As part of the Outlook 18th anniversary events, a round-table was organised in Mumbai to discuss India’s GenNext, what their aspirations are and what the way forward for them is in a fast-changing India. Participants included Aditya Thackeray, grandson of Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray and head of its youth wing, the Yuva Sena; actress and model Nimrat Kaur, who played Ila in the much-acclaimed The Lunchbox; Agnello Dias, the adman behind campaigns like Lead India and Airtel’s ‘Har ek friend zaroori hota hai’; and Nishka Lulla, an exciting young fashion designer. Needless to say, this conversation about youth is happening at a time when Outlook too is turning 18 and entering its last teen year. This is a momentous time in many ways. Eighteen in India is when you first get the right to vote. And as India enters an election year—not to forget that Maharashtra too goes to elections in 2014—we ask our panel, do they really think today’s 18-year-olds are engaged with what’s happening in the country? Are they happy with the status quo, or are they for upsetting the proverbial applecart? Most importantly, are they looking to make their vote count? Prachi Pinglay-Plumber was the moderator.
Aditya Thackeray: I remember my [18th] birthday and a friend of mine gave me a card, which said “constitutionally eligible to make and break governments.” That was a pun for me but that is a very important right given to all of us. And I recently heard that there are 12 crore people, who are going to vote. 12 crore new people! It is very essential for people to go out and vote. Especially the youth because the trends I have seen is 18 years olds are just fresh out of college or in college last year. They have this fire to do something. They want to do something. They are passionate about going and voting for the first time. More than passion, it is also excitement. I remember my first time of going and voting. I think that will be a big movement this time. A lot of 18 years olds are going to go out and vote.
Prachi Pinglay-Plumber: What did you think Nishka? Did you go out and vote when you turned 18? Was it an excitement for you?
Nishka Lulla: Yeah, sure. It is like a choice you have and it was exciting because you are a part of changing the future of the country in some ways.
Prachi: Agnello, when you look at youth campaigns – you did Lead India as well as har ek friend zaruri hota hai – while one is political, the other is about consumerism, a product really. When you make them, what kind of attitudes do you find and how do you appeal to them?
Aditya Thackeray: Is it har ek vote zaruri hota hai?
Agnello Dias: The election commission did do a song on har ek vote. But I am the oldest here, so I can talk from an earlier perspective. Because when I was 18, there was no internet and there were no computers either. I think we have slowly moved and become a "width society" instead of a "depth society". More people want to know more things. They definitely know more things than we knew. Perhaps in order to do that, they have had to sacrifice knowing things thoroughly. So if you look at a younger kid, even before he turns 18 today... When we were younger, there were sports kids, culture kids and there were the scholars but today they do kathak in the morning, piano in the afternoon and study well, also do a bit of karate. So the options are kept open till much later-- in order to decide what you want to do. Whereas earlier you took a call around 10th or 12th because that was your life now -- you got made or broke by that decision. Today, you explore much later, and then you... or may be you never actually decide. So I think the quantity of messages reaching them has increased, so much that often the variety of choice is mistaken for a virtue of multi-tasking. It may result in 10 or 15 years of absolutely no specialisation at all. Everybody knows everything without knowing anything really well.
Prachi: Nimrat, did you have to go through the same grilling childhood, early teens or college where you also wanted to keep all the career options open while trying for theatre or modelling?
Nimrat Kaur: You know, I had a very unconventional growing up. My father was in the army and I lived in many different cities -- many different kinds of cities -- small towns, satellite towns, bigger cities sometimes. So you grow up in varied environments and your influences are quite confusing actually. An army environment is very protected, a walled city kind of environment, where everybody has the same income, you have the same birthday parties, you are given return gifts -- everything is the same. Everybody is moving up at the same pace.
So by the time I came to Delhi, where I completed my school education and I went to college I was quite confused. I didn’t know where I was going to be what I was going to do. Performing arts was something I was always part of. That was may be the only common thread that ran throughout my education, throughout my schooling years. But apart from that there were no friends or no long term associations. That was the only thing I knew was with me wherever I went.
And it is a seed -- you know you have to recognise it somewhere and then you have to find a way to nurture it and see if you can make a career out of it. Because coming from a non-artistic background completely, to make a profession of something that is considered a hobby in most middle class working families, like mine was... it took a little bit of courage to admit that to myself as well that I wanted to give up a good education that I had behind me.
So I did science in school -- science with economics in school -- and then I did my Bachelors in Commerce. Then I was, like, I don’t want to do science or commerce or chartered accountancy or an MBA but I need to do graduation. So this phase was just before my graduation. So how do I do this? I knew eventually I wanted to do what I do today but I wanted to keep my education solid to a minimum number of years. So there was architecture, engineering and bachelors in commerce -- that's five, four and three years -- so I came down to 3 years.
