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Return of the Shahenshah

Nandini Lakshman | October 18, 2003

Amitabh BachchanIt's an unusual setting for a corporate interview. The off-white trailer van is parked in the sylvan setting of Mumbai's Kamalistan Studio in suburban Jogeshwari.

Inside, there's a spartan settee, a table and a chair. On the dressing table are pots of war paint, the tools of an actor's trade.

This is superstar Amitabh Bachchan's, personal haven, his home away from home, where he rests between long hours on the sets.

He is currently shooting for director Govind Nihalani's Dev with Kareena Kapoor, Fardeen Khan, Om Puri and Rati Agnihotri. It's a punishing 14-hour schedule and the October heat is getting at him as he returns from the set.

Bachchan in person is not at all like the superstar on screen. He's surrounded by people who troop into the trailer including a software engineer talking business. Bachchan has a polite word for everybody.

He also makes time to scan through a pile of documents on the settee. The papers relate to his pet production-- AB Corporation.

Eight years after he set up the Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd, a corporatised film company, Bachchan is re-starting the business from scratch.

In July 1999, with about Rs 90 crore (Rs 900 million) in debt, the then Board for Industrial and Financial Restructuring (BIFR) declared it sick. And Bachchan angrily turned down advice from friends and well-wishers to close shop.

"I owed it to my shareholders who stood by me," he maintained as he worked overtime on everything from the television game show Kaun Banega Crorepati to films and endorsements -- to "put my house in order".

Last Saturday's relaunch of AB Corp couldn't have been better timed. Coinciding with Bachchan's 61st birthday, it had all the hype and hoopla of a film premiere.

Sure, he has anointed a new CEO -- P Ramesh, the former head of A V Birla group entertainment arm Applause. But for the time being, Bachchan doubles up as the official spokesperson.

Will he be second time lucky? And how different will it be this time? "The vision then was also very sound and we are pursuing the same now. But we will start off small," he says.

For starters, unlike earlier where the company ventured into anything and everything that spelt films, it will focus on film production.

"We'll see how it goes and gradually move to other aspects. It could be television, music, marketing, building multiplexes, who knows whatever," adds Bachchan.

He claims that the business model cannot be different. That's because 85 per cent of all television software and 90 per cent of music is all film-based.

"Even if we go out for shows, we perform our own film songs, we don't do anything fresh. So the film becomes a hub for all other activities," he explains.

This time around, joint ventures will be the crux for most products. His expertise is as an actor and not a producer. "That's why I am holding hands," he retorts.

Already, the new film launched last week Ranveer is a 50:50 joint venture production with Keshu Ramsay's DMS films starring Bachchan, son Abhishek and Sunjay Dutt. And Bachchan hopes to close this fiscal with two more films on the floor.

He is in talks with Birla's Applause Entertainment for future film projects. There's talk of a film with Aamir Khan directed by Mansoor Khan and others with Ramgopal Verma, Rakesh Mehra and Vipul Shah. The last two will star Abhishek.

Today, a wiser Bachchan is candid about his company's shortcomings. "We are not proficient and we don't know the job of production activities. We want to reduce our risks. Our profits may be less but at least they will be secured. So we want to hold hands with people who know the job better than us," he says.

While AB Corp will bring to the table a star cast, creative inputs and half the funds, the partner will put in money and look into the day-to-day nitty gritty of production. The partner will invest Rs 20 crore (Rs 200 million) in the first film.

The $5 billion entertainment industry largely works on rolling money and Bachchan is aiming to follow the model patronised by most corporate houses.

"They have designated funds of Rs 200 crore to Rs 300 crore (Rs 2-3 billion) to put in the entertainment business and work around that. AB Corp would like to be in that situation but we can't as we have already messed it up once," he says.

Does he feel more secure dealing with corporate houses, now that almost all the big companies have set up entertainment arms? He chooses his words carefully keeping his options open.

"The sense of security can come from anybody. We do like corporates like the Birlas and Tatas who have a history of credibility and management," he says.

At the same time, he wants to find out if they have the expertise to handle day-to-day shoots, artists dates, install sets and go to locations.

"We will pick up those people we feel are important to us and are capable enough to handle a certain section of their business. If we feel we want only the funds from the Birlas, we will do that and do the production ourselves. It's got to be a mix and match," he adds.

Retiring his Rs 90 crore debt has been an arduous task. So how will he get fresh funds and avoid a debt trap again?

"Once you start a project, then it is a prerogative to take up money from the market to pay the distributors. It's not a debt trap where you borrow money without having the capacity to pay it back. It is borrowing money against a project. And a sizeable amount of funds will be generated because of my endorsements." he adds.

He claims he is in the process of looking at fresh investors and also considering going public in the last quarter of the current fiscal.

Already, ad agency sources say that over the next three years, Bachchan will rake in around Rs 30 crore to Rs 50 crore (Rs 300-500 million) in endorsements alone.

He is the current face of Reid & Taylor, ICICI, Pepsi, Parker pens and Nerolac Paints. On top of all that he has about a dozen film projects on hand and scores of other producers are lining up with offers.

What do competitors think about his latest business moves? Says Pritish Nandy, chairman PNC Communications, "This business is not about brand equity and clear and perfect objectives. It is about the depth of serious management and being able to translate a vision into reality with a hands-on approach towards realising a dream. That's not always easy."

Over the years, Bachchan attributed AB Corp's debacle to bad management. In those days he was completely hands-off. Today, he says he will not run the show but will be more hands on.

"I am more aware today and want to be more aware," he adds. But does he have the time? "I have to make time. I want better accountability and regular reports daily. I have people whom I trust more now, who have the knowledge and will guide me in the right direction and I feel more comfortable," he says.

Adds another film producer, "Bachchan is high profile, is a great actor and all that. But he can't carry a film on his shoulder and his son isn't really successful. And from the looks of it, most of AB Corp's new films are like home productions. So what professionalism are we talking about?"

Bachchan claims that all the aspects of his film are decided by the joint venture partners.

At the moment at least, what's ruling the day is his brand equity. And corporates are still overawed by his persona. As the head of a film production house says, "Shareholders rarely give anyone more than one chance. But Bachchan being Bachchan, he is getting a second chance." Will this be his final shot?

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