Meet the five young men and their unconventional journey to fame and success.

In Association with Audemars Piguet

RANVEER BRAR

A culinary whiz, affable TV host, traveller, artist, poet and more – Brar’s journey with food stands out due to his knack for going against the norm, and excelling at it.

Ranveer Brar

Photograph by Kartik Sadekar

Ranveer Brar grew up in Lucknow at a time when passing out of college meant having to make the choice between pursuing a career in medicine, engineering or the army. “At the most, you could become a bank manager or an IAS officer,” he recalls. So, when the teenager announced to his parents that he’d like to be a chef, their displeasure was an expected reaction. They didn’t take him seriously till he ventured into the famed culinary haven, Bawarchi Tola, and took up an apprenticeship under kebab maestro Ustad Munir Ahmed. For eight months, all he did was grind spices and dry charcoal, but Brar was thrilled with his job, and his family finally relented.

Ranveer Brar wears an AUDEMARS PIGUET ROYAL OAK CHRONOGRAPH.

Things moved rather speedily from there – way quicker than they do for most chefs. By the age of 25, he had risen swiftly up the ranks and was appointed Executive Chef at the Radisson in Noida. “A lot of people still don’t believe that,” Brar tells me. “The norm these days is to believe in younger talent, but at that time, you wouldn’t get such high posts before you turned 35-36.”

Brar was instrumental in opening one successful restaurant after another at the hotel, moving on to do the same at the Claridges in New Delhi. Among his top achievements, he believes, is the launch of Sevilla, a Spanish restaurant that was perceived as a bold move at the time, but which continues to thrive today, long after he exited the hotel.

“I had a sorted life with the Claridges, heading many hotels. It all became too normal for me,” he says, stressing on the word ‘normal’ in a way that highlights his preference for the exact opposite. “So, I decided to drop it all one day and move to Boston. Banq, the restaurant I opened there, did well for two years and then tanked. I went broke, and slept on the streets for 13 days,” Brar reminisces. But instead of picking the safe option of returning to India, the chef hung on and decided to rebuild from scratch. He currently owns five popular restaurants in Boston.

When he returned to India, Brar went against the norm yet again. “It would have been easy to go back to the comfort of working with a hotel, but once the entrepreneurial bug bites you, it’s very difficult to work for somebody,” he explains. Today, he is one of the few chefs who have managed to strike a balance between opening restaurants and cafés (TAG GourmART Kitchen and multiple outlets of English Vinglish and Flyp by MTV, among them) and being an affable TV host.

“I’m trying to show that we might be media-savvy and articulate, but we can still cook. A celebrity chef is a chef first and a celebrity later,” he stresses. Brar also talks of his irritation at the fact that chefs are only known for their culinary skills. “Why does being a chef have to restrict me? In India, we have a box we try to fit into, and in doing so, we curb our personality to fit that box. But we all read, travel and think, right?”

Brar, in fact, does a whole lot more. In the time he finds free from his day job, he paints, sculpts and writes poetry. He works out diligently, four days a week, and has rippling muscles as proof. His wardrobe is the subject of much envy as well. I’ve known the chef for over three years now, and I’ve never seen him shabbily dressed. Impeccably tailored blazers, trousers in sorbet hues, customized chef coats and one particularly lust-worthy leather apron that he had custom-made in Copenhagen for an obscene amount of money – he’s got them all. “I also love travelling, and since it’s a great way to explore food, I try to cover at least 4-5 countries a year and document my trips,” he says.

The day job, as always, remains hectic, but Brar wouldn’t have it any other way. He recently launched the Mumbai outpost of Flyp, a nation-wide chain of cafés he has collaborated with MTV on. TAG in Mumbai has made a name for itself for its sophisticated vegetarian small plates, inspired by world food. The other venture, English Vinglish, is a unique concept that takes the best of Indian mithai and fuses them with Western desserts. His next venture is already on the cards, and Brar describes it as his dream project: “I won’t say much, but we’ll be serving Indian food. It’s a 40-50 seater concept and highly scaleable; we’ll start with Mumbai next year and take it from there.”

His show Raja Rasoi Aur Andaaz Anokha is already on air, and one more show is expected to launch soon. Are you sure there’s nothing else coming up, I ask? “Nope. I don’t like to plan ahead too much,” he grins.

NAMIT MALHOTRA

The Founder, Executive Chairman and Global CEO of Prime Focus is arguably India’s biggest success story in Hollywood. Two decades and several challenges later, he’s bullish about what lies ahead.