Agnello: Yeah, I think the number of safety nets has reduced. These are all safety nets. What happens if you don’t make it as an actor? So now the safety nets have reduced a lot.
Prachi: (to Nishka, Aditya) Both of you have actually followed the family vocation. Did you ever think of doing something else or becoming something else?
Nishka: I always knew I wanted to be a designer. Since I was little. I just knew it. I think, as she said, it is the influence of your background -- where you come from. I came from fashion background. I loved it so much, it became a hobby for me. That is what I wanted to do all the time. After school, not even when I turned 18, after school I went into fashion college. I did my BA (Bachelor of Arts) on the side by correspondence and I went into designing.
I think 18 as you say is the age, when you try to build a personality and you are trying new things. So, for me, to relate to the youth: I think they try to express themselves through their clothing rather than trying to impress everybody. Everybody is trying to build his/her personality and that’s the kind of fashion I am trying to portray as a designer. It is targeting the youth, where you can style yourself in a way that you express yourself. I feel that is important as a designer.
Aditya: I wanted to be an astronaut. Then I realised you need good math and good physics, so then I was like… that is not for me. Then I wanted to be a cricketer. I played for school, I was the opening bowler. We won the Harris Shield but you need pace -- in a certain career, for example Cricket, you need to go at that speed. So that happened. Then I took up studies. Before that, there was a phase where I wanted to be part of the army. All this happened and then I realised in college that -- as she said -- there has been one common thread. Ever since I was a child, I have been touring the state with my grandfather and with my father -- meeting people, loving to be a part of all that activity, sitting in all the meetings. I did my first thing at the Mumbai University, when the teachers strike was on. When I was successful in getting a breakthrough in that and the satisfaction, it gave me at the end of the day… that is what pulled me into this. So it was basically seeing this through childhood and two-three formative years. When I thought if I want to take a big step in this, let's start off with taking small steps, helping people around. So it has never been that I have been away from this field. Probably this was the most natural field for me. I said it the other day also, it is funny but when you help someone, you feel like Batman. That feeling has got me into this.
Agnello: Earlier you see in 10th or 12th your future was being decided. Admissions etc...
Aditya: But now, you see the toppers always disappear.
Agnello: So you know, I have a theory. We meet so many captains of industries -- at least, I have never heard of any of them saying, "In school or college, I was a merit-lister." I don’t know where they go. Like, "I am the CEO of the company and in 10th or 12th, I was on that toppers list.'
Nishka: May be they are working for the CEO?
Nimrat: It is fashionable to be a college dropout, no? Like Steve Jobs.
Aditya: No what happens probably, when you get a 95 or 96 -- which is also less nowadays -- you have a set pattern of life. You know you are going to get a job in this company. Once you get that job, you are so much into that routine that you don’t want to step out and dream something else. Whereas someone, who gets a 50-55%, doesn’t know where to go, what to do. They want to do something different to sustain, and that sustainability clicks somewhere.
Most of the toppers come once in the papers -- these tuition classes: first, second, third by one point zero something -- and then you disappear.
Agnello: Yeah, but what he is saying, think about it, okay? If you get a 95% at 18, you don’t have to think again. If you get 55%, you have think for the next five years. May be makes you think much more in a period when your thinking is more fertile. Otherwise all the guys whose thinking is most fertile have to go to engineering college.
Aditya: But it is also because of lack of opportunities. For example, do we have something for film studies? Do we have something for fashion studies? Do we have something for performing arts? No, we don’t. We have arts, science, and commerce.
Aditya: And that’s what [I] am trying -- to break my head over this system. Why not have something where you do photography with biology or do history with something else.
Nimrat: When I look back at my education years, not that I regret doing a graduation, but I really wish that I had taken up vocational training in something that interested me from [when I was] young. And literally when it came to the point to make that choice between Arts (humanities), Commerce or Science… Humanities was considered to be the worst of the lot. So as an 85-plus percenter, even though my inclination was towards history or languages, but woh toh faily log late hai (it is for flunkies) -- it is for people who fail or are flunkies. That was almost like an outcast section: I remember E and F.
Agnello: Except in Xaviers.
Prachi: Currently there are so many options before everybody and everyone is doing everything at the moment. Is that really taking away -- although it is great to have options -- from quality and perfection? Do you also feel that the attention span is so limited if the same person is doing 10 different things? Do you find it hard to grab their attention, hold their attention?
Agnello: Attention spans will be limited. If you see now, at least when I do advertising campaigns now, there are three-four films in one campaign. Earlier there used to be one campaign this year and second campaign will be next year but that’s because of number of messages coming through on TV. I am not sure in careers. It is like saying: Does a digital camera -- has it made people into better photographers or has it made everyone a bad photographer? So after initial turmoil it will settle down and once good photographers, who are anyway good at photography, will even come through with a digital camera.
