It’s right at the end of the interview that Subhash Chandra really gives the game away. We start discussing his wealth — anything from $2bn to $5bn depending on whom you believe. For once, the 61-year-old media mogul sounds genuinely embarrassed. Gone is the quick witted, sharp-shooting self-styled business guru, who has forever changed the face of television in the world.
“Oh no, oh no. Please,” he says, when asked how much money he really has. “You know something? It has never been about money. If you chase money, money never comes. If you have other objectives, which is to achieve something that is good for people, and you achieve those objectives, then money will come.”
If Zee Entertainment, which he owns, was ever to broadcast a movie about a kid who is called back from college to help pay off his family’s debts, and goes on to run a conglomerate encompassing eight divisions and 8,000 employees, the chances are it would sit well alongside the 3,000 Hindi titles it already owns the rights to. Except this is not Bollywood fiction, this is the very real world of Subhash Chandra. Modest? Yes. Mischievous? Very. Megastar? You bet, in every sense of the word.
Today, Zee Entertainment has grown to become the largest producer and aggregator of Hindi programming in the world, with an extensive library housing 100,000 hours of television content. It has 650 million viewers in 169 countries. Incredibly, it was just 20 years ago that Chandra revolutionised the industry by launching India’s first satellite Hindi channel Zee TV, and later the first private news channel Zee News.
But that is only part of the Chandra story: his massive Essel Group has interests in technology, packaging, infrastructure, education, lifestyle and wellness, and even precious metals. Chandra mentions “packaging” as an afterthought, forgetting to add that one in every three people on the planet brushed their teeth this morning using one of his laminated tubes.
But it’s television that Chandra will be best known for, and is about to become even better known for. Not content with conquering the local market and the massive Indian expat population across the globe, his latest venture is Zee Alwan. The theory is simple, ambitious and audacious. If Bollywood movies (and general Hindi programming) are so popular with Indians, why not offer them to the Arabic market, with all content translated into Arabic? This move represents a $100m investment into the region, one that serial risk-taker Chandra is not afraid of.
“This is a big new strategy for us. The whole Middle East region has a large population, and we want to give them entertainment in their own language — it will be a new entertainment and information experience for them, and it will also provide strong opportunities for Arabic creative talent to work with us,” he says.
With a population of 350 million, the region is a fast-growing television market that already has 600 free-to-air channels. Joining the party won’t be easy — add to that the fact that advertising revenues were recorded at around $1.5bn three years ago, compared to over $50bn for the similar-sized US market.
Not to worry, says Chandra. “It’s always a challenge, and working in a challenging environment has got its own kick. There is also an Arabic population that is spread around — certainly in Europe and America. So Zee Alwan will also find a place and distribution in those markets. So that will offset what is a challenging market in the Middle East region.”
He adds: “We will be somewhat unique in the sense of what is out there already — more than 50 percent of the content available to the 350 million population is more motivated with Western content. There is 35 percent locally generated. The Indian content is not available in Arabic right now — we will produce in their language some programming with local talent so it will be unique. But I also believe advertising revenues will grow, they will be corrected over a period of time. This will be a big market, I have no doubt.”
There will no doubt be many obstacles thrown along Chandra’s Arabic path, but given his track record, the chances are he will swallow most of them up. Having initially made a success of his packaging company Essel Packaging, he handed over the reins to his brothers, deciding to set up EsselWorld in 1988 in Mumbai, which was to be India’s largest amusement park.
“When we did the park, only one third of the guests we anticipated came. We were told that people actually wanted entertainment closer to their homes. The political class also really gave us a lot of trouble. They wanted to recover 150 percent tax on an amusement park that was meant for middle-class families and their children. So I was having in mind that there should be a communication channel that becomes a bridge between the government and the people,” he says.
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