Nari Hira, the publishing supremo behind Stardust, Society, Savvy and many more titles, has been at the forefront of magazine journalism for more than 40 years. Taking the natural leap from puffy conversations with stars to digging into their personal lives, the media baron altered the movie industry dynamics forever, with Stardust’s first cover story asking ‘Is Rajesh Khanna secretly married?’ way back in 1971. So how relevant does he feel magazines are today? And what have been his highs and lows in a stellar career? Saptarshi Ray catches up with him in London for an exclusive interview with Outlook:
What drew you to the magazine format?
I started my career in advertising, and then founded my own agency—but I was always very fond of writing. The restrictions on writing in advertising meant space was short, obviously...and I knew publishing was what I wanted to do.
Also at that time, in the early ’70s, I felt there was a vacuum in India. There was no really good film magazine—I’m talking about like the old Hollywood magazines of the ’30s and ’40s, like Photoplay. I mean, I’m not trying to be rude, there was Filmfare—but I remember seeing one issue and there was Asha Parekh, Sadhana and Waheeda Rehman building sandcastles on Juhu Beach in Mumbai, and a big spread on them frolicking around like little schoolgirls and only talking about films. I thought it was so ridiculous.
Without sounding snobbish—I was south Bombay, didn’t really know anything about Hindi films but I thought why are they not actually writing about the stars, their personal lives, instead of these idiotic articles about nothing. Well at my agency I worked with Shobha Rajadhyaksha, as she was known then, now Shobha De of course, and she was fed up and was feuding with the executives—she hated them and they hated her—so I said “I want to start this magazine, do you want to move?” She said, “Let’s do it.”
At the time I knew Anju Mahendru, who was running around with Rajesh Khanna—so I called her up and said tell me a story, I want to do a cover story on whether you and Rajesh are going to get married. She loved the idea and actually said she wasn’t going to tell us whether they were already married or not—so the story became ‘Is Rajesh Khanna secretly married?’ and there was no looking back from there.
I was right—people were dying to know what these stars did when they weren’t acting. Not what film is out when and who is making sandcastles or whatever. So we started the trend of what is today called gossip magazines, but it was a new thing then—certainly in India. We never went into bedrooms, as such, but it was perfect for the movie industry—everyone was at war with everyone else, so they all talked to us, they all wanted to gossip. So Stardust was born, and there was something of a magazine revolution and now Magna has 11 titles under its name.
Do you think the glossy magazine form was the right medium for this venture?
Definitely, people need to make a distinction from the heavy look of a newspaper. As for television, we started off trying to do both effectively—have a filmed interview and a print one, but being actors they would not speak freely while there was a camera in the room. They were easygoing and free until the camera was switched on—so that was never the right one for us. In print they would go to town.
How different is magazine economics from newspaper economics?
Well TV has made such a big dent in advertising revenues over the years that there is only really space for a No. 1 and No. 2 in each field—below that advertisers simply lose interest. You can’t afford to be No. 3.
If you look at most magazine segments, there are two main rivals these days, whereas if you look back in time even at the film magazine market there were around six titles competing evenly: Stardust, Filmfare, Star and Style, Picture Post, Film Information, and god knows what. That has gone now—advertisers know they still need the print medium but they will only stick to the top two titles.
Did the idea of a current affairs magazine ever appeal to you?
We were pretty much ready with one in the mid-’70s, Peninsula News Magazine, with M.J. Akbar as the editor—it was going to be published and launched in New York, an international publication with a view to the Indian diaspora, and branches all over the world. Then, of course, with a mighty stroke of luck, Emergency was declared, in 1975.
There I am sitting in New York, my entire staff sitting in Bombay, and I’ve basically got a gun to my head as we had a cover story about Indira Gandhi with an exceptionally rude headline —I forget what it was now—but it would mean sending my editor to jail. I received flowers in New York from the Indian ambassador in Washington, saying: “You’re an Indian, don’t forget it.”
So either this venture was stillborn or half of us go to jail. Akbar was very happy to go to jail, there was no issue there, but ultimately for my own conscience I couldn’t do it. It really put me off having anything to do with politics. It was a very bad scar at that time, you can’t imagine how much effort I had put in—pounding the streets of New York looking for advertisers, meeting people at the UN who had concerns about our coverage, and so on. It was pre-India Today, it was an exciting idea and to see all that work go down the tube was very sad—but ultimately it was all well and good saying defy the Indian government and bring it out, but I really had to think about my people in Bombay and India.
