Done well, it’s infotainment at its best. One can take notes as Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman talk about crafting imagined worlds; or as Helen Mirren discusses facing the camera, a different woman each time. What TED talks did for the world of ideas, the masterclass is doing to the world of mentorship. And India is getting into the game.
A host of ed-tech companies, fashioned after the US-based MasterClass and launched over the past year-and-half, are offering virtual sessions featuring stars from the worlds of cricket, film, food, music, photography, writing and more.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui breaks down how he modulated his voice for his role as Shiv Sena party founder Bal Thackeray, in the 2019 film Thackeray; Ranveer Brar talks nuance and spices (do black pepper and vanilla work well together?); Sania Mirza discusses how to outthink, not just outplay, an opponent.
What these classes are also doing is bridging a gap in the education system. The most popular masterclasses are in fields where access is severely limited or formal education unavailable. “Entertainment makes up a massive chunk of the enrolments,” says Mikhil Raj, co-founder of FrontRow. “Comedy and gaming come in second, followed by cricket.”
In fields such as acting, writing, music and the culinary arts, the masterclasses fill gaps in what is available in a traditional classroom. For one thing, in most academies it’s rare to hear from the best in the field. When students do get such a lecture, it tends to be dry and academic rather than free-flowing, personal and focused on practical advice.
The masterclass, meanwhile, offers notes on how the master managed disappointment, struggled in the early years, honed their skill, built up their success. It helps that these classes are carefully crafted, slickly produced, and available at prices ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand rupees per course.
Often, the master will perform demos too. Manoj Bajpayee sits with a group of students, in his video, and runs through scenes with them. Comedian Biswa Kalyan Rath suggests exercises to help the viewer hone their comedic writing skills. Singer Shaan discusses how to perfect the high notes.
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It’s important to manage one’s expectations, though. Masterclasses aren’t designed to impart technical knowledge. Those attending a Manoj Bajpayee class may never have what it takes to be a Manoj Bajpayee, and if they do, they will likely not find that out at a masterclass. What they can expect are tips on how to hustle as a Bollywood struggler, as well as a few finer points on the craft itself, such as how to reflect advancing age in one’s facial expressions.
Many masterclasses offer e-workbooks and exercises, which help structure what one is taking away. In the absence of interaction and Q&A options, some platforms offer add-ons. FrontRow has community interaction spaces where buyers can test their exercises and new tricks and skills on others who took the same course. Whiz League lets clients pay extra for a shot at an offline menteeship. On many platforms you can return to the course, over and over, too.
Dev Bezbaruah, 29, a software developer and professional photographer from Guwahati, signed up for a Celebrity School masterclass in fashion photography with Daboo Ratnani that he found very helpful. Pulkit Agrawal, 21, an aspiring chef currently in culinary school in Hyderabad, signed up for classes by Ranveer Brar and Vikas Khanna and got tips on fusion recipes and plating. Both said the biggest advantage was being able to return to the course to revisit what they’d learnt.
Take a look at what India’s masterclass companies are up to, and what they’re planning next.
.UNLU: Where you follow the leader
Shreya Gulyani, 22, has always loved tennis with a passion, but lost touch with it after school. As a treat to herself, the Delhiite signed up for an online masterclass with Sania Mirza on Unlu in May. Over a month, she went through the 18 crisp lessons (amounting to a total of 89 minutes) by the former World No. 1 doubles player.
They included advice on how to enhance hand-eye coordination, tips on outthinking one’s opponent, and some personal insights too. “She said you cannot expect to win every match, but you have to keep working on improving your game,” says Gulyani, who is studying to be a chartered financial analyst. The masterclass gave Gulyani the motivation she’d been lacking, and she now plans to get back on the courts as soon as things open up.
“That is the goal,” says Unlu co-founder Vipul Agrawal, 28. “We pick mentors who had to make their own journey to the top of their field. That means they can pass on the right type of knowledge.”
Agrawal co-founded Unlu in January 2021, alongside Himanshu Periwal, 33, and Anurag Dalia, 27. The Delhi-based startup currently hosts seven celebrity masterclasses, including one on writing by Ruskin Bond and another on acting by Manoj Bajpayee, both among their bestsellers.
“We spend about a week with each celebrity, in their home or a studio, outlining and fine-tuning the selection of stories they will tell and lessons they will impart. Then we call in the film crew to shoot,” Agrawal says.
Bond speaks to listeners from a park bench he frequents when he’s feeling contemplative; Mirza offers her lessons from the court; Pilates instructor Radhika Karle gets down on the mat at a gym.
“You also get stories from the field,” says Agrawal. “Manoj Bajpayee speaks about his role in Gangs of Wasseypur, where with every scene he gets older, and what goes into conveying that.”
