Meet the IITian-turned-director whose movie on startups launches on Netflix this week

Planning to launch a business soon? Here is an interview with the director of Upstarts, a movie on startups that will feature on Netflix this week. It is a story that will take you on a journey of the ups and downs of entrepreneurship

You have heard of Uber, but what about ‘Dawaiyon ka Uber’? Find out all about this unusual venture, when you watch Upstarts, a movie made on startups by young filmmaker, Udai Singh Pawar. This IIT alumnus began by working for Microsoft Research in Bengaluru but soon, decided to follow his passion for the movies. He assisted film director, Sudhir Mishra in his films for some years and later, worked with Akshay Kumar in the film, Airlift. Now he is all set to launch his first directorial venture on Netflix this week.

Netflix was very interested in the idea of casting phenomenal actors, who look like they really could be startup founders. In an interaction with YS Weekender, Udai spoke about his movie which takes a closer look at the startup space and its many and the aspirations and dreams of the people behind them…

Edited excerpts from the interview:

A scene from the movie, Upstarts

Can you tell us about yourself and where your love for movie making began, despite being a graduate from IIT Kanpur?

The opening scene is a cliched scene, perhaps, about how, when growing up in Delhi, my parents got a camcorder, and I used to keep doing things with it, making silly movies with my sisters and cousins. This extended into college at IIT Kanpur, where I convinced the alumni to donate money to buy us some video cameras, and we set up a film cell, and a bunch of us friends would make silly movies.

I have always loved watching great films and pausing them in between to appreciate the lighting and the composition of certain scenes. I love cinematography and cinema craft, the way it's all done and brought together, right from the music, sound, acting and light!

Eventually tried to combine interests by doing a summer internship in the largest film camera company, ARRI in Germany. But that was neither here, nor there.

Nor was it a full-on engineering course, nor full-on film studies. Then, when all the students were chasing jobs in final year, I did that too and surprisingly got a great job at Microsoft Research at Bangalore, teaching kids using technology. That job was great and I had a lot of fun, got two US patents and lots of publications in top places like ACM However, three years into the job, I realised that this would not be what I would do ten years in the future. But at that moment, I had no clue what I would actually do.

I had saved a lot of money in those Bangalore days, as although we had good IT salaries, we four boys lived together like slobs. So, I used a lot of that cash to go backpacking around the world for 13 months, focusing on South America.

On returning, I decided to take the leap into my childhood love for cinema.

How were your initial challenges?

I took the leap to move to films and came to Mumbai. I didn't know anyone here really, so that was a challenge. I made a resume, but no-one has read that till date. So eventually got the address of a director I admired - Sudhir Mishra (of Chameli, Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi fame). And waited outside his office till he met me. Long story short, he was very amused to see an IITian standing under a tree waiting for him, and I worked with him as his assistant/associate director, for five years.

After that I got a chance to work on more commercial cinema - Airlift with Akshay Kumar, directed by Raja Menon, where I was the associate director too.

Initially the challenges were just the nature of the work culture in film, in comparison to tech. There was a lot of chaos. I had to really work hard to deal with that, after coming from engineer life with structure and planning. Though eventually being organised helped me when others kept being stuck within the chaos. Both my bosses, Raja and Sudhir were pure meritocrats and very unique, so they both helped me a lot in the industry.

How did you decide on the theme of doing a movie on startups?

Raja Menon, now my producer, then my director, actually pushed me. After Airlift, Raja said that I should now stop assisting and be bold and take my next leap to try to direct. He said he would produce my film with his production house, Bandra West Pictures. I had one script that I shared with him. He said it was OK, but generic, but I should write something only I can make - a story only I can tell. So, I started looking back on my life.

The guys I lived with in Bangalore and my other batch-mates were now startup stars. So, I thought, hey this is an interesting world that no-one has talked about. The west produces many movies on entrepreneurs there, but the Indian context and value system is so different. These are not Ivy-league rich kids, these are small town kids from middle class backgrounds and values. So that's where I got the idea.

I spoke to Raja and his partners Janani Ravichandran and Jawahar Sharma, and they all loved it and got Netflix involved, who loved it too, and so we proceeded with it. Also, as there is so much relevance. All people old and young, rich poor are fascinated with this world. So, let's just talk about it!

