In the Name of the Fa­ther

How Bhushan Ku­mar has over two decades trans­formed T-Series – the mu­sic busi­ness founded by the late Gul­shan Ku­mar – into an en­ter­tain­ment be­he­moth

The Economic Times - - Deep Dive - Gau­rav Laghate & Rahul Sa­chi­tanand

In late Jan­uary, T-Series hit a sig­nif­i­cant mile­stone, when it be­came the No 1 chan­nel on YouTube with over 14 bil­lion views, best­ing the likes of Justin Bieber, WWE, Ri­hanna and Katy Perry. It is now also within strik­ing dis­tance of be­com­ing the most viewed chan­nel of all time. Nearly two decades af­ter his un­ex­pected rise, Bhushan Ku­mar, T-Series’ chair­man, seems to have stamped an in­deli­ble mark on In­dia’s mu­sic — and more re­cently movie — busi­ness.

When Bhushan took over T-Series two decades ago (1997), he was 19 years old and his fa­ther Gul­shan Ku­mar had just been shot in cold blood. Even though his un­cle Kr­is­han Ku­mar (younger brother of Gul­shan Ku­mar) was in­volved with T-Series, peo­ple in the com­pany strug­gled to deal with the un­ex­pected el­e­va­tion of the ju­nior Ku­mar. How­ever, he quickly if qui­etly as­serted his author­ity over the com­pany (of­fi­cially yet called Su­per Cas­settes In­dus­tries).

To­day, Bhushan, 39, is in a tear to grow his dom­i­nance from mu­sic to movies, in the process build­ing an en­ter­tain­ment be­he­moth.

While T-Series’ mu­sic busi­ness is seem­ingly on auto pi­lot, with in­dus­try ob­servers peg­ging its share at least 70% (and grow­ing), Bhushan’s at­ten­tion is on the com­pany’s rel­a­tively new movie pro­duc­tion busi­ness.

“Mak­ing movies is very dif­fer­ent from mu­sic… I can now make mu­sic in my sleep,” he says. The movies busi­ness has been harder work. “We have had mixed suc­cess with our film-mak­ing…we had some huge suc­cesses such as and Yaariyaan, but there were also films like Joo­nuniyat which didn’t work.”

To be fair, T-Series is hardly the only movie-maker to have mixed re­sults. The pre­vi­ous year was ex­tremely hard on film stu­dios: Dis­ney has sus­pended film pro­duc­tion in In­dia and Balaji Tele­film’s movie busi­ness is strug­gling.

“If you play your cards right and have the right bud­gets and con­tent, then it is not a dif­fi­cult mar­ket,” Bhushan con­tends. “The prob­lem is so many movies were with bud­gets of ₹ 80-100 crore and did busi­ness of barely ₹ 30-40 crore.” Peo­ple who know Bhushan closely say he’s a rare com­bi­na­tion of left-brain and right-brain abil­i­ties. “His un­canny un­der­stand­ing of the movie-go­ing masses, de­rived from his ex­pe­ri­ence as a mu­sic maker, and his sharp busi­ness acu­men give his lead­er­ship at T-Series a sig­nif­i­cant com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage,” says Vikram Mal­ho­tra, CEO at Abundantia En­ter­tain­ment, a film stu­dio that is co­pro­duc­ing many films with T-Series. “He is also quick in de­ci­sion-mak­ing, which is a pow­er­ful as­set in a busi­ness that of­fers lim­ited win­dows of op­por­tu­nity.”

To try to win this game, T-Series will be in­vest­ing about ₹ 300 crore per year on mid-bud­get films with fore­casts of at least ₹ 400 crore in box of­fice col­lec­tions.

“The year 2017 is cru­cial for our moviemaking busi­ness.” An avowed fan of Amitabh Bachchan (he claims to have seen Sat­tePeSatta “thou­sands” of times), he says the suc­cess of con­tent-cen­tric movies such as Pink, Neerja and Ka­haani have given him much food for thought. Film­mak­ers say Bhushan, as a movie pro­ducer, does give his di­rec­tors plenty of cre­ative lee­way but closely mon­i­tors the num­bers of note. Just like his mu­sic busi­ness, he isn’t ced­ing con­trol with movies. “I am not a pas­sive in­vestor in movies… rather, I am ac­tive pro­ducer… I am tough on bud­gets and not the type of per­son to let a di­rec­tor spend any amount on a movie, just for pas­sion’s sake,” he says.

