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Nayanika Mahtani, the scriptwriter of the movie Shakuntala Devi in a candid conversation with Gyanalogy on her life journey and transformation from a banker to a writer.

Did you always want to be an author and screenwriter?

I actually harbored dreams of studying drama and performing in musical theatre, while I was in my last year of high school. It was around that time that a director from Theatre Action Group (TAG), held auditions for a musical. As it happily turned out, not only did those selected get to act and sing, our director even let us co-write the script and lyrics. The music was composed by an unassuming guitar teacher called Loy Mendonsa (who went on to get rather famous as Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy). The play was performed at Siri Fort auditorium and I think it was that experience that left me bitten by the theatre bug. I then enrolled in drama workshops with TAG – where a charismatic actor called Shah Rukh Khan (who also went on to get rather famous) would cue us for improvs and trust exercises. Occasionally, we were asked to volunteer as ushers at fabulous performances, and I’d watch, wide-eyed. Life was on track, as far as I was concerned. Until I realized that Real Life was about to begin – and it would follow a slightly different script - as a banker.

On hearing of my plans to study drama, my father suggested that I shouldn’t narrow my options just yet. He advised that I perhaps follow a more conventional path and get financially independent to steer my life in whichever direction I later chose – and added, that knowing me, drama would always be in the picture, irrespective ☺.

So, I followed the proverbial left side of my brain and pursued an MBA at IIM Bangalore where I majored in Finance and Organisational Behaviour. While I never did admit it to him, I think my father was right. The two years I spent at the IIM were invaluably enriching in broadening my perspective and provided the scaffolding for my later life. Perhaps the biggest takeaways for me were learning how to learn and unlearn and relearn. Interacting with batchmates who came from various different disciplines challenged the framework through which I had until then viewed things. The course helped me appreciate the incredible compounding effects of collaboration and inclusion of diverse points of view. I learnt lessons in humility from interacting with some of the finest minds whom we were privileged enough to be taught by (and sometimes learn with) – lessons on how to take what we do seriously, but not ourselves. I learnt about the inter-connectedness of things – and how to be able to build a narrative around it. It is amazing how all of this came into play later in life.

2. How did the transition happen from the corporate world to the literary world?

After IIM, I joined the corporate banking division at ANZ Grindlays (now Standard Chartered), and some years later, I joined the investment banking arm at JP Morgan.

The transition from the corporate world to the literary world happened in a most unplanned manner. While posted in Africa, I happened to audition for a writing assignment for Sesame Workshop – and got selected. I was asked to create content for the outreach programme of Sesame Street’s India chapter (Galli Galli Sim Sim) for children who did not have access to television. I realised that I loved writing – and got into copywriting from there on, which suited me given that my children were both toddlers at the time and I could work out of home. Before I knew it, it was 2015 and my first book, Ambushed was published by Penguin Random House – which was beyond my wildest dreams. This was followed by two more books, The Gory Story of Genghis Khan and Across the Line - and then a film script.

3. What would be your advice to youngsters?

I suppose the hardest part of the transition from the banking world was that a literary career requires a lot of courage.

Firstly, the courage to turn your back on a very rewarding pay package. (To keep myself financially secure, I kept some corporate copywriting assignments going so I had some steady income coming in through the year, as book and film projects have long gestation periods.)

But more importantly, you require the courage to put what you have created on display for the rest of the world to judge - not just your boss, your colleagues and clients as would be the case in a banking career – but everyone who picks up that book or watches your film is going to judge you – which can be very intimidating. Yet, it was also very liberating in a sense because I think I had reached a stage in my life where I knew that doing something was less scary than not doing it, even if it meant falling flat on my face in the process.

So, if I had to give my younger self any advice – it would be this – don’t hold back for fear of failing. Invest yourself wholly in whatever it is that you do. If you don’t quite know what it is that makes you want to jump out of bed each morning, that’s fine too – explore different avenues – but give each one an honest chance. You can successfully have many different portfolios of experiences and they can lead to more than one career in very fulfilling ways. I’ve recently read a book titled "Range" by David Epstein which talks about why generalists are triumphing in a specialist world. It’s a very interesting read. Keep learning as you go. Reinvent yourself, if you need to. Honour your friendships at work and at school/university. I have been helped along the way by the unstinting support of my friends – and offer help in turn, whenever I’m able. Most importantly, enjoy the journey.

4. You have co-authored the screenplay for a Hindi film based on the mathematical genius,
Shakuntala Devi. Tell us more.

It was incredibly fortunate how that all fell into place. Shakuntala Devi had done a Maths show at my school in Kolkata when I was about seven years old, but I still remember it as if it was yesterday – she left me completely mesmerised. I loved how she made numbers come alive and showed us how joyful the journey with numbers could be. Decades later, I found myself co-writing a script about her extraordinary life along with the director of the film. And then to have the incredibly talented Vidya Balan play the role of Shakuntala Devi and bring her to life on the big screen was beyond fabulous. We’re really excited about the film – it releases worldwide on Amazon Prime Video on July 31. I do hope many of your readers watch it!

Nayanika Mahtani is an Indian author and scriptwriter.  She followed the proverbial left side of her brain to do an MBA at IIM Bangalore and became an investment banker. A decade later, she followed her heart to live in Africa. Since then, she’s been following the right side of her brain and is a copywriter by day and a storyteller by night.

Nayanika has been invited as a speaker at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 in Jaipur and at London - and to the Mountain Echoes Lit Fest in Bhutan in 2018. She lives in London with her husband and two daughters. More about her books and screenwriting is listed on

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