Can you tell us about your work with Sudhir Misra and its best moments?

Sudhir is a philosopher in the guise of a filmmaker. He's very well read. Can quote from Ghalib and Faiz to Keats and Premchand and can talk on Physics, Maths and metaphysics - understanding each nuance. He taught me that film is not just entertainment, but also a means to express and talk and tell what you feel.

What were some of the highlights of your work on the movie, Airlift?

Raja Menon is one of the most prepared and meticulous filmmakers in Mumbai. He was able to combine artistic imagination such as the huge war scenes we have in Airlift, with the subtle nuances of Akshay's performance. So, I learnt a lot about balance and detailing and preparation from him. I loved doing the huge war scenes.

For example, one exodus scene in Jaisalmer, which we were depicting the middle eastern desert. We had 500 extras, 50 vehicles - 30 that had to move on cue and back for each take, total crew of 300 in addition to the extras, three-camera including one flying on a drone, but the terrain was uneven, so our walkie-talkies stopped working, and there was no mobile signal! But we started using running messengers, hand signals, shouting and made the shoot happen on perfect time and perfect schedule - to get the big beautiful shot of the thousands of people running down the hill in just the perfect lighting, just minutes before the sun set. That was quite exhilarating.

Also seeing how Raja could shape the performance of the actors into such realism. Drama without melodrama. That was very useful in my film Upstarts as there is so much drama in startup world that we wanted to capture realistically.

What is the vision of the movie Upstarts?

Shadab Kamal playing Vinay, Priyanshu and Chandrachur Rai

Our movie is meant to be an inspirational, yet realistic take of the highs and the lows and the dangers and the joys of a startup. It will depict the successes, failures, trials and errors, despair, celebrations everything, without either showing anything that is super-rosy nor super-scary.

The idea of setting off on your own is extremely fascinating, but the real story and energy that is put into making it big, that hard work and struggle behind the glamour, also needs to be captured and showcased. The journey I saw from each CEO I met was like that.

Within one year they go through more highs and lows, than normally people would go in over whole lives.

But my aim is that after seeing the film, the first thing you do is call up your friends and start brainstorming and decide to setup a startup, yet still be aware of the hard work required and the trials and tribulations possible. And I'm very happy that everyone who has seen the film so far, felt so inspired. In fact, my costume designer, after working on the film, said she wants to start her own label online now!

Can you briefly tell us how you began working on the movie?

Bandra West Pictures (BWP) brought Netflix on to make my film, me this new guy. So, in that sense it was like investing in a startup - betting on one guy's imagination. After Netflix signed on, we went on the process of pre-production with BWP's team lead by Janani - scouting, casting, etc.

We really wanted the casting to be real and relatable. Startup founders (well, mostly :-) don't really usually have six-pack abs, so we needed someone who looks like they could be someone you see in Starbucks in Koramangala. We auditioned hundreds of people, and then shortlisted a dozen. Then we did group auditions with the shortlist, as we wanted to see the chemistry. And finally, we emerged with these three guys.

A key character in the film is the app. And an IIT junior of mine Anupam Dubey who actually designs UI/UX of apps in Bangalore (company AK Designs), came on board to design the UI/UX of all the apps on the phone, using his real design team and tools - so that kept it all real.

What kind of startup is shown in the movie?

It's a medicine delivery startup as you can see in trailer, but I don't want to reveal too much, as what they do forms a key part of the story. But a lot of the inspiration came from my Bangalore days when I would actually spend lot of time in villages working on applications of technology. So, I knew that there are some real needs there - that need to be addressed - medicine was one of them.

I'm quite happy to know that now, many startups are coming in similar spaces, so though we started from imagination, we ended up with something real. Just by having immersed ourselves in so much startup research. 

What kind of research went into the film?

A lot of research was a part of the film. Firstly, it involved reading a lot, foreign press, Indian press (must have read hundreds of yourstory articles, not exaggerating). Video interviews, coverage of startup-funding competitions. Attended events. We went to startup workshops and spent time in co-working spaces to feel the vibe. Walked up down Koramangala and HSR and drank lots of coffee at Indiranagar Starbucks and beer at Koramangala Social.

