Riding on Dreams

Engineer and neuroscientist Mauktik Kulkarni opted out of his Ph.D. program to go backpacking, and is now an author and a filmmaker.

Mauktik Kulkarni discovered a range of new passions and paths to happiness through his spectacular journeys around the world. From an over-8000-kilometer motorcycle ride in South America and a 36-country, round-the-world voyage to a yearlong adventure in India, Kulkarni came to see the world with new eyes. The America-born and India-raised engineer and neuroscientist has two master’s degrees—one in biophysics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and another in neuroscience from the Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. Kulkarni has written two books, co-produced a travel documentary and is an upcoming filmmaker.

Excerpts from an interview.


Please tell us about your early life, family and educational background.
I was born in the United States in 1979 and spent my life’s first four years in Chicago and Boston. My parents had emigrated from India. My dad is a doctor and mom’s a housewife. In 1983, we moved to my dad’s hometown, Jalgaon in Maharashtra. That’s where I completed my schooling. After a brief stay in Pune, from 1994 to 2000 for engineering, I got back to the United States for graduate school. From 2000 to 2012, I completed two master’s degrees and worked in a neurotech start-up before I decided to travel around the world for a year and moved to India again in 2013.


What inspired your first biking trip in South America?
I watched the movie “The Motorcycle Diaries” in 2004 or 2005, when I was studying neuroscience in Baltimore. There was something about the landscapes, the people and the culture that I found very captivating. When I got my first job offer, I felt like taking a break and clearing my head before I joined the start-up.


How did you plan your next voyage across 36 countries?
When I was traveling in South America, I met a lot of backpackers who had quit their jobs and decided to travel for a year or two, or until they ran out of money. At that time, I found it quite outlandish and thought I would never be able to do it. But, that romantic notion of traveling for a long duration and seeing the world stayed with me. After four years in the start-up, I had acquired enough business knowledge and entrepreneurial skills to feel confident about doing something on my own. When I decided to move back to India, I had enough in the bank to survive for a year and, more importantly, I had the energy to backpack for a year.


Your last trip was a year around India and, in your words, it was your greatest adventure. What made the trip so special?
India is unlike any other country in the world. The language, script, food, wardrobe, culture—everything changes when you cross state borders in India. As a part of the first film I co-produced, we backpacked through parts of Nagaland and realized that there are 16 different tribes in this tiny state in eastern India, and each of them has a different culture and language. India is unique because many of its indigenous cultures and languages are still alive. Plus, I grew up in India and had a certain level of understanding of how Indians think and behave.


You made a dramatic shift from engineering and neuroscience to filmmaking and art. Can you compare your life in science versus that in a start-up and as a filmmaker?
Until I switched to creative writing and filmmaking, I thought that switching from engineering to biology and neuroscience was a dramatic shift. Going from basic science research to a cutting-edge start-up was another dramatic shift.

The biggest difference: When you start a tech company, you already know what the market needs are and how your solution or product is going to help improve or save lives.  A book or a film does not improve anyone’s life in any tangible way. You are motivated by a desire to tell a story, which makes it quite nerve wracking, especially when you don’t have any formal training in creative writing or filmmaking. Second, in the tech world, you can make your product, launch it and make changes to it based on feedback from customers. In the film world, you get only one shot at making the product. Third, in the tech world, you can often get together with a few other techie friends and develop a product with limited resources. Filmmaking is inherently one of the most collaborative and most expensive art forms. It is extremely taxing on your team management and project management skills. Last, in the tech world, most of the businesses are built around some intellectual property—either a new invention or a new process for performing a task. You can beg, borrow or steal talent. In the film world, it’s the exact opposite. Stories are the intellectual property and they are a dime a dozen. It’s the talent that is in short supply. It requires a whole new level of perseverance and determination to put together a film project.


Could you please tell us more about your projects?
“A Ghost of Che” is a memoir based on my solo, 5000-mile [over 8000-kilometer] motorcycle trip in South America. “Packing Up Without Looking Back” is a memoir based on my yearlong, round-the-world trip to 36 countries. “Riding on a Sunbeam” is a film in which an American girl, a student of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, and I explore the social, cultural and economic contradictions of modern-day India, by backpacking through the backroads of the country. It is difficult to share too many details of the next five projects because they are still in development, but two are fiction projects that I have written scripts for, one is a biopic of a public figure in India, one is a film about some specific aspects of the Indian tech sector, and one is a series based on a backpacking and biking trip somewhere in South America.


Megan McDrew is a professor of sociology at University of California, Santa Cruz, and Hartnell College. She is based in Monterey, California.