In the spirit of the theme Breaking Ground, we interviewed various professionals from diverse fields who have, in their respective ways, traversed uncharted territory. Each of their stories deals with success, loss, sacrifice, and most importantly: lessons.
Dr. Achyut Vazé
“Work with conviction and passion, and you will succeed. The universe will not have a choice but to make you succeed.”
Dr. Vazé (or Achyut sir, as his students know him), began the interview with nearly as much enthusiasm as our editors did. Starting off with the description of his journey thus far, he narrated a number of milestones and moments that one could identify with, aspire to, and wish for.
“There are three or four different chapters in my life, almost independent of each other,” he started, setting the tone akin to Morgan Freeman’s narration of a story. A Mumbaikar, born and raised, Dr. Vazé began his academic journey after moving to Delhi and consequently Ahmedabad, for his higher learning. “I had a blast doing everything,” he said, “with a fair share of problems too,” a characteristic smile and a laidback look on his face. He ironically disclosed to his two former students that he was detained in his second year of college due to a lack of attendance. But his primary motive for moving away to Delhi was more for independence than learning economics. Towards the end of his undergraduate studies, Professor Vazé applied to the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA), for the sole reason that his batch mates were doing the same. Serendipitously, he was the only student from his college who got in, which made him accept and then attend. “I had no knowledge of math, guys,” he confessed, laughing, “I almost thought of leaving!” Through the IIMA journey, he remained true to his passion for theatre, writing and directing at every chance he got. From his school days, right through Delhi and Ahmedabad — he wrote and featured in plays in Marathi, which he would often stage in Bombay (during his time off), and promptly go back to create more. Reminiscing fondly, he excitedly told us of how people would wait for him to write. “I could never complete it, so we would start rehearsing and I completed it as we went along. What kept us going,” he revealed, “was passion.” The motive, to his mind, was never commercial, but with support from the media, the plays were a hit. Professor Vazé even staged a play for the National Defense in Ahmedabad, (with Mallika Sarabhai in the cast), and while the tickets sold like hotcakes, collecting the money became impossible, putting him and his crew in a pickle at the time of graduation (where they received empty envelopes until the account was cleared), because of the amount they still owed to the National Defense Fund. After working at Tata Economic Consultancy for a while, the next phase of fascination was Television. When the private sector juts about started channels, he decided to venture into it. “We wrote and aired 2,000 plus hours of television,” he told us. “This was before Balaji came into the picture.” The show was initially produced by Doordarshan and then taken over by Zee TV Marathi. Once he’d worked in every kind of televised content (from game shows to soaps and chat-shows), boredom set in. “Then I went back to my first love, which was academics,” he said. This dream was returned to after 20 odd years, and manifested, initially, as setting up and running the Media School by the Mumbai Education Trust. A year later, his mentor and professor invited him to join and lead Flame University, Pune. “I became a man of two cities,” he laughed. “The concept of liberal education was something that really excited me.”
His future aspirations continue to be about Liberal Education and making its accessibility less concentrated to the elite and privileged. True to his passion, even today, Professor Vazé can be seen in the classroom or hallway of the Jyoti Dalal School of Liberal Arts, where he is likely narrating his experiences to his economics students, watching Star Wars with his Screenwriting and World Cinema Class, evoking creativity in the most endearing ways from the Creative Writing class, or — most probably — asking the frantic undergrads to “relax!”.
“No one teaches you that being a decent human being is what counts the most.”
The conversation with Sara Bhinder, a senior administrative at UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) was filled with a sense of enthusiasm on her end, and rapture on the editors’. Listening to her convoluted journey to her position today, we considered it nothing short of a groundbreaking adventure.
