Hash brownies, sex jokes, and a ‘chalta hai’ attitude towards harassment: What went wrong at TVF

Shrabonti Bagchi May 4, 2017 23 min

Story Highlights

  • TVF’s achievements have come under a shadow because of the allegations against Kumar and its alleged TVF’s misogynist culture
  • Despite being a well-known startup with solid funding and considerable revenues, internal systems and processes were all over the place.
  • An ex-employee says her complaints of harassment against a colleague were ignored by management for months

The bombshell that dropped March 12 on TVF, arguably the most popular online destination for Indian youth, continues to echo in the country’s entertainment industry. What started with an anonymous post on Medium by a woman alleging misconduct by TVF founder Arunabh Kumar soon triggered multiple voices from women who also claimed they were wronged by him. Kumar was arrested briefly, based on an FIR, before being let out on bail in a saga that looks like it is just beginning.

Within the span of a few weeks, TVF had gone from a rockstar to a pariah. Before the current scandal broke, TVF was a poster-child of media startups in India. The story of how a bunch of IITians had created one of the most innovative Indian media and entertainment companies using native humour and self-taught skills — from scripting to editing to shooting — had already become legend.

Video data tracker VidStasx ranks TVF at No 20 on its 100 most subscribed YouTube India channels list and none of those ranked above it belong to its content genre. The closest a rival comes is All India Bakchod at No 26 (with 2.16 million followers vs TVF’s 2.47 million). But it is important to note that these are only YouTube numbers; TVF’s followers on its proprietary platform TVFPlay are not (disclosed and) included here.

This is the story of a startup that grew so fast with pretty much no systems and seasoned counsel in place that things just spun out of control  

To boot, top brands in the country — Procter & Gamble, Tata Motors, Ola, Snapdeal, OnePlus, and Paytm — run their ads on TVF shows. Feted venture capital fund Tiger Global backed TVF with $10 million in funding last February. The entertainment company continues to hire aggressively as it rolls out hits and counts some 200 people as its employees today.

A success story of a startup by any measure, right? Perhaps, but one with a dark side of sexual harassment and blatant misogyny. This is the story of a startup that grew so fast with pretty much no systems and seasoned counsel in place that things just spun out of control.

It is important to flag that TVF has not responded to repeated requests for comment by FactorDaily for this (and previous) stories. Neither has Kumar replied to a mail sent to his personal email ID as late as the afternoon of Wednesday, May 3. When and if they do, we will update this story.

Tickler talent meets laughing millions

As TVF got popular, Kumar, 34 today, acquired a sort of cult status among millennials, both men and women. Some of that was of self-sprinkled gold dust. An oft-repeated genesis story is the one about him deciding to create a media company after MTV rejected his story pitch about life as an engineer in India. Legacy entertainment companies did not see potential in his ideas, which he stuck with and struck gold, goes the narrative. “They liked the ideas, but refused to air them saying the Indian youth is not prepared for this type of content,” he told Forbes India in an interview last year.

The truth is a little more nuanced: MTV had invited pilots for a youth series and Kumar’s pilot was rejected as is common in the television industry. MTV did not say anything about whether Indian youth was ready or not for the kind of content Kumar pitched, according to a former TVF employee. An MTV spokesperson declined comment.

As TVF got popular, Arunabh Kumar, 34 today, acquired a sort of cult status among millennials, both men and women

It is beyond doubt that Kumar and his creative team, consisting of writer-actors like Biswapati Sarkar, Nidhi Bisht, Amit Golani, Anandashwar Dwivedi and Deepak Mishra, were on to a good thing right from their first video, Inglorious Seniors: Ragging Qtiyapa, which was uploaded on YouTube on March 14, 2011 under the brand name ‘The Viral Fever Videos’. Then came Rowdies, a spoof of the hit MTV show MTV Roadies, followed by spoofs like Gangs of Social Media, Barely Speaking with Arnub, Chai Sutta Chronicles and Ek Thi Behen. In 2013, TVF was invited to perform at the YouTube FanFest in Singapore, sharing the stage with top content creators from around the world.

These were heady days — of creative madness and intense discussions over chai-sutta, trying out one comedy format after the other, shooting at coffee shops and team members’ homes, pulling all-nighters and then going for meetings with marketing execs and brands the next day.

TVF’s long-form work started to get noticed with its first webseries, Permanent Roommates, built around a young couple, the first season of which aired in 2014 with each episode getting over a million views (the first episode has, till date, a whopping 4.5 million views). The show was also instrumental in kicking off the trend of youth-focused webseries for a generation that has little relevant content on Indian cable television. It was a need waiting to be fulfilled: India had little programming aimed at its nearly 380 million people in the 18 to 35 years bracket, a high spending demographic.

