Storytelling, Advertising, and Life: An Interview With Piplu R Khan, Founder, Applebox Films

Storytelling, Advertising, and Life: An Interview With Piplu R Khan, Founder, Applebox Films

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Rezaur Rahman Khan aka Piplu R Khan is an international ad filmmaker and Founder of Applebox Films. In his decade-long career, he has worked with some of the biggest brands, from Grameenphone to Unilever, and agencies in Bangladesh as well as in the Bombay.

He is considered as one of the powerful ad film directors in the country and is known for his distinct approach to storytelling and bringing “realism” in his films that explore treasures and trials of life and living in order to connect directly to the heart of the audience. His works have been noticed and featured on prestigious platforms like adforum among others.

Future Startup recently sat down with Mr. Khan to know more about his journey to filmmaking, how he operates as a creative entrepreneur, trials and tribulations of his journey, his take on the creative industry in Bangladesh, origin and the future of Applebox Films (cue: Applebox is in transition), the new world of advertising and storytelling, what makes a great story, his thoughts on creativity, social media, path to creative success and life.

This is a sublime read in its entirety – poignant, altogether magnificent, and thoroughly invigorating. I invite you to peek inside the brilliant mind of Piplu R Khan. – Ruhul

Future Startup

Where did you grow up?

Piplu R Khan

It is a burden when you call me a storyteller, the kind of work I do is creating content and directing commercials. There is a marginal risk as well because the kind of people I look up to and consider as storytellers they are far more interesting, better and capable than I am. Anyways, I like telling stories. I’ve been working in this industry for over a decade now.

I grew up in a middle-class family in Chittagong. My father was a banker. Growing up, I enjoyed enormous freedom which made my childhood quite interesting, largely because of my lucky position in the family! I was the middle one in the family and before me were my four sisters. Hence, the pressure was more on my sisters. There was nothing like you can do that or can’t do this etc or you have to be a doctor or engineer.

We had a normal upbringing except the fact that I grew up around so many different types of people. My father was in a transferable job which took him and us along with him, to different places including Bogra and Chittagong among other places. This was sad in a way because I had to make new friends every time and leave old ones. On the other hand, it exposed us to diverse experience at a young age and allowed us to come across people from different classes and of characters. It was not a big deal at that time. Now that I look back I realize that experience had an outsized influence on me. It has helped me to deal with many of the prejudices that we usually come across early on and made me an open person.

I received almost all my academic education in Chittagong. I studied at Muslim High School and then Commerce College. After HSC, I got into Dhaka University. Unfortunately, I could not complete my degree due to family and personal reasons. A year into my undergrad, I went back to Chittagong and instead completed my degree from a college.

I’m a quiet person in nature. Growing up, I was more into literature and cultural activities.

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We had a normal upbringing except the fact that I grew up around so many different types of people. My father was in a transferable job which took him and us along with him, to different places including Bogra and Chittagong among other places. This was sad in a way because I had to make new friends every time and leave old ones. On the other hand, it exposed us to diverse experience at a young age and allowed us to come across people from different classes and of characters.

Future Startup

Do you come from a creative family? Was anybody in your family into filmmaking when you were growing up?

Piplu Khan

Some of my maternal uncles and aunties were involved in cultural activities. My paternal relatives were practical people, practicing Muslims and mostly bankers.

However, in the 80s and the 90s, Chittagong was a fascinating and happening place in terms of music and cultural activities. I was a literature buff. I was active member of Biswa Shahitto Kendro and Khelaghor.

By the time I was in 7th and 8th grade, I was heavily into literature which has helped me develop a good foundation in observing things, managing crisis and dealing with the absurdities of life. It also helped me to develop a deeper understanding of storytelling and the importance of stories in our lives.

Future Startup

You mentioned you could not finish your university degree due to personal and family reasons.

Piplu Khan

When I got into Dhaka University, my father had already retired from his job. Overall, things were not good for us.

I realized at that time that I need to do something practical that helps me with the present reality. University graduation was a lengthy thing which would take me another five years to complete my degree, a luxury that I did not have at that time.

After much thought, I decided to quit university and return to Chittagong, enroll myself to a college and graduate as soon as possible while working on the side.

I had to do something immediately in order to go through the situation. At that time, I regularly worked on documentaries, wrote articles and papers on order basis among other side projects.

By the time I was in 7th and 8th grade, I was heavily into literature which has helped me develop a good foundation in observing things, managing crisis and dealing with the absurdities of life. It also helped me to develop a deeper understanding of storytelling and the importance of stories in our lives.

Future Startup

What happened after that?

Piplu Khan

I studied management in college while working on the side. I spent almost my entire graduation time working while studying as little as possible.

I also spent a lot of time attending workshops, seminars, traveling to Dhaka, and doing a lot of different things. I would not say that I had a plan but I was always with people doing good work related to cultural activities and storytelling.

Due to my frequent visit to Dhaka University, I came to know some very fascinating and intellectually curious people in Dhaka – intellectuals, writers and cinematographers, mostly seniors. After graduation, I called a few of them and expressed my interest in coming to Dhaka and pursue a career in creative industry. Many of them encouraged.

After coming to Dhaka, I started working with Dr. Zakir Hossain Raju, currently Professor at Independent University. He was a brilliant student of Dhaka University, Journalism Department at that time and was into indie documentary making.

