Stories. They redeem you. They set you free in a way you never imagined, and help you grow in a way you would never believe otherwise.
That’s the kind of role stories, and storytelling, have played in the Nikhil Taneja‘s life. The CEO of Yuvaa, a one of its kind initiative that not just churns out entertainment that promotes awareness, but also encourages people to come out and tell their stories by providing a safe space.
Being a firm advocate of mental health, a storyteller, writer, producer and a teacher, Taneja has found his soulmate in his profession. It was accidental, he claims, something that happened to him while he was aiming for something completely different. We think it’s destiny though, considering that’s when it seems to strike when not even we are looking.
In a candid chat with The Red Sparrow on how it all began, he shows us a reflection of the importance of stories and mental health, their correlation, and of following one’s true passion.
Here are the excerpts:
To begin with, can you tell us about your love for writing and how you found your calling in it?
So I have been a writer since I was 13-14. The funniest thing is my writing journey started because of insecurity (laughs). My younger brother and I grew up in Bahrain and there used to be a magazine called Young Times. They had this column, Reader’s Drawings, and they used to invite drawings from readers and I was like, ‘mujhe bhi chahiye apni drawing waha pe,’ and I was 11 or 12 at that time. So I sent in my drawing and it didn’t get published, then I sent it again and it didn’t get published. Then my brother and I sent it together, his got published and mine didn’t. I was so sad, I kept thinking, ‘what is going on?’. So I got really angry about it and I thought this was some conspiracy against me!
I didn’t know what to do, so in anger I wrote a letter to them — they also had a Letters Column — saying, “How could you publish his drawing and not mine? I am a bigger fan of yours than he is. He didn’t even know about it, I told him about it. You are being unjust to me”. And the funny thing is, my letter got published (laughs). My drawing never got published by my letter did and then I thought, “Hey! Maybe instead of drawing, I should try writing. Let me write more.” And I started writing more letters and they started publishing them and after a few of them, I actually pitched a column to them, and they said yes!
Suddenly at 14-15 I was a columnist at Young Times. I started doing interviews for them, and by the time I was 17, I had interviewed Michael Schumacher. By the time I was 19, I had interviewed Shah Rukh Khan. But I always thought this was a hobby, I never thought this was a career also because, you know as a boy in India, you are not allowed to think of any other careers outside of engineering, so my mother was very clear yeh toh hobby hai, tum engineering karoge, and I, too, said yes, because all my friends were also doing that and I just didn’t think of anything else as a legitimate career option.
Then how did you get drawn back to writing, that too as a full-fledged career, after enrolling for engineering?
When I got into engineering, I realised in the very first six months that yeh toh main nahi kar sakta, and then I had three and a half years of trying to understand ab main karunga kya? And then every time, my go-to comfort zone and my escape was writing, again.
Our college had a magazine. I became the editor and revamped it, I became the College Official Magazine’s editor as well. For my magazine, Graffiti, I got interviews with Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor — they had their debut movie coming out — and Vishwanathan Anand, all for a college magazine! The magazine got sold in several campuses across India. By the time I was graduating, I was called by IIT Kanpur for a lecture about ‘How to Write and Establish College Magazines’ because my magazine had become that famous at that time.
So during school and college, writing suddenly became my escape. But during placement time in final year, I got a couple of jobs because yeh prove karna hai parents ko, ki aisa nahi hai main kar nahi sakta, main kar sakta hoon but main karna chahta nahi hoon. So I got two jobs — I took two seats of legitimate engineers who would’ve probably ended there — but once I got those jobs, then I was like, now I have these jobs but I want to try for Mumbai. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in Mumbai, so I applied literally everywhere, any place possible that could demand any kind of writing. Because I had written and interviewed for so long, I got my first job at Hindustan Times, at HT Cafe, as a journalist. That’s how my writing career began.
It seems like you and writing were always kind of meant-to-be, considering how it was always a part of your story.
I don’t know. I mean, as I said, it was accidental, right? I remember being a storyteller since a very long time, even when I was very young. I remember I would be fascinated with stories. My father was a big filmbuff and the only time I would actually spend with my father was when he was watching movies because he was very busy all the time. While obviously spending time with him was a bigger reason, I would be watching these movies as well and just get fascinated. I just picked up on storytelling from there itself. I realised how stories can actually bring you closer to each other, you know? Because these stories existed, my father would want to watch them, and since I would watch them with him, that brought us closer in a way. That made me realise how powerful stories are. Because of my father, I became a filmbuff myself, and I remember even as a young kid, I’d be cooking up stories and thinking of film ideas and narrating them to my friends.
I suppose in many ways, this was meant to happen. My friends are not at all surprised about me being where I am. As it all kept happening, I started gaining more confidence, and eventually, this became my thing.
How did you then move on from journalism and decide to focus more on youth-based content?
It has been a huge, enormous journey. I started off as a journalist, and many things happened. You realise you’ve reached where you’ve reached is not just due to all the things that you have wanted to be, or you wanted to do, but also because a lot of people play such pivotal roles in the most accidental manner.