The Unlu masterclasses range in duration from 90 minutes to three-and-a-half hours. Sessions are broken down into short segments of a few minutes each, and users can access them at their own pace and in any order. Each masterclass also comes with a 100-page virtual workbook with exercises designed in conjunction with the mentor. Singer Monali Thakur’s workbook notes include warm-up exercises, tips on protecting the voice and insights on breathing.
A key limitation to this format is that there is no interactive element. Mohammed Irfan, 32, a software engineer and aspiring stand-up comic, signed up for the Johnny Lever masterclass and says he was largely happy with his investment, but he would have liked to ask for the comic master’s advice on writing. There wasn’t much, he says, on how the comic master comes up with a sketch or how to take real-life incidents and turns them into bits.
(Unlu’s prices range from ₹1,500 for one masterclass to ₹15,000 for an all-access lifetime pass)
CELEBRITY SCHOOL: Breaking it down and crafting a success plan
Putting together the first roster of celebrities for Celebrity School (CS) was not too difficult. Its founder, Siddharth Prabhakar, 39, has run Floating Campus, a career counselling and training company, for 10 years, with co-founder Hema Rukadikar, 38. They already had a list of celebrities they’d enlisted to work with students.
What got the ball rolling was running into youngster after youngster eager to pursue what Prabhakar calls “passion-related” careers. “They had no opportunity to learn how to become successful with that passion,” Prabhakar says. “So I thought, why not create a platform for that?”
Launched in December 2019, Mumbai-based Celebrity School currently offers 10 masterclasses. Filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar, actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, photographer Daboo Ratnani and dancer Ganesh Acharya offer sessions on their craft. Chefs Ranveer Brar and Vikas Khanna demonstrate dishes; singer Shaan runs through singing exercises and tips on mastering vocal techniques.
“We choose celebrities who are passionate about their work, legends in the domain and have the inclination to teach,” says Prabhakar. Once a celebrity has signed on, the CS team gets to work figuring out what to include in the masterclass such that it will be of value to both beginner and expert. “We do this by conducting surveys with students and experts in the field,” says Prabhakar.
Dev Bezbaruah, 29, a software developer and professional photographer from Guwahati, signed up for the masterclass with Ratnani. The advice and techniques he picked up were unique and helped him venture into fashion photography, an area he had little knowledge of, he says.
“I learnt secret lighting and camera techniques, which I was looking forward to learning from this master,” Bezbaruah says. And because the course is accessible to the buyer in perpetuity, he has been able to return to it for multiple refresher lessons.
Celebrity School’s masterclasses are extensive, often containing over 30 sessions, stretching across up to six-and-a-half hours. Most are available in English and Hindi. Based on demand, dubbed versions may be added. Etiquette coach and former TV host Sabira Merchant’s communications masterclass, for instance, is available in English, Hindi, Telugu and Tamil.
Pulkit Agrawal, 21, an aspiring chef currently in culinary school in Hyderabad, signed up for the Brar and Khanna classes. “Learning from them is a rare opportunity,” he says. “Using local ingredients to make fusion dishes, and tips on plating, were important takeaways from both.” Agrawal signed up for the masterclasses almost three months ago and, like Bezbaruah, has returned to them multiple times.
Prabhakar says the company is working to add to its roster. Coming up: Masterclasses by badminton champion Saina Nehwal, boxing legend Mary Kom, and journalist and author Hussain Zaidi.
(Celebrity School’s prices range from ₹2,999 for lifetime access to one masterclass to ₹8,999 for an all-access pass for one year)
WHIZ LEAGUE: Learn it, launch it
Gagan Juneja is a young civil engineer and building contractor with an idea for a restaurant. After taking restaurateur Priyank Sukhija’s masterclass on Whiz League, that idea evolved into a plan that he has now submitted to Whiz League’s Launchpad programme.
Here, a few participants are selected every quarter to be mentored or to apprentice with the celebrity instructor whose masterclass they bought, in exchange for an additional fee. If he is selected, Juneja will get six mentoring sessions with Sukhija over three months.
Launchpad is the USP of the masterclass venture by Natasha Jain, 33, and Sonia Agarwal Bajaj, 31. “As serial entrepreneurs ourselves, we wanted to help buyers build a career and find success in their chosen field. That was an important aspect to us,” Jain says. “Even in the masterclasses, we ask speakers to talk about the skill but also about their entrepreneurial journey, and how to develop the right mindset to be successful.”
Whiz League, launched in April 2021, has seven masters on its roster so far, including chef Ranveer Brar, visual artist Jayesh Sachdev and fashion designer Sonaakshi Raaj.
Jain and Bajaj are particular about what goes into each masterclass. Brar, for instance, offers one on Celebrity School too. On Whiz League he focuses on mastering spices. Raaj’s lessons include insights on the Indian market, how to create a niche, and how to scale up a fashion brand.
“A lot of our participants are in their late 30s and early 40s, transitioning from jobs that they had to do to jobs that they want to do. These courses then become valuable ways to learn how to think and approach a craft,” Jain says.