I started working with him as an assistant. He helped me to find a place in Dhaka. He used to regularly send me to different art and cultural communities including TV channels, editors, and writers. He exposed me to different opportunities in the creative industry. After a while, he moved out of the country for research purpose and our collaboration ended there. But we remained connected throughout those early days.

For the first two years, I did not take up any real work. I spent mostly going here and there and meeting different people. I did all kinds of works. I worked with people as an assistant. I worked as a writer, did translations, did ordered write-ups.

Mostly, I kept trying my luck.

In that process, I met Tariq Anam Khan, the prominent actor, writer and director. It was an utterly serendipitous incident. For a brief period of time, I was working as a contributor to the Prothom Alo. I was not on the payroll and instead get paid based on the assignments I did.

In one such assignment, one of my journalist brothers asked me to interview Mr. Tariq Anam. I went on the scheduled day and interviewed him. After the interview, we had a long chat about my interest in creative work and film. At the end of the meeting, he asked me about my schedule the following day and invited me to his shooting.

I was interested in commercial and here was Tariq Anam Khan, a fantastic actor and a big celebrity, inviting me to his shooting. It was big thing for me. The next day I went to his shooting. Since I did not have any other involvement I spent the whole day observing the shooting.

The next day we had a chat again and for the next two years, I had worked with Mr. Khan as an assistant. That’s how I started in the world of advertising. I did not have any big plans. Sometimes things just happen when time is right. Our job is to keep trying.

On the very first day, he asked me that you have a degree and you are quite intelligent, you can explore any job or another opportunity, would you continue in this industry? My answer was simple: perhaps I would get a job if I try but I don’t think I would pursue one.

He was thinking about my stability. In our line of business, turnout rate is very high. People often decide impulsively that I want to work in the film industry and then when they come to face the reality, which is very harsh so to say, they get shocked and leave. But I was not looking for an option. I was into it for the long haul.

I spent a good two years working with Tariq Anam Khan making commercials which was his business on the side apart from his acting career and learned a lot. He made a lot of interesting commercials and worked with companies like UNILEVER among others. That’s how I came to know about the agency world. All the big agencies used to give us work. It is a small community and everyone knows everyone.

After spending two years with Tariq Anam Khan, I joined ADCOMM with Nazim Farhan Choudhury which was, in a way, my first real battleground. In 2004, I finally arrived in good old days of advertising. I think those were the last good days of advertising as we know it. Today, advertising is quite complex and is no more what it was once.

NFC, Tariq Anam Khan, Piplu (From right to left) Image by Applebox Films

NFC, Tariq Anam Khan, Piplu (From right to left) Image by Applebox Films

ADCOMM was a good place for me where they gave me good exposure and opportunities to explore. I traveled abroad, attended seminars, workshops, met different clients and experienced different ways of working. I got to see masters of advertising at work and learned a tremendous amount.

I was also doing a lot of work such as shooting, meetings, and working on different types of campaigns. I used to come first to the office and leave last. It was an intense time for me both physically and intellectually. The advantage of working hard is that it increases your capacity. That’s the upside of pressure; it makes you adept at handling more pressure.

For the first two years, I did not take up any real work. I spent mostly going here and there and meeting different people. I did all kinds of works. I worked with people as an assistant. I worked as a writer, did translations, did ordered write-ups. Mostly, I kept trying my luck.

Around that time, I came across an opportunity from JAAC (Japanese Advertising Agencies Association) which used to run a short-filmmaking competition for young filmmakers across ASIA.

The idea was that you submit an idea, if you get selected you get a US$ 5000 grant to make a short-film. After making the film, you travel to Thailand with other winners from across Asia to screen your short-film at an event called Ad Fest and share your plans in front of a panel of creative geniuses from across the region. This was probably in 2007 which finally changed the trajectory of my career.

I came to know about the competition in 2006 when I was attending the Ad Fest while working at ADCOMM. I was very fascinated to see the five filmmakers who won the award that year. I checked out the details and came to know that if you are under 30 and from Asia, you could apply.

I applied the next year. After a while, I got an email saying that you got selected, here is your US$ 5000 grant. Now, go and make your film and come and present it in March.

In March, I went there with my 5 minutes short film. I met few other amazing young filmmakers from across Asia, all of them under 30. We spent three incredible days together, met some fantastic filmmakers and creative people from all over the world.

It was like a short incubator. They used to allow 5 people, take them through a fascinating process and give them access to resources and connections. I met David Droga, founder of Droga5, there. He came one day just to meet us.

It was an experience that changed my perspective towards storytelling and advertising and eventually inspired me to pursue my own thing.

Ad Fest | Screen Shot 2017-09-27 at 12.05.22 PM

Ad Fest | Screenshot 2017-09-27 at 12.05.22 PM

When I returned, I decided not to continue my old style work anymore and quit my job. My then boss Mr. Nazim Farhan Choudhury asked me what I wanted to do; I replied that I wanted to direct commercials. He agreed and put together a small production company called Screaming Girls just to promote me. Initially, it was very challenging. But we kept at it.

I worked really hard. I was lucky as well. I met all these iconic people starting from Mr. Shawon to Mr. Arup Sanyal and other big agencies. I showed them my 5 minutes work. I did not have any other work to show but I was tenacious enough to keep trying using my short film as proof that I know the work.

