Raj Nayak pulls a little cotton from a roll, picks up a cigarette lighter, and proceeds to set the handful on fire. And then, before I can as much as gasp, he shoves the lit cottonball into his mouth. I’ve interviewed pets and discussed ghazals with dyed-in-the-wool finance mavens, but an interviewee eating fire was definitely a first for me. For the CEO of the TV channel that telecasts stunt show Khataron ke khiladi, the passion for taking risks started quite tamely. As a child, Nayak was fascinated with the magic tricks his brother used to pull on him and got a friend to teach him some. “I started practising and picked up supplies from a street seller in Covent Garden while on a trip to London. My daughters’ friends used to be my guinea pigs, and I became very popular among the kids in my Delhi locality. I even got the whole package — a suit, hat and wand, because it was so much fun to watch the kids gape in amazement,” laughs Nayak.
Magic was just as entertaining when Nayak was in the audience. “I went to Las Vegas to watch illusionist David Copperfield live. There were two tricks that really blew me away — he made a member of the audience disappear, reach Australia, send a signed picture from there and then reappear in the audience. Then he made a big, fancy car that we could see and feel vanish in front of our eyes. At that moment, I felt completely like a curious little kid — I wanted to know how he pulled that off.”
It was that curiosity that led Nayak to try walking on fire for the first time. “I was with NDTV and we were at a Microsoft conference in Udaipur. The trainer asked for volunteers and as the head of the pack, I decided to sign up for it, with a little bit of liquid courage inside me first, of course. I felt liberated when it came to the moment of truth — like I had truly conquered something. I decided to replicate the experience at a bigger conference, and when the trainer couldn’t make it for the event, her assistants and I led the team through the process.”
There was no stopping after that. From walking on glass to bending iron rods with his neck and eating fire, Nayak has been there, done that and led his team through it all. The thrill and confidence these feats gave him was unmatched, and it motivated him to get certified in fire walking from a US-based institute. “Walking on fire is like bungee jumping — you do it once and you feel tempted to have another go at it. You just need to have trust, faith and belief in your own self; no harm can come to you if you’re in the moment,” he says.
Nayak soon discovered the team-building prospects of these feats. “When I joined Colors as CEO, I designed my first conference as an agni pariksha. People walked in expecting droll PPTs and walked out having walked on fire; every single person in the room made their way to the other side. Once you walk on fire, nothing — in work and life — can appear daunting,” he beams.
This penchant for risk-taking extends to the work sphere as well — the channel took a gamble with the Indian iteration of international thriller series 24 and the rib-tickling Comedy nights with Kapil, and it paid off in the ratings game. “The reason magic — and TV — works so well is because everybody needs an escape. When someone pulls off a difficult trick, no matter how cynical the audience, it always gives them a little ray of hope. That’s what motivates me to try new things,” he smiles.