Photograph by Kartik Sadekar

Growing up, Namit Malhotra was quite disinterested in the work he does today. “A bunch of what we do is all about CGI and creative, artistic work. I didn’t care much for either. But since my grandfather and father were both in the film business – as a cinematographer and producer respectively – I was interested in making films,” he recalls.

But Malhotra wanted to be “different”, and in the midst of his teenage struggle with picking a career, his father offered him a valuable bit of advice. “He told me that the movie business is evergreen, and that I could enter it whenever I wanted. He gave me some perspective of how long it took him to reach a point where he could fund a film. He didn’t want me to face so many challenges.”

Since everything was about computers those days, Malhotra finally signed up for a quick computer graphics course and realized it wasn’t as complicated as he had made it out to be. “Down the road, I realized there was an opportunity there, with everything getting digitized. There was a major transformation happened. I had three guys teaching me, and I figured that they obviously knew better than me, so I hired all of them and we set up Prime Focus in a garage in 1995,” he says.

While there was a steady flow of work in the coming years, the company’s journey was fraught with all the ups and downs they anticipated, and more. “Everyone uses the word now, but back then, we were a start-up. We were founded on the back of debt, as opposed to someone putting in risk capital and becoming a partner the way they do today. I’ve paid up to 28% interest at the peak, after pledging my house,” Malhotra says. “But I am proud that two decades later, we are a company that hasn’t taken shortcuts to success. I think our tenacity set us apart – we took pride in pulling off the impossible.”

Namit Malhotra wears an AUDEMARS PIGUET ROYAL OAK SELFWINDING.

Indeed, the challenges have been aplenty – right from the need to train employees in new technology, to dealing with a facility ruined in Mumbai’s 2005 flood, a fire that burnt a new facility to the ground only a month prior, market crashes and feeling the pinch while paying custom duty as high as 120% for much-needed equipment. Malhotra has even taken day trips to London with 25-kilo computer parts in his bag, in order to ensure that the company would meet a certain client’s deadline. “I don’t like saying no, so I if I believe something can be done, I will find a way to make it happen. We’ve also really been able to squeeze the timeline – what others did in five years, we managed in two,” he tells me.

Throughout his journey – from starting Prime Focus in 1995 to taking it to Hollywood in 2010, where the company would go on to work on landmark movies – Malhotra has always believed in leading from the front. “I was the plump kid who didn’t enjoy sports, but I was made captain for various activities because of my ability to influence. As a kid, you don’t realize this; you just think it’s because you’re popular,” he jokes, adding, “When I lived in the US, my friends coined the term ‘Malhotras Law’ to describe the fact that whenever I have anything major coming up, something or the other is bound to go wrong. But the fact it, I don’t worry about these things. Instead, I gain strength from these experiences, and they only reinforce my leadership skills.”

Malhotra also talks about what can arguably be considered his most path-breaking move – starting from the bottom in Hollywood back in 2010, in an industry where India barely had a presence. “We’ve done well in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street, but in the entertainment industry there was nobody,” he says, recalling the decision to move his young family to a new place, where they knew nobody. “Even the credit card I was given by the bank had a $300 limit – my assistant had more. My success in India didn’t count there. Nobody cared what I had achieved. You think you’re somebody? This is the greatest reset button I can think of.”

Years later – with his company having worked on Star Wars: Episodes I-III, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Guardians of the Galaxy, among other money-spinners – Malhotra can bask in his success, and believe he has truly made it. But he refuses to settle for what he has. “I’ve seen the company evolve from Mumbai to pan-India and then go global. The need for digitization has augmented our business in a never-before manner. We don’t care what screen you’re watching things on; we want to enhance that experience for you. That, for us, is a massive opportunity in a world that demands new forms in which content is being consumed. The best is yet to come and we feel we are in a great spot to make the most of it.”

TROY COSTA

He dresses India’s top industrialists, Bollywood royalty and the PM too, but the designer stubbornly continues to shy away from the limelight, even as he approaches the biggest step in his career – showing at Paris Fashion Week.

Photographed by Kartik Sadekar

We’re at Troy Costa’s studio in suburban Mumbai, photographing him for this feature, and the notoriously reticent designer struggles through the first few bursts. “Don’t worry. I’ll get comfortable in five minutes,” he apologises, sheepishly. Sure enough, we have our shot soon.

Costa has always been media-shy. Knowing fully well that a great PR or marketing machinery can significantly boost even a mediocre designer’s career, he’s steadfastly remained an exception to the rule – staying behind the scenes, and focussing on his work instead of harping about his achievements.

