Chances are that most students from the 2007 batch of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, will not be able to recall a Tarun Singhal. But if you ask them about a “Shah Rukh Khan”, they are likely to remember a boyish-man of average-height with floppy hair and a wide smile.
Though most of his mannerisms resemble SRK—rumbling motorcycle-like laugh, sparkling eyes, gesturing with his hands while speaking—his fingernails, half-painted red, seem odd and stand out. “I am playing a eunuch in a play we are scheduled to perform in the first week of February. That’s why I have painted my nails,” says the 27-year-old, an MTech in chemical engineering who is now working as a corporate film-maker, theatre actor, scriptwriter and director. He is producing and directing his second play, Horn OK Please, with students of IIT’s drama club and some theatre actors.
Singhal gives credit to his seniors at IIT’s Kumaon hostel for helping him discover his love for acting. “It was a good thing that there was no ban on ‘interaction’ between seniors and freshers in my time... I was made to mimic Shah Rukh during one such session, and was christened thus for the rest of my IIT days.”
Performers collective: Ashutosh Matela (left) and Tarun Singhal at IIT Delhi’s amphitheatre, practising for their new play Horn OK Please. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
As a teenager growing up in Kota, Rajasthan, Singhal had one dream—to get through to IIT. His father and brother are both dairy technologists and from childhood, Singhal was encouraged to seek a career in science. “I wanted to take up computer science at IIT, but my all-India rank in the entrance exam was 1,525. I could not choose the subject I thought I wanted at that time.”
It is strange that even after seven-and-a-half years, Singhal remembers his entrance exam rank—just like his friend, senior and now partner Ashutosh Matela, who was ranked 1,531 in the 2001 entrance test, and got admission for a BTech course in civil engineering.
The 28-year-old, who hails from Haldwani in Uttarakhand, had dropped a year after school to prepare for IIT. He says the only extra-curricular activity he was exposed to during his school days was choir singing. “It was only when I came to IIT and started participating in events and festivals that I realized how much I loved dancing, and that I was good at it.”
By the third year, Matela had joined Shiamak Davar’s dance classes, and was also involved with film production, acting and choreography on campus. He interned at Lafarge Cement India, a French building materials company, but says he knew it was not the kind of work he wanted to continue doing. So he did not even sit for campus interviews after his final-year examination.
“My parents have accepted my decision on the face of it. (But) even now, when the date for CAT (Common Admission Test for management schools) approaches, my father—who is an engineer with ONGC (Oil and Natural Gas Corp. Ltd)—cannot resist informing me about it,” he says.
He laughs and adds that his parents have now diverted their attention to his younger sister, another ex-IITian from Delhi, who is now preparing for master of business administration (MBA) entrance tests.
“Kids are always told ‘get through the IIT entrance test, rest will be easy’. When you get through to IIT, and the studies start, it is so uninspiring that you start to panic. Then again we are told, ‘get through these four years, all will be well once you get a job’. Then you get a job and you realize you are back in the hellhole… It just never ends unless you have the courage to break away and do what you want,” says Matela.
Between 2005 and 2007, both Matela and Singhal dabbled in film production thanks to Formula 69, a 2008 release about IIT students made at the Delhi campus. Singhal played a leading role while Matela was the production head.
The duo, along with four other IIT-ians who were part of Formula 69, had also worked on Jigar Maachis, a viral video by students that they say got around 100,000 hits on the popular video-sharing website YouTube in 2007. Viral videos are only released on the Internet.
After graduating in 2005, Matela did a two-month stint for the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia, with Davar’s dance troupe and also tried his hand at working as a government-credited artiste with the song and drama division of the Union ministry of information and broadcasting. But he soon figured out that just choreography or dancing in shows wouldn’t pay his bills. “In Australia, I was paid 2,000 bucks for the whole month. It was not really any better here,” he says.
He then did a two-month course in direction from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, and returned to Delhi in 2007 to set up a company called Redmat Entertainment, with the aim of making documentaries, viral videos and corporate films.
Unlike Matela, Singhal found it tough to face his parents and explain after graduation that his passion was acting, not engineering. “I had to make a living and had to convince my father I could do that even though I wanted a career in performing arts,” he says. He even took up a job with a Gurgaon-based knowledge process outsourcing company through the IIT recruitment process.
Only 15% of their batchmates got a “core job”, or jobs that would use some of their elite IIT education, through the recruitment process. “Guys like me, who had a low CGPA (cumulative grade point average), like those guys in Five Point Someone, hardly have a chance at those jobs any way,” he says, referring to the Chetan Bhagat novel on which the film 3 Idiots is based.
He left the job in two months. “I was not trained for that kind of work anyway. The degree that I had would have got me jobs such as what I had during my internship—at Hindustan Zinc (Ltd) in Chittorgarh, Rajasthan. Do you know it is 50 degrees Celsius in summer there? I did not want to leave Delhi and theatre completely, so my plan of working and acting side-by-side did not materialize.”
Singhal then got into a partnership with the starring cast of Formula 69 to set up Desires Unlimited. “We made virals for (casual gaming website) Zapak and one on recruitment for Britannia (Industries Ltd). We were paid about Rs30,000 for these.”
His company also produced a play, Shit Happens, but by 2009, Singhal was left holding the fort. All his partners had left town. “Tarun and I (then) reconnected and decided to work together since both of us had the same dream. Now we work in partnership on corporate films, even on this new play,” says Matela.
Singhal says films such as 3 Idiots depict the state of higher education in India. “In my five years at IIT, there was only one professor, O.P. Amar, with whom I could interact freely. The gap between students and professors is vast; totally impossible to bridge,” he says.
But both also say the film did not do justice to the essence of an IITian’s life. “The campus life is much more than just studies. IIT gave guys like us a chance to discover ourselves and many of the professors and seniors were the catalyst for this self-discovery. Where else can you get that?” asks Singhal.