June 01, 2020
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Raju Ban Gaya Businessman

Dreamer, entertainer, unlikely entrepreneur: Shah Rukh Khan believes in doing things differently, even in business

Raju Ban Gaya Businessman
SHAH Rukh Khan is limping. He has recently had surgery on his leg. Perhaps he should be resting at home, instead of maintaining punishing 18-hour days with a black velcro strap tied tightly around his thigh to dull the pain. But the man can't sit still. There's a queue outside his make-up room at Filmistan Studio to meet him, Karan Johar pops his head in to announce that the next shot for Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gum is ready, Juhi Chawla's brother Bobby is on the line from Delhi ("How's it going, Bobby? Any stress?"), Kareena Kapoor strolls in to say hi. Khan has meetings to attend, ideas to flesh out, scripts to approve, films to shoot.

And business plans to finalise.

For Shah Rukh Khan wants to be a bit more than India's biggest film star. He has a range of business projects in various stages of development.

  • Dreamz Unlimited, the production firm he set up with director Aziz Mirza and actress-friend Juhi Chawla, is working on its second film project.

  • Dreamz TV has four serials in the works.

  • Arclightz hires out film production equipment. It is also producing the film Ashoka.

  • Aryan Informatics launched entertainment portal srkworld on November 14.

  • All these ventures will finally fit together to create a mega studio complex which, in addition to the country's best post-production facilities, will also come with a five-star hotel, a multiplex and amusement arcades.

    For Shah Rukh, it's not business. "It's more philosophical. I don't want to be a businessman. I am an entertainer, and my business plans are an extension of that." He speaks with passion and intensity, and you sense the conviction of a man who believes he has been born for a purpose. "I am an actor and I love films. Everything else flows from these two core facts. I don't want to be in a situation 10 years later that I am very rich, I am a bloody icon, my children are studying in London, and I look back and say: big deal, what have I done? What have I given back to the world that gave me so much, much more than I deserve? I am today one of the leaders of the Indian entertainment industry. So if I don't do something, who will? I think I am creative, I get a few ideas, I want to try them out. I may try nine things, and eight of them may fail, but at least I would have eliminated eight options so others can learn from my failures and try something newer and better. And I won't give up till I've tried at least eight of those nine things."

    About 20 young men and women tap at keyboards, work mouses, joke and have nervous breakdowns in a seventh-floor penthouse on Mumbai's Carter Road overlooking the Arabian Sea. Typical dotcom office: informality, energy, youth. Only a basketball hoop screwed to a wall, about two feet from the floor, reminds you that the office of www.srkworld.com is Shah Rukh's former home: the hoop was for his son Aryan. Srkworld is run by Nishith Shah and Shailja Gupta, whose IT consulting company TechShastra designed the website for Dreamz's first film, Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani. After Phir Bhi..., Shah Rukh asked them to develop the srkworld site, and before they knew it, they were consultants no more, they were in charge, with two full-time jobs in TechShastra and srkworld. "We're trying to make srkworld a platform for the entire Indian entertainment industry," says Shah. "In addition to news, views, games, horoscopes and so on, stars will have their home pages here; we will sell star-related merchandise; webcast films from the 2,000-strong B4U library for a price—either subscription or pay per view. We have an alliance with Tips and Venus Music to sell their cassettes and CDs. We're trying many other alliances so that srkworld becomes a complete entertainment portal covering films, music, theatre, advertising and travel." Says Gupta: "We are not tied to any one music company. So the srkworld visitor will be able to cut his own CDs with selections from a number of companies. Maybe even video CDs." Much of the site is still in development stage. It has short video clips of memorable sequences from hit Hindi films, but webcast of films can happen only when India acquires a broadband infrastructure. "Whenever broadband happens, we will be there, ready to go," says Shah.

    Similarly, e-tailing. The merchandise currently on sale on srkworld are Shah Rukh and Juhi T-shirts, posters and stationery. But over time, they plan to widen the range and finally take the brand off-line to have exclusive stores selling srkworld lines of products. But in everything that Shah Rukh is trying, while the dream is big, everyone freely acknowledges the possibility of failure. "We don't know if we will succeed," says Shah, "but we are putting our best foot forward." "It may not work," says Shah Rukh, "but it's much better to have tried and failed than to have not tried at all." Very different from the usual tall talk of the dotcom world.

    On which Shah Rukh has a theory. He thinks many dotcoms went bust because they used an American style of business, when they were actually in India. "So even before you set up your business, you have a fancy office and everyone wearing suits and ties and having power lunches. And then you hear that ibm or someone is encouraging employees to come to office in bermudas, so you quickly buy bermudas," says he, while acknowledging that since he is the front man for his firms, he doesn't need to invest in snazzy offices, like less famous entrepreneurs have to. In srkworld's case, Shah Rukh is the snazz, Juhi is the snazz.

    True, but he still has this thing about the trappings of business. "I think power lunches are extremely cool, but I can't handle too many of them. The other day, some people came to me and said they sell ideas. After some time, I realised that what they do is make TV serials! Of course, if I'm talking to some American companies, I'll say that we are in the idea-concept business with a significant value proposition, but if I don't have to do it, I won't."

    Naturally, Shah Rukh doesn't set himself financial targets. "Money comes," is his two-word doctrine. "People talk about revenue models. I am a walking-talking revenue model, without having ever run after money. Which is not to say that we will be happy with losses in our businesses. We'll be very happy if we make large profits, but we will also be happy if we break even. We shouldn't have to sell our houses to do business. At heart I'm a retailer. If you open a shop, it should pay for the electricity bill, the water tax and the staff salary at least. It may not make crores, but it should be self-sufficient."