The Toronto born-and-raised diplomat interjected her experiences every so often with a lesson and wisdom, that would only make a comeback retrospectively, restoring one’s faith in karma and fate. “My career in the UN wasn’t something that I envisioned growing up,” she started. Her context of supportive parents was made crystal clear (as opposed to the pigeonholing immigrant parents of the time, who decided their child’s ambition for them). Starting out with an interest for public relations she found opportunities after more rejection than success, which unfolded to be better than what she could ever have asked for. Starting off at a logistics company, her diligence and sincerity landed her a position at the Canadian Ministry of Labor. “It was super clerical,” she described, “but my work ethic remained.” True to her father’s principles, she didn’t clock-out at 8 hours just because she was being paid for 8 hours. This tendency got her to the most harrowing interview of her life, which, despite it ending in tears, landed her a permanent job with the Ministry of Labor. After hard-earned promotions and crushing roadblocks that didn’t so much as scratch her compassion and kindness, the Level 10 professional started working for the permanent mission for Canada with the UN in New York City. Bouts of homesickness and dissatisfaction ended in ferrying back and forth from Toronto to New York City (the latter of which she fell in love with). And after a series of interviews and some rejections due to being ‘overqualified,’ fate responded with kindness in the form of a serendipitous visa, granting Miss Bhinder a post at the office of emergencies in UNICEF. After years at this position and a life-changing trip to Dakar, Senegal, she became a Level 5 member of the specialized polio-eradication team in developing countries. Then came her participation in the G7, where she worked under the ex-Prime Minister of the UK, Gordon Brown, for providing education to crisis-stricken countries, as a part of the ‘Education Cannot Wait’ unit. After 31 years of experience, she is now a part of UNICEF’s 2020 Youth Mandate: ‘Generation Unlimited’, which works towards making the people between the ages of 13-25 years (the highest global demographic) attain success by realizing their infinite potential.
When asked about her biggest learning and advice, Sara’s answer surprised us: “When you’re out there in the world, people forget the one principle that is to be nice and kind and human… schools and jobs teach you strategies and competitiveness, but no one teaches you that being a decent human being is what counts the most. Some parts of my journey have been a success only because someone has been grateful or touched by something nice I’ve done for them. So never change your values and principles.” Our conversation closed with a philosophical lesson that came from her wisdom and experience: what is meant to be yours will be yours. If something is yours, no one can take it away; if something isn’t yours, you will not be able to obtain it, because it’s meant for somebody else. So maybe Fate does have a funny way of working, after all, and her story is proof.
“We owe it to ourselves to find and pursue our life purpose, no matter how discouraged we may at times feel.”
Do you ever wonder, if your life story had to be a book, which one would it be? For Ensia Mirza — a filmmaker, writer, and director — that answer is clear: it would be The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Just like Santiago, she did not know what she should do with her dream. All she knew was that she wanted to make films. At 17, with a dream so big and no road paved, it would’ve been easy for her to just give up, had it not been for an inexplicable pull that kept her going.
With a penchant for horror and a fascination with the supernatural, the movie ‘Ring’ gave her the push she needed by impacting her so much, that she was afraid to look in the mirror, lest Samara popped up! That’s when she realized the kind of impact she wished to create on the audience: something that stays back long after you’ve watched the film, and believes that the journey is as important as the goal.
Her first dalliance with films was by making short-films way back in 2011 and she has been making them ever since. Her first ever short film, titled ‘Ayega Ek Sunday’, was selected for MAMI under the Mumbai dimensions category and was screened at PVR. One of her most cherished moments was when a horror short film of hers was acquired by an international channel and was played on TV during Halloween.
Ghost stories, she confesses, was her Alchemist moment: one of achievement and success. Her favorite genre, coupled with her favorite director, Zoya Akhtar, made it a milestone. Of all the writers pitching stories, hers stood out the most. The biggest struggle, though, was the lack of self-belief. An introvert, she struggled to be assertive on sets. However, she was able to overcome this by adopting a mindset to learn, grow, and evolve at every chance. For her writing process, she always starts with R&D, “to gather material for my story universe and I splurge on reading books,” which also happens to be the part she most looks forward to. After this, she gets to the most dreaded one — writing.
“My favorite part when a film of mine is screened is just the unparalleled feeling to know that what we are watching now was once only in my imagination,” she revealed, explaining how once incoherent thoughts were now a story. When we asked Ensia about what we can look forward to from her, she revealed that she is working several projects at the moment. A horror web-series written by her, (which she directed the pilot of last year) is based on an exciting concept, unlike what we have ever seen, causing every viewer thus far to shudder. “Apart from that, there is another film which is in pre-production at the moment,” she said. Upon asking Ensia if she considers herself to have achieved success, she reveals that her version of success is based on values and substance, rather than money the approval of others. “And the beautiful thing about it is that it can never be taken away by a bad economy or trends.” That being said, she does concede that her journey (and ‘success’) has only just begun.
To all aspiring filmmakers, she advises “Write a story, make a short film and send it to film festivals. Also, invest in yourself by reading and watching quality content and exploiting every resource available.” We look forward to seeing more of her at the movies!
Dr. George Jose
“When you’re a pathfinder, it can be very lonely ride. But at the end of the day, it is some of those very lonely journeys that become the touchstone for civilization itself.”
