From Stage to Stardom

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Rafsan Sabab on hosting and hurdles

Anika Chowdhury

We have come a long way since the day legendary anchor Hanif Sanket kept us glued to the TV screen with his ever-celebrated show Ityadi. Now the young and promising are paving the way and have taken hold of the helm – in this case, the mike. One such talented MC is Rafsan Sabab, who has established himself as a dynamic figure in showbiz – seamlessly blending his roles as a show host, comedian, and marketing professional.

An admirer of Hanif Sanket, Sabab realized the stage would be his passion for life when he was in class five. Today, he is the creative force behind the popular “What a Show!” – a platform he nurtured from scratch, showing his commitment to creating engaging content that resonates widely. As the multitalented host and entertainer continues to expand his horizons, MWB caught up with Rafsan Sabab to get the scoop on what’s next for this rising star.

What led you to pursue a career in anchoring?

From my early days, I wanted to do something extraordinary and make my parents proud. So, I used to look for opportunities to get up on stage and perform before everyone. My first attempt was to recite a Bangla poem at a recital competition and as far as I can recall, no one else was able to memorize the entire poem and recite it, so I won the first prize. That was the first taste of attention I got on the stage and the memory of that victory stayed with me for a long time.

I kept on trying to get up on stage every time I got the chance to do so – whether it was poem recitation, debate, or any other competition – I would try going to the stage and win the prize. Then when I was in class seven, I got admitted to Jhenaidah Cadet College. I missed my family terribly and so, as a means of distraction, I used to study 24/7 and played every sport that was available there. 

Growing up as a small, chubby kid, I quickly learned that a bit of extra effort could go a long way. It paid off when I was named captain of the football team at school. This role not only put me at the forefront of team functions and competitions but also gave me countless opportunities to take the stage and address my peers. It was during these moments that I discovered my passion for public speaking and realized how much I enjoyed captivating an audience.

My true calling became clearer during my second year at the Institute of Business Administration at Dhaka University when I encountered the book  Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life. Ikigai, which means “the reason to live,” sparked a profound reflection on my career aspirations. 

I realized that hosting wasn’t just about speaking; it was an art that required finesse and sincere dedication – qualities I admired in legendary hosts like Hanif Sanket, yet found lacking broadly within our industry. This realization motivated me to pursue a career in hosting with renewed seriousness, aiming to fill the void with professionalism and passion. This pivotal decision has shaped my path and led me to where I stand today in the entertainment industry.

What has been your most memorable moment as a host so far?

My most memorable moment as a host would be the first time I made an episode for “What a Show!” I have been on many stages as a host – TV shows, concerts, etc – but the feeling of creating a show from scratch is truly something else. The entire responsibility of the show was on my shoulder and I had to be part of every decision. I felt proud just by thinking that I didn’t just host that show – I crafted the show from scratch and this was my brainchild.  

During the early stages of your career, what were some of the most difficult challenges you faced?

Naturally, when you are starting your career, you need to ask around for work and I did that as well. However, in my case, the challenge that I faced was quite distressing and I couldn’t overcome it through my skill or hard work. 

The organizers preferred female hosts because they thought it would bring more attention to the show. I found it very sad and disappointing. No matter the experience or skill a person has, the organizers wanted to see a female figure holding the mike.

Sadly, I also lost opportunities due to my complexion. People didn’t say anything directly to me, but I knew it had all come down to appearance – they simply wanted someone good-looking. I just hope this bias and stereotyping – which still persist in our industry – changes soon.     

What’s something about “What a Show!” that viewers would be surprised to learn?

Initially, we didn’t have any sponsors for the show and many people don’t know this. In the beginning, it was just me and a few of my friends. We invested our own money and started the show. I remember we even had to shoot in a car because we couldn’t afford a studio. We came a long way during those days, but those days were very difficult for us.

Again, many people think that the entire show is scripted, but honestly speaking it is not. I never disclose my questions to any of my guests. Even the audience for the show is selected through an application process. We receive thousands of applications and after screening and scrutinizing, we select our audience.   

So, these are some of the facts the viewers would be surprised to learn.

Working with Dekko ISHO Venture Capital, what have you learned about the connection between media and business?

I always want to keep my options open and in turn, I always want to have a source of stable income so that I don’t put too much pressure on my creative endeavors. This is why I joined Dekko ISHO Venture Capital. I love the work culture here and learned valuable lessons working at Dekko. 

Most importantly, I am not someone who would be happy to do a 9 to 5 job and my employers understand this. So, I get enough flexibility to invest my focus on my job as well as my hosting endeavors. 

You are known to be an athlete as well. Tell us a bit about your athletic pursuits. 

As I have mentioned before, I played every sport I could – whether it was basketball, football or volleyball – when I was in my cadet college. Then when I was in IBA, I played basketball regularly and even participated in competitions. Even now, I play sports whenever I can. I think physical movement is very important – not just for physical health but for mental health as well. And playing sports helps me to keep in shape. 

When you are not performing, what are some of your favorite ways to unwind?

I love talking to the people I trust the most and this is my favorite way to unwind. 

Which comedians or show hosts do you look up to?

Internationally, I follow Jimmy Fallon and Ellen DeGeneres. When it comes to our country, Hanif Sanket is an iconic figure and I look up to him wholeheartedly. 

If you could choose anyone (dead or alive) in the world, who would you love to have as a guest on your show?

I think I would be honored to host Irrfan Khan. I used to watch his interviews and found them quite inspiring. Sadly, he passed away, but I still wish I could have had him as a guest on my show. 

You’ve mentioned a dream of hosting the Oscars. What inspired this goal?

Ever since I was young, I’ve been captivated by the magic of story-telling, whether it was in films, television, or live performances. The Oscars, being the pinnacle of celebration for cinematic achievements, always represented the height of that magic to me. The hosts I look up to have also hosted Oscar, so I thought why not aim for the best? Hosting the Oscars represents a professional milestone for me and this is why I want to host it someday. 

Do you plan to venture into acting?

I believe acting requires versatility and depth of understanding. I truly admire the people who can act really well. So, if the right opportunity presents itself, I would be excited to see where that path might lead and how it could enrich my abilities as an entertainer. But right now, I don’t the have urgency to venture into the path of acting.

What’s next for Rafsan Sabab?

I am currently working on the new season of “What a Show!” Besides this, I plan to release a comedy special within a few months. I will be doing this inside and outside of Dhaka in the form of a tour and along with it, I plan to launch a business for myself. But for this, you will have to wait for the update.  

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