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Nusrat Durrani 2

Interview with Nusrat Durrani

Being the General Manager of MTV World for more than a decade, it’s difficult to believe that Nusrat Durrani started working as an intern for the legendary American cultural channel, during the mid-90’s. But thanks to his tireless efforts and a healthy dose of stubbornness, the iconoclastic businessman and producer, “motorcycle gang leader” in his spare time, ended up fulfilling his dream. From his childhood in India to his recent visit at thecamp, Nusrat Durrani traces back his impressive journey with us.

What led you from India to America?

It was always about following the music inside. I've been following my North Star, the Tamborine Man in the Dylan song, the voice of dissent within. In the process I've stumbled and fallen, fought dragons of conformity, been rejected and refused, been heartbroken and humbled and saved by the grace and generosity of others. I’ve survived to see some small victories after many big defeats. I'm not terribly smart but I'm a stubborn bastard.

I was born in the glorious contradiction called India to wonderful parents. My father was an intellectual and a gentleman and my mother, a doctor and an anomaly - a rebel who was also a conservative Indian woman, a devoted mother and wife. I went to La Martiniere, an elitist public school started by a Frenchman working for the British. My childhood was one of juxtapositions - a sheltered life and Western education amidst the squalor, secularism and kaleidoscopic culture of India. 

Growing up in what now seems like an otherworldly fantasy - the canvas of life was vast and rich, but even within that I was a misfit - not meant to be the doctor my parents wanted me to be - a rock n roll outsider shaped by Kerouac and Dylan and Bowie and Shyam Benegal films. I was bound to clash with the conservative culture of India and left the country in 1990.

I worked in Dubai marketing Honda cars for five years. The city is a hallucination built from scratch, a kind of Shangri La of manufactured beauty. Beneath the hypnotic facade of modernity is a darker, less known narrative. We had a comfortable life there but it was also delusional. On the other hand I discovered Japanese culture and many of my ideas about trying to correct the wrongs of the world were shaped there. It was also in Dubai I first watched MTV.


How did you join MTV?

I was disillusioned by Dubai's artifice and emptiness. One night, I switched on the television and saw my teenage idol, David Bowie, on MTV. It was magic. I researched the company and decided to work for them. I quit my job, got on a flight to New York, walked into the MTV office and asked to be hired. They refused several times, unmoved by my passion for music and for the brand. I persisted stubbornly because I had no Plan B. In the end they hired me as an intern. That was the most ridiculous thing I thought I ever did. I was the oldest intern in the world. It was deeply humbling.

MTV at the time had a creative and rambunctious subculture- a kind of Wild West where crazy ideas were still entertained. Visionaries like Tom Freston and Judy McGrath ran the place like benevolent kings and queens.  And even though I was an outsider the company allowed me to experiment, take chances and do radical stuff. It was an iconic, great brand and I'm grateful to have worked there for more than 20 years and be mentored by icons like Tom and Judy. 


In your Twitter bio, you notably describe yourself as a “motorcycle gang leader”.

It's a metaphor. I ride a Triumph and have owned a motorcycle most of my adult life. I love the poetry and danger of riding. Like in the Jim Morrison fantasy of An American Prayer, I sometimes imagine myself to be a vigilante riding around in the dead of night and if you mess with the people and things I love, "my gang will get you."


How did you come up with the idea of Madly?

Madly is a cinematic homage to love in the shadows. In studying dozens of recent films about love I was struck by the fact that many themes were simply not covered. Love between a married woman and a teenage boy; the tentative, terrifying love of a young mother and her new born child for example. I invited six international filmmakers I admired to create the films they wanted with unusual love stories. The result is an intriguing montage and global state of the union of love created by iconic directors like Mia Wasikowska, Anurag Kashyap, Gael Garcia Bernal and Sion Sono.


How about Rebel Music?


In the twenty plus years I've spent in media, Rebel Music is one of my proudest moments. Western media paints a fairly one-dimensional picture of turbulent countries like Turkey, Iran and Egypt. Our usual coverage has little or no empathy for the young, women, or everyday people in turbulent places like Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine and Mexico. Entire civilizations are stereotyped as haters of the West. 

Rebel Music is a thirteen part series about young musicians and activists fighting oppression and injustice in these countries and presents an inspiring and humane view of the youth of the world we have never heard from. It has artist/activist Shepard Fairey as an executive producer and music by the iconic Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!.

The results were very gratifying for a series with no celebrities or commercial angles. It has been widely acclaimed and the Native America episode generated the most viewed and shared video in MTVs social history. Rebel Music was applauded by the Obama White House, and most importantly, the series created a platform for the voiceless of the world.


Did your journey have some kind of influence in your work?

Yes. I believe all my work is colored by my journey, the people who inspired me, the cities I’ve been enchanted by, and the beauty, ugliness and inequity I’ve encountered along the way.


Do you think pop culture can change the world?

Yes, it absolutely can. But we have to create a democratic framework for its distribution. Currently, a handful of countries have the monopoly on pop music and culture and that's why Western pop culture is still the default culture of the world. This is archaic and wrong. I'd like to see a wild cross-pollination of music and culture from every corner of earth. Omar Souleyman should represent Syria, not Assad, and Iran's musicians, play writers and photographers should tour the world as ambassadors of their country, not just their mullahs. American and European media companies in particular would greatly benefit if they exposed their audiences to the startling sounds and stories of the rest of the world.


Why is storytelling such a powerful way to touch people?

Human beings are all part of a mythological system. It's what gives our lives meaning. We live within a larger narrative, an interwoven web of stories that creates context and purpose and has existed since we became human. We are heroes and villains and gods and goddesses because of the stories we have read or heard or told ourselves. Without a mythology we might as well be alligators in the river or wolves in the wild. But we have to keep evolving our mythology and create alternative narratives.

Imagine if a person coming of age during the Trump Presidency had no other stories except what they read on social and mainstream media about xenophobia, misogyny, racism, terrorism, nepotism and corruption. We need more inspiring and inclusive counter narratives. Fortunately we have amazing storytellers and new technologies to be able to do just that. 


What did you think of thecamp, during your recent visit on the campus?

thecamp presents a historic and epic opportunity to make real impact through innovation. If the execution is as ambitious as the vision, thecamp can become the epicenter of change on a global basis. It's a very powerful opportunity that also symbolizes a golden moment for France itself, which can reclaim its place as a nation that can lead and inspire the world.  

The visit left me very excited. The campus is beautifully conceived and the architecture is seamlessly integrated with nature and the elements. We now need to develop the philosophical framework in harmony with the vessel we have created. The team is passionate and talented and left me greatly impressed.

What we need is to create radically innovative programming and storytelling that can catalyze the changes we need in the world so we inspire our audiences and collaborators and delight our partners. This can only happen if we work with and attract smart young people, women, and a diversity of global talent. The human beings who inhabit thecamp should reflect the world we want to help create. 


Why should we encourage this kind of endeavor?

There are many centers of negativity, regressive thinking and philistinism in this world. We are at a delicate moment in our time on Earth- poised on the brink of environmental disaster, war, terror, hate and shattering inequity; but also we have great opportunities due to technological advances, progress and human endeavor. 

Initiatives like thecamp can tilt the balance in favor of a healthier, more productive and equitable world where all can benefit from the fruits of modernity and we can create a more inclusive and progressive media that creates a new mythology for the future.