Dr. Jose, dean of the JD School of Liberal Arts at the Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, begins the interview just like he begins his classes: taking something you know, and turning it into a bag of questions, making the known an unfamiliar and beautiful exploration. “The ground is a vivid metaphor,” he begins, as it reminds him of Rushdie’s novel and the idea of pulling the rug from under one’s feet. The ground, he explains, can often be assumed to be something but begs to be investigated. So it is only natural, and in due course, to break ground and take a look at what lies under, questioning its very nature.
When Liberal Arts Education was compared to ‘groundbreaking’ as a concept, the professor discusses the current aversion to scepticism. “Scepticism was an assertion of life,” to now being passé; and this precisely is one of the greatest challenges in education — bringing back the ability to be sceptical without, it being negative. Related to that, comes the problem of “liberal education in an increasingly illiberal world,” one which takes for granted the ground it stands on. So how do we find a scepticism that is ours? One that allows us to engage without impatience with the world? It is the duty of liberal education to engage with just that. The red line, however, is for scepticism not to turn into cynicism — because the latter means the death of the former.
One of the primary challenges to implementing this for the Liberal Arts that Professor George talks about, is its association with the elite and its sense of exclusivity. The perception of Liberal Arts education has always been that of luxury with democracy as the enemy, so the goal is to, unquestionably, break that notion. The action plan? Introspection. If diversity, multiple methodologies, and the ability to deal with ambivalence and ambiguity are our values, “we must look at what kind of pedagogue, syllabi, and methodology helps us clarify and refine those values.” And the one thing that helps traverse these challenges, is an unwavering belief in the self, and making these values one’s own. “When you’re a pathfinder, it can be a very lonely ride. But at the end of the day, it is some of those very lonely journeys that become the touchstone for civilization itself.” In that spirit, he dubs Tagore’s ‘Ekla Cholo Re’ as an anthem for the Liberal Arts — one that undertakes a voyage solely on the confidence and beliefs of its values.
The discussion promptly moves to ‘agonism’ — the recognition that you need an enemy for your progress. To recognize “that the enemy is a part of the energy of what creates the dialectic of the present,” something, Dr. Jose believes, is inherent with The Riptide itself! He believes that this philosophy is also something that helps one become equipped for battle, rather than avoiding it. “Success,” he says, “is a difficult word to understand,” stating that the only definition worth adhering to is the one that can be framed for and by the self. The best way to do this, then, is to learn from conflict, gain clarity on your values, and therefore make success each moment of the journey rather than the destination.
We were left thinking of his spin on the myth of Sisyphus — embracing the sense that the day, the task, the routine, the mundane motions will bring with them their own challenges, and consequently, their own rewards, while distinguishing our roles and positions from our personal ‘success’ and identities. So while his students may be able to hold a conversation fluent in Appadurai and Foucault, we still might seek clarity on nuances from Sociology 101, because it was never about ‘covering’ the syllabus anyway: it was about uncovering it.
“Don’t over-celebrate your wins, and the losses won’t devastate you.”
Mr. Ghag’s approach to the interview, much like his work, maintained a threadbare balance between being impassioned and grounded. Expressing a spirit of being an undying student, his conversation with the editor was one of learning as much as fascination.
Answering what made him realize his fondness for law, he explained that passion was a combination of skill set, and work that you feel rewarded by. “It all starts with liking,” he explained, “and success is what converts it to passion.” Upon being asked if this road to success was a winding one, Mr. Ghag explained that starting out for him was an uphill climb. “The legal fraternity is a tight-knit one,” he revealed, and being accepted into it in the ’80s as a first-generation lawyer posed the biggest challenge. His contemporaries were products of generations in the field, and received cases and briefs from law firms, (which Mr. Ghag compares to the ‘Big Banner Production House’) — and while some have that silver spoon in their mouth, others have to carve their own niche with one (which proved to be harder in a practice that runs on appearance, wins, and withstanding scrutiny). When asked what made him flourish under the microscope, he frankly revealed, “I’d explain my cases to my driver or peon, and if they didn’t [understand] it, the fault was with my explanation.” This practice of conveying convoluted and technical information to someone lacking its context and knowledge, in his opinion, helped him refine his articulation by simplifying his case, facilitating an efficient and straightforward presentation (and understanding) of the matter to anyone within or beyond the courtroom. As a tip for aspirants, Mr. Ghag revealed his habit of reading a judgement a day, a part that is as integrated into his routine as brushing one’s teeth (and is just as integral). He dubs this penchant as a great teacher, because of the constant sense of learning the multitude of perspectives on a singular occurrence. Citing the example of Krishna Iyer J., he smilingly recalled how some lawyers and judges alike needed a dictionary when understanding his judgement, owing to his prolific understanding and usage of the English lexicon. When asked about the shifting trends in his field, we learnt that the doors aren’t so closed to new lawyers anymore, which he considers an incentive to take up the profession.
