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Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited, or ABCL, was set up sometime in the mid-nineties. A couple of years later two senior journalists and a photographer from Businessworld magazine went to chairman and superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s home to interview him for a cover story on ABCL. After the interview it was decided that the actor would be photographed on the lawns of Prateeksha, the Bachchan home at the time in Juhu, Mumbai. The photographer, a somewhat arty chap, fiddled with the camera and all his equipment for a longish bit. Then he turned to the man who had spent more than 20 years facing the camera for a living and said, “Mr Bachchan, don’t be conscious of the camera.” “I will try,” responded a deadpan Amitabh Bachchan.
This is my favourite anecdote from the front lines of this crazy world called the Indian media and entertainment industry. There are many others: sweet, poignant, insightful or plain funny. All of them cannot be told. Here are a few of them.
* It was the summer of 2000 and James Murdoch had just taken over as the head of News Corporation in Asia. This was a depressing market for Star at that time. It had been around for almost eight years without making money. Analysts worldwide were hammering News Corp because Chairman Rupert Murdoch had invested about a billion dollars into India and China and those markets weren’t delivering yet. James, a 27-year-old Harvard dropout, was the maverick of the family. He had set up Rawkus, a music company specialising in rap-metal bands. He had dabbled in cartooning with a strip called “Albrecht the Hun”. He was also a new media geek pushing News Corp to invest in all kinds of internet properties (remember that those were the bubble days).
On his first visit to India, I met James Murdoch along with a senior colleague from Businessworld. It turned out to be one of the most fun interviews. He was extremely intelligent, guileless and enthusiastic. After the interview, Star India’s then CEO Peter Mukerjea, who was headed towards South Mumbai, offered to drop me to my office in Worli. James Murdoch too was in the car. He kept asking questions about everything on the streets and was fascinated by all the things being sold at the traffic signals. When a gajrewala (flower seller) came up to us, Mr Murdoch got very excited. “What’s that stuff he’s selling?” he asked. The gajrewala kept looking expectantly at us while I explained that they were flowers to adorn the hair. He laughed, touched his head and said; “I don’t have enough hair.” We left one very irritated vendor behind!
* It was in the middle of the last decade. I was in Chennai meeting with several people. One of them was the head of a very large publishing group. This was my first visit to their office. As we settled in, a peon entered, bent at the waist, and spoke in Tamil to the gentleman I was meeting. Coffee was ordered. It came while we were deep into our discussion. A couple of men served the coffee. They then stood there, bent at the waist, their eyes down. They kept standing for a long time, much like pieces of furniture, till my interviewee realised that they were there and dismissed them. It told me so much about India’s newspaper barons.
* Sunil Lulla (now CEO of Times Global Broadcasting) was the head of marketing at HMV (now Saregama) when I first met him many moons ago. He looked completely corporate and serious and even wore a tie to work. It was the look to have in the early nineties. Several years later, Mr Lulla became the head of MTV in India. This was the time MTV was really happening. While interviewing him I found myself staring at the colourful, actually lurid, pair of socks he was wearing. Later I heard that he liked collecting socks. Over the years in various meetings with him in his various avatars at Sony, Times and Real TV, one automatically noticed his socks. While there was one parrot green pair with some hideous creatures on it, another one had frogs — you get the drift...
At a Confederation of Indian Industry cocktail party last year I decided that I had known the guy long enough to ask him, “What’s with the colourful socks?” Mr Lulla did not blink before responding, “How often do you put your foot in your mouth?” “Quite often,” I replied. “I rest my case,” said he.