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The unusual suspects

Why do so many engineering students change track and turn to the arts? How do they manage to make the transition? When he was studying in IIT Delhi, Amol Parashar acted in two plays every year...

brunch Updated: Jan 19, 2013 19:53 IST
Manit Moorjani
Manit Moorjani
Hindustan Times

When he was studying in IIT Delhi, Amol Parashar acted in two plays every year. After he landed a high-paying job, he found he spent more hours rehearsing for his plays than he did at work. That’s when he quit and took the first train to Mumbai. That was four years ago. Parashar has since acted with Ranbir Kapoor in the movie Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year and done several TV commercials.

Shifting career streams is hard. But engineers have been taking this leap in droves. Whether they signed up for IITs out of parental or peer pressure or whether they discovered a new calling halfway through their studies, the fact is they are making the daring move to follow their dreams, be it in acting, writing or photography. your nerd can sing!

Engineering colleges are infamous for being hives for geeks, or brilliant minds that think of nothing else but engineering. But that’s not all there is to them. "Students who get into engineering have cleared an entrance exam, that shows that they are brilliant," says psychiatrist Dr Sanjay Chugh. "But for many, their creative side is not fully realised. That dissatisfaction brings a longing to be somewhere else, doing something else."

Delhi theatre actor Deepak Dhamija used to put up plays during his engineering course at ITM Gurgaon and during his stint in an engineering job. His passion for the stage continued even as he pursued an MBA at IIM Calcutta. By the end of it, he decided to take up theatre professionally and launch his own troupe, Shoelace Productions. "India has a huge number of engineers," he says. "Most end up doing supervising work which is not intellectually stimulating. So these people want to get into other creative things

Class In Culture
While the curriculum can be gruelling, most students on an engineering campus hurry to finish their day’s work. Because evenings are for play rehearsals, photography society meetings and the like. For some, it’s a great way to take the pressure off their studies, while for others, it’s probably more interesting than anything they did in the classroom or lab that day.

“At IIT, we had theatre workshops and inter-hostel cultural competitions,” says Parashar, who took to acting only in the second year of college. “We had auditions and rehearsals, especially during the annual fest.” Most engineering colleges hold a cultural festival in addition to a tech one – it gives students ample opportunity to hone their artistic sides. “We had the biggest fest in the country even back then!” recalls Anand Shivakumaran, a chemical engineer from the IIT Bombay class of ’93. He’s now a filmmaker, having made Money Devo Bhava in 2011.

Stand-up comic Nitin Gupta, an IIT Bombay graduate agrees. “In school, our focus was entirely on education. Then my parents wanted me to get into IIT, which ironically had many cultural societies. There I was drawn towards theatre and scripts, and later stand-up comedy. My parents thought it was a fad that would pass in five or six months. But the interest stayed.”

What’s my calling?
Many students who take up engineering out of societal or family expectations (or even a misguided sense of their own capabilities), end up facing this dilemma mid-way: What am I doing here? Some, like stand-up comic Nitin Gupta, follow their passion and call it quits. But it’s hardly easy.

Mumbai filmmaker Himanshu Bhatnagar, who comes from Kota, the hub of engineering entrance exam preparation institutes, followed the herd all the way to Bangalore’s Visvesvaraya Institute of Technology. There he began making short films in his spare time and some of them ended up winning awards in Bangalore. “My engineer dad wanted me to get promotions in my existing job,” says Bhatnagar. “But after he saw the awards, he realised how important this was to me. Although I still don’t think he knows what I’m doing!” Bhatnagar did get a promotion of sorts – he was the assistant director on Shivam, the Hindi remake of Assamese movie Dr Bezbaruah.

Bedabrata Pain, director of the 2012 movie Chittagong, was earlier a senior research scientist at NASA for 15 years. "After so many years working as a scientist, there were other things like filmmaking that I had always wanted to do," he says. "Also, I wanted to see if I could even do it or not. I had to reinvent myself, and who I really was. I did not want to rest on my laurels."

Bright lights, big city

For many engineers, the four to five years spent away from home are enough to seek out new avenues and discover aptitudes for streams never considered inside a classroom. “In a residential campus, if a student wants to develop a new interest, it is relatively easier than if he stays at home,” says IIT Delhi professor Manju Mohan.

Delhi guitarist Keshav Dhar says the idea of forming his metal band, Sky Harbor, happened in his hostel room at the Manipal Institute of Technology. “I found a lot of time to play the guitar and experiment with recording songs on my computer. Engineering also pushed me towards learning the technical aspects of sound recording.”

Spending time in a big city can also broaden an engineering student’s perspective. You watch people doing creative things

successfully, and you know you can do them too. Big cities, especially, are home to more creative platforms and like-minded people.

IIT-Kharagpur alumnus Devendra Purbiya, a fashion photographer, began honing his hobby along with a software job in Bangalore. The Ujjain native was pleasantly surprised when his hobby turned into a well-paying career. “I realised there were people willing to pay for my work,” he says. “Before I started working in Bangalore, I never thought I could earn a good living as an artist. My parents thought I would end up on the road! But then I began earning as much as I was in my day job, so they

didn’t oppose the shift.”

Transition Blues

Convincing parents is obviously an important part of the shift, else all hell might break loose, as it did for Biswapati Sarkar. In his third year at IIT Kharagpur, he went home and informed his mother about his new career choice: scriptwriting. So taken aback was she that she threw Sarkar out of the house. He had to spend the night at a friend’s place. “My parents couldn’t understand why I wasn’t interested in a good engineering degree, but I found writing so much more creative.” Sarkar now works at The Viral Fever, India’s first online TV channel. “Now, sometimes my mom calls me to talk about my work. That amazes me.”

Sarkar’s IIT batchmate and co-founder at The Viral Fever, Arunabh Kumar faced a different issue. Throughout his course, he mentioned his interest in filmmaking to his dad, who thought it would go away. He, however, continued to shoot short films and ads. Then one day, his father picked up the newspaper and read a story about viral videos made by his own son! “He called and said, ‘Beta, you’ve left your job? You are really a filmmaker now?’” Kumar recalls. “Till then, it was tough for him to understand my interest as he does not watch too many films.”

Out In The Real World
Changing one’s profession without a reality check can be a big gamble. At IIT Bombay, stand-up comic Vipul Goyal would perform comedy plays and spoofs. But he says he wouldn’t have considered taking it up professionally without looking at the market beyond college. “In college, it was easy to get misled,” he says. “There is a very small audience, and IIT is not an arts college. So it was important for me to do shows outside the campus before taking it up full-time.”

And once you get paid to do what you love, work isn’t a chore. Tarun Singhal, owner of the theatre company Desires Unlimited, sums up his love of acting with the words, “I can’t do any other thing. I don’t know what else to do.” Before getting into IIT Delhi, he would have said the same for engineering!

From HT Brunch, January 20

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First Published: Jan 19, 2013 16:20 IST