The aforementioned accolades are many. Costa has dressed pretty much every male celebrity, prominent businessman or politician in the country. He’s one of the only Indian designers who can boast of crafting bespoke suits in the true sense of the term. Yet, one barely hears about what he’s up to.

“I’ve built my business purely on the fact that if your product is not good enough, you just have to work harder. I’ve been offered huge sums of money to do shows sponsored by water or suitcase brands. Who says no to Rs 20 lakh? I don’t think anyone but I would. It just doesn’t seem correct to me,” he says.

Costa has been tailoring for some 23 years now, and started his company in 2007. He’s presented his collections at a smattering of shows as well. But it’s his next one – a career first, and undoubtedly a major milestone for Indian fashion – that his him feeling like an excited debutant. The designer will present his collection at the Paris Fashion Week Men’s in January, alongside stalwarts like Dior, Gucci and Ermenegildo Zegna, to name a few.

Showing on the international stage has always been a dream for the designer, but it took a lot of time to materialise. “I don’t have godfathers in the industry like many Indian designers do; I don’t come from insane family wealth either. Despite having both, some designers have failed to show internationally with success. Also, we as a country aren’t known for great quality or exquisite designs, so it’s not like anyone in the West had a carpet laid out for me,” says Costa. The stakes are high – huge money invested, a casting call with some 400 models, and the pressure to stand his ground alongside the world’s biggest are only some of the challenges, but he remains unfazed.

Troy Costa wears an AUDEMARS PIGUET ROYAL OAK OFFSHORE CHRONOGRAPH.

“This is a huge step, because I see it as a commitment and a promise to show quality and return season after season, twice a year, with a good product. No Indian menswear designer has showcased here before; it’s going to change my life,” he says proudly.  A staunch believer in God, Costa adds, “I don’t think I was born for normalcy. He has a plan for me, and showed me that there’s definitely something more. My job is to work like there’s no tomorrow, and I’m confident he will change my life. I will be insanely successful in Paris, and it will be his doing.”

Even as he works swiftly towards readying his collection for the show – “lack of skilled labour here means I cut every pattern myself” – there’s another project vying for his attention, which has him travelling to Guangzhou every few months, holding meetings with factories to produce his yet-to-launch Cruise line. Costa has been planning this new vertical for a long time now, and plans to have at least five stores for it by 2019. This trip will entail a visit to the annual Canton fair, where he will scout for T-shirt and shoe vendors to produce the collection.

“I’m a very balanced guy, and I’ve planned the next 15 years of my career very systematically. I can tell you that the best is yet to come. The first stage – cementing the Troy Costa brand internationally – is already underway, and then the Cruise line will come up. Consequently, I hope to do other things aligned to fashion,” he says. Costa has stubbornly refused to accept investments for his eponymous label – “I don’t want to dilute my own brand; I want it to be singularly owned by me” – but going forward, he’s going to look for investors for some of his plans, including the Cruise line.

RAHUL MISHRA

From a small village outside Kanpur to the ramps of Paris, the designer has had a particularly unconventional journey to fame and success.

Rahul Mishra is among the rarefied circle of international fashion designers who has now got into the groove of getting invited every year to show his collection at the mother of all fashion extravaganzas, the Paris Fashion Week. He is just back from the French capital after his fourth season, and is understandably elated. “It is anybody’s dream to be able to showcase at Paris Fashion Week. It is arguably the number one fashion week in the world, with global heavyweights such as Louis Vuitton, Dior, Chanel, Balenciaga and Hermès showcasing,” he says, adding, “It’s a dream come true for a brand like us to be amongst these iconic fashion houses and showcase on the same calendar.”

For Mishra, it is a particularly big deal, because he hasn’t followed the conventional route to fame and glory. Successful fashion designers in India generally tend to come from elite city backgrounds, whereas he started life in a family of doctors in a village called Malhausi, outside Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. In fact, he credits this simple, early rural life for his finely tuned aesthetic sensibilities. “It was one of the best times of my life, because I could stay in a very humble background with natural beauty around me. There were no artificial elements,” he says. Once he moved to Kanpur for college, design was still far from his mind as he got his degree in Physics instead, a field whose focus on logic and reasoning he feels has had a major impact on his work.

Even when he did finally end up at the National Institute of Design, his science background pushed him towards graphic design and animation over apparel. But it was fashion that caught his fancy, and after toiling for four years as a non descript designer, his first big break came in 2009, when he won a scholarship to Milan’s prestigious Istituto Marangoni, becoming the first non-European to get the honour. “Staying in Milan and observing fashion was in itself an education, aside from the rigorous training that I received while at Marangoni,” he says. International fame came three years ago, in 2014, when he became the first Indian to win the prestigious Woolmark Prize at the Milan Fashion Week, an award that was won by the likes of Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld in their youth.

