Sreekant Khandekar
PlainSpeak with Sreekant

Arunabh Kumar: “When people say TVF is an overnight success it makes me smile”

Few know that this IITian has gone to extraordinary lengths over a decade to fulfill his dream of telling video stories – even working briefly as a waiter.

When I began to interview Arunabh Kumar, the founder of TVF, I had no idea our conversation would stretch over three and a half hours in two sessions. His personal experience was intriguing, of course. Even more fascinating was that his story and the history of the web series in India are entwined. Arunabh was one of the earliest explorers of the format.

If you have enjoyed shows from TVF such as Pitchers, Permanent Roommates, Kota Factory and Panchayat, take a moment to thank Doordarshan.

In the India of the ‘80s it was important to be on good terms with your neighbours. Since many Indian homes didn’t as yet own TV sets, dropping in unannounced next door for an evening of screen-based entertainment provided by Doordarshan was socially tolerated.

Little Arunabh, son of a bank clerk, was mesmerised by the images he saw on his neighbour’s black and white TV screen in their home town, Muzzafarpur, Bihar. While Doordarshan also ran movies, Arunabh’s fascination lay in the TV serials: “The first actor I became a fan of was Raghubir Yadav” who played Mullah Nasruddin in a show of that name. (Nasruddin was a 13th-century philosopher and wit.) By the early ‘90s, the family had its own TV set and the boy’s obsession with TV serials continued. 

It was this early experience that kicked off Arunabh’s journey to become one of India’s most prolific and powerful storytellers in the web series format. The path, however, was convoluted.

After getting into IIT Kharagpur, Arunabh discovered theatre. He became so obsessed with it that he failed seven of his 12 subjects in his first year.

It first went down the engineering way. To prepare for entry into the top colleges, Arunabh was packed off to that city of parental dreams and teenage nightmares, Kota in Rajasthan. He spent three years there, those experiences being captured 18 years later in the hit series, Kota Factory. It was written by Abhishek Yadav and Saurabh Khanna.

In 2001, Arunabh got into the electrical engineering course at IIT Kharagpur (West Bengal). After his initial delight, he was dismayed to find that the campus was in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, he soon found ways to entertain himself. He joined the Dramatics Society and his self-confidence soared when he won the best actor award in the second year. By the third year, he was heading the Society. All this excitement around his new-found passion impacted his studies – Arunabh flunked seven of his twelve subjects in his first year.

Still, the future was taking shape. He came across shows like Friends and Seinfield. “I realised that I wanted to make shows like these – this is what I wanted to do with my life, not engineering.”

Meanwhile, the internet had just come to India and he recalls that “online video was just being invented”. That’s when Arunabh made his first video - 14 minutes long - ‘Where is my mind?’ about what students are actually thinking of at a college fest.

Working on editing his first video in the IIT Kharagpur hostel, 2005.
Working on editing his first video in the IIT Kharagpur hostel, 2005.

But the world of entertainment lay in Mumbai, a city he had never been to.  How did he gain entry into that world, I asked.

I was delighted to find an afaqs! (then agencyfaqs!) connection in Arunabh’s story. Using an email id he found on agencyfaqs!, he wrote to Josy Paul, then head of the agency, RMG David (and now Chairman BBDO India). He got a month’s internship and his first exposure to Mumbai.  Arunabh can’t thank Josy enough for his generosity and guidance. Josy used to describe himself to Arunabh as his chief ‘mentor and tormentor’.

In 2006, after clearing IIT, Arunabh managed to get a six-month assignment as a research assistant on an image processing project at IIT Mumbai. The client was the US Air Force. He stayed in a friend’s room at the institute to save on rent.

It was the start of a long, long phase during which Arunabh was broke most of the time. “People think TVF was an overnight success,” he laughs. “They have no idea of the kind of things I went through over a decade to make it happen.”

In Mumbai, Arunabh talked his way into Om Shanti Om as an assistant director, doing all kinds of work. “If you want to be a great master, you first have to be a great slave,” he says.

How did he get his first assignment?

“Once in Mumbai I began applying for work to film producers. Naturally, no one replied.” So, Arunabh came up with a ruse. Together with some IITians, he created a society called Digital Arts the purported aim of which was to study the film-making process and help producers digitise. The trick worked. When he sent out letters this time, some people responded, including the chief art director of Om Shanti Om (OSO), the Shah Rukh Khan starrer which launched Deepika Padukone in 2007.

When he told Farah Khan, the director, that he wanted to work on the project, she asked what he could do. His simple response: “Anything.” By way of explanation, Arunabh, who was an assistant director on the film, says, “I meant what I said. If you want to be a great master, you first have to learn to be a great slave.” 

Arunabh learnt the fundamentals of film-making on the sets of OSO which is why he describes Red Chillies as his film school, Shah Rukh as its principal and Farah as the class teacher. 

But the Om Shanti Om assignment didn’t immediately lead to anything substantial, did it?