In 2014, Google also backed TVF under a creator’s innovation programme, giving them a reported $75,000 in funding. The next year, TVF launched its own streaming platform, TVFPlay.com, hosting more long-form content like TVF Pitchers, a series about four friends struggling to fund their startup that is ranked No 35 among top 250 TV series in the world); Tripling, about siblings on a roadtrip; and Permanent Roommates Season 2. The company is currently airing Bisht, Please, a webseries with a female protagonist, played by long-time TVF actor-writer Nidhi Bisht.

TVF’s achievements have come under a shadow because of the allegations against founder Arunabh Kumar and of TVF’s misogynist culture. The company’s initial reaction to Indian Fowler’s Medium post was aggressive  

TVF’s achievements have come under a shadow because of the allegations against Kumar and its alleged TVF’s misogynist culture. The company’s initial reaction to Indian Fowler’s Medium post was aggressive. “All allegations made against TVF and its team in the article are categorically false, baseless and unverified. We take a lot of pride in our team and in making TVF a safe workplace that is equally comfortable for women and men. We will leave no stone unturned to find the author of the article and bring them to severe justice for making such false allegations,” it said in its first statement.

Kumar later made a statement that was panned on social media. “I am a heterosexual, single man and when I find a woman sexy, I tell her she’s sexy. I compliment women. Is that wrong? Having said that, I am very particular about my behaviour — I will approach a woman, but never force myself,” he told Mumbai Mirror in a report published March 14.

On April 25, Bisht posted on Twitter a note she said had been shared in a closed group at TVF but had been “selectively sliced by the media”. The tweet can be read here in full. “NOT ONE SINGLE EMPLOYEE AT TVF HAS ALLEGED HARASSMENT AGAINST ARUNABH, so why is the media at large still calling it out as workplace harassment? Did anyone bother to ask us, THE REAL WOMEN AT TVF WHAT WE BELIEVE, having breathed the TVF culture day in and day out?” she writes in the post, underlining that not only does the company have fully functional HR and legal teams, it also has an internal complaints committee,or ICC, compliant with POSH guidelines. (POSH is short for Prevention of Sexual Harassment rules.)

FactorDaily’s repeated questions to TVF and Kumar, sent April 10, April 24 and May 3, including those seeking clarifications about its HR and POSH policies, have been unanswered.

But, since the first Medium post went viral, more women have come out talking about TVF’s unprofessional, hierarchical, and misogynist culture, where Kumar’s inappropriate conduct was covered up and excused by his peers and allowed to set the tone for how the rest of the organisation would behave  

The case against Kumar may or may not hold — after all, it is notoriously difficult to solve sexual harassment cases where it comes down to a “he said, she said” narrative and where it is difficult for women to prove that inappropriate sexual advances were made in the absence of corroborative evidence, unless medical evidence exists.

But, since the first Medium post went viral, more women have come out talking about TVF’s unprofessional, hierarchical, and misogynist culture, where Kumar’s inappropriate conduct was covered up and excused by his peers and allowed to set the tone for how the rest of the organisation would behave.

Some of these women had been waiting for years to speak out about their experiences at the company and with the founder. You don’t have to be a psychologist to understand that they found it easier to open up once there was a precedent. This has happened in the case of Uber, in the case of Thinx CEO Miki Agarwal (a woman), and, as reported recently by FactorDaily, in the case of Mahesh Murthy.

Also read: Mahesh Murthy in new sexual misconduct charges; Seedfund says had heard other rumours

Textbook dude-bro culture @work?

Let’s call one of the women FactorDaily has been in touch with Shalini, which is not her real name. She described the work culture at TVF as “an extension of the IIT hostel culture, where guys are always talking dirty about the few girls around and have no clue how to interact with women as equals.” An ex-IITian and a college junior of Kumar’s, Shalini has seen this first-hand. “They have this attitude that ‘ladkiyon ko to sirf apne gender ke wajah se opportunities mil jati hain’ (girls get opportunities just because of their gender). They look at women as ‘diversity candidates’ and this is the same culture that has filtered down into TVF as well. In private, they are quite frank about their chauvinism,” she says.

This matches with the description of the company culture given by the former employee quoted without name early in this story.

“I was groped, touched… I was made to feel dirty. I started running away, and he ran after me shouting ‘Kya sochke aayi thi? Tumko bhi maza aata hai’ (‘What did you expect when you came here? You also enjoy this’)” — Shalini, former TVF employee (name changed)  

When Shalini landed up in Mumbai for a job at a business consultancy in 2010, she got in touch with Kumar as a college senior from IIT Kharagpur, and willy nilly found herself part of the “TVF gang”. Shalini liked the energy of the gang, and hung out with them a few times. She stayed in touch with them over the years in a casual way.

