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The reluctant visionary

Suveen K Sinha  |  New Delhi 


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Ajay BijliAjay Bijli values Renuka Ramnath’s advice. That has been the case ever since Ramnath, the head of private equity fund ICICI Venture, took the final call in favour of investing Rs 40 crore in Bijli’s PVR Ltd in March 2003. Bijli needed the money as his partner at the time, Australia’s Village Roadshow, had decided to pull out of India and 17 other countries, writes Suveen K Sinha.

However, there is one advice of Ramnath that Bijli may never act on. She tells him to become an actor, as that would be logical backward integration, a business principle Bijli believes in. PVR, which has 101 screens in 14 cities, is already into film distribution and production. Of the three films it has co-produced, Taare Zameen Par is India’s entry for the Academy Awards this year (Bijli leaves for Los Angeles tomorrow with Amir Khan to make sure the Academy members watch the film) and Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na was a hit, while Contract did not fulfill expectations. To become an integrated retail entertainment company, it has formed a joint venture with Thailand’s Major Cineplex Group to set up bowling alleys, karaoke centres, ice skating rinks and gaming zones across the country.

Bijli recalls Ramnath’s suggestion with a hint of a blush and dismisses it as good-natured banter. But you never can tell. Bijli comes across as a man who takes things as they come, frequently thanking God and touching wood. For one credited with pioneering the multiplex revolution in India, he is disarmingly charming when he says it was not a part of any grand vision.

I had gone expecting the opposite. Bijli and I are sitting in Cilantro, the all-day (6 am to 1 am) dining restaurant in Trident-Hilton, Gurgaon. The place offers international cuisine, but Bijli chose it probably because it is a short sprint from his office (training for the forthcoming half marathon in Delhi, Bijli looks very much capable of it and shows little sign of a recent bout of dengue).

For starters, he does not show much interest in the food. We agree to quickly get the orders out of the way. To make this lunch last longer, I interrupt him — he is already ordering the main course — to suggest soup. He ponders for half a second before ordering Consomme Chix, a clear soup. Not knowing what to expect, I ask for the soup whose name looks the most interesting: Miso Shiru. For the main course, Bijli wants grilled Norwegian salmon, well done. I, clueless again, go by what the waiter suggests: bamboo red snapper.

The conversation, interspersed with some passers-by pausing to shake Bijli’s hand and feeling compelled to nod at me, takes the predictable course of the global financial crisis and attrition, until I get it back on track by asking how much of his success he foresaw.

When he started off in 1992, Bijli just wanted to do something worthwhile. After New Delhi’s Modern School, he went to Hindu College in the University of Delhi, only to graduate in “basketball honours”. The first two years of college were marred by a teachers’ strike.

His father ran Amritsar Transport Company, with 500 trucks, over a thousand offices, and a lot of passion. Bijli knew he would one day join the family business, but a distraction kept popping up in his head: Priya, the cinema hall the family owned in South Delhi’s Vasant Vihar. “I wanted to make sure I was not an embarrassment to my family. My heart and soul were not in the trucking business. I requested my father if I could also look at the cinema. I was not really passionate about movies, but I liked Priya. Abroad, I had seen cinemas very nicely done up.”

The deal was that Bijli would join the family business, but also get to do what he wanted with Priya. His father put him in the services part of the trucking business. He would travel to state borders to make sure goods were being delivered form point A to point B on time.

Priya was a quick experiment on the side. “I put Dolby (at that time, the state-of-the-art sound system), but wasn’t thinking of a revolution. One does not start like that.” Priya’s success encouraged him to delve deeper into the cinema business. “I stopped getting distracted. Once Priya became successful, that was all I wanted to do.”

He got a lucky break (“touch wood!”). Ticket prices were decontrolled and entertainment tax reduced. “People say Ajay had an amazing strategy. I never had any strategy. It was Divine intervention.”

The Devil struck twice in quick succession. Bijli’s father died in 1992, aged 60. Then, in 1994, a big fire broke out in the trucking company’s godown, a big one, spread over 100,000 square feet. Bijli, aged 27, found himself engulfed by a host of claims. He had a reputation to protect. Since 1939, when his grandfather (Lala Sai Das Mehra, fondly called Bijli Pehalwan, or the lightning muscleman, for his relief work during the Partition: that’s how the family got a new surname) set up the company, none of its clients had lost money because his goods were lost or damaged. On the advice of his mother, Bijli wrote cheques to all of those whose goods were gutted. The fire consumed whatever interest Bijli had left in the transport business. He entrusted it to his uncle and cousins in Amritsar, providing them with only strategic direction.

The only reaction to the main course, when it arrives, is when Bijli marvels at the large size of my bamboo dish. My fish is with bones, and I become preoccupied with the task of eating it without looking too ugly.

A distributor of Hollywood films put him in touch with Village Roadshow, which wanted to expand in India. PVR was born in 1995 when the two signed a 60:40 venture in Bijli’s favour. The new partner wanted to convert Priya into a multiplex. But Bijli didn’t want to fix a thing that wasn’t broke. So he began to look for another location.

Anupam, in South Delhi’s Saket area, was dilapidated. Owned by the Ansal family, it was showing Razia Sultan (we chuckle as Bijli stirs his coffee and I sample my tea). Bijli took it on lease and converted it into a four-plex, sowing the seeds of the multiplex phenomenon in the country.

Sunil Mittal, the head of Bharti Enterprises and another one whose advice has influenced Bijli’s career, advised him to go for a course in Harvard University. The course, three weeks every year for three years, gave expression to the business acumen that Bijli always had. “I did case studies on Wal-Mart, Starbucks, etc, met entrepreneurs, and came back charged up. I did not want to be known as the guy who started it, but for my today. I did not want to be history.”

Another revolution was setting off at the time: malls were coming up all over Bangalore, Delhi-National Capital Region, Mumbai, and elsewhere. With a canny sense of the right location, Bijli moved in even as the Australian partner wavered and, after the 9/11 downturn, eventually pulled out. They remain in touch. Just the other day, Bijli sent them a playfully teasing message about India beating Australia in the Test match at Mohali.

Bijli wants more coffee. As he orders an espresso, I begin to marvel at how unhurried this man is. He gets along with people, trusts their advice, and banters with former partners. He bears no grudge against the Ansal family, who, while giving him Anupam, refused to part with the other cinema hall they had because it had just been renovated. That other hall was Uphaar, which was later gutted in a fire that sparked a case that sent the Ansal brothers, Gopal and Sushil, behind bars. Touch wood!

First Published: Tue, October 28 2008. 00:00 IST