This story is a part of Mia Women Series, sponsored by Tanishq, where we showcase bold, beautiful and colorful stories of inspiring women. (HerStory exercises full editorial control over all the posts.)
As a child, there were a myriad number of things that Deblina Chakrabarty wanted to be when she grew up. At six, she wanted to be a doctor. At fourteen, inspired by her sister in law, she wanted to be in hotel management. At twenty, inspired by a college crush, it was environmental management and a forensic analyst at an intelligence bureau. The latter was quickly dissuaded by her complete inability to keep a secret. But what remained constant throughout the shifting perspectives of childhood was a keen desire to write. And though she has been steadily exploring opportunities and climbing the proverbial ladder ever since she graduated with a master’s degree in political economics from the London School of Economics in 2002, she has managed to remain associated with the written word. She has authored a variety of columns on arts, culture, literature, fashion and pop culture for a number of national publications. Her current tryst with the pen results in an effervescent and deeply satirical column for ‘Man’s World’ where she expertly holds forth on the dating and relationship dilemmas faced by modern women (and men) in India.
At present Deblina is Director, content licensing, at MGM Worldwide Television Group in London. “I work in entertainment distribution which entails the licensing and distribution of TV series, films and other programming from the producer/rights holder to various broadcasters and on-demand platforms. To put it simply, if you like seeing Transformers on STAR World, chances are the channel has acquired the rights to air it from the studio who produced it viz. Paramount,” she describes of her job.
When asked how did she go about shaping such a successful career she remarks, “Would happenstance make for good copy?” For it is not a question of ‘How’ that shaped her career, rather of ‘Why Not?’ She says, “When I finished my Masters in Political Economy at LSE, I was still on track to become a journalist and change the world until I came for a job interview on a lark at Times of India (with an Indian Express offer as assistant editor already in hand) and got persuaded by then President of Bennett Coleman Company Ltd to join Response (the sales and marketing division instead) because as he put it, in Editorial I would be ‘overworked, underpaid and swimming with sharks with chips on their shoulders’. That split second decision of ‘why not?’ changed the trajectory of my career from content creation to content monetisation. The second big change was when I moved from print to television and within the first three months was put on a flight to go to the biannual television market MIPTV and understand the television licensing business – from the ugly end of accounts outstanding’s and some very angry distributors! Today being on the other end feels like having come full circle.”
Now, in a typical day in her life, she navigates a mix of client emails, phone calls, various stages of deal-making from creating a proposal to negotiation to closure along with internal work of budgets, sales status reporting and of course travel planning, since she handles content distribution for a few EMEA territories at MGM based in their London office. Her own life too involves more than its fair share of travel to exotic destinations. She has been a regular at the biannual television markets in Cannes, MIPTV (April) and MIPCOM(October) for over a decade, witnessing the sweat and grime that constitutes the backbone of the entertainment industry (with a few glasses of wine thrown in for good measure!). At the time of the interview she was just back from a trip to LA and preparing for another hectic whirlwind few weeks through Vienna, Munich, Johannesburg and Athens. An itinerary that would be a travel agent’s delight except as Paul Theroux said, “Travel is glamorous only in retrospect.” While her globetrotting is extremely enjoyable, it is also “Very very hectic.” Nonetheless, her semi-nomadic lifestyle gives her a chance to indulge in her favourite activity- sampling the best cuisines the world has to offer. She and her photographer best friend, Mariam Mamaji, have run a fabulously successful food blog, ‘Made in Umami’. A run through the site is bound to elicit a Pavlovian response in your taste buds. While transcontinental distance makes it hard to coordinate dining and photo shoots she continues to travel the world in 80 plates armed with an Instagram filter and an uncanny nack for dining at winning spots.
Deblina has some remarkable things to look forward in her career this year, “I have taken on a few new territories within Europe which I look to understanding more closely and initiating business in. In my line of work the opportunity to interact closely with countries as diverse as South Africa, Greece, Dubai, Ireland and their people, cultures, customs, tastes and viewing habits means that every day on the job is truly a trove of soft learning.”
One wonders what kinds of challenges she’s had to overcome to get to where she has in life. But she is quick to dismiss all notions of grand success being attributed to her:
If you ask me, the whole making it big thing is a bit pretentious and premature given the stage of women’s careers in their early thirties. How about just tenacity and carrying on? A Johnny Walker mantra of keep walking, if you will. That’s an underrated value in modern careers. There’s just too much emphasis on epiphany and life changing moments. The truth is life changes incrementally, even when it’s changing monumentally.
Persisting with the question of challenges, she relents, “I would say challenges are ongoing since this is only the early middle stage of my career. Internally I would say it’s my own personality traits like impatience, impulsiveness, tactlessness and thin-skinnedness. Externally it’s the dawning realisation of the magnitude of sexism prevalent in conventional (and in this case corporate) power structures across the world and how ingrained and even unconscious the chauvinism is.”