There was this show I came across during the final year of my college, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip by Aaron Sorkin, and I was enchanted! If you see my Facebook page, it says, ‘Religion – Aaron Sorkin,’ because I saw that show and thought, ‘how brilliant is this writing!’ It spoke to me at such a human level because it was about people being decent, people being good, and it just made me feel like, “If a world like this can exist, I want to live in it. Or, at least if it doesn’t exist, I want to create such a world through writing!”
So, while I was being a journalist and had literally interviewed everyone in the industry and having fun, I would continue interviewing other people. And after a point in time I got very frustrated with journalism, and I wanted to get out of it, so I moved to MTV as the editor of their website. From MTV to teaching as a journalism professor to third-year kids, to Y-films, youth content was just something I used to love love love working on. Somewhere it also comes from the fact that I have just really resisted being an adult (laughs). But I really think that the youth is so much more hopeful and optimistic and I’ve always found adulthood very cynical, so I’ve always tried to just stay towards that.
Did this drive you towards your initiative, Yuvaa — which in its own words, is a community where the youth feels seen, heard and represented?
I started realising that there was so much of dissonance my students would go through, since I’d become very good friends with them and actually listened to them. So when I heard them, I realised that there were so many things that they are going through and they’d feel so alone because they’d feel that there is nobody else who understands them. They don’t see examples around them in media that would actually represent their struggles. In films or in pop-culture, the only thing they showed about young people is that they fall in love, they have friends, the boy beats up the villain, the girl is dancing all the time, the fuck is going on? Like, where are the authentic struggles, hamare aadhe bachche toh placements ke tension mein hai and yaha dikha rahe hai he’s boxing and punching and making abs. Girls are fighting patriarchy, and here they are dancing. And I’d just feel so terrible that even being a content producer/creator, I was unable to really bridge this gap.
The whole idea was – can we make young people feel empowered by giving them representative content? Content that will make them feel less alone? And when we tried this at Y-films and it became really successful, I realised that I needed to do more. The shows were successful, but then what? The fight on gender-equality wasn’t over by making a show. How do I translate the stories that we put online into action offline? And I was really keen about the action. And then of course, I had my own struggles with anxiety and mental health and I realized it’s important for me to take this leap into doing something that matters while I have the power and leverage of telling stories. Yuvaa happened because of that. It happened as a result of trying to leverage the impact of storytelling both online and offline.
Can you tell us more about Yuvaa’s offline work? What all is happening there?
Before we launched online, we went on a three-month long road show. In fact, the offline part was the most important part of our journey, which is listening to young people. I think the young people of India are incredible, they have so much going on and they are so amazing in so many different ways. There are so many struggles that they are going through, so many achievements that they have made — just by overcoming everything that they had to fight for, just to be heard, just to have their voices out there.
Everyone has something to say, but there are no platforms for them to express, there is no one to listen. And, we wanted to listen. We wanted to say that before we actually made content for young people, we want to listen to them. So we went to 25+ cities, 65+ colleges, I did talks in every college, and then we heard young people, we created safe spaces for them to express themselves, and we heard them.
We heard stories about everything, from the lack of love and acceptance in their families, to sexual harrasment, to body-shaming, to peer pressure, academic pressure, to loss, to main engineering nahi karna chahta, you name it and we’ve heard it in the last few months. It was different than other open mics where you’d have to have some talent to come and perform. Our funda was that if you’re a human, you have a story, and if you have a story, we want to hear you. We’d give them open and safe space to express themselves without judging.
We want to continue doing this as long as we exist. It’s a very large piece of who we are. We want to engage human beings offline, we want to engage the youth offline. Online, it’s important that they see our content but it’s even more important that these pieces of content lead to conversations offline.
Lastly, what do you think is the role of a storyteller in times like today?
The society we live in, unfortunately, because of patriarchy, every young person has already been given a storyline. On one hand, boys are told that they have to grow up and earn money so that their families can be provided for, so we are being very unfair to them in a way. On the other hand, we are being super unfair to girls because they are told tumko toh ghar basana hai, ladke kamayenge, and they actually start believing in it because our society has conditioned them to do so. So, I go and try and explain to them that the stories that you’ve been reading so far are the stories that have been given to you — but you have one of your own. Everyone has one, and your story matters. You have overcome so much in your life just to reach this point that you are at right now, and that story matters. If you think it’s too late to bring any change in life, that’s not true. You can take control and change it at any point in time.
We don’t look at young people as adults, we look at them as children. And these young people of this generation in particular, are incredibly more mature than any other generation before, because they have access to the internet and information from a very young age. If we start realising that and start giving them that respect and that platform for them to express, you will hear the most incredible things ever. And that’s what we did!
While Yuvaa continues to create waves with its concept and content, one thing that stood out for us is the amount of focus Taneja and his team, through their platform, are putting on helping people share their lives and their stories. Afterall, good things can happen through anything, all one needs is a thought. And Taneja is setting the right example of just that.