That is how it worked for Shaan Singh Madan, 25, an aspiring actor from Delhi who bought the masterclass by casting director Mukesh Chhabra. Madan says he’s completed numerous masterclasses by actors from Hollywood and Bollywood, but hearing from Chhabra offered some advice from a different angle – not from actors but what casting directors are looking for. “Here is the country’s top casting director who was also an outsider in the industry, sharing his journey, demystifying and simplifying the casting process,” Madan says.
Whiz League plans to add more names to its roster in the coming months, including in the fields of beauty, the culinary arts, and entrepreneurship.
(Whiz League’s prices range from ₹499 for one masterclass to ₹11,193 for an all-access pass + Launchpad for a year)
FRONTROW: Comedy, gaming, rap, cricket and more
One of the challenges with pre-recorded celebrity masterclasses is that participants don’t get to interact or ask questions. FrontRow has figured out something of a workaround for that. The FrontRow app encourages community events and sets up challenges for users during and after a masterclass. The mentor isn’t present, but others who bought the same class are.
So if you’ve taken comedian Biswa Kalyan Rath’s class, and he suggested that you try to write a joke about a topic trending on Twitter, the app will prompt you to complete the exercise and submit the joke. Others who have taken the class can then offer feedback, discuss their own efforts, etc.
“We started in early 2020 with about five masterclasses and soon figured that there was a need for this kind of community interaction,” says Mikhil Raj, 28, co-founder of FrontRow alongside Ishaan Preet Singh, 28, and Shubhadit Sharma, 30. “A third of our user base is active on these community platforms, which are available for each course.”
FrontRow currently offers 10 masterclasses, in English and Hindi, including sessions by cricketer Suresh Raina, composer Amit Trivedi, comedian Raju Srivastav and gamers Mortal and 8bit Thug. Sessions range in duration from 90 minutes to a little under seven hours (the shortest ones are by the cricketers, but they also cost the least).
Music and gaming are FrontRow’s most popular offerings, followed by comedy.
“One of our most interesting findings is that 10% of our users have never made an online payment before, and yet here they are, signing up,” says Raj. “What this tells us is that these sessions are valued, especially because it’s difficult to find such expertise at an affordable price near your home.”
Harsha Meghraj, 19, a Commerce student from Belagavi in Karnataka, who took singer Neha Kakkar’s masterclass, says it was exciting learning from the former Indian Idol participant. He also got to practice alankars, breathing techniques and singing techniques with others from the FrontRow community, participated in online jam sessions which he says has helped build his own confidence in his ability.
Essentially, a lesson taught by a player at the top of their game is highly prized, Raj says.
“When Biswa Kalyan Rath tells you all comedy works on empathy, you listen. There is a lot of noise in the market and many ways to learn things these days,” Raj adds. “What makes a difference is hearing insider tips and tricks from a star. Learning about the challenges that Amit Trivedi or Suresh Raina faced acts as validation for anyone starting out and wanting to become successful in a field. That’s also what makes the difference between a normal class and a masterclass.”
(FrontRow’s prices range from ₹999 for lifetime access to one masterclass to ₹5,499 for a lifetime all-access pass)
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM A MASTERCLASS
Reasonable rates: Most Indian masterclasses cost a few hundred bucks, not a bad price for even a few batting tips from Suresh Raina or a brief guide from Johnny Lever on how to craft a good joke. Many of the companies also offer discounts all year round.
A wide range of options: There are sessions on dance, photography, make-up artistry, tennis, gaming, comedy, cooking, singing, filmmaking, casting and acting. There’s flexibility in purchase options too. You can buy a single course cheap, and watch and re-watch it for a year; pay more for lifetime access to it; pay even more for add-on features and / or a year-long all-access pass.
Convenience: You can go through these masterclasses at your own pace, and some companies let you revisit the session, over and over, for life.
Help beyond the sessions: Most masterclasses in India come with e-workbooks and exercises that can be practiced at home. Some platforms also offer online community events where people who paid for a masterclass can discuss what they learnt, try out the exercises, and get feedback from others who bought the same course. And there are platforms that, for an additional fee, offer a shot at an offline mentorship with the star who conducted the session.
WHAT NOT TO EXPECT
A technical crash course: A masterclass is not meant to teach you how to use your camera, perfect a backhand, or emote for the screen. Think of the masterclass as a combination of TED talk and quick how-to. What you will walk away with is an expert’s perspective, some hacks and tools, and perhaps inspiration to learn more.
One-on-one interaction: You won’t get to ask questions or seek feedback, though some masterclass companies do organise Facebook and Instagram Lives from time to time, where you could submit questions and hear more from your mentor.
Language options: Most masterclasses are in English, Hindi or Hinglish and have no subtitles. Regional languages rarely feature. If you are a non-Hindi speaker, it will be hard to pick up tricks from director Madhur Bhandarkar, and if you aren’t fluent in English, you won’t be able to access Ruskin Bond’s tips on writing.