“No, it did not,” he replied, and reminded me that online video wasn’t yet a thing. Connectivity was awful. YouTube had been launched in the US in 2005 but wouldn’t enter India until 2008. Films and television were the primary means of entertainment.

After Om Shanti Om, Arunabh started making 5-10 minute films. One, called Coin Divers, won a short film award which was supposed to lead to the possibility of making a feature film. Nothing came of it because, as Arunabh learnt, “some 400 permutations and combinations need to fall into place before you can make a film. Progressing from a big idea to making a good film requires a huge leap.”

Still struggling, he tried to work with MTV and Channel V. The obduracy of the TV establishment astounded him. Digital cameras had improved dramatically by then but when he suggested that their use could cut costs substantially, channels balked. “Their attitude didn’t make any sense,” he says.

Arunabh, now approaching 30, was perpetually broke and had little to show for years of struggle. “I remember one particular moment when I had only Rs 170 in the ATM,” he says. Meanwhile, his family was running out of patience with their IITian son.

In 2011, Arunabh was so broke in Goa that he worked as a temporary waiter in a club to fund his ticket back to Mumbai: “When people think TVF is an overnight success, it makes me laugh!”

Those must have been desperate times. What was the craziest thing he did?

In his desperation for work, Arunabh pitched to make a music video for only Rs 1 lakh for Colgate at the Sunburn music festival in Goa in December 2011. It was a mistake. By the time he had paid his team he had no money left for even a ticket back to Mumbai. (The project did nudge him towards his love, branded content, though.)

It’s then that Arunabh’s distaste for disorderly queues landed him his weirdest assignment. One evening he was at Club Cabana in Arpora, Goa, when the crowd surged at the entrance. Arunabh instinctively began to bring order and formed a queue.

Impressed with Arunabh’s English as well as his ability to manage revelers, the club owner, Daniel, asked if he would join as a temporary waiter leading up to the new year bash. He would be paid Rs 15,000 for a fortnight plus receive four passes for the party. Arunabh took the job, earning an additional Rs 10,000 from selling two of the passes. That’s how he got back to Mumbai.

Working as a temp waiter at Club Cabana, Goa, 2011.
Working as a temp waiter at Club Cabana, Goa, 2011.

How did all this lead to his and TVF’s success on YouTube?

“2011 was a memorable year,” he says. “Inspired by the recently released hit war film, Inglorious Basterds, I made a two-and-a-half-minute film on ragging, Inglorious Seniors.” He uploaded it on YouTube using The Viral Fever (TVF) credit for the first time. “I was thrilled when it got 17,000 views, a big deal in those days.”

Making branded content for clients continued to pay Arunabh’s bills. He wanted to make enough money to buy a Canon 5D camera and an iMac. These would allow him to make and edit videos.

Through all this turmoil, did he have a sense of where he wanted to go?

“My ultimate goal was to have a production house like HBO which made great shows. But the reality of 2012 was that the internet quality was so poor that videos buffered even on YouTube.” So, if YouTube was to be the destination, what could TVF make?

The answer lay in creating entertaining videos, leading up to branded content. Roadies was a hugely popular travel-based MTV show. So TVF created a spoof, Rowdies 9 - Sab Q-tiyapa hai! in February 2012. The actors were all engineer friends of Arunabh. This first bit of original content on YouTube got a lakh views on the first day and a million within a week. After years of trying, Arunabh had finally hit the bull’s eye. “We were flooded with calls,” he recalls with satisfaction, adding: “Saade chchai saal ke baad mujhe shaabashi mili (I got praise after six and a half years of working).”

Biswapati Sarkar, Amit Golani and Deepak Mishra came on. “It was a case of IITians meeting FTIIians” (referring to the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune). TVF’s spoofs such as Gangs of Social Media (based on Gangs of Wasseypur) and Gana Wala Song (Student of the Year) began to routinely breach the 1 million+ views mark. Its position as the originator of funny, scripted content was cemented when at YouTube’s first Fanfest in 2013, TVF was chosen to represent India. In addition to making videos for real estate developers, TVF now began to create entertaining film promotions.

Arunabh’s first hit was a show in 2012 called Rowdies, a spoof on MTV Roadies. It crossed a million views on YouTube and made TVF famous. Today six of TVF’s shows feature on IMDb’s Top 250 shows of all time worldwide.

YouTube had begun to attract serious talent though the OTT revolution was still some years away.  “Across the world, two types of serious creators began to upload content on YouTube: rejected film-makers and stand-up comedians.” 

Gradually, TVF began to create episodic content. It created Barely Speaking with Arnub, spoofing the acerbic TV anchor, Arnab Goswami. It got sponsors on board for shows such as Tech Conversations with Dad (with Airtel) and Emotional Atyacharge (Freecharge), Permanent Roommates (Common Floor) and Pitchers (Kingfisher). Arunabh’s love for branded content persists, the latest being the recently released cricket-themed Sixer (for Spinny). 

