attracted Siddharth the most and not really his grades, which he took lightly as he sailed past schooling and later college. He would skip school every Friday to be the first one to see the latest release at the cinemas and if that were not bad enough, he would daydream for the rest of the week. When would the day come when he could be the storyteller, the director, and the maker of those films, which he loved so much?
With much reservation Siddharth tells me, “I used to dream big, because it was really all that I could do”. I smiled because this is the very thing that is so charming about Siddharth. He becomes docile when expressing his ambitions, which by no means are small. He continues, “I was in such a small place, my world was tiny, that everything very big used to grip my imagination and I would want to reach those places and own them. But at the same time, my father was so highly respected, I was aware that the highest honor I will ever be able to achieve is to be surrounded by people who look up to me as a good person”.
One can see what a great influence his father must have been on Siddharth as he goes on to tell me about him being so learned; that as the patriarch of a large family, he saw to it that everyone gained from his vision and was able to see the world through his eyes. As he grew up, Siddharth nurtured the desire to become a writer and a director of films even though compulsions drove him in different directions.
He lost his mother when he was seventeen years old and it was a jolt. He then went to Bangalore to graduate and Symbiosis Pune followed, where he completed his master’s degree in Mass Communications. He was close to his brother Rahul, who was only a year and three months older to him and they shared the same friends and moved around together as they grew up to be good men. Siddharth emphasizes on the ‘being good’ part and adds, “The loss of my mother to Cancer was a blow. Our father was a towering personality and it was our mother whose values we aspired to. I live with constant fear that my actions may make me veer away from the faith my mother had put in me, so I remain alert all the while, so that I should not go wrong”.
When Siddharth was thirteen years old he insisted on travelling to Mumbai with one of his father’s students who was coming to the city of dreams to attend a family wedding. He spent a few days in Mumbai and because he was so fascinated with Bollywood, it was arranged for him to go to see the shooting of a film. “That was the moment”, he says to me, “I was taken to Nadiadwala Bungalow where the shooting of the film Kalinga was going on. Yusuf Bhai, Dilip Kumar Saab, was director of the film and he noticed me standing in a corner. He asked me – Aapki tareef? – And that did it. I couldn’t take my eyes of the legend and I watched him explain the scene to actors, take the shot. I just knew I was meant for the same thing. I knew I was meant to tell stories, write them, direct them, produce them, release them and take them to mass audiences so that one day a young boy like me coming from a faraway place would look at me and say – that’s who I want to be like too”.
After completing his master’s degree, Siddharth came to Mumbai, this time to start working towards his goals. He tells me, “My fathers words would follow me everywhere I went. He had said to both me and brother Rahul, that we will change as people because our circumstances would command us to, but, he said to us, when we change we must be sure that it is for the better”.
Siddharth didn’t know anybody in Mumbai. His father wasn’t approving of Siddharth coming to the business of entertainment. However, with a degree in mass communication, it was advertising that drew him towards his first job. A short stint at Rediffusion DY&R led to another very short spell in the Sales department of India Today. He needed a job because he had to make two ends meet but he wasn’t able to stay too long with his first couple of jobs.
