Dream with Your Eyes Open
THE FIRST time we sought to go public at UTV, the markets crashed.
The second time? Right into the tank.
After that one, some investment banker made a snide remark in passing. ‘Hey, Ronnie, are you planning to go public? Because if you are, I’m exiting the market.’ Even though he was joking, his point was valid. I wasn’t someone with tailwind on my side. And if I hadn’t developed a thick skin over the years, I would have taken those remarks personally and thought, I’m never going public! Twice. Come on! What are the odds? I’m unlucky!
When I had some time to think about it rationally, I wondered, Why the hell am I sitting here with the weight of the world on my shoulders? Global markets have crashed. Who am I to think this has anything to do with me, that the cosmos cares in the least about my public offering? Hundreds of thousands of people must have suffered the same setback or worse.
Not everyone is dealt a straight flush. It would be unfortunate indeed if you have a thirty-year career and never get a solid break. But if you’re running a vada-pav shop in a small town, what can you expect in terms of luck? That one fine day everyone’s going to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to have a vada-pav and I know exactly where I’m going to get it!’? Suddenly your sales go up 3x? Not going to happen.
But this other guy on the other side of town has booked space in a new mall with growing footfall. In three months, his sales are thrice yours. Did he get lucky? Did you get unlucky? Neither. You create your own environment. Then you take advantage of the opportunity.
When the team and I envisioned Hungama, many media observers, colleagues and others saw the channel’s eventual success and its subsequent sale to Disney as a stroke of luck. Not true. The idea worked because of a laser vision, tremendous planning, disruptive programming and bold marketing. Most of all, we went with our gut and stuck with our convictions. As I think of it now, I recall it was one hell of a lot of hard work, a great deal of fun and excitement and very little luck. People only believe in coincidences when it’s convenient for them to do so.
We had a similar experience in movies. After a solid track record of almost ten years in the industry, I still hear from people all the time, ‘Wow, you caught a few breaks to get to the top, didn’t you?’ As if the odds were always in our favour, the outcome a foregone conclusion. Maybe I should be encouraged by the great numbers of people who seem to have forgotten how many times we failed over the years.
The truth is, as outsiders, we put ourselves out there on the high wire without a net. To fail and not to rebound would have proven our detractors right. Our greatest successes in film had little to do with lucky breaks. We brought persistence, a strong understanding of the market and the audience, confidence in our team and the director’s vision, a gut for good scripts, a deep desire to push the envelope and a willingness to do whatever it took to bring it all to the big screen.
When our movies flopped, and many did, were we unlucky? When they were big hits, had we got lucky? Neither.
Exactly how much the odds were stacked up against us and how little luck had to do with the outcome came home to me during one particularly interesting interaction with Rupert Murdoch. When News Corp still owned a good part of UTV, I was in Los Angeles to meet Murdoch in his frugal suite: a modest office (for the leader of one of the world’s largest media companies) with an adjoining meeting room that held a maximum of eight, and a small outer space for his two executive assistants. After a twenty-minute chat on the overall India macroeconomic scenario and an update on the media industry, he got up from his chair and walked me over to an old aerial photograph of what would eventually become Beverly Hills and Century City.
‘You see this massive patch of land? The buildings? Fox owned all of it. When Cleopatra bombed in 1963, the company was forced to sell three-fourths of it. The company was left with this,’ he said, tapping his finger on a much smaller parcel. ‘It’s some of the most expensive real estate in the world today.’ He smiled as we moved towards the outer office. ‘Of course, all that was before my time, before I bought Fox.’
Murdoch wasn’t really making a specific point. UTV had yet to even consider getting into the movie business. But his message was clear. Business, at its core, can be unpredictable and fragile. Those trucks can come barrelling your way at any time. Despite your biggest, most disappointing setbacks, you can and do move on. After all, here was a leader talking about his insights with pride and clarity. Although he could easily have afforded the best art in the world, Murdoch decorated his conference room with a memento mori. Not by accident.
As I walked to the parking lot, I thought about my conversation with Murdoch. The world sees Cleopatra as one of the magnum opuses of all time, a grand success that swept the Oscars that year. My mind goes back to the wonderful chemistry between screen legends Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and I can only think of that film as a classic.
As with most things in life, there’s another side to every story.
Excerpted with permission from Rupa