After trying for a while, we picked up some good works. I worked some fascinating 3 years with Mr. Nazim Farhan Choudhury. It was a tremendous journey and was the foundation of my career in the industry.

After working for three years, I realized that I want to explore a different kind of work and decided to explore things my own. That’s how Applebox came into existence.

The advantage of working hard is that it increases your capacity. That’s the upside of pressure; it makes you adept at handling more pressure.

Future Startup

Please tell us about the early days of Applebox. And what was the idea behind?

Piplu Khan

We started with 4-5 people and we grew quickly. It was around 2010.

Starting Applebox was not about starting my own company. I don’t consider myself a businessman, so starting a company was not something I wanted to do. Rather it was about doing things that I believe in and exploring opportunities that I wanted to explore.

When we decided to start Applebox, we knew that advertising is going to be a risky business and there will be challenges. Despite that, we took the risk because we wanted to make a difference with our work.

I made a very strong choice which was not popular at that time. But I realized that I’m over 30 if I want to do something I have to start working on it now. I think this is how you move forward. If you are a storyteller or an entrepreneur you have to make choice that has consequences.

From the day one, we decided to invest in people which was not a common practice in Dhaka yet at that time. Even these days, it is hard to find great people despite the fact that people are the most important resource in our industry. We simply don’t invest in people.

There is little structural support for creative people to gain education. As a result, most people learn at work. Hence, a workplace is at the same time a school and a commercial outfit. We realized the challenge early on and decided to put together an organization that would take care of the both.

I picked up completely new people without any experience like myself when I started. We wanted to work with fresher and mold them according to our culture. I had an added advantage because of my agency background. I had this whole network of important people in Dhaka as well as from India, Asia Pacific and other countries.

Applebox Films

Shift – an initiative of Applebox Films

Our ambition was to create a different way of storytelling. We had a great team and our ambition was doing things at international standard. We made strong decisions about not doing two projects at once which means we were giving our everything to one client at a time that allowed us to deliver better result.

It also helped us to position differently in the market. Our clients knew that we were different and had an agenda and that we were not for every work and anything and everything which gave us a sort of exclusivity. It also showed our clients our seriousness about work.

As a result, within a very short period of time, Applebox managed to make an impression in the market. We made it a point that we do good work and care about every little detail of our work.

I made a very strong choice which was not popular at that time. But I realized that I’m over 30, if I want to do something I have to start working on it now. I think this is how you move forward. If you are a storyteller, or an entrepreneur you have to make choices that has consequences.

Future Startup

What were the initial challenges?

Piplu Khan

The first challenge was finding a place for us in the market – rightly positioning ourselves. The competition was intense in the market. There were many brilliant filmmakers and great production companies. We had to find a way to compete with them which was a challenging job.

From day one, we decided to work hard on every opportunity that we get. In this industry, you are as good as your last work. So for us every opportunity, no matter how big or small, was important. It was like you get an opportunity and you work hard as if that is your last opportunity. If you fail to deliver, then you are not going to that client again.

It is like a long ladder. You climb up and you have to prove yourself at every point. In a way, it is very selfish that people don’t remember you if you fail. It does not matter that you have made a commercial in 1990 or 200 amazing commercials last year. It is about what you made last week or yesterday. That’s how things work in this industry.

We worked really hard at whatever opportunity we were given. We traveled across extensively. We worked with best people from across India, traveling different places for post-production and all which eventually helped us to find a place for us in the market.

Future Startup

Please tell us about your journey from starting Applebox to what you are doing today. Also, give us an overview of Applebox.

Piplu Khan

Applebox picked up quite good works within a very short period of time. We never opted for popular work; instead, we always tried to tell a distinct story.

After working for almost five years, I came across an opportunity to work in the India. This was not for Applebox, for me individually as a director. That’s how I started working in Mumbai. The early days were quite funny because a Bangladeshi travelling to Bombay to direct commercials given that they have better infrastructure, talents and everything than us. But things changed quickly when they saw my reel. I had my agent there. Together, we pushed and somehow we managed to find a place in Bombay industry. Three and a half years back, we started with a Unilever project where I directed Kajol which was quite a big start in Bombay. Working with a celebrity like Kajol was a huge thing and helped me to find a footing in the industry overnight. It was almost like an overnight success after working relentlessly for one and half years.

Now I collaborate with a company called Potli Baba in Mumbai which is founded by a dear friend of mine. For the last 4-5 years, I have been splitting my time between India and Bangladesh. While I have been working in the both countries, Applebox remains very close to my heart.

At Applebox, right now we are going through a major transition period. Over the past years, we have realized that the days of old-style production house is almost over, we need to be more than a production house at Applebox in order thrive in this new reality which has led to the decision of launching a new outfit which will be more than a mere production house.

In the middle of sometime last year I decided to take a break from work to think and reflect and come up with a new plan. Right now, I’m not working on any project except for one documentary where I am consulting. We have two other directors who are working and running the show. They keep the office busy.

I have come to realize that the whole production industry is now struggling and largely stagnant. The world has changed and the technology has changed. When there is a challenge that is incomprehensible, people often behave differently. Instead of acting, they react.

We intentionally made the decision to take some time to understand the changes and then go careful about it. For the last one year, we have exactly been doing that – reshaping Applebox. One of the key priorities is to expand our scope of work. As a production house, we had a lot of limitation and we could not do many things that we wanted to do, with the new changes, it will allow us to extend our horizon.

