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Bharat Shah: The crisis manager

Prasad Sangameshwaran | October 04, 2003

Affluence can be threatening, if you look at the video camera that stares at you menacingly in the office of diamond merchant and film financier Bharat Shantilal Shah.

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But there is nothing intimidating about the soft-spoken, 59-year old Shah, known to the world as Bharatbhai. Peons and executives walk into his modestly furnished cabin without knocking, bothering him for even mundane favours such as the telephone numbers of prominent film personalities -- because a famous film family has called for the number.

That is why, when the Mumbai police trained their guns on Bharatbhai, after the arrest of Hindi film producer Nazeem Rizvi for alleged links with underworld gangster Chhota Shakeel, the film industry was stunned. Few believed that Shah, who had financed Rizvi's film Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, would abet underworld activities in the Hindi film industry.

Shah has been funding films for nearly 30 years and his arrest in early 2001 sent the industry into a panic. At any point of time, Shah has around Rs 150 crore (Rs 1.5 billion) worth of investments in Hindi films.

Among the projects that would be affected the most at that time was the Rs 50-crore Sanjay Leela Bhansali film Devdas, which Shah had also produced. With slight delays, Devdas was completed, and it also recovered its investments.

Devdas saw the light of day because it was Shah's pet project. But film journalists point out that the financier has been known to help other filmmakers when their coffers ran dry, sometimes without attaching his name to the project.

In 1996, his diamond firm, B Vijaykumar and Co were the title sponsors of the Michael Jackson show -- Shah helped the cash-strapped event organisers by agreeing to underwrite the show.

Yet film financing, which Shah got into in the 1970s to support his film-producer brother Dhanwant, can at best be called a side-activity -- it contributes just two per cent to his fortune.

For the flashy Shah, who sports expensive watches such as Piaget and owns a fleet of cars that includes a black Lexus, a BMW 5-series and BMW 7-series, diamonds are the mainstay.

After he dropped out from Mumbai's K C College and entered his father's diamond business in the late 1960s, along with his brother Vijay, who manages the Antwerp part of their business, Bharatbhai is known as a good crisis manager. hen the diamond industry was going through troubled times in 1974 and most businesses were closing, Bharatbhai was taking over these units and expanding his empire.

Shah says he benchmarks his perception of risk with the film industry. "Film financing is 90 per cent risk. In the business of diamonds you lose a little bit, here and there," he says.

This ability to do business in trying times was proven even more during his year-long incarceration. Film makers like Mahesh Bhatt point out that even from his cell in Thane jail, Shah used to give lessons to his son on how to conduct business.

Shah's business is not restricted to the glitter of diamonds and the glamour of films. He also has interests in real estate, writing instruments and chairs, a company that supplies television software to channels such as steel magnate L N Mittal's B4U, or even a discotheque in central Mumbai, 'Fire and Ice'.

Some of Shah's employees say he has nearly 200 enterprises. He also plans to enter the film multiplex business soon with about 15 screens in three metros.

The astute Shah is also rumoured to dabble in the stock markets. But he insists: "I do not understand the stock market at all."

The wide-eyed Shah's clout over the film and diamond industries is evident, as the entire industry planned a stir to protest against his arrest. Even his acquittal early this week, was celebrated with pounding of drums and distribution of sweets in Mumbai's diamond district.

Perhaps, Shah's humility wins over people. During his trial, Bhatt says, Shah looked him in the eye and said: "You are fighting for a good man. I have not done anything that will embarrass you."

Shah says that the episode has taught him to not finance any new producers. To "present the real story to the public", Shah plans to document his ordeal in a film.

Ironically, Shah has been conferred nearly 100 awards for achievements in the diamond industry. As he puts it wryly, "The government gave me 100 awards and one reward."

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