Priyanshu Painyuli, who plays Kapil, becomes the CEO of the startup

We were very interested in personal stories. So then started meeting startup founders - big and small, successful and unsuccessful. For example, I met Bhavish of Ola multiple times. Met Vijay Shekhar of Paytm, Naveen of Inmobi, Pranay of quikr, etc., and also very importantly, founders of startup that had crashed and burned, to see the other side. We absorbed a lot of these stories and inhaled this all and then exhaled a fictional story, but with the emotional core of what we imagined these people would have really felt. So, it's not inspired by any one startup story, but rather by the emotions behind all of them. Also met analysts at VC funds and VCs themselves, to understand their viewpoint.

Where did the shooting take place and how long did it take?

Main schedule was in March and April, over two months including breaks. We had one extra day when IT industry body NASSCOM very graciously allowed us to shoot guerrilla style in their main IT event in Mumbai, in February, and that helped us get a lot of realism into the film.

How did you get Netflix to be interested in your venture?

Bandra West Pictures pitched the idea to Netflix, and they were interested immediately. They understood the global reach of this, given how startups are so relevant everywhere, and being a tech company themselves, they were super interested. I was a first-time director, so BWP convinced them and put their conviction on the table, and said they really believed in me and that I could do it, and that was the flip.

What are the best moments in the film according to you?

Since we have focused a lot on the emotional journey of the founders, there are a lot of emotional moments. Since its a friendship story we see the friends share the fun of living together, the despair of wanting to do something, to make it big, but not yet finding THAT killer idea! The exhilaration of finding the idea and cracking it. The joy of building it and seeing it grow. The pain of running out of funds. The nitty-gritty of trying to get funding. The ecstasy of getting funded. The hard realisations post that, of reality changing, as challenges start emerging. As the trailer indicates, the film is lot about the bonds starting to fray as the company grows.

What were the hardest parts/or any obstacles you faced?

No matter how much you have assisted, being the director, yourself, is a completely different ball game. As the buck stops with you. There are a billion decisions each day, that only you can answer. There are a billion things in your head, that you need to share and explain and convince. There are time pressures, creative pressures, technical pressures, but you have to appear calm even when all looks messy.

 Can you tell us why startups are so important in today's world, even when so many fail?

A scene from the movie

I think the crux in the world now is that in this era of startups, there are no barriers to entry. You can be anyone young old, techie non techie and if you have a great idea, you have a chance. That's the key thing. Sure, being an IIT/IIM guy and a tech background person helps immensely, but that is also changing, and lots of startups are being started by people from diverse backgrounds. A culture where startups are supported, helps people with fulfilling their aspirations and thus themselves, with passion driving their endeavours. Luckily the success stories are enabling parents to be less wary. For instance, in the film we have a "dawaiyon ka uber" to get medicines to villages with less access. Technology enables these unique solutions.

Similarly, as now we have the chance to address these unique local needs, we also have the means of providing local employment. Job creation is the biggest problem facing us as a society. And I think that is the biggest thing startups can offer - chances for employment generation.

Why are the movies such a powerful medium?

I think human beings love stories. When you go to a bar at the end of the day or a coffee shop, you tell stories to your friends about your boss, your parents, your lovers. You laugh and cry. It helps take stock of life, and understand life. Our friends respond to our emotions and thus we connect. Movies are stories too, they are emotional journeys too. So in a movie, I can connect you to the pain of the guy's startup shutting down, and give insight into that process, and that helps me few scenes later when he gets funded and so he is happy, and so the audience feels that happiness and for that one moment, almost shares in it

This is why movies are powerful. They take us to worlds so alien to us and make us emotionally relate - like gangsters, monsters, 19th century royalty, etc. And that is why it allows one to express so much.

What are your plans for the future?

Future plans? Similar to start up world - when you are brainstorming you have a million ideas, but when you pick one, you start getting consumed by it. Upstarts has completely consumed me for the last so few years, that will now need to shift gears and force a pause, and then after a holiday, think about what next.


Updates from around the world