Then, around one-and-a-half years ago, Kumar told her he was hosting a housewarming party at his new apartment in Versova, an upmarket neighbourhood in north western Mumbai, and invited her over. When she turned up in the evening, expecting to find a house full of people, she found that she was the lone guest. And soon, it became very uncomfortable. “I was groped, touched… I was made to feel dirty. I started running away, and he ran after me shouting ‘Kya sochke aayi thi? Tumko bhi maza aata hai’ (‘What did you expect when you came here? You also enjoy this’),” says Shalini. “After that, he called me a few times late at night, asking ‘Mood hai kya tumhara?’ (‘Are you in the mood?’),” she adds. Shalini says she cannot, at this point, share these texts as she did not save them and they were deleted when she changed handsets.

TVF Pitchers, a show about four guys trying to get their startup on the road, starring Kumar (extreme left) was a major hit and made TVF a brand darling

Following this, she says she blocked Kumar’s number and did not accept any calls or texts from him. When the blogposts and other social media posts started coming out, Shalini says she felt “relieved”. “I felt so relieved to know I was not the only one,” she says.

“It was always a dude-bro culture. I’ve seen this happening at other startups I’ve worked with too, where the company ends up growing super aggressively, the top bosses don’t know how to handle so many people, don’t know how to behave responsibly themselves and, therefore, let a bad culture set in,” says Shalini.

TVF was a male-dominated team and “non-veg jokes” were shared all day, according to the unnamed former employee quoted earlier. “Female employees were judged casually on the basis of their looks and attractiveness. There were running jokes about virginity — making fun of a male team member who was supposedly still a virgin was a common thing. There was competitive banter about who ‘scored’ how much,” says the person who left TVF in 2014.

The hash brownie party

By mid-2016, TVF had close to 200 employees spread over two offices in Mumbai and Delhi, and had crafted successful brand associations with a host of big companies in India. It was well on its way to being considered the top digital content platform in India, says Gurudev Prasad, partner and co-founder at BusyBeeBrands, a Bengaluru brand consultancy working with digital content creators. “There was a special buzz about TVF, and most new-age brands wanted to be associated with the company in some way or the other because of their content, like TVF Pitchers, which had captured a certain market segment like nothing else,” says Prasad.

Despite being a biggish startup by now with solid funding and considerable revenue generation, internal systems and processes were all over the place.

Meet Pooja, whose name we are changing on request. Pooja, who is in her early 20s and is from Delhi, joined TVF’s Delhi office sometime in 2015 straight out of college in a creative role. She was told she was on “probation” and her salary would meet industry standards within a few months — which never happened despite her frequent enquiries of the accounts department. She says there was no official HR department at that time in the company — an assertion made by other ex employees too, although HR hires were made later. “I asked them for a copy of the contract I had signed at the time of joining and for months, I was told that it couldn’t be found. It was only when I was leaving the company that I finally got a copy of the contract. It was all very unprofessional and chaotic,” says Pooja.

Pooja left the party to go to the washroom, and a male colleague followed her, and locked himself and her in a room of the office. When she tried to force her way out, he blocked her way and said “I won’t let you go”  

But that’s not the only thing that makes her say: “I have nothing but regret for working there”.

Her most harrowing experience at TVF occurred during a party at the Delhi office some time in October 2016, and the months following this incident. It was a screening event and a celebration of one of TVF’s popular webseries, and many of the top bosses from Mumbai, including Kumar, had come down for the event. Kumar brought along a bunch of “hash brownies” (chocolate brownies laced with marijuana) which were distributed among many of the employees. Pooja says she took a brownie without knowing what it contained. “I started feeling very weird. I had never done drugs.”

She left the party to go to the washroom, and a male colleague followed her, and locked himself and her in a room of the office. When she tried to force her way out, he blocked her way and said “I won’t let you go.” She tried to reason with him, but seeing that was not going to be of much use, she started looking for another way out and reached it just in time before the he could block that, too.

During a party at the Delhi office some time in October 2016, Arunabh Kumar reportedly brought along a bunch of ‘hash brownies’ which were distributed among many of the employees

Pooja says that she raised a complaint about this behaviour with her superiors, with Deep Mody, head of HR, and Reshma, a female HR team member, the very next day. It was ignored. She sent more emails but there was no official reply.

Her first meeting with company representatives over this issue happened more than a fortnight later, when she told them that they were not handling the issue with the seriousness it deserved. She claims the Mumbai HR executive was unresponsive and wouldn’t answer her calls.