He also worked at Euro RSG in the accounts department but yearned for a creative position. Siddharth was appointed to the Sony Max account at the agency and he and his team got a couple of coveted awards for the campaign as well. “Those were exciting times when we used Bachchan and Govinda lookalikes and took them from agency to agency to entertain our clients and bag sponsorships”, he says to me. “But the high came when I worked on a condom brand and we put a sticker on a manhole with the line – You’re safe when you’re covered. Next came a job at JWT but I was restless because I was still not on the road that would lead me to where I wanted to go. It was the year 2004 and I remember my family was worried for me. They wanted to see me settle down and I was showing no signs of getting close to that. I wanted to make ads if that would pose as a start point for me but despite my going place to place asking to be given a chance, nothing was working out. Then Tushar Shah called me one day and told me that there was an opening at Sony Max in the marketing department and I should go for it. I took his advice and I think that is when exciting times started to unfold for me. It was because Tushar Shah had faith in me that I was able to do many things including Brand Marketing. I did Gully Cricket with Kapil and Mandira and it was then when Tarun Katial noticed me. He asked me one day, what I was up to and I told him that I wanted to make films. Tarun absorbed me into the new content department he was leading and I for the first time started dealing with stories. I was listening to pitches and hunting for great ideas. I was beginning to feel good. My colleague and I found a beautiful story about conjoined twins and we were convinced that it should be made into a series. We pitched it internally to the network and all the bosses were sure they wanted it too. We were looking for a creative team when Mr NP Singh suggested to me that I should produce the show. Everyone could see my desperation to be a storyteller and if it weren’t for the encouragement, what happened next would not have been possible. Kunal Dasgupta was the CEO at the network and when we pitched the series to him all he asked us was, when we could go on air with the show? It took me a few minutes to understand what he had said. We went hurrying to look for investors, Ke Sera Sera came forth and the rest is history. Swastik was up and running as a production house. The series was called Ambardhara. We had no sets. We were shooting on locations – those that were available to us because we were newcomers and we couldn’t afford hiring studios for long periods of time. That was a fascinating time – a period of learning, experiencing and responding to both the demands of a cut throat business as well as the success that came along with it on offer”.
I wanted to know more about that stage of his life, the impressions he gathered and the way in which he shaped his own life around them? Siddharth says, “You become the person that your experiences make you. My father’s words telling me to become a better person when I would have to change were my go-to philosophy. I came from a protected environment and here I was flung into what is called the big bad world. I didn’t have anybody to guide me because nobody in my family or circle of friends had any knowledge about the industry. I depended upon my gut and my conviction. When people told us where to go, we just went. How were we to know whether we were being led correctly or we were being misled? So we meandered away at times because in a competitive world about which you know very little, you don’t have a choice but to take advise and follow it. We made mistakes but when you’re at a learning phase in life, you take everything in your stride. You win some - you lose some. You make new friends and you lose old ones. It’s all a part of the process and there is very little control you have upon things so you let go and allow yourself to enjoy the ride – however good it is, however bad. I had my fair share of moods and experienced betrayal, sadness as well as pain but then it was my brother Rahul or else the power of my father’s words – one or the other that I could lean on and move forward with. While I was an executive I knew it was not my final destination so I absorbed all that came with it. Similarly as a storyteller and producer I know that the road never ends. You keep walking. When you already know that it is you who is going to pave the path for yourself and nobody else is going to oblige, then you have to depend on your confidence and you have to trust your instincts – even at such times after they’ve let your down. You don’t have a choice”.
Siddharth is now in a mood to go on talking. I don’t want to interrupt because he is thinking and speaking simultaneously – trusting me with his deepest, so I continue to make notes.
“Swastik for me is this company we have created to tell stories. So the story is most important. Everything else in the production house is the bi-product of the stories we tell. When I set out to create something I feel very vulnerable because each time I find myself standing in front of an empty blackboard with chalk in my hand – I can’t help but look at life like that because my father was a teacher and I picture him as a man standing with chalk in his hand in front of an empty blackboard. It is the imagery of him I’ve created in my mind since childhood. At first it is scary because I don’t know what I’m going to write but once I allow myself to express, it comes – it comes pouring out. It doesn’t matter what genre or what style I’m going to be adopting. I allow it to flow and that’s all there is to it. Once written it gets produced and then comes the time when you release it, let it go and sit back to see how it has worked. I yearn for appreciation. I look out for positive feedback. It’s not about money. Everybody here has money. It is about appreciation and respect. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. I have experienced failure as much as I have experienced success. I know the feeling when you lose control of a narrative and it abandons you. It’s through the experience of all my failures – mind you not my successes – that I’ve learnt the importance of consistency. I’ve learnt that you cannot be erratic. I’ve learnt that you have to come back to the same place everyday and do your job. I’ve learnt that before you get on to the road you need to test the intent behind the story. If the intent is good, it’ll fly. If the intent is something you’re vague about, then you might as well throw in the towel before getting into the drivers seat. I have also learnt that it is consistency, which creates legends. People judge you and it is in your hands how you want the world to perceive you – what that work is, which you want to be known by”.
