Television: a profile of young star Rahul Agarrwal
Today's career: Television; Reporter: Nuzhat Aziz; Photographer: Satish Bate
He could have taken the easy way out and joined his father's film production company. But a yen to make it on his own and a booming television industry drove Rahul Agarrwal towards the small screen. Today, at 28, he's produced one of India's most successful reality shows and is gung-ho about the industry.
He would love to call his company 'Gone out for Lunch.' Instead, deciding not to wear his chilled-out credentials on his sleeve, he went for the sober Gold Mark Inter Media and Star Entertainment Production.
Just back from a short trip to Phuket with his group of three close pals, he refused to talk about the holiday. It would be violating the pact he made with his friends, he said.
"It was a trip of debauchery," he said, laughing uncontrollably in his obscenely spacious three-bedroom flat in Andheri's Lokhandwala Complex, the address to have if you work in the television industry. "Whatever happened in Phuket shall remain in Phuket."
Meet 28-year-old Rahul Agarrwal, whom people in the industry fondly call the 'biggest loser.' He can afford to take the sobriquet on the chin because he's anything but a loser: he produced one of India's most popular television reality shows, Biggest Loser Jeetega, which aired on the Sahara channel last year. Inspired by an American game show format, Biggest Loser Jeetega brought together overweight participants under one roof and tracked their moves as they tried to lose weight.
He earns Rs 12 lakh a month from selling television formats to channels, and pays Rs 25 to 30 lakhs a year as income tax. He owns a Lexus Land Cruiser. He ain't starving.
Agarrwal symbolises the opportunities in the exploding television market. From production to editing to acting to post-production, "There are channels mushrooming and the demand for shows and soaps in increasing. There is plenty of work for anyone and everyone who is looking to make a career in television," he explains over cups of steaming coffee. His friends have branded him "crazy."
"Sometimes, when we are out having dinner at a posh restaurant, my friends often challenge me to sit at someone else's table," he said.
"The challenge is that you have to sit and make conversation and also eat from the food they've ordered without being thrown out. I do it with a lot of ease."
So what's this guy's back story?
After completing his schooling in Delhi, where he was born and grew up, Agarrwal went to Melbourne to pursue a double major in media and theatre at the Deakin University. Theatre? "I couldn't sit in a classroom doing English honours," he said. "And I always wanted to pursue media, but wanted my graduate degree to be a bit flamboyant." Whatever.
On returning to India from Australia in 2003, he desultorily dabbled in his father's film producing business, but actually wanted to strike out on his own. He tried to get into direction, just "like every other person in the industry."
"I had two scripts ready and started meeting a lot actors," he recalled. "But as usual, no one was willing to act in a movie when they heard I was directing it."
So the hunt for self-actualisation continued. He began thinking small. At this time, in 2000, television shows inspired by overseas formats, like Kaun Banega Crorepati and Indian Idol began catching on.
"Since I was getting nowhere with film direction, I decided to do something with reality television and started looking at what was happening across the world," he said. "I found The Biggest Loser."
Agarrwal explained that he met Bollywood actor Suniel Shetty when was about to acquire the format. Shetty saw all the episodes of Biggest Loser in America, and said he would like to host the desi version. "I was elated," said Agarrwal.
"Rahul is young, enterprising and willing to work and listen, which is very important," said Suniel Shetty. "He exemplifies the fact that if you want to achieve something really bad, it's not impossible."
The logical next step was to buy the rights to the format from NBC, the US network that aired the show. Agarrwal already knew a lot of people in NBC. Through his friend in the US who is his partner, he approached the network and clinched the deal.
"My profit was actually marginal, because my aim was to get a foothold in the television industry," he said. "I know people who are standing in queue with 100 pilot episodes shot and no one is buying their idea. I knew if I could pull this one off it would be the biggest shows of television history."
He admitted that his family's financial backing played a huge role, but quickly added that nothing had been served to him on a platter.
"I could have been just a production manager in my father's company, but I struck out on my own by becoming an entrepreneur. I always like to think out-of-box. I am wired differently," he said.
What's next on the agenda? A lot.
He's preparing for Biggest Loser Jeetega's second season. His company has also acquired the rights to broadcast worldwide animation films, video games and mobile content and products based the famous US comic strip Archies. For the animation, he has hired the U.S. artists and technicians who created The Simpsons. "For instance, if someone in Spain wants to broadcast Archies, they will have to pay me," he explained.
He's clearly betting big on the small screen. "Television is humungous and is growing," he said. "The next three years in India will be crucial. A zillion channels are opening up and they will need software. Reality shows are going to get a big boost. Of course, any format will have to be localised to suit the Indian audience's palate. We have to add a bit of singing and dancing and all the other masala."