I mean we still do some political stuff in Society, but it’s a different style from the usual newsmagazine—such as Outlook. I’ve dabbled in just about every genre you can imagine with magazines but I’ve never looked at politics again after that one experience.
What would you pick out as the real high points in your publishing career?
Probably that I have the most fantastic staff possible—I call them friends rather than staff. I still have someone working for me at 56, who joined me when he was 18. And the people who have moved on—like Shobha De—they are still in touch. I guess my biggest achievement is finding people who then felt like they were part of a family.
There have been some high-profile dust-ups over the years—including, of course, a 15-year feud with Amitabh Bachchan and Stardust in the ’80s.
Well Amitabh is a big pal now, I prefer not to talk about what went on now, as we both put it behind us. But he came over to the house one day and we sorted it all out, we had our misunderstandings, shall I say, but that is far in the past.
Shahrukh Khan is another, he turned up at Magna’s offices in Mumbai with bricks in his hand threatening to smash the windows and tear the building down. In the end we made up—we always do.
You have been called the Hugh Hefner of Indian publications. Do you object to it?
It doesn’t really bother me one way or the other but who wants to be compared to anyone else? I’d rather just be known as the Nari Hira of India. Without being immodest or anything, I think I’ve achieved enough that I don’t have to pretend to be anyone else.
Do you think film and society magazines were more irreverent in the ’70s when you started Stardust? Are today’s magazines more staid and boring?
Yes, yes, yes—three times yes, most definitely. At that time when a star was to do a photoshoot, she would come to my house or wherever, we would talk while they were made up and do the interview during and after. Nowadays there’s an entourage: PRs, hair, makeup, blah, blah, blah.
We did a shoot with Ranveer Singh recently, that cost us close to Rs 1 lakh—a lot of money. We had to hire this studio, pay for makeup, jewellery, snacks, food etc, in order to do a single shoot. This would have been unheard of from the days we started in. Now the PR people fix a date with you, they go around with their bouncers—and I can’t say I can blame them, as people go crazy.
Not just in India but here in London—the way people behave, and I don’t mean children, but grown men and women shrieking and grabbing at the stars. So the game has changed from both ends really. It used to be that people wanted an autograph, now they not only want a picture but to be in the picture with their idol!
In the face of 24/7 entertainment news on TV and the internet, where do you see print magazines going?
People who are used to print still want to see a hard copy, and that is something that is much more relevant to magazines I think than newspapers. When I am here in London, I read all the Indian papers online but I still get them sent over as well as I like to be able to read them in print also.
Print magazines will not be completely wiped out but naturally they have had to adapt. We have our magazines at Magna online. But the revenue stream for the net is starting, in India I’m talking about, but it will take time. We have a whole division for advertising and commercial use of the net—but for magazines it will be a process that takes a while.
What will be the next revolution in Indian media?
You can’t really close the door on anything. Whoever comes up with the next bright idea can succeed, but magazines are being launched and closed every day. You have to get your idea of who your reader is, and your advertisers will follow. The main thing is to touch the reader’s pulse.
I mean look at the history of Outlook. When Vinod Mehta founded it, people told him it would close down in six months. He himself wondered how long it could last but he ploughed on the way he imagined it and here we are 20 years later. It’s still there though he has gone. It just depends whether you are giving the readers something that they want to read.
I mean look at Business India, which was ruling the roost at one point. But where is it now? It doesn’t get the advertising or credit it deserves—its founder Ashok Advani is a friend and he’ll probably murder me for saying that, but seriously, it shows my point about there being a first and second read in any magazine sector. You have to keep changing, you can’t afford to sit back even for a minute in this game.
What do you make of the interaction between Indian titles and Indian communities here in the UK?
When I started here 40 years ago, I thought we’d be here maybe five to eight years as the generations shifted and a younger British Indian demographic veered away from the kind of things their parents read.
What happened was exactly the opposite. At that time stars didn’t come with musical shows, Shahrukh Khan movies didn’t open at multiplexes—but oddly I think being away from the centre of it all made people more interested in what is happening in India.
But it continued, there was no end to the interest, to the endless appetite for entertainment news from India.