    A characteristic of the Shah Rukh Khan persona has always been the ability, in spite of the slightly possessed aura, to laugh at himself. He is willing to interrupt a serious business discussion to say: "I know what our revenue model should be: everyone participates in TV quiz shows." That willingness to be self-deprecatory has led to the creation of Shah Rock, a kid who appears on srkworld—bellybutton showing, left shoelace untied, naughty, impish, and often trying to make the best of a bad deal life has served up.Currently Shah Rock appears in a daily comic strip on the site and on srkworld merchandise, and Khan wants to do a full-length animation film with him some day. "Another of those nine things I must try," he says. "I love kids, and I know kids like me. So I'll make this film, but not before we're sure we have the animation technology to make a world-class film."

    "Shah Rukh is the visionary, the dreamer," says a resplendently pregnant Juhi, munching cookies in the hi-tech Dreamz Unlimited conference room. "In Dreamz, Azizji is the oldest, so he is the wise man. And I am the practical, boring person who brings Shah Rukh down to earth, I am like, is this realistic, maybe we should try for 20 per cent of this?" When will the studio happen? "If you ask Shah Rukh, he'll say tomorrow," she laughs. "We don't have any particular time-frame, but we'll do it." What about starting a TV channel? "Please don't even suggest this to Shah Rukh," she chuckles, "or you'll start him off on that. He has enough on his hands already." "We are not starting a TV channel," says Jay Mehta, Juhi's industrialist husband, who is on the board of all their companies. "We will do things that Juhi and Shah Rukh know well. They know the film business well, and some businesses that spin off from film-making. We will focus on that."

    "I'm no visionary," says Shah Rukh. "And I don't think I have any business brains." "Shah Rukh is an astute businessman," says Mehta. "He knows what he wants and he is a good negotiator, because he has a way with people." "I don't know what astute means," grumbles Shah Rukh. "I admit I am sharp, because I am alert, I am aware and I read a lot. But I haven't signed a cheque for a very long time. I get bored by those parts of business. I don't enjoy that, and I shall never do anything that I don't enjoy."

    Shah Rukh and Juhi's Arclightz, though, may seem quite a "boring" business. Arclightz has imported state-of-the-art production and post-production equipment (Shah Rukh thinks they have invested at least Rs 2 crore) and hires them out: the latest Arriflex cameras, Kinoflo lenses, cranes, Avid editing suites. Arclightz has broken even and among all their businesses, has the most stable cash flow. "When we set up Dreamz," says Shah Rukh, "we knew that the only way you can make a film without compromising is to make a film cheap. The simplest way to make a cheap film is to have a back-end equipment company. So: Arclightz. We earn our equipment cost within three or four hirings and by the third film we make we have no equipment costs. So that film will be at least cheaper by a crore on a Rs 7-crore budget. And then some of the set props we make can be used again. Today, if I buy publicity equipment, it costs me Rs 25 lakh. But now that I have made the investment, I will have that equipment free to make the next film. So slowly, there will come a time when I won't have to spend any money on too many things."

    That seems astute business thinking. Then Shah Rukh adds the twist. "We don't give our equipment to everyone, only to producers who we know want to make good films. As for cameras and lenses, I made out a list of people I consider are great cinematographers and we hire our stuff only to them. Not a very business-like thing to do, but that's the way we are."

    So when does he go public? Isn't that the way to go for entertainment companies? Subhash Ghai's Mukta Arts has raised money from the market, as has Ekta Kapoor's Balaji Films, and Tips Music and processors Adlabs.Mehta says they have no such plans in the near future: "If you go to the public with people like Shah Rukh and Juhi, people shouldn't be disappointed. We don't want to take advantage of the media boom without having solid profits in place."

    "People tell me: sell a 40 per cent stake and make Rs 200 crore," says Shah Rukh, lighting yet another Wills Classic. "But what'll I do with Rs 200 crore? I don't need Rs 200 crore. Besides, the notion of selling out even before you have created anything disturbs me. I have to work for the money that I earn. Money that I have wrestled for, boxed for, fought for, worked my butt off for—I like that sort of money." Srkworld's signature line—"There's always a different way to look at things"—is his creation. He sits up at night, typing out on his laptop every word that appears on his home page on the site.

    Non-business-like he may be, but Shah Rukh does have a clear picture of the linkages between his companies. Software comes from Dreamz. Equipment comes from Arclightz. Srkworld provides a medium both to broadcast the software and for an endless number of spin-offs that could create new brands around the star appeal of Shah Rukh and friends, which could be merchandised on- and off-line. Finally, everything comes together in, in Shah Rukh's words, "a huge studio with post-production facility on one floor, equipment storage on another and the creative office on top. So when you come in, you get three mediums under one roof. And if that company can be a five-star hotel with a multiplex inside and bowling alleys and three floors of offices, it would be great. That, without being pompous, is the dream behind srkworld." When does that happen? He doesn't know: "Companies come to us for joint ventures, and I tell them I don't want your money, you bring me the technology—that will be your stake in the company. Now, for these guys, writing out a cheque for Rs 50 crore is easy, bringing in the technology is not so easy, but that's what I want. Let's see."

    Fifteen years from now, Juhi sees herself as a full-time businesswoman. Not so Shah Rukh. He'll remain an entertainer, he says. But he does have another project in mind. He wants to set up an orphanage for the girl child. The Rs 50 lakh he won recently on Kaun Banega Crorepati will be used for that. "I don't have a time-frame, but I'll do this. Many businessmen come to talk deals with me, and I say why don't you give me some money for this orphanage I want to set up? Most of them never call me back. I want this orphanage to be the happiest place in the world. And I want all these girls to grow up and be entertainers, spread happiness and joy to everyone they meet. And I think, with all this srkworld and equipment hire and film production and TV serials, that's where it'll all end, in that orphanage, that's where the Shah Rukh Khan story will end."
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