But in terms of jobs -- if you see movies of the 1970s and 80s there would be a recurring theme. A “no vacancy” board, a guy with a file for a job, that is the reflection of the biggest tension point at that time. There were no jobs. Right now, there are jobs; but you just want a job that you like. that is correct for you. But it is difficult to imagine that you went in and there were no jobs but that’s why it was reflected in the movies. So when there is multitude of choices, I think it may make you delay your specialisation or perfection for sometime because you are trying out so many things.
Nimrat: I feel there is immense lack of patience, you know, in the youth today. I sense that a lot. I feel the requirement to do something quick and the need for returns and the need for that success to happen quickly. And there is very little patience and there is very little importance given to investment without the promise of a return. Everything is a quick gain. Everything is competitive in a strange way, I don’t understand that. I mean anytime I have communicated with college going people, fresh out of college, looking for a job -- money is very important, that is just so important. What is not important is how do you plan to live your life or the larger picture. Not that I had such philosophical intentions when I was 18 but I think there was lesser importance for money. That is something that just slightly disturbs me.
Agnello: I think she is right. I think dreams have been replaced by ambitions. There is a difference between a dream and an ambition. When we were younger and we went to our boss’s house and he had a big car we said, "We wish we have (that car)." Today somebody comes to a guy’s house, they say, "I want that". That is an ambition because he has examples around him. Like, we used to say, "We don’t know anyone, who has won a lottery." But he has examples around him of a lot of people, who have got it in the last four-five years. So this desire to have ambition makes them far more impatient and aggressive than when you have a dream where you say: "I hope this happens for me", versus: "I want this to happen."
Nishka: I think there are so many success stories, which are highlighted now through books, through media that everyone wants to be that suddenly. They are not willing to see what you have to go through to be there. It is: I want to be like that too. And there are many options. Even if a girl is going shopping -- earlier there were limited options. Now there is every new brand there. Everybody is getting confused. Everybody wants the big picture of what they see. I think that’s what it is.
Aditya: But I think it is also good in a way for our country. Getting only the best points of that, of course! There are so many success stories. Right after college, there are so many new millionaires, who have come up with e-commerce websites. Fashion industry is one of the biggest examples for girls today to come up in a way and have their own e-commerce sites. Or may be actors, or may be sports. The whole average age is going down.
Prachi: What we are coming to is that what the youth wants is good infrastructure and good opportunities. Are they willing to make the effort for it like in 70s and 80s?
Agnello:It is a socialism debate. There is a big role that internet plays in this because it allows you to lead a surrogate life.
Nimrat: Armchair philosophers…
Agnello: Earlier, if you believed in something you had to bunk college and stand in the rain to support that. Now, with a click you can save the whales, you can …
Nimrat: You can “Like” something…
Agnello: If this is so easy I don’t mind supporting it, but tell me to leave my job, bunk college and go and stand-- then, "No, no, let me think about it…"
Prachi: But how much do you rely on social networks? How important is social network for you as a politician?
Aditya: It is very important for people who can have influence on people because people follow you, people try to copy you at some level. It is good.
Prachi: How important is the internet for you, a person who is trying to reach out to people through acting or ads or theatre?
Nimrat: Well, I am not so much into social media. Of late, I had to because I was a part of a film. That compelled me to be a bit more out there. And it really did interest me to know what people thought. Apart from the usual expected fan mail or the warmth, that you experience, it is very interesting to see how Twitter works and it is almost every man’s newspaper article. You can pretty much be a journalist and you can say what you want to say and you create a mass reaction by a sneeze sometimes. It is so interesting to see how people use Twitter as a statement. It is a statement. It is so political in a way and I feel if you really want to use a medium to your advantage and further a cause that you really stand for as potential politician or designer. It is about how clever you are and what is it that you want to manipulate and what kind of reaction it generates. That really interests me. I am not much of a surfer except I go look at IMDB once in a while if I want to see somebody’s profile. But Twitter really interests me. I like the politics that goes on by way of statements that are made.
Nishka: For me, media is very important. I am always on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Because for me I see what is happening around the world fashion wise. Today when you enter a party, you will always see someone texting on your phone or on Twitter… so for me it is a way to express or show my new designs, styles, see what’s happening, talk about why I have done a particular collection, the whole reasoning behind it.
Nimrat: The world’s so small you know. Thanks to twitter, everything is so small.
Nishka: You can even get feedback that is the best thing.
Nimrat: There is no waiting for anything. There is instant gratification. You will get to know right away. Like, I will get to know for what am wearing right away.
Nishka: You will get reactions right away.
Prachi: (to AT) We have had some political Twitter (experiences…)
Aditya: No, I completely agree.
Agnello: There are social media agencies, which are different from advertising agencies -- they manage your social media profiles. So if there is an industry serving it, obviously, it is very important.
