New Delhi: By the time Biswapati Sarkar, the host of comedy series Barely Speaking with Arnub, was 10 years old, he knew he would study at an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT); what he didn’t know was where he would go next.
“I was in Class V or VI and one of my maternal uncles was from IIT-Kharagpur, we went for a (family) wedding and my mother said to me ‘he is from IIT, touch his feet; if you become 1% like him, then that’s a big thing,"’ he recalls.
The uncle was treated like a mini celebrity by the rest of the family who fawned on him. That’s the first time Sarkar, now 27, heard about the elite engineering school. He did indeed go on to study at IIT-Kharagpur, thanks to a mother who slogged to make sure he went to the school so that his “life is set".
But his engineering degree is not the source of livelihoood for Sarkar. He makes a living writing comedy sketches as creative director of The Viral Fever (TVF), a new media and entertainment set-up. He also plays Arnub, a take-off on television news anchor Arnab Goswami, who is known for his aggressive style of questioning and the heated debates he hosts on Times Now. Spoofing Goswami has made Sarkar an online sensation.
Growing up in the steel town of Rourkela in Odisha, Sarkar’s earliest memories are of reading books and watching movies. While a love of books was instilled in him by his parents and the government library in Rourkela, the latter was thanks to the reforms of the 1990s that allowed foreign TV channels to start satellite broadcasts.
“So cable had just come in around 1992-93 and at that time they used to show a lot of films at night. In 1994, the first-ever English film I saw was Jurassic Park and I was completely blown away. I couldn’t understand what was happening and my father used to say these (dinosaurs) are robots... That was my first experience of cinema. In 1996, we experienced the 24-hour cable network. I couldn’t believe my new TV had 11 channels," recalls Sarkar.
Exposure to the English films he saw during his days at college, the discovery of cable television and watching a Hindi dubbed version of James Cameron’s Titanic were a prelude to his becoming a part of the media and entertainment world.
Sarkar says he isn’t really an aberration among IIT students, insisting that many students who study at the institution actually end up discovering other passions.
“They are ordinary students who have just studied very hard for the past five years. IIT gives them the space to discover other passions," says Sarkar. Nearly 50% of the students, he reckons, end up following those passions.
For Sarkar, the real battle lay in convincing his parents, especially his mother.
“My mom knew I used to watch a lot of films; she knew I was into dramatics and now that I had gotten into IIT she was OK with it. But it was a complete ‘no’ for her when I got back and told her my plans...," he recalls.
It took a lot of cajoling and a pre-placement offer from TVF, albeit one that paid him little to begin with, to convince her.
Liberalization had a big impact on Sarkar and his family, and that wasn’t limited to cable television. He recalls that the steel plant where his father worked was on the verge of shutting down and the family was planning to move to Kolkata, then Calcutta.
“But then suddenly something happened around 1996-97 and the plant started booming, sales started increasing. I remember my dad telling me that China is our biggest customer right now. So after the steel plant started making profits, the city started changing, the roads became wider, footpaths were placed...when I connect the dots, I think this was because of liberalization," says Sarkar.
His career choice, too, is an indirect result of the reforms that opened up new options in the job market; what had previously been dismissed as hobbies became professional opportunities.
TVF and other new media start-ups rely on YouTube to air their content, reaching a vast audience. Apart from spoofs, TVF also has several shows to its credit centered around subjects like entrepreneurship and live-in relationships with intelligent humour.
This has helped create a huge following for the media start-up among youngsters. This has dovetailed with the growing popularity of stand-up comic acts in the country—some of these comics happen to be IIT graduates.
This is the seventh part in a series marking the 25th anniversary of India’s liberalization.