Issac John’s career has been fairly tumultuous – from having a drink with Usain Bolt, discussing the Ashes with Sachin Tendulkar to waiting with 500 new writers to get a chance to show his script in a FICCI Meet the Director event, from being named as one of the top 10 young marketers in India to giving it all up to pursue a screen-writing course at the New York Film Academy, from facing scores of rejections for his three movie scripts to seeing his first short story compilation published by Penguin.
He promises to continue taking sabbaticals every few years to pursue his passions, and to keep coming back to satisfy his ambition of doing well in the corporate world as well. Read on to delve into his interesting life.
Issac John, 35, Marketing Head, Bengaluru
Interviewed by Chirantan Shah
Why did you decide to give us an interview on career?
I am someone who thinks a lot about how careers can be shaped and what are the detours one can take from the established career line. I have taken those detours in my life. There is a conflict between the demands of a successful career and following your heart for no apparent rhyme and reason.
Can you take us through your career so far?
I did my MBA in 2006, post which I worked with HT for about four years. I tried hard to get ESPN to recruit me, but that never happened. Like a lot of people, I am a failed sportsman. I had played cricket and basketball at district level. If you couldn’t make a career in playing sports, the next logical thing to do was to work in a sports-related profession. After failing to get into ESPN someone told me that CNBC was coming up with a sports channel. I managed to get a job there, but as luck would have it, CNBC was not able to kick-start its sports channel in India. Here is when I took my first sabbatical. It had been six years, I was not getting anywhere as far as my career was concerned. I decided to leave everything that I was doing and take a break.
I was always interested in films. I decided to do a film-making course in Bombay, which led me to make a short film, which went to the Goa International Film Festival. Around that time PUMA happened. After four years in PUMA, I started feeling that I was getting too comfortable, and there was a realization that while I did like writing, I hadn’t done any writing in the last four years. I decided to take a sabbatical for a year to study writing, to see if I could get into screenwriting for movies. When that failed I did a couple of jobs and now I am with Discovery since a few months.
Tell us about your first sabbatical. You had been working in the industry for almost six years. When you took that decision, did you weigh the odds?
Before my first sabbatical, I would go for these weekend screenplay writing workshops which made me realize my love for writing. I decided to take a three-month off, write a little bit, make a few films and see where it goes. I knew that I could take the sabbatical only till the time I had enough money to pay my rent. It had to be a very fine balance of doing whatever you want to do for three months and then trying to get a job quickly. I was lucky. After three months my bank balance had come down to Rs 25k, my rent was Rs 27k. And it was then that PUMA happened.
Can you take us through the journey of your second sabbatical?
I took the sabbatical in the September of 2015. I landed in New York from a comfortable lifestyle in Bangalore to living in a tiny room in a shady part of Brooklyn. This transition was a little painful to come to terms with, but I had the best of times learning. I spent all my waking hours at the Academy. I really enjoyed writing and was the first person in my batch to finish my screenplay. I left New York and came back to pitch the scripts I had written.
I went to Mumbai approaching all the big names in the industry. All of them would have agreed to meet me four months back, but now they were quite hesitant.
I was lucky in the first place that I had that designation, so I could still approach people. I would wonder, if I had such trouble making these calls, how would somebody from Raipur who is a fabulous writer but is not connected, break through? How would he ever make it in Bombay? I went through that phase of self-realisation that I am far more privileged than most. That sense at some points in time would just tear me apart. In April 2016, I was drinking with Usain Bolt, I was discussing the Ashes with Sachin Tendulkar, a year later I was standing in the corridors of FICCI Meet the Director Pitch Session with my spiral-bound along with 500 writers from all over India. It was a complete flip.
After this, I decided to try my hand at short stories. I wrote 15 short stories. I started pitching to publishers again but was rejected. The entire year had been nothing but rejections. Finally, possibly my last roll of dice, the Bangalore Literature Festival happened. I had prepared a pamphlet with the theme of the story. I was handing this over to every editor that I met, irrespective of whether they had rejected me before or not. Milee Ashwarya from Penguin asked me to send her an email, which I did. Things started rolling from there, and I eventually got published.
Did you have any anxieties during your sabbaticals?
In the first few months of your sabbatical, you will think that you have done something very wrong, even though you might give a perception that you are enjoying the sabbatical. Deep down you are immensely conflicted. If you go to a party, the first question that people tend to ask is, “Where are you working?” It is a very difficult question to address. It takes a few months to be okay with what you have done.
Do you see yourself as a person who is ambitious from a career-point of view or a person who aspires to make the most out of life?
I think I will continue to try and make the most out of my life. In another five years, I would definitely take another sabbatical. No two ways about it. I don’t know if that would be for writing, or for something else. I am very clear that every time I have come back from a sabbatical, it has only made me a more well-rounded person.
How does it impact your family life every time you decide to take a sabbatical?
I don’t have any close family that I am answerable to except for my wife. She knew that I had been planning to take a sabbatical, for over a year. I do know that it was not easy for her. You have to make a functional lifestyle choice and your partner bears the brunt of it. Having said that, without having a wife as compassionate and as responsible, I would never have been able to do this. If there is any lesson in this, it is ‘marry well’.
The last question has nothing to do with your interview topic, but we ask everyone we interview – what does love mean to you?
Love is pain. That’s all it is. It’s a doorway to more pain, and the hope that the companionship of that loved one overcomes that pain.