While he may be able to tightly con­trol the purse strings, ideation may be an­other mat­ter. In some cases, he’s struck gold – as in the case of Air­lift, a movie based on the true story of air­lifted In­di­ans from Kuwait star­ring Ak­shay Ku­mar; and Baby, where op­po­si­tion started with the movie’s ti­tle it­self. There have been flops, too, such as Wa­jahTumHo.

T-Series plans to make nine moveis in 2017, and has locked in 12 projects for 2018. Plans are afoot not just for Hindi cinema, but for­ays into Marathi, Tel­ugu and Tamil too. “We will fo­cus on con­tent-driven films and not just on stars alone,” says Bhushan.

In 2017, he points to the Ir­rfan Khanstar­rer HindiMedium, a rom-com about a cou­ple from Delhi’s Chandi Chowk keen to be a part of the city’s up­per crust.

As he trans­forms T-series from a mu­s­ic­cen­tric busi­ness into a broader en­ter­tain­ment en­tity, Bhushan’s spurned of­fers to go pub­lic or seek ex­ter­nal in­vest­ment. “I don’t want to take it pub­lic and be an­swer­able to any­one,” he in­sists. “I am fully in con­trol, grow­ing the busi­ness and prof­its and every big di­rec­tor, ac­tor and singer wants to work with us.” Peo­ple who work with and for Bhushan say he is fix­ated on scal­ing up the busi­ness. He’s known to push him­self and his team hard (mu­sic in­spi­ra­tion, for ex­am­ple, can strike at a rea­son­able 7 pm or a more chal­leng­ing 3 am). “His en­ergy is in­fec­tious...he also wants to know ev­ery­thing that is hap­pen­ing in the com­pany. Every trans­ac­tion, be it of ₹ 100 or ₹ 100 crore, he needs to be aware — that is the kind of ship he is run­ning,” says an em­ployee. Most se­nior staff have worked at T-Series for an av­er­age of 15 years.

A petrol head (he owns over a dozen topend cars, in­clud­ing a Fer­rari, Bent­ley, Audi R8 and May­bach) and adrenalin junkie, the last few years have seen him give re­spon­si­bil­ity pri­or­ity over rac­ing. “Time changes ev­ery­thing,” he says with the be­gin­nings of a smile. “Now, my driv­ing is re­stricted to the oc­ca­sional drive with my five-year-old son. My love for busi­ness has re­placed my mad pas­sion for cars.” Along the way, Bhushan has had to keep pace with changes in tech­nol­ogy for both the mu­sic and movie busi­nesses. In mu­sic, T-Series has gone from cas­settes to CDs, YouTube and stream­ing ser­vices to gen­er­ate rev­enue. In movies, the goal­posts have shifted as au­di­ences have to be catered to not just at the­atres, but on ca­ble TV and in­creas­ingly OTT video ser­vices too. In Septem­ber last year, T-Series signed a pact with Ama­zon to dis­trib­ute its movies.

DEVRAJ SANYAL CEO, SOUTH ASIA, UNI­VER­SAL MU­SIC GROUP VIKRAMMALHOTRA CEO, ABUNDANTIA ENT

“Ear­lier, you could es­cape with­out be­ing pro­fi­cient with tech­nol­ogy, but now ev­ery­thing re­volves around it,” he says. “Due to my pas­sion for mu­sic and movies I have to be pro­fi­cient with it.”

As T-Series grows, it may be hard for Bhushan to be in con­trol of ev­ery­thing his com­pany does. Even to­day, he ad­mits, he’s de­vis­ing the way for­ward for the com­pany not only when he’s awake — but even in his sleep.

De­spite ex­ter­nal ap­pear­ances, those who know him well say he’s learned to del­e­gate and is will­ing to listen to oth­ers. “His core strength is that he un­der­stands mu­sic … from a con­sumer and lis­tener point of view,” says Devraj Sanyal, CEO, South Asia, at Uni­ver­sal Mu­sic Group.

“To­day, when the coun­try’s largest song la­bel makes a film with­out songs ( Baby) you know that the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s vi­sion has truly ma­tured,” says Mal­ho­tra of Abun­dun­tia. “A sig­nif­i­cant and crit­i­cal chap­ter in T-Series’ jour­ney has just be­gun.” He’s come a long way, baby.

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