Variety

A peek into the geeky world of Indian start-ups

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on October 18, 2019 Published on October 18, 2019

A still from the movie Upstarts. Pic credit: Netflix

“The new stars of the world are not James Bond types, but geeky people wearing glasses,” declares Udai Pawar, the 37-year-old director of Upstarts, which released today on Netflix globally. And, considering that Pawar, an IIT Kanpur alumnus and former Microsoft employee, met up with the founders of four Unicorns – InMobi, Ola, Paytm and Quikr – all of whom are now larger-than-life figures, to make his film, he may be right.

The three-hour long Netflix Original movie - it’s not a web series, but a full length film - is a story that captures the upheavals that take place in an Indian entrepreneur’s life. As Pawar describes, the world of start-ups is a roller-coaster journey, full of business uncertainties and tumultuous ups and downs. Barely a few succeed, many just plod on, while some founders have epic meltdowns – remember Housing.com!

More than funding and scaling up

But Pawar insists his movie is not just about pitches, funding, pivoting, scaling up - instead, it is more about the relationships, the emotions, the bitter sweet friendships, the frictions that develop, the family drama playing out in the backdrop, the jugaad, the crazy situations that so characterise anything we do in India! "In a start-up, hope is everything," is one of the memorable lines of the film.

The fictional world of Upstarts featuring young idealistic entrepreneurs, is a mash up of many real life stories, including those of the four Unicorns – InMobi, Ola, Paytm and Quikr and some enterprises founded by women, especially Pothi.com, started by Jaya Jha and Abhaya Agarwal, who were Pawar’s IIT Kanpur friends.

“I wanted to have a woman entrepreneur in the film, whose journey intersects with other founders, and I was clear she would not just be the love interest,” says Pawar.

Home turf

The start-up ecosystem was one that Udai Pawar was totally familiar with as he hung out with many entrepreneurs during his days working at Microsoft Research in Bangalore. Born and bred in Delhi and son of NIIT founder, Rajendra Pawar, was charting a conventional engineering college-technology company route, when he suddenly decided to abandon it all 10 years ago for Bollywood. He assisted Sudhir Misra (of Chameli, Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi fame) for five years and then worked with Raja Menon on Airlift starring Akshay Kumar.

When he wanted to make his own film, and was struggling with a script of a political potboiler, Raja Menon stepped in and advised him to look into his own life and explore a world he was familiar with. That’s how the thought of writing a story about start-ups, exploring the friendships between founders, and their chemistry emerged. After all, Udai had grown up in such a world, seeing dad Rajendra Pawar found NIIT with his IIT Delhi mate Vijay Thadani and scale it up, the friends staying bonded through the journey.

But Udai’s film, produced by Raja Menon, who he says has been a tremendous mentor, and funded by Netflix is more au courant – the script sort of developed based on his own memories. Bhavish Aggarwal of Ola had just joined as an intern at Microsoft when Udai was leaving the company.

However, Pawar spent two years researching and writing, meeting up with dozens of entrepreneurs, including Bhavish, Vijay Shekhar Sharma of Paytm, Naveen Tiwari of InMobi, Pranay Chulet of Quikr, as well as the founders of two of the start-ups that Quikr acquired.

“I met all these people – and the most important thing I observed was their emotions, their despair, the mad celebrations – all this on a daily basis,” says Pawar.

For Pawar, the film is more about friends building stuff together, the energy they bring to the table as buddies, their heartaches and their concerns. He feels it has been ably captured by his actors – who may not be big stars, but fit the role of the CEO, COO and CFO in the film seamlessly. Priyanshu Painyuli plays Kapil Mathur, who creates an innovative delivery app, while the co-founders are played by Shadab Kamal and Chandrachoor Rai.

The movie may sound like a desi Silicon Valley, the hit American series focused on the lives of people who build a start-up, but Pawar says there are big differences. His is not a comedy, for starters. “I am not a funny guy – I like to research things deeply,” he admits candidly. He points to the big cultural differences too. Here, family plays a big part unwittingly – so when you get the first big funding, you might splurge on a chauffeur for your dad, whereas in the States, you might throw a mega party featuring strippers, et al.

Pawar says he has consciously diffused the focus on the coding, engineering part, instead projecting the emotions and sentiments and making it a story everyone can relate to. So one of the characters in the film wants to do something for his ageing father, another is just recovering from a heartbreak.

The jargon of the start-up world is there, but slipped in in a simplified, relatable way, he says.

Right now, Udai Pawar is experiencing all the emotions that the characters in his fictional start-up world undergo – nervousness, expectation, anticipation, and above all hope. For though he has been in Bollywood for nearly a decade now, a directorial debut is akin to starting up!

 

Published on October 18, 2019
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