Curious about the hectic rigamarole of his day, we enquired about his manner of coping.“Discipline.” He also attributes a lot to his hobby of painting, which he jokingly stumbled upon but found himself invested in, now creating works of art with patience and success. His definition of success is perhaps what encapsulates his philosophy: a sense of achievement that brings him peace. A respecter of balance, Mr. Ghag prides himself in maintaining walking the tightrope of time, with a career to vie for, activities to learn, and non-negotiable ‘family time’. Mr. Ghag gave an equally important nod to remaining grounded despite victories and losses, and dropped a simple rule of thumb: “Don’t over-celebrate your wins, and the losses won’t devastate you.” Towards the end, smiling with encouragement, he wished health and perseverance upon anyone who would one day like to be a lawyer.
“If you don’t have pain through your journey, no learning curve… then that isn’t success.”
Growing up, Pooja Amar (née Shroff) was the kid who watched advertisements more intently than she did shows. That was the moment that she, the protagonist of her own story found, wide-eyed and willing, that this is what she was meant for. “I had gone to this place called Laloo’s in South Bombay,” she recalls, “and he has every ad that has ever aired. I was like a kid in a candy store.”
The first time she broke ground, she smilingly revealed, was when she fought the archetypical Sindhi conservative parents to attend St. Xavier’s College (which was rather distant from her Bandra residence), to attend a course that would give her all she wanted to learn at the price of coming home late, and by train. Rolling her eyes, she recalls how the possibility of getting accepted from a voluminous sea of applicants was extremely slim, and even having cleared the several rounds for admittance, when she did, in fact, get accepted, she could not attend due to her parents’ disapproval. “It took me a whole year to convince them to let me do this,” Amar re-enacted. Having attempted each round again the following year, she finally made it to the window seconds before it closed, climbing aboard a rollercoaster that would define her career trajectory.
Testing the waters at an ad agency, she realized that the work environment was too ruthless for her, and shifted, instead, to marketing for clients like ITC Maratha, or cosmetics. Chance dropped in her lap a job for her at the Leela Group of Hotels in Mumbai. Crediting Leela with giving her HNI experience and a far more refined palate, she went on to work at Future Capital. “I was the national marketing person for this company,” she explains. “It was a one-woman show.” Talking about how enriching the learning experience was, she discussed the various experiences, contacts, and lessons the job brought her. The major shift came in after moving to New York City after she got married. “It’s very easy to be irrelevant because you don’t know if you get the pulse of the market,” Pooja said, telling us about the difficult acclimation to a new society and environment. So she went back to watching ads! From dealing with micro-aggressions like “your English is really good!” and “we thought you spoke and learnt in ‘Indian’,” (one that she narrated with spot-on ignorance and an easy roll of the eyes), to be up against undergrads and students fresh out of Ivy Leagues in the job market. After revamping the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s image and relevance to suit younger attendees, the turn-point then came when she found out, by sheer luck, about a course at NYU that would give her the boost she needed. Taking up a part-time job to see the mindset of the market she intended to work with, Pooja began a stint at Godiva, where she began to grasp the patterns of the demographic. Putting herself out there and basically rebooting her personality, she gives the readers a little nugget of advice: don’t get cosy in your shell. This spirit, along with her bodyweight in determination turned her from a contract-based worker for Citibank to her current position of Vice President – Creative Management Team Lead, where she handles one of the company’s largest and most important portfolios (while collecting the coveted and scarcely won Leader in Excellence Awards along the way).
The one massive change she considers refreshing in the American corporate culture is the lack of austere adherence to hierarchy. “I know I’d get butchered if I did this in India,” she tells us, in context to a conversation she had with a superior who treated her as an equal. Through all the achievements and mountains she’s climbed, Pooja’s definition of success is a fascinating one: “when you can be a support system, a problem-solver or a mentor to someone — that’s success.” She describes it as a painful process that to be that person, but considers it the ultimate achievement once one undergoes it.
““I was the youngest in the room. I have been the youngest in the room for the most part.”
Saachi has been singing and learning music for the longest time. It was something her parents wanted her to do and she never thought of it as a career option. Mainly because it’s not something that is accepted commonly. It wasn’t until 12th grade when started giving it a 120% because of the amount of joy it gave her. It was then she decided to apply for a semester abroad at Berklee to study music. “That’s when it kind of shifted for me.”