We are now a team of 20 people. We are proud of our people and continuously invest in new talents.

Over the past years, we have worked hard to build a work culture which is distinct in our industry and ensures creative satisfaction to the people who work here. I would say that our contribution to the industry is work culture. For any creative person, the way you work, the people you work with, the environment that you work in, these things are really important. We try to ensure an environment where you can perform at your best as a creative person.

At Applebox, right now we are going through a major transition period. Over the past years, we have realized that the days of old style production house is almost over, we need to be more than a production house at Applebox in order thrive in this new reality which has led to the decision of launching a new outfit which will be more than a mere production house.

Piplu R Khan with Sachin Tendulkar | Photo by Applebox

Piplu R Khan with Sachin Tendulkar | Photo by Applebox

Future Startup

Is there any particular direction for the new entity, for instance, digital marketing or the likes?

Piplu Khan

Of course, we will cater to the digital in general. But the changes are medium agnostic and it will allow us flexibility to do all kinds of work. The way we are looking at it is more like a creative collective.

The idea is to bring together a bunch of creative people and start working as a team in a collaborative setup, more like a creative collective. We are calling the platform Cha-shingara.com. It will be powered by Applebox but it will be an independent outfit in every way starting from culture to workforce to how it operates.

We are looking into building an inclusive platform where anyone can come and collaborate. We have realized over the years that the future is inclusive where great things will happen when a group of interesting people come together and collaborate.

For instance, the other day we were talking with a client about directing one TVC by 10 directors to get a very different kind of textures. These are the kind of experiments we want to do.

The idea is to bringing together a bunch of creative people and start working as a team in a collaborative setup, more like a creative collective. We are calling the platform Cha-shingara.com. It will be powered by Applebox but it will be an independent outfit in every way starting from culture to workforce to how it operates.

Future Startup

You mentioned that creative industry has become more complex than it was 10 and 15 years ago. Can you please elaborate a bit on that?

Piplu Khan

The changes are quite apparent. The distribution model has changed. There are endless channels and mediums now. TV is there, Facebook is there, YouTube is there, Netflix is there, and the options are endless.

Attention has become a scarce resource. We are almost always engaged. There is email, notifications and many more things that are calling for our attention every moment at once. And then there is mobile which we check every few minutes.

On the top of that, there are new model of consumptions as well such as subscription and others. If you consider all these changes, it is completely new world which we are yet to grasp fully.

Although the magic of story remains the same, the whole storytelling pattern has changed. I honestly don’t see any reason to make commercials for television anymore. Probably, a functional need is still there considering the fact that a large population still doesn’t have easy access to content that is available online. But this reality is bound to change soon.

If you look at the technology landscape, the consumption models that are available, and a huge young population who are open to change, I think we are living in a different era. I would say the future of storytelling is very different.

Today, it is not only about storytelling, it is more. The job of a filmmaker has become more complex. In the past, filmmaking was only about directing but now you have to do more because that’s how you do it now. If you see your everyday life you will have the answer.

One of the ways I look at this phenomenon is that it is no one’s fault. Rather it is about time. You are a product of your time; we have to agree on that. The time we are living today is simply not a great time for creative works. It is a restless time.

One of the challenges of our creative industry is that we have become devoid of original works. We are not looking at our cultural context. You cannot do something that someone else is doing in the US and then bring it here because that does not work in our context.

We are going through a massive cultural and economic metamorphosis. People’s lives, their outlook, and demand are changing. The young people I work with are different. The way they look at the world is different. While making things, we have to be mindful of these changes.

The other thing that I really want to highlight is the way we operate as an industry. It has never been kind to a creative person. The work culture is extremely challenging. I think this is the high time we start thinking about a creative economy which is healthy. The current working condition in the industry is simply not great.

It is an extremely low paid job for the people who are at the lower end of the ladder. Consequently, you hardly get intelligent people. You hardly attract the best of the graduates. This hurts the overall growth the industry because this is about people. If you don’t have great people, great work is impossible.

The changes are quite apparent. The distribution model has changed. There are endless channels and mediums now. TV is there, Facebook is there, YouTube is there, Netflix is there, and the options are endless. Attention has become a scarce resource. We are almost always engaged. There is email, notifications and many more things that are calling for our attention every moment at once. And then there is mobile which we check every few minutes. On the top of that, there are new model of consumption as well such as subscription and others. If you consider all these changes, it is completely new world which we are yet to grasp fully.

Future Startup

What do you think, how can we deal with these challenges?

Piplu Khan

One aspect is creating awareness and educating people about creative career so that anyone passionate about the field can learn about it and prepare. There is a misunderstanding about creative profession. There is very little institutional education opportunity that prepares you for a career in the creative industry in Bangladesh.

If you look to the West or even the Asia Pacific, there are institutions that prepare you for a creative career. There are art schools, design schools, drama schools but we don’t have such things here. Consequently, you don’t have an ecosystem where graduates can learn how to go about it.

There are opportunities in the field. Just imagine I am now directing in Bombay. I am about to sign a deal for North Africa and a few Middle Eastern countries to present my work. Most of my works are done in Dhaka and then I went to Bombay, now somebody also feels like that my work can be relatable to an audience in the North Africa.

