The Great Indian Dream

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Gautam Shiknis, author, founder of Palador Films and World Movies, and CEO of mChek, talks to Minal Patodia about believing in yourself to overcome any challenge

Gautam Shiknis looks tremendously successful and relaxed in a sharply cut Savile Row business suit and incongruous Vibram FiveFinger shoes at an upscale lounge in Mumbai. One would hardly think that at one point in his childhood, he lived in a chawl in Mumbai. He says, with a small smile, “For two years from when I was four, I would sell mojris on the street to cars while standing on tiptoe to reach the windows.” Living with his grandparents and two siblings, Shiknis was exposed to the dark side of humanity at a young age, witnessing frequent beatings of children, violent disputes between neighbours and a constant struggle for survival. Perhaps this was part of the inspiration for his collection of short stories about the dark side in people, Meet Moriarty, that was published to critical acclaim in 2004. When asked what drove him to achieve what he has in life, he answers emphatically: “A constant hunger for knowledge and education. I don’t believe in this culture of needing a ‘break’ to make it, to get a step ahead. You only need to believe in yourself to achieve what you want.”

At the age of six, Shiknis was admitted into the Barnes School in Devlali thanks to his mother’s determination. She sat outside the Principal’s house every day, requesting him to meet her children until he relented. The three of them were admitted on a full scholarship. Shiknis says with understated confidence, “I never stood second in class ever since. I still hold the record in my school as the highest mark earner.” After college at Symbiosis University, Pune, and an MBA at NMIMS in Mumbai, he went on to join advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi. Even though he was one of the fastest rising stars of the company, earning himself rapid promotions, he quit after only four years. He started Theory M, India’s first CRM (Customer relationship management) company to address the lack of customer intervention in India. He began by sending mobile alerts to consumers on behalf of Star TV and sending messages to customers of Shoppers Stop, a means of communication with consumers that had not yet hit India shores.

This was of course, not Gautam’s first brush with innovation. In 1997, six years before Shaadi.com, he tried to start a matrimonial website called Netrimonials.com. Due to lack of faith in the idea that people would get married through the Internet, he failed to find any investors for the website. The same happened with his next e-commerce website, Dukaan. com. Shiknis says, “I had faith in myself, in my ideas, but people laughed when I suggested it. I failed to gather investor capital of Rs. 70,000 to begin these websites. For a guy who made it through college waiting on tables, it wasn’t possible for me to put in the money myself. Still, I knew that belief in yourself is all you need to make a success.” His next venture, Palador Films, is another great example of the Godhra riots. He says, “The movie that really changed my life was Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. He was the filmmaker from whom I understood what cinema could do. Cinema could be intellectually meditative as well as a challenge to interpret. It could change your life.” Changing lives is what he is working on, teaching a semester at the Mass Media Master’s programme at Symbiosis University since 2004. “Inspiring students and helping them to see the world differently has been quite rewarding.”
Breaking new paths in India’s booming economy seems to come naturally to Shiknis. In 2007, he entered the world of mobile payments with mChek, which has gone on to become the world’s largest mobile payment service company. Shiknis reminisces on his inspiration, “I wanted to open a back account for people who couldn’t go to the bank. The idea came about when my maid said that her husband took her money. I saw the possibility of change, real change, rather than a measure of money I could make for myself.”

When asked how he manages to keep his fingers in so many different pies, Shiknis replies, “You need to be a master of your subject when you do different things. You need to know each subject thoroughly. I can discuss the non-linear construction of Bergman’s films with as much ease as the intricacies of bank account payments and charges.” Not an easy feat to accomplish by far; but we are certainly inspired to believe in our dreams from this achiever.

Volume 1 Issue 10