Television

"Ask the channels why telefilms haven't succeeded in India" : Akash Khurana Nimbus MD and CEO (Part II)

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Dr Akash Khurana's single-point agenda is to transform Nimbus over the next three years into a creative powerhouse with multiple corporate and creative leaders.

Dr Khurana's academic credentials could give any corporate head honcho a complex! He is an engineering graduate with an MBA from XLRI and an M.Phil. and Ph.D. from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. His qualifications prepared him for a management career, which in fact he embarked upon, as an executive with TELCO.

However, Dr Khurana took up a full time career in the media and entertainment industry in the late 1980s. Before that, he was already involved in theatre and was also the founder of theatre magazine Ovation. Having directed and acted in many successful theatre productions, he made his first screen appearance in Shyam Benegal's Kalyug and went on to play character roles in over 50 films including Saaransh, Ardh Satya, Sarfarosh and Company. He won the Nandi Award of Andhra Pradesh for playing the lead in the Telugu film Dr. Ambedkar.

Swayam, directed by Mahesh Bhatt marked his debut as a screenwriter. He has written over 20 scripts, his best known work being Baazigar for which he won the Filmfare Award for best screenplay. Dr Khurana has also been a visiting faculty at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, teaching subjects like creativity in learning organisations, organisational behaviour, business environment, and communications.

In the second part of his interview with indiantelevision.com, Dr Khurana spoke to Ashwin Kotian.

Excerpts:

Have your academic qualifications ever created an "aura" around you? Aren't you different from the rest of the people in the media and entertainment industry?

The aura around my academics would have developed if people in the entertainment industry would have been well acquainted with my CV. Most of them are oblivious to my academic achievements. I understand that in this business, an "aura" makes people larger than life.

I am not keen on acquiring such an aura that would make me seem enigmatic. Although, some people feel that I am enigmatic. After all, my hobbies have made me rich and famous.

If I had continued at Telco, I am sure I would have climbed the ladder of success and would have been safely ensconced in some senior position. My CV now talks more about my special interests rather than my exploits in the areas in which I earned my academic certificates. But, I shall last the distance and make a difference - every TATA product eventually does. When I look at myself, I have no regrets about being in the media and entertainment business. I look at myself and my achievements with pride and gratification.

So what exactly is creativity in the business of entertainment?

When we talk creativity, we tend to look at the artistic side of things. I would urge people to suspend that belief. Everyone is creative. No single person can claim to have a copyright over creativity.

Journalists like you use a lexicon; portray emotions in a barrage of words. I understand that we (in Nimbus) are on a podium that has an aura of creativity. Even in this business, I would like to shatter the myth of creativity and destroy the fixed notions. It is not what is generally perceived. I feel that it encompasses doing things in new ways - or the same thing in a different way with new tools of techniques.

A whole new approach is needed to do something innovative or creative in the media business. We must not merely focus on the arts side but look at it from a composite or holistic way. Any conversion of a good idea is creativity. When I look at it, I feel that leadership has to be creative. There are different ways of leading or delegating or attaining the requisite results in a corporate environment. I feel that creativity would encompass responding to a corporate environment.

In a place like Nimbus, I would endeavour to convert the media business into one that is perceived as merely involving creativity into one that is looked upon as a business in which creativity is just one of the aspects. This would be an interesting overlap or convergence.

What is the next big idea in television?

The only certain thing about the business of creativity is it's uncertainty. No one has any magic wand or formulae that can be galvanised or stimulated or moulded. Profitable content creation cannot be put into any particular slot nor is it any tried or tested model.

In our business, creating products that are perceived by clients as "good" is "good enough". Otherwise, several "creative" exponents - authors or poets - can be considered to be "self-indulgent". As far as television is concerned, no one has the answer. The key is to ensure that the formula works "more often" than "not at all" - and the formula is driven by instinct rather than capability.

However, how fine or true or dramatic the product falls within the ambit or framework of the craft - the technique, the production values or pace or packaging or other variables. The key is to ensure that "creativity" is well-packaged by getting the basic structure right; and then embellish it with variables.

The same thing that has been replicated can succeed at some other time or on some other channel or if the promotions are differently construed. Earlier, the TV business was all about "survival in the world of mediocrity" but now it has become "success in the world of excellence".

The threshold of performance has climbed higher than what it was earlier. People in the TV business are more restless and selectivity is the name of the game. In a way, the pressure is more scary, dynamic, challenging and the futuristic technology has a lot to do with these aspects.

"There is never really a perfect state in the world of entertainment"

Do you feel that there are gaps in programming?

There is always a gap for better products. Something better always enhances viewer experience. Despite the plethora of terrestrial and satellite channels, there are gaps in deliveries of programmes. I don't see why regional programming shouldn't dominate proceedings post CAS. Consider the fact that the price of a Telugu film is nearly the same as that of a Hindi film. Even south India has its share of mega models working in TV serials.

If we do better and better, then a gap will be created and an example will be set. There is never really a perfect state in the world of entertainment. The gap exists in uncharted areas. The success of Hum Log, Buniyaad and KBC proves that a new creature must exist somewhere and it will manifest itself. There has to be a higher level or plane. Obsolescence is getting shorter and shorter in any field.

Yes, there is a gap in comedy serials on TV today. But, give me a writer who can create specialist comedy content for television and I shall give him a prime place and pay him double. It is very difficult - almost impossible - to create something like Office Office (on SAB TV) day in day out and sustain it by keeping people's interest alive.