TVF is now among the top producers for OTT platforms, be it Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, SonyLiv or any other. TVF is better known than other major producers because it gained mass popularity on YouTube first before being known as a producer of OTT shows. “It’s because of our shows on YouTube that TVF has a certain star value,” he grins.

Why did he go for funding from Tiger Global? Did he dream of scaling up quickly?

That wasn’t the case, he says. “I wanted a dozen producers with diverse backgrounds who would be true to who they were when they worked on a project. You have to relate deeply to the story you want to tell.” He uses the example of Zoya Akhtar: nobody can tell the story of the rich from the Bandra world as honestly as she can. (Incidentally, Arunabh’s early thought of making a village-based web series came from his childhood visits to his grandparents’ home in rural Bihar. This led to the creation of the hit show Panchayat which was written by Chandan Kumar.)

Arunabh emphasises that he never thought of TVF as a startup with crazy growth goals. Then why did he accept funds (about $10 million) from Tiger Global, I ask?

“Actually, I got a mail from Tiger in September 2014 expressing interest. I am not even sure I replied to them because I was so caught up with just holding everything together,” he says. Tiger sent another mail in July 2015. TVF was growing but cash flow was a big problem. 

“I realised that if we ran on our own steam we could make at most 2-3 web series simultaneously. But if we wanted to tell lots of stories and make 15-20 web series at the same time, we would have to accept funding,” Arunabh explains. Hence the deal with Tiger Global.

Seventy per cent of TVF’s estimated Rs 70 crore in revenue now comes from making shows for OTT, the rest comes from branded content, a continuing love. 

What led them to set up their own OTT platform, TVF Play, which never took off?

Arunabh’s response: “Just because you are good at one thing doesn’t mean you will be good at another. This belief is a foundational reason for the chaos that exists in this business. It’s a bit like Michael Jordan (in the early ‘90s) believing that because he was the world’s top basketball player, he’d succeed in baseball too. He tried and he failed.” 

Arunabh admits to falling into the same trap of invincibility with TVF Play. Encouraged by investors, the company took a big shot at it. 

He is unforgiving to himself on the debacle. “We didn’t understand one bit of TVF Play. There was a confusion of ambition. We were stupid. We shouldn’t have done it. We wanted to be a great production house but creating an OTT platform is an entirely different game – it’s a product and technology game.” 

“We didn’t understand one bit of TVF Play. We wanted to be a great production house but creating an OTT platform is a product and technology game. We were stupid.”

To be fair to Arunabh, the period 2016-18 was a time of upheaval with OTT platforms being launched every month. Few understood what it would take to create a powerful destination.

A turbulence of another kind was coming Arunabh’s way. In March 2017, he was accused of sexual harassment in an anonymous blog. Soon there were reports of other women pointing fingers at him. His off-the-cuff response to the first allegation didn’t help his case. It quickly turned into a PR crisis.

“The problem was that the woman was unnamed. I am concerned with the issue of workplace harassment and not with what someone has to say about my personal life.” Arunabh explains that no one from TVF has every accused him of inappropriate behaviour. “Even when #MeToo allegations burst forth on the scene a year and a half later, in October 2018, not one woman pointed a finger at me.” 

Two cases were filed by the Mumbai police, one of which was dismissed late last year by a city court for ‘unexplained and unreasonable’ delay in filing an FIR. One case remains.

Arunabh resigned as CEO. “My life was destroyed,” he says. “I could barely sleep for a year and a half and, as a consequence, the psychosomatic stress led to a loss of vision in my right eye.” While the deterioration has stopped, his full vision has not been restored. 

Arunabh quit as CEO of TVF. Did he withdraw entirely from TVF?

“I not only withdrew from TVF,” he responds slowly – and, after a pause, adds: “I wanted to withdraw from life itself.” His friends and family never left him alone for a moment when he was going through that phase of deep depression.

To divert himself, he tried to immerse himself in a new comic book-based startup, Indusverse, with partners Alok Sharma and Lianne Texeira Singh. The business is a financial struggle, he concedes, but adds drily, “Considering my frame of mind at the time, you could say that Indusverse came as a medical prescription.” 

Meanwhile, like other producers, TVF was struggling too under the impact of the pandemic. Covid protocols had hit the creation of new shows. The team had to be cut down as turnover fell. Three of the founding members left bringing into question TVF’s stability. They wanted to make films, explains Arunabh, adding that the other nine founding members are still around.

As the pandemic waned, TVF slowly began to regain its focus. While Arunabh did not return as CEO (Vijay Koshy is the boss as President and business head), he did take on the title of mentor and Executive Director. Turnover in 2021-22 doubled. 

TVF is finally looking at the possibility of making a feature film if it can find the right partners to work with. Arunabh is now 40, married and his wife has had a baby just a few weeks ago. There is an air of contentment around him now. “Balance is my life’s pursuit now,” he says: “I want to follow the compass and not the clock.”

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