Pooja says that she raised a complaint about this behaviour with her superiors, with Deep Mody, head of HR, and Reshma, a female HR team member, the very next day. It was ignored. She sent more emails but there was no official reply  

Meanwhile, a nasty atmosphere had built up in the office. People were taking sides, and many of them started teaming up with her male colleague. “He tried being a victim,” says Pooja. The worst blow came when a female colleague came to her and said, “Tu apni complain wapas le le (‘Take your complaint back’)”.

Finally, after waiting almost three months for the company to take some action, Pooja threatened to resign and also go to the police to file an FIR. Only then did the departments concerned stir into action and sent her a letter saying the offender’s employment had been terminated. “It was a lousy, hypocritical letter. By then he had already left the company, I don’t know for what reason,” says Pooja. She herself left soon after.

Pooja, for whom this was her first job, had no parameters by which to judge the work atmosphere. But she says she often felt shocked by the “lewd talk” and “bad atmosphere”. She once heard a senior person say, “We should hire a girl who’ll give everyone blowjobs.” It was a sort of running joke. People would comment openly about each others’ appearance, and there was an overwhelmingly negative, ‘bring each other down’ vibe, according to her.

Pooja comes across as a strong-willed, opinionated, mature young woman, and she says she often spoke up against what she saw as inappropriate behaviour at a workplace. But, as often happens, she was thought too uncool to fit in.

“After a time, I felt I was the problem,” says Pooja.

FactorDaily has reached out to TVF multiple times over email since the first story broke, asking for clarifications on various things, including the allegations about the lack of a designated HR department and a POSH committee at the company prior to the charges being made; the current leadership structure at the company; the status of the internal investigation by the Internal Complaints Committee; and the company’s current strategy to deal with the challenges. For this story, too, FactorDaily reached out to TVF on April 24, seeking clarifications on various points raised by our sources, as also a mail sent to Kumar on May 3. None of the emails have been acknowledged or answered at the time of publishing.

There have been attempts to justify the somewhat chaotic culture at TVF by saying that it’s a creative company peopled with millennials and rule-breakers who thrive in an anything-goes, freewheeling environment. To verify this, FactorDaily spoke to a top executive at a Mumbai video production company with a profile similar to TVF’s. This executive (he agreed to be quoted at first but changed his mind later) says values are set from day one of an organisation’s life and they flow from the founder/founders. “We had a complaint made by a woman against a key production person, and he was asked to leave within 24 hours. You need to provide employees with a safe and healthy environment — only then will the right people and talent come, and brands too,” he said.

A claim over equity and a court case

Lee Jared Fixel, partner at Tiger Global, the well-known New York-based VC fund which invested $10 million in TVF’s parent company Contagious Online Media Pvt Ltd in return for a reported 25% stake in February 2016, declined comment on the ongoing controversies surrounding TVF.

An email from FactorDaily got a prompt response from his office: “Lee Fixel of Tiger Global appreciates your interest but has no comment. Sorry not to be more helpful.”

Fixel sits on the TVF board of directors. As per documents filed with the registrar of companies, his appointment as director was made in September 2016. The other members of the board are Kumar; Jikku Oomen Abraham, partner, formerly advisor at TVF and a long-time friend and associate of Kumar’s; Dhawal Singh Gusain, contemporary of Kumar’s from IIT Kharagpur; and Amit Golani, actor-director at TVF and long-time friend and an associate of Kumar.

Prashant Raj, a friend of Kumar’s from IIT Kharagpur and currently the cofounder and chief creative head of Dopamine Media and Entertainment Pvt Ltd, is embroiled in a legal battle over equity with Kumar  

TVF has been in operation informally since 2010 and was registered as a sole proprietorship in 2011. In November 2014, it was incorporated with the registrar of companies as TVF Media Labs Pvt Ltd, with Kumar and his father as the only two directors.

The current parent organisation, Contagious Online Media Pvt Ltd, is a relatively new entity, incorporated in August 2015 with four board members: Kumar, Gusain, Golani and Biswapati Sarkar, the writer-actor from TVF’s early days. Sarkar resigned from the board in July 2016, at which point Abraham was inducted as a board member.

There was another early member of the team: Prashant Raj, a friend of Kumar’s from IIT Kharagpur. Raj, currently the cofounder and chief creative head of Dopamine Media and Entertainment Pvt Ltd, is embroiled in a legal battle over equity with Kumar. According to his lawyer, Raj worked at TVF as an informal adviser for several months in 2012, and later, when he joined the company as managing partner and director — strategy and operations, he claims he worked without a salary for almost a year (till october 2013) because the company was yet to raise funds. Raj’s lawyers contend that Kumar had promised to compensate him substantially once the company was better established, and had promised equity through emails exchanged between the two. Kumar’s counsels denied this when the case came up at the Bombay High Court in August 2015 (the denial is made as an editor’s note at the end of this The Economic Times article).