We are the neighbor of one of the biggest content providers in the world which is India. We have a sizeable young population who are well educated, smart and intelligent which indicates that our domestic market is also growing rapidly. The future looks bright for the creative industry. There are opportunities for Bangladeshi creative professionals who can travel abroad and do great works which is something I’m excited about these days.

At Applebox, although we are a small production company, we always try to tell young people that look at things closely, imagine this is not the end, you can explore.

Future Startup

What is the other aspect?

Piplu Khan

The idea is to create an ecosystem where it will be a win-win situation for everyone working, continue their creative work, get paid decently and make a living out of it. That is by far the biggest concern.

The current state of the industry is just simply pathetic. If you look at the current condition, except a few top players, it is very difficult for everyone else to sustain with that kind of money. The culture is also challenging for most people. The way people deal with aspiring creative professionals is strange and creates a suffocating environment for them.

Secondly, the kind of working hours we deal with every day is inhuman. It is only comparable to what we see in the garments industry. Moreover, our factory setting is completely wrong, especially in Dhaka. Anything you shoot in coke studio, the average temperature goes up to 46-degree. Making a kid work for 8 hours in a 46-degree temperature environment is no less than a crime and it is against all the norms worldwide.

Just imagine we’re taking shots of a 6 years old kid, he/she is smiling for you and working hard in such a harsh condition but the entire transaction is leaned against him/her. That’s simply unfair. But if you look at the economy, it is quite shining and it is not that bad.

I think we never recognized this is as an industry. Like many other professions, there is no recognized credential for many creative professions. It is not like; you are an engineer or an MBA. In many countries where creative industry has flourished, they have a lot of rules and regulations and unions and everything that support the industry to grow. That’s how they make sure that everyone is treated fairly.

In our industry, we don’t have anything like that. It is just a few production houses and all these artists and professionals working in an unstructured industry. We call them anywhere, anytime. No rules, no regulations. We try to shoot and fix problems whenever they arrive. This is the way everything is now.

The current state of the industry is just simply pathetic. If you look at the current condition, except a few top players, it is very difficult for everyone else to sustain with that kind of money. The culture is also challenging for most people. The way people deal with aspiring creative professionals is strange and creates a suffocating environment for them.

Future Startup

People who want to start their career in the creative industry i.e. in production house or in filmmaking, what are the things they should keep in mind? Is there any checklist that may help them to navigate a creative career?

Piplu Khan

The first thing is it is a long game. In any creative profession, you have to work for a long time in order to make a mark. You can’t produce result in a day or a year. I know many successful people in the industry who had to struggle for a very long time. That’s one thing.

The second thing is: stick around, persist. If you are passionate about your work and believe that this is your work, stick around and wait for the opportunity. Things will happen.

Don’t rush. Go carefully, go slow. Because it is like painting on a canvas, you do one step at a time and gradually the empty canvas will turn into a painting in a few months.

The other thing that one needs to be mindful of is that it is a demanding profession which requires a lot of contemporary and theoretical understanding. You have to learn and evolve every day. You have to keep reading, observing and connecting in order to stay relevant.

Finally, focus. You just can’t be everywhere and do everything. It is important to know what you should do and you should not. You can’t do everything at once, pursue every opportunity at once. You have to choose your battle wisely and act accordingly.

Future Startup

You run a platform called Shift, can you please tell us about it?

Piplu Khan

We have been running Shift for a while now. However, we are now converting it (everything) to Cha-Shingara, our new entity. The idea was to inspire creative pursuit in people who are passionate about creative profession through informal gatherings and offering opportunities to interested people.

At Applebox, we always have three/four people without any specific job role. They are more like interns. We pay a small stipend; in exchange they hang around, read, listen, watch and learn as well as help us where required.

Some of them are students and others are professionals who are passionate about creative industry and want to pursue a career in the future. After a year or two when they develop enough capacity and understanding to do something, we involve them in real work.

This is part of our strategy to develop talent. It is hard to find good people in this industry because there is not enough training facility for this type of work out there.

The first thing is it is a long game. In any creative profession, you have to work for a long time in order to make a mark. You can’t produce result in a day or a year. I know many successful people in the industry who had to struggle for a very long time. That’s one thing.

Image Courtesy Applebox Films

Image Courtesy Applebox Films

Future Startup

You are a storyteller, at the same time, you are an entrepreneur. These are two different roles. How do you manage both at once?

Piplu Khan

It is about collaboration. If you are a creative person and are mostly driven by your creative impulse, you should collaborate with someone who is strong at managing things and building an organization.

I always work with people who are different than me and have different skills set, who complement me. I have never tried to find another me which will be detrimental to any company.

The most important decision you make when building an organization is about choosing people. This is critical for any business either it is a creative agency or any other type of business. Because if your entire team consists of only creative people, your management will crumble and if your team has only managers, you will not be able to deliver your creative work. You need people who complement each other.

It is about collaboration. If you are a creative person and are mostly driven by your creative impulse, you should collaborate with someone who is strong at managing things and building an organization. I always work with people who are different than me and have different skills set, who complement me.

Future Startup

How do people work and collaborate at Applebox? What is your organizational culture?

Piplu Khan

We maintain an open culture. We don’t have strict rules about timing such as when to come to office and others. We always try to create an atmosphere where people enjoy their work.

The other thing is we invest in people. From my experience, I have learned that investing in your people is more important than your advertisement, your office and design and everything. Because at the end of the day people make all the difference in a business. For creative industry, it is an absolute truth.