Aditya: 100% on that. Because what happens is now if you are doing something, if you want to build a movement, like he said “Like” it and it is your movement. But for me to get that message out, it is almost like a mini rally about 60,000 people, 70,000 people… Reaching out to them saying, "I just attended this conference, inaugurated this football field." A lot of times I have seen, for example, my Mumbai 24/7 movement, that I first tweeted about and then it was taken up by the media. So some way or the other people who even have some influence on societies, are followed by different people. It is like a telepathic thought going out to so many people.
Prachi: But given the film industry, since we were discussing film studies, the industry is so haphazard really that it is almost impossible for a non-background person to make it or is it not any more?
Agnello: It is only among the acting (field). I think not other (departments of filmmaking)
Aditya Thackeray: I think it is opening up a lot.
Nimrat: It is. I think it is not fair to generalise you know. Although being an outsider and having an inroad into this space, it is an interesting point of view. I know how easy it is for an army officer’s son to get into the army. I know. It is very easy. It is not tough at all. You have the recommendations, you know what the son is going to do, and you know what postings to get him. It’s obvious, every profession, the offspring of that profession will have an easier life trying to get into the same space. Naturally. Only, being an actor everything is much more glorified because everything is more public. Or a politician. But that doesn’t make it easier or tougher. I honestly feel like the burden of being a super star’s son or a daughter is much larger than coming from anonymity.
Prachi: (to Nishka) Do you feel judged all the time?
Nishka: Of course, it is like you have to match up to that expectation of people because you are already a big designer’s daughter. So you have to be like that. It took time for me to get where I am because I was always called Neeta Lulla’s daughter, Neeta Lulla’s daughter. Now I am called Nishka Lulla because I have my own style. Everybody thought I was going to do bridals and Indian clothes like a mini version. But now I have my own style (Street XX). I do western clothes for the youth. So, yeah, it is how you show yourself.
Aditya: It is also because the next generation has some interest in that field. It is not that everyone is pulled in to carry on the legacy. Yes, you probably have the launch pad but you are always compared to your dad or your grand dAgnello:Does he walk like him? Does he talk like him? Does he dress like him...?
Nimrat: Is he as good as him?
Aditya: And there is always one level, where your parents have reached, and to reach that you will take your sweet time but they will expect you to reach in the first year itself.
Nishka: I mean it is an added advantage that you are coming from a family like this because you know what the know-how is, but to make your own mark is very difficult.
Agnello: I agree with her. I think it is more public. I think most doctors are generations. Because the kids just gravitate towards that. Because I guess they have a fall back or something.
Aditya Thackeray: Fault of the media or something?
Prachi: To conclude -- you [Nimrat] have come from an army background, you [Agnello] have come from a local Mumbai background, you [Nishka] have come from fashion with an international kind of background, you [Aditya] are hardcore into politics. When you interact with the youth, what is their idea of India that you find – are they nationalistic or are they not really thinking on those lines? Or is it one global village?
Aditya: It depends when and where you meet them. If you meet the youth at fashion week, they will be talking about the new fashion, and of course patriotism won’t be there. If you meet them at the Red Fort, they will only be patriotic. Completely depends. That’s what my interaction has been.
Agnello: I think they are more jingoistic than nationalistic. When they are in a group, it is great fun to say 'India-India' but when they are alone… lot of your fraternity (media) use this jingoism well. They say what the whole country would like to say, even if it is not true.
Aditya: But even the ideas of patriotism are changing. For example until last year you could not wear your own flag. Now the courts have allowed you to wear your own flag. Whereas last year when it was 60th anniversary of the Queen of England and the flags were everywhere from T-shirts, to shoes, to cups and chairs and that is just how you see a country and that is slowly changing.
Prachi: That is what we started out with -- images are so strong and loud that we want to conform via images.
Nimrat: Everything should move with time a little bit -- like the educational system. I will tell you something simple that I noticed. When you go to watch a movie in the theatre, you have to stand up for the national anthem. Now there are three-four-five-six version of the national anthem. I can sense the energy in the theatre, when something has been put up with interest and to invoke the feeling of patriotism, as opposed to something that’s just drab and school assembly-like, and [you have to] stand up for national anthem and you better not sit till the last word. That is something that needs to come into our education system. That approach. There is a way to communicate an idea, there is a way to inspire [someone] who is five-year-old, or somebody who is 65-year-old and make them stand for those 45 or 53 seconds, that is. That little attention to detail needs to come in the system by way of syllabus… that I can take up pottery and biology and have a holistic growth.
Agnello: I completely agree. I don’t know how many people stand up for the anthem if it plays in the house. Though it is far easier and more comfortable. Even on Independence Day. Forget when you go for a movie. So I think it is a box you tick off rather than something you do from the heart.
Prachi: Thank you so much for coming and sharing you thoughts.
An edited version of this appears in print