Raj and his counsels dispute this. According to Sushrut Desai, his lawyer, Raj’s contribution to early TVF was like that of a cofounder’s and he brought in substantial business for the company in the form of sponsorship deals, also representing TVF at events such as YouTube FanFest in Singapore. According to the lawyer, he was recognised as a cofounder/managing partner till he left the organisation in 2014, but currently TVF denies this.

Can TVF survive the storm and the crisis in leadership, with such strong allegations being made against its founder?

Between 2012 and 2013, says Desai, Raj and his wife allowed the TVF team, which was low in resources at that point, to shoot in their flat for days and Raj’s wife, also an IITian with a well-paying consulting job, would often withdraw money and give it to the team to finish their shoots (she was paid back later). However, later when disagreements erupted between Raj and Kumar, and Raj indicated that he wished to leave the company, there were several verbal consultations between the two over the amount of compensation due to Raj and a lot of back and forth, till they finally agreed upon a sum in November 2014.

Raj’s counsels allege that the day before the two former colleagues were supposed to meet to sign the agreement and pay Raj’s dues, Kumar incorporated TVF in the form of a new company, TVF Media Labs Pvt Ltd, in order to cut Raj out of the picture.

“At the time Prashant formally came on board, TVF couldn’t afford to hire Prashant (an IIT Kharagpur alumnus) as an employee. He was told ‘we will give you equity instead’… The nature of the initial promise has been expressed by Arunabh Kumar in not one but three emails. He clearly said that whatever company I incorporate, you will get so and so shares in it,” says Desai. Kumar, as earlier noted in this story, did not reply to questions emailed to him, including those on Raj’s claims.

What next for TVF?

Can TVF survive the storm and the crisis in leadership, with such strong allegations being made against its founder? Kumar was arrested on Saturday April 22, and even though he was released on bail within a few hours, investors and brands that were earlier eager to work with TVF are likely to baulk, feel experts.

“The problem with TVF is it is so personality-led,” says Karthik Srinivasan, one of India’s leading digital marketers and national head, social, at Ogilvy & Mather. “If it has ensured a strong second tier of leadership, and if that layer is able to rise now and ensure a good flow of content, they might just be able to weather the crisis.”

Kumar was arrested on Saturday April 22, and even though he was released on bail within a few hours, investors and brands that were earlier eager to work with TVF are likely to baulk, feel experts  

According to Srinivasan, the only thing that can turn the tide for the company and undo the damages of devastatingly bad PR is solid, quality content. “A big, buzzy, topical show that gets people to forget the negative image and talk about the content can potentially help the company make its way out of this crisis. It would also probably be important for brands that are interested in associating with TVF to see this guy (Kumar) in a slightly reduced role,” says Srinivasan.

Marketing and branding experts like Prasad and Srinivasan agree that it’s unlikely well-established companies like Tata (which has sponsored a TVF webseries in the past) will forget this episode soon, at least not unless the charges against Kumar are cleared. However, startups are a different kettle of fish. “Startups are only about the short-term. They are constantly pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable and what’s not acceptable. They may not really care about the loss of reputation,” Srinivasan adds.

“The problem with TVF is it is so personality-led… If it has ensured a strong second tier of leadership, and if that layer is able to rise now and ensure a good flow of content, they might just be able to weather the crisis” — Karthik Srinivasan, national head, social, Ogilvy & Mather  

It may be unrelated, but TVF branding has been removed from the page listing content partners on Ola Play, cab-hailing app Ola’s in-car entertainment platform. FactorDaily reached out to Bhavish Agarwal, co-founder of Ola, for comments on on how the company plans to take its relationship with TVF forward but received no reply. Ola has sponsored Permanent Roommates Season 2.

Meanwhile, there are persistent rumours in the market that TVF has lost out on a hefty investment deal. There are whispers about LinkedIn getting out of a deal to sponsor a video. At the same time, TVF’s show starring Nidhi Bisht is generating decent buzz among viewers — the first episode has over 7.5 lakh views on YouTube alone (viewership numbers for TVFPlay.com are not available) and the team has always had a set of hardcore fans who don’t believe the allegations against Kumar will stick.

In the end, TVF seems to have borrowed a line from Don Draper, the fictional ad man character from Mad Men: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”


Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.