Future Startup

Globally, we don’t see that many lasting creative works these days that we used to before. What do you think?

Piplu Khan

Well, this is an interesting question. But I don’t think I’m the right person to answer. If you put together a hierarchy of people working in the creative industry, I will fall on the lower end of the ladder. There are more successful and knowledgeable people who can give a better answer to this.

However, I feel that time has a role to play here. While every creative work is an act of a creative person or a team, it is necessarily also a product of its time. Your time is critical. It makes sense when you look at the literature or the music. This is probably not a fascinating time for storytellers.

Look at the world. A lot of things are happening at once- our economics, our politics, our lifestyle are changing rapidly. This is not a local phenomenon alone. This is happening all over the world. We are going through changes and anxieties and uncertainties.

We are experiencing a new kind of identity and existential crisis. When you are facing an existential crisis, it makes you restless. If you are not in peace, you cannot create great works of art. I personally feel that.

This is not the time for lullaby anymore. This is not the time for you just singing and having a good time. It is not the time for Rock and Roll. We are living in a troubled time and in troubled times you don’t create something lasting.

It may take some time until we find a new rhythm. That said, we can’t blame time and wait to see how things come about. We have to work no matter how the time is.

We should find ways to make things work. Most importantly, we should act but not react. One of the challenges I see in our work is that nowadays many of the works that we are doing are reactionary to the changes. We should not do that.

I feel that time has a role to play here. While every creative work is an act of a creative person or a team, it is necessarily also a product of its time. Your time is critical. It makes sense when you look at the literature or the music. This is probably not a very fascinating time for storytellers.

Future Startup

One of complaints we commonly hear is that shortcoming of our creative industry to produce great works of arts. It can be film or advertisement or any other form. There are a lot of works, but very little is original and of high quality. What do you think about it?

Piplu Khan

One of the major shortcomings is that we never take our local knowledge seriously. This is what I personally feel. It is true for our culture, literature and business and any other sector for that matter.

We are always looking outward for ideas, knowledge, and inspiration. We are looking to the East and the West but never inward. This I think is our cardinal mistake and most significant weakness. We have to find ways to utilize our local impulses and knowledge. That is very important.

Look at our literature. How many attempts our film makers made to make cinema based on our literature in the recent years? But you just imagine the royalty-free amount of Bangla literature ready to use. Unfortunately, people are not interested. Instead, we continue making the same crap.

This is not the time for lullaby anymore. This is not the time for you just singing and having a good time. It is not the time for Rock and Roll. We are living in a troubled time and in troubled times you don’t create something lasting.

You have to know yourself in order to excel at what you do. We probably have misunderstood our own strength ranging from our language, communication, literature, and stories. That’s one of the reasons for not being able to come up with original and powerful creative works.

That said, we are seeing an influx of good works in the film industry. A number of young filmmakers are doing fascinating work. I believe this will continue and increase in the coming years.

Future Startup

Anything else?

Piplu Khan

One of the reasons is probably many of our works are not strongly backed by knowledge. An intellectual recession is going on here.

If you compare Dhaka and the quality of work we do with that of what West Bengal is producing, you would see a sea of difference. Probably I am exaggerating a bit but I know people, I know technicians, I know people at the agency. The kind of money they make and the kind of effort they put into work is like phenomenal.

If you compare both bangles we’re clearly lagging behind and losing. We are not aware of it.

It is not about money alone. We are a growing economy and a lot of things are happening here. But why creative industry is struggling? It seems to me that we are not trying to fix it for the long-term.

We’re into easy fix and short-term game. The growing pattern in industry is that people are mostly driven by short-term gain. We are comfortable with what works. But you just cannot have the same menu every day. And in order to produce good works, you have to experiment and take risk.

One of the major shortcomings is that we never take our local knowledge seriously. This is what I personally feel. It is true for our culture, literature and business and any other sector for that matter.

Future Startup

Is there any recipe to develop creativity in individuals?

Piplu Khan

It is important that we help cultivate creativity in our young people. But one thing that bothers me these days is that we have become too individualistic. I have a strong feeling that this whole individuality thing is hurting us in many ways, more so for the creative industry.

Individual creativity is important but we are entering into a more collective world where the ability to collaborate in a creative project brings more interesting result than otherwise.

A lot of great creative works that I come across these days from all over the world are results of collective efforts.

Future Startup

It means the ability to collaborate effectively is becoming increasingly important in the creative field.

Piplu Khan

There is a tendency to do things all alone. A lot of young and talented people who want to make a difference in the society want to do it alone. I wish these young talented people find their way to change community but the intention should not be that I will be doing it alone. For instance, if you feel like starting a school tomorrow, instead of starting another school why don’t you go and fix an existing school that can use your ability to improve?

When we work together, our impact amplifies and our work gets a whole lot better.

For a storyteller, my suggestion remains the same. Work together. Develop the ability to collaborate effectively with another creative person. Collaboration is the future.

My point is instead of focusing on creating lone geniuses, we should also focus on enabling them to collaborate with each other effectively in order to produce better works.

Future Startup

What does it take to tell a good story? Is there any recipe for telling a good story?

Piplu Khan

This is a difficult question. Honestly, I personally think that I just finished my formation years. It took me 10 years to be ready. Which means I’m still figuring things out. That said, I don’t know if there is a formula as such but few things may help.