The Woolmark programme helped establish him as a designer of international stature. “The best thing about it is that it does not get over in a day,” explains Mishra. “Once you are nominated, the process lasts the entire year, so you are working for this target throughout. And throughout this whole process, you get to meet mentors and different judges. This helps you to understand the situation and design accordingly. Designing those six looks was one of the most difficult assignments of my life. Somehow, the collection I designed for Woolmark gave me a new trick, a new formula to create my poetry and to create a narrative.” This new trick was the concept of reverse-migration – moving artisans back to villages where they could work and live with their families, returning to the traditional routine and dignity of a craftsman’s life.
In an industry that regularly favours insiders and those born to fashion, Mishra has broken the mould. His work has a purpose beyond just making sales. “One of the most important things we do is that all the hand embroidery and hand weaving is not diluted; we never use machine embroidery, because one machine embroidery unit un-employs more than eight people. My idea behind creating a product is slowing down the process of creation. When you do that, it means multiple hands can come together and create a special product. That is what I believe makes a product even more beautiful. Looking at India as one country where we see a lot of unemployment, I think fashion is a way to employ a lot of handicraft and craft-led people, who practice age-old techniques and can create the most beautiful things. The brand philosophy on which our ideology is based isn’t just about creating a piece of clothing, or a product of luxury just for consumption. Instead, we look at how a piece of clothing can create participation. The participation can come from both the environment, for inspiration and resources, and people, by their craft and their practices.”

Mishra’s greatest gift to fashion is a break from what he calls the ‘uniformed’ state of global fashion. “We are privileged because India has got just the right combination of resources for a sustainable fashion system in respect to the environment, society and product. I think that is where the Indian craft and handmade industry can help to give back that uniqueness to the global fashion industry.” Is he going to bring this gift to men’s fashion anytime soon? “Maybe,” he says with a smile.

ALI FAZAL 

From humble Lucknow beginnings to clinching starring roles in two international films back to back, Ali Fazal is amonst the hottest names in the movie business right now.

Photograph by Aditya Bengali

Perseverance and right-place-right-time are what makes a movie star – Ali Fazal is the perfect example for that conclusion. From a nobody on Mumbai’s theatre circuit to the lovable Joy Lobo in Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots to the starring role of Abdul Karim opposite Dame Judi Dench in Strephen Frears’ Victoria and Abdul, Ali Fazal has come a long way.

For starters, the man had to face is own share of disappointments. While the industry and audience sat up at took notice in 3 Idiots, what followed was a string of duds in Bollywood. Having said that, he has worked on interesting projects and with important production houses. His performances in Bobby Jasoos, Fukrey, Sonali Cable and Khamoshiyaan were lauded by critics and everyone gushed about an effusive charm and crackling on screen presence. A handsome man with a wonderful personality, Fazal has always been warm company.

After an international debut in Furious 7, the seventh installment in The Fast and the Furious film series, Fazal became the toast of film circles when he grabbed the role of Abdul Karim, Queen Victoria’s personal attendant and close confidant, in Victoria and Abdul. Not only was the scope of the film’s canvas an exciting opportunity for any Indian actor, starring opposite Dame Judi Dench was also seen as an experience of a lifetime. The film premiered at the 74th Venice Film Festival to rave reviews and had already grossed 31 million dollars worldwide ahead of the Asian (most importantly, Indian) release. About Fazal’s performance, Variety says: “And then there’s Abdul. He is tall, twinkly, and yummy handsome, with thick shiny black hair and a beard that makes him look like Paul McCartney in “Let It Be.” The Indian actor Ali Fazal, a Bollywood star who made his Hollywood debut in “Furious 7” (2015), plays him with a sing-song voice and a polite sweetness that never lets up.” The Atlantic noted that “Fazal makes the most of his opportunities as Karim, and the rest of the cast fulfill their straightforward plot functions ably. But like planets orbiting a celestial body, all revolve around a customarily gravitational performance by the great Dame Dench.” What Fazal brings to his role is a sense of curiosity, profound intelligence and warm sincerity – expressions he masterfully projects even in the absence of dialogue. To be able to hold your ground opposite a powerhouse performer like Dench is no mean feat and Fazal excels in every scene with the actress, proving his mettle and impressing audiences worldwide.

And Victoria and Abdul is just the beginning. The actor has already started discussing his next film with a Hollywood production house and has two Hindi films lined up for release next year. Ali Fazal has finally arrived.

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