When we think of music we think playback singing but on going there she realised the number of professions that come under the musical umbrella. It was there that she discovered songwriting. Saachi had always been a shy kid, afraid to perform in front of people, but going to America contributed a lot in terms of her growth. The people gave her a sense of confidence and security. Once she came back she started exploring the music that was made in India because she was never exposed to it earlier. It wasn’t long before bands and musicians began to get in touch with her to do backing vocals. Walking into the studio one day, she was extremely scared. “I was the youngest in the room. I have been the youngest in the room for the most part. I didn’t know anything about it and there’s always a kind of nervousness that comes with any art, especially if you don’t come from that background.”
For the next year, she started her days going to university and ended them at the studio fleshing out the songs she had. That’s how she released her debut, ‘Clarity’ in 2018. “When you’re doing something for the first time, it’s always the excitement of it. I remember we were doing final touches and I wanted to release it on my grandma’s birthday (it’s a very special day for me). So we kind of rushed through the first song in terms of the last-minute details. But I remember sitting there and being done and it’s really daunting. There’s no feeling like that; when it is finally done and out there. You made your little baby and it’s off into the world”.
Soon this dual life became a part of her. University, music and all the craziness that came wasn’t something she would trade for the world. The indie industry is still growing, and owing to its small size, it’s easy to get to know who is doing what. That’s how she got other projects, taking a step a day towards success. “I owe a lot of my collaboration credit to Instagram”. It was through her instagram, the music producer of the Amazon Original Series, ‘Four More Shots, Please!’ found her, and approaching her to do songs for the first season. Stepping out of her comfort zone and exploring is one of the biggest reasons she is where she is.“If you’re not experiencing different things, you probably won’t be able to write that well.” Currently, Saachi planning on pursuing independent music for a while at least. Her newer stuff will be very different from her debut and she also has a concept album in works for all her listeners! Her music is available for streaming here.
“In order to achieve, the first step is to dream.”
If you have ever been blessed enough to know your life’s passion from the start, you will be able to resonate with the incredible story of Jainil Mehta — Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at USC’s only Indian student, and an aspiring choreographer with many a shows and productions to his name.
What started with encouragement for performance at home turned into a young Jainil creating his own costumes, fashioning backgrounds, and putting up glorious living room performance for his family in full theatricality. From teaching his cook how to lift him, to making his own ‘sets’ inspired by Art Attack! on TV, his enthusiasm wasn’t restricted to just dance, but spilt over to the music, stage, creative performance, costumes — and often filming! The common undertone, and often the best part, of his work, is the unapologetic authenticity. “There’s always a connection it has to my story or my experiences,” he explains, talking about what makes his work so vivid. A good example of this is his ‘Pause & Play Series,’ which he ventured into poetry with! “I’m very dramatic,” he admits with a shy smile. “That’s a reflection of how much of a Bollywood-buff I am.” This tendency, evidently, has made Jainil comfortable in his own skin, giving him the strength to dream and achieve. Declaring his comfort for being on stage, he recounts an anecdote where he once, much to his chagrin, wet himself in the middle of a performance and continued bravely only to cry once the curtain fell. If that doesn’t say dedication — nothing does. Jainil also recounts the hardships of being a shy child with a brazen passion. Recounting his experience with the editors in highschool, he talks about the journey from being timid and quiet to the person whose chrysalis revealed a confident, friendly individual with accolades and positions. The bigger change then came with the move to Los Angeles. “My mental health took kind of a toll,” he explains retrospectively, talking about the difficult and daunting adjustment — “It was everything I wanted, but it was overwhelming.” He talks about the noted difference in teaching styles, where he was now exposed to a new level of freedom and individuality. “It was about me finding my style… it was difficult and still is, because I’m still exploring, but after a year of adjusting to it, it feels a lot better.” His greatest learning? Each ‘bad thing’ is a learning experience. Take it, and turn it into art with success! Giving a nod to the institutions that got him this far, he says that they are important stepping stones that guide you to your said success. From the value system at Jamnabai Narsee School, to the exposure at USC, it’s all made him who he is! Jainil credits most of it to the encouragement he received from his grandfather, who taught him that to achieve, the first step is to dream (which inspires his motto ‘dream to dance’). His performances can be viewed on his Youtube Channel and his Instagram.
Describing the intimate dance community at Kauffman, he talks about how he founded FIDAA, a space dedicated just to the passion for dance and learning it. Making a niche of his own and surrounding himself with all the positivity and passion, Jainil’s story is spectacular to watch, and its dance has only just begun.
We would sincerely like to thank each of our interviewees for taking the time out of their busy schedules to indulge in such an enriching tête-à-tête.
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