First of all, I think you have to be an open person. You should have an eye for details. You should be interested in life and emotions. You should not rush into things, rather be relax and go slowly.

Most of us haste while doing something. In the middle of something, we are worrying about the next thing. You can’t do anything worthwhile when you are in a rush. You have to be present and live in the moment.

A person with keen eyes for observation experiences many things that those of us in a relentless anxiety miss experiencing. Telling a story is about this presence. How do you take essence from the core, not from the surface? How do you see beyond the surface? How do you go deeper into things?

Most of us haste while doing something. In the middle of something, we are worrying about the next thing. You can’t do anything worthwhile when you are in a rush. You have to be present and live in the moment.

That’s part one. This even before starting to tell the story. It is about life and how you see it, experience it and live it.

I don’t think there is a step by step formula to telling stories. It is a long-term process. It takes years and sometimes a lifetime to tell a worth-telling story. You see and explore life, travel, meet people and experience life. And then you develop perspective that you apply at your work.

There is no lack of content out there but the ones that we always look for require hard work and dedication. Good stories are created with love.

Future Startup

What do you think about social media, Facebook, and other things? How do you use social media?

Piplu Khan

I am not an active social media user. I don’t use Facebook that much – it has been a long time since I used the platform actively. I used to be quite active on social media before and then I stopped it. I felt that it was eating away a lot of my time. I think it is intrusive.

I took on a personal challenge for the past one year to develop a more meaningful habit for technology use. I try to limit my use of communications tools ranging from mobile phone to social media.

Creative people need thinking time which is difficult to find when you are on social media and constantly dealing with notifications. Moreover, many of these technologies are imposing and addictive in nature. We continue using them throughout the day which is detrimental to creative productivity.

Any form of creative work demands serenity and a sense of peace which is hard to achieve when you are connected.

However, I like Instagram. When I take a picture and I put it on Instagram. I am not using Facebook a lot. Instead, I’m spending a lot of time in writing and cooking which feed my creative endeavor.

I took on a personal challenge for the past one year to develop a more meaningful habit for technology use. I try to limit my use of communications tools ranging from mobile phone to social media. Creative people need thinking time which is difficult when you are on social media and constantly dealing with notifications.

Future Startup

How do you get ideas?

Piplu Khan

It is a complex and mostly subconscious process. You allow your subconscious mind to work on your problems. When you are anxious, you are busy and working hard to find a killer solution, an idea does not come in that state.

You stay around the problem but don’t actively try to crack it. Instead, you let your subconscious mind to work on it.

For me, it is more about talking to people, listening music and relaxing my senses. Music helps me a lot. I think there is a rhythm that we create when we are living. The key is that you consciously nudge that rhythm to be more attuned to solutions and ideas that you’re seeking. It is largely about practice and habit.

Future Startup

You have several decades of experience in the creative industry, what are the biggest lessons from all those years?

Piplu Khan

Be mindful of your time. Don’t get involved with a lot of things at once; you just have 24 hours in a day.

Be open to experiences and opportunities. You never know what opportunity may show up tomorrow. Don’t waste opportunities. If you get an opportunity, work hard on it as if it is your last opportunity.

Generally, I am very open to new ideas and opportunities and when I get an opportunity, I give everything to prove myself.

Be mindful of your time. Don’t get involved with a lot of things at once; you just have 24 hours in a day.

Future Startup

Do you feel self-doubt as a creative person?

Piplu Khan

Doubt is an integral part of our system. While it limits us at times, on the other hand, if you are sure about everything then you can’t work in the creative industry. A storyteller cannot be sure.

If you don’t know where to go, sometimes that is a good answer. We largely hate the feeling of not-knowing. It makes us anxious and uncomfortable and we try to force an answer. But sometimes, not-knowing is what drives us. It is leading you to somewhere.

Future Startup

How do you deal with stress?

Piplu Khan

I listen to music. Cooking, in a way, helps me a lot. Physical activity helps but I’m not that active physically. So music and cooking.

Piplu R Khan | photo by Applebox Films

Piplu R Khan | photo by Applebox Films

Future Startup

How do you think about life?

Piplu Khan

Every human being is unique. The way you see the world is distinctively yours.

After all these years of trial and error, I have learned that you cannot question your formations and you cannot change it. I came to filmmaking at the age of 27. All my friends were established and I was just getting started, that too in an industry where it was naturally hard to make a mark. It was a risky proposition. Now touching 40, I realize that that was exactly the right time for me to start my career in filmmaking.

If I had started at 20, I might be a failure. I could have given up seeing the difficult reality of the industry. I might not be able to produce any good work.

Your intellectual capacity, your mental maturity may come early or much later in life. But it will come. Your job is to be vigilant and understand when your time is.

Most of us when we are on a journey or pursuing something, we rush. We overthink. We think that everyone else is doing so much better than us. This tendency kills so many dreams.

The key to any meaningful journey is that you have to be patient. You have to allow things to happen. Instead of worrying and trying to push yourself, you have to wait for the natural order. The point is that it is about patient hard work.

A lot of people I see they hurry so much. It feels so strange to me. If you want to achieve everything in life overnight, the chance is that you may spoil the whole thing.

In our industry whatever you want to achieve, it takes 10 years. That’s the regular time line. If you don’t have enough time, you might realize that, ok it is not working for me, and then move on. It doesn’t matter. Life is not that complicated unless you make it so.