Perhaps it is the drama queen in me, but I insist on mining her personal life for answers to her remarkable wisdom and equanimity. My question lingers on what has been life’s cruellest blow and she says, “Not that life has been a bed of roses, but so far no one event has remained a blow in retrospect. That’s to say that every disappointment has explained its purpose so looking back, no regrets!”
Though others might perceive her to be so, Deblina insists that she has never viewed herself as intensely ambitious. What she is, is driven and determined. “I hate giving up. I consider that the biggest failure. I’d say the two immediate prongs of that drive are on two extremes. One is my absolute need to be financially self-sufficient, for all necessities and luxuries I might ever want (and I want many!). On the other end of the spectrum is to lead a life of some meaning and worth that leaves some impact after me. I guess hence the craving to write, since books have been such an integral part of my life and my persona. The idea that words by men and women long dead and gone could become such an intimate part of my life is such lasting worth, that to create even a fraction of such worth out of my life is the other non-material prong of my drive, so to speak.” Her answer to what keeps her motivated is blindingly simple,
When I am down? Money of course! On the good days you do things for love, glory and pride of the task at hand yada yada. On bad days you do it for the bills! Keeps things simple and keeps the discipline. Also helps from being a quitter which I am not!
Money may be a good motivator to, at certain times, get out of bed but she is quick to clear it that it is not a prerequisite for success. Success to her means, “A life where I am at peace with myself at the end of each lived day and where I have just enough money to set me free; not so much as to trap me in its obligations.”
On a lighter note, Deblina’s list of pet peeves make for a quick note of self-introspection: “Sneaks, moaners, hypocrites, bullies, and tantrum-heads! Gosh that’s almost everything everyone does, isn’t it?”
Fashion is more than just an extension of Deblina’s glamorous job. It is a shield with which to confront the world. “Fashion has played a crucial role in my self-development. From a decidedly uncool and geeky school and college kid, and this while going to college in one of the coolest colleges in India where everyone was avant garde from the age of 18, I’ve had a slow and painstaking self-learning over the past 14 years which continues till today. Fashion for me remains an armour against the outside world – a choice of how I project myself. It’s development has been a combination of travel, exposure, increasing awareness of one’s own body shape and personal style and above all the ‘story’ I want to tell each day about myself with what I wear. Do I want to be sailor chic in stripes and skinny jeans with oversize aviators? Maybe for tomorrow’s meeting I would rather channel my inner Mad Men, all form-fitted, feminine and solid hues instead? For the day out with my friends though I vote for artsy bohemian wide legged pants, a touch of vintage lace and some distressed leather? Clothes for me are ultimately about the story I want to tell about myself on a particular day.”
Clean minimal lines, symmetrical but unusual designs and classy edgy pieces with a hint of sass are what dominate her jewellery armoire. Deblina’s favourite stone is an emerald. “The pure green heart of a good quality emerald reminds me of an enchanted forest glade, a place that is pure, magical and calm, like the fairy-tales of childhood.”
Though the analogy is somewhat distasteful (literally!), she’s kissed her share of frogs before marrying the man of her dreams in December 2011. Those experiences make for hilarious material in her monthly column for Man’s World magazine. She sums up the dating drama of her twenties in one neat Woody Allen quote, “Love is the answer. But while you’re waiting, sex raises some pretty interesting questions.”
Living life Carrie Bradshaw style (before Mr Big happened at least) was fun till the exact moment she knew that she would be spending her life with her husband (who was not yet her husband). “During one of our initial telephone chats before we had even met, I was jokingly telling him how my ideal marriage involved separate bedrooms with connecting doors and instead of being nonplussed or disapproving he agreed enthusiastically, proving to be a man big of heart and humour indeed – just what I wanted in copious quantities for the rest of my life. The happy irony is that today we can’t think of spending even one night apart!”
Married life is a bigger revelation than she anticipated. “It’s much, much emotionally closer and intimate than what other people’s marriages look from the outside. It’s like a super-zoom lens into each other so don’t get married if you don’t like giving or getting the close-up view!”
To round off an extremely illuminating conversation on a philosophical note, I ask her two final questions. To what her secret to happiness is, her answer is deceptively simple, “True love and inner purpose. Money and good health are a given of course!”
If she could give any advice to her younger self what would it be, she says, “I’ll give three! 1. You’re stronger than you think. 2. Don’t be too harsh on yourself. 3. Watch your diet; in a few years you’ll be paying for every greasy morsel you eat with a pound of your flesh . . . literally!”
(Picture courtesy: Times of India)
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