We continue talking and I ask Siddharth about those things that happened due to which he’s been able to scale up his enterprise to this level and make Swastik and One Life Studios, businesses to reckon with. Was it a mega show like the Mahabharat, which was also a mega risk to take? What gave him the strength to take it on?
He thinks for a long time and finally says, “One thing I know is that we’re not in a service industry. We’re in the products industry. Every show we make requires the same amount of intensity and focus. Mahabharat happened to me. Vivek Bahl called me and when we met he said to me that he liked the way I develop characters and he would like me to produce Mahabharat for Star. I couldn’t believe it but I took on the challenge. It took us five whole years but we had decided to do it so we put everything we had into it. Uday Shankar, Gaurav Bannerjee and Danish – all of them put their faith in me and gave me the courage to go ahead with what I perceived to be the biggest dream of my life. I lost my business partner along the way because he wasn’t able to go beyond a point with the risks we were taking, what we were investing towards the show. It was a crazy time. People would come and tell me that the Mahabharat was a jinxed subject. I was obsessed with the story by then and it had taken over my life. It is such a vast story, an epic, and a mythology that India breathes to the beat of and here I was committed to making it relevant to a whole new generation of Indians. Uday Shankar it was, who introduced me to the idea of premium content. He wanted Mahabharat to be a premium show, so that the world would turn to see it. I took all the risks surrounding the project because I trusted Uday Shankar and surrendered myself to his vision. He encouraged me to go for it and get into the skin of the game, put my money where my mouth is and today I thank him. Porus followed, Shani, Mahakali, Razia Sultan came next. I learnt that it was important to own content, to build assets. I realized that broadcasters like it if you play along with them and don’t stand at the opposite end with a begging bowl in your hand for commissioned work only. I understood the business through the Mahabharat experience and that is how I scaled up Swastik and established One Life Studios. Ambardhara was my first show so also my first love but Mahabharat changed my life – it’s not a story that you can just tell like that. It’s about how you understand subtext and how you present it because it impacts peoples lives – it is such a powerful narrative that once you understand Mahabharat, you will not need to read the Vedas – so that’s also how huge your responsibility towards it is when telling the story. Then of course the visual effects, the grandeur… One Life Studios came into existence with Porus and after that is when we starting distributing content as well. The scaling up started from Mahabharat. We invested in a studio, a state-of-art infrastructure. It’s called Swastik Bhoomi and is in Umargaon”.
So what comes next was my next question to Siddharth.
“So from only producing television shows we’re now making web-series. Our first will go on the floors soon. I’m co-writing it with Jaya Mishra and it is for Hotstar. It’s another very exciting phase because we are now being able to experience a wider spectrum of narratives. We’re also now ready to take more risks so I am investing in documentary films and movies as well. We’re working with several regional languages so there’s a lot on the plate”.
What else? I say to him and he smiles.
I feel blessed. I’m happy. I haven’t yet made my film but I am writing it. It’s taken me twelve years to come to this place. My wife Gayatri pretty much leads the way as far as my life goes. We got married ten years ago and Rohaan, our son, was born a month before we started shooting for the Mahabharat. Today I feel more relaxed because I don’t carry the burden of having to trust myself because Gayatri has faith in me. She sees to it that I keep stepping out of my comfort zone and disrupts everything around me when she notices that I am becoming habituated to my surroundings. Gayatri and I are both restless so one of us drives change at every given point in life. We keep reinventing ourselves; we keep going back to the drawing board and starting from scratch again. We just like it that way”.
He stops and looks at me. “Am I sounding like Swastik is all about only Gayatri and me”?
I smile as he continues, “I hate to let people go. I hold on to them. I believe people make organizations and without my core team, without Nitin, Amol, Ritesh Kaul… without my brother Rahul Tewary… I wonder if we would ever have been at the place where we are today…”