Most of us when we are on a journey or pursuing something, we rush. We overthink. We think that everyone else is doing so much better than us. This tendency kills so many dreams. The key to any meaningful journey is that you have to be patience. You have to allow things to happen. Instead of worrying and trying to push yourself, you have to wait for the natural order.

Future Startup

How do you organize your days? How does a typical day of you look like?

Piplu Khan

I’m not a tidy person but I’ve my way of finding a system in the chaos. One thing I do, however, is that I organize myself around a lot of notebooks. I’m a constant note taker. I mostly use pen and paper. Nowadays, I’m also using Evernote a lot which allows me to organize things on the go.

Taking notes is important to me. When I get an idea, I immediately write it down. I don’t wait for later because ideas are fleeting. If you don’t write one down immediately, the chance is that you will forget it later.

The way I operate is mostly manual – you can call me a supremely manual person. I do have devices and I use internet, emails and everything, but I try to limit my technology consumption.

I write a lot, mostly with pen and paper. There is a daily list of what I will do tomorrow – a sort of physical to-do list. I use a paper notebook for that. It is like a ritual to me which do it daily.

I try to be disciplined with my time. If I am writing, I write. I try not to engage in anything else during this period of time.

I don’t usually look at the operational thing. We have people who take care of that. I’m more into bigger picture challenges, into making things better and improving our business and condition. I’m not a micro-manager. I like to delegate.

I usually wake very early in the morning, at around 5 a.m and start my work early which I love. By 10 in the morning, I’m done with my day. It unburdens me like anything.

After that, things are mostly serendipitous. I might get something important things to do or I might not get anything to at all. It is all about making choices about what I will do today.

I have this habit of meeting people without any agenda. If I really like and care about someone – an artist or whoever – I always make a point to connect with them and go and meet. Sometimes I take an interview, take some notes and all. I don’t essentially meet functional people or industry people or otherwise with an intention. One day I probably meet an old professor, go his/her home, just talk about things and come back. A day well spent.

Future startup

As you mentioned earlier, you started your career at the age of 27 and had to endure a lot. Can you share a bit of your struggle with us both that you had to face in the early days when nobody knew you and now that you have a body of work that speaks for itself?

Piplu Khan

Life is essentially a culmination of endless struggles. I think struggle or challenge for that matter never ends. The nature of challenges may change.

I never had to struggle for functional things. In the early days, of course, there were business challenges such as making money and paying the bills. Finding good people was also a constant challenge because when you are small it is hard to attract talent.

Once you make the initial cut, the next challenge is about sustaining it. Every day you have to prove yourself that you are in the contemporary scene and that you are at your best. And making sure that other people count on you. That is the challenge you grapple with every day. That in a sense is the fate of existence.

Life is essentially a culmination of endless struggles. I think struggle or challenge for that matter never ends. The nature of challenges may change.

Future Startup

Do you have a habit or a ritual that keeps you going during the difficult time apart from cooking and all that?

Piplu Khan

I travel a lot which helps me to recharge myself, develop new perspective, and come up with new ideas. I don’t travel like a traveler. I don’t spend time in taking preparation and making plans and so on. I often go to off the grid places where I can fully disconnect. I just go one night to Barisal, for instance, and spend a day and night there or more if feel like and then return to work with renewed energy and spirit.

It is more about the journey – going to a new place, staying there and talking to strangers. I have found out that journey often transforms us. There is no shortage of stories around it starting from Steve Jobs to many others.

Future Startup

What book have you been reading lately?

Piplu Khan

Lately, I have been reading a lot about dream analysis. I am re-reading Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. I usually go through 2 -3 books at once. I have just started reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, an absorbing read.

I am also reading a lot of Bengali books. I have found my new love in Jasimuddin and his life, especially, his biography. There are two biographies of Jasimuddin and both are magnificent read. He led a flamboyant and vagabond life in his early days. I would say to people, all the youngsters, probably a lot of them don’t read Bangla, if we look at all the heroes we had back in 40s and 30s they were braver than us in every possible ways. If you look at the life of Jasimuddin, he led an amazing and equally courageous life. I would strongly recommend his both biographies to anyone looking for a good read.

It is more about the journey – going to a new place, staying there and talking to strangers. I have found out that journey often transforms us. There are no shortage of stories around it starting from Steve Jobs to many others.

Future Startup

What advice would you give to people who are just starting out?

Piplu Khan

Advice is overrated. I don’t think there needs to be any more advice or tips, because ultimately what moves the needle is action. Do something, anything. Act – no matter how small or big – all the time.

Creativity is sector agnostic. It is not something exclusive for advertising or filmmaking or for any creative field for that matter. You can be creative in any profession and in any field, be it accountancy or HR. You just need the willingness and determination to persistently apply your curious self.

We are living in a fascinating time that allows individuals a lot of freedom to pursue their ambition. There are so many ways and opportunities to explore. You should not feel stuck and that you cannot do anything. If you feel stuck, change and move on. This is no more the time where you can only pursue one profession in your lifetime; rather you can change career, industry and more.

(Interview and edits by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Khaleda Husna Fariha, Image courtesy, Applebox Films )

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Ruhul Kader

Co-founder at Future StartUp
Ruhul Kader is a co-founder at Future Startup. He writes about business with a specific concentration on strategy, technology, and society. He can be reached at [email protected]

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