A great comedy with memorable characters and lines is always a challenge. There is so much misery that a smile is always the need of every hour. I would back this genre anytime - and yes, there are gaps.

Why did you coin the "Lean, Mean, Keen" mantra for Nimbus? Is it your idea to place the posters all over the Nimbus office premises?

I started my career with Telco - the automotive major. The words "Lean" and "Mean" has come from a certain philosophy that was used in assembly line manufacturing in companies such as Toyota - remember that I did my Ph.D in the area of customer relationships in Human Resources (HR).

By coining it in Nimbus, I was wondering whether the same model could be used in the media and entertainment industry. The key is to achieve the same results with lesser number of people and resources. In order to emphasise the importance of a goal driven approach, we decided to put some motifs in the office.

I love this entire concept and often use it while teaching students. The word "Keen" stands for knowledge management and sharing. If you notice, the word "Keen" is in blue colour whereas the other two words are in grey colour. It symbolizes innovation, ambition and wealth creation. We have it in strategic locations within the office to constantly remind people of the new face of Nimbus.

What kind of objectives and goals have you laid down for Nimbus?

The mandate we have is to post growth. We have experience in the economies of scale; we understand the importance of cost control; revel in offering diversity of content. The post CAS regime will belong to those who have the above mentioned tools and qualities.

As far as Nimbus is concerned, we cannot be a specialist in a single genre - we need to have a variety of products. We have to derisk and diffuse the risks associated with exposure to a single field of expertise. Actually, the "constraint" of CAS will be a driver for us and ways will be found.

We have the requisite infrastructure and existing sharp minds. However, the machinery of governance has to encourage the existing talent and create new opportunities. We need to identify new opportunities and create the requisite infrastructure for the new order.

However, several companies goof up when they don't speed up decision taking in facilitating the creation of new order and actual delivery of result suffers. In our case, we shall speed up the process of decision taking in new ventures. The next phase is one of consolidation. There is no end to convergence.

However, I would need concrete business plans for giving the nod to new business opportunities - backed by proper research. I wouldn't accept anything purely on gut feeling or intuition.

Will you undertake any expansion projects in the TV business of Nimbus?

We need to enter the C&S sphere in a big way - this is critical. We have plans to create a separate cell of people. I have plans to take on a lot of talented professionals on board - those who have experience in the C&S arena. I wish to bring in new thinking - a mentality that is clearly different from what is normally associated with terrestrial-related work.

The mandate will be to convert new and great ideas into profitable entertainment brands. We shall collaborate with international production houses and bring in new concepts as well as sell Indian themes in those export markets. We plan to set up an export oriented division to sell our catalogue and archival property in global markets.

In the international TV market, we are in the sellers market and we wouldn't have any qualms about sourcing content from Indian producers and selling it to our contacts. Our international cell will be totally involved in cross-over content and we are slowly moving out of our traditional strongholds in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Chennai. In fact, we are in talks with an Australian company to represent us Down Under. We shall also have satellite set ups in non-metros in India.

What about the music division?

The newly created music division is doing well. We are some kind of a boutique for niche and special sounds - not into film music. Last year, we did Guftagoo and World Cup cricket Khel Re. We plan to release 10-15 albums this year. We shall also explore popular genres such as pop/remixes amongst others. The status of the music industry is peculiar - remixes of old songs are gaining popularity even as there is not much original work becoming successful.







"Nimbus will be positioned as a truly global company in filmmaking"

Will your "film" background" help you to ensure that Nimbus expands in the film business?

As far as films are concerned, we have ambitious plans. We have around eight projects on hand. We are planning one more regional film with superstar Venkatesh. There is a Hindi film with Raj Kanwar - I had worked with him in Daag-The Fire. We have Sarhaad Paar with Sanjay Dutt.

We are planning to tap the international market for movies that will be produced in joint collaboration with foreign companies. We shall invite bids from companies in the developed as well as new markets. Nimbus will be positioned as a truly global company in film making. We shall also approach foreign stars and artistes. Our success with the cricket World Cup has enhanced our reputation and given us tremendous mileage in the global markets. In fact, I would say that we are more respected in the global arena now than in India.

Several foreign companies have realised that we have the capability to undertake deal-making in production and marketing models. However, I would like to wait for the next two or three years - back up lip service with achievements.

Currently, we are exploring anything and everything in content. Harish Thawani (Nimbus Communications executive chairman) is traveling abroad and undertaking trips to source opportunities. Sometime back, I casually told Harish that I have some good projects on which I would like to start work. He asked me whether Nimbus could co-produce the films. He was confident that I would ensure that my projects would be safe and secure business propositions.

Will you expand the present Nimbus team?

We have a team of 70 people in the content business and 80 people in the sports business. Yes, I am looking at outsourcing professionals and looking for young talent in functions such as research, convergence, marketing and content creation. I need sharp minds who would be the leaders of tomorrow. If people don't perform, I would look for replacements too. I need the very best and there wouldn't be any compromise.

How do you plan to tackle outstandings and defaults from clients who don't pay on time? Do associations help?

Essentially, all the associations exist so that can help us create a balance or equilibrium. However, in this field of broadcasting, it is all about one-on-one equation. Every equation is independent and based on relationships between the producer and the client.

At Nimbus, we have always shared a good relationship with clients and agencies. We keep records on larger customer groups as well as the smaller ones. We also have clients who pay immediately to avail of discounts and special offers. However, one has to have a certain amount of latitude in terms of a limits of tolerance. The extent of this depends on the relationships we share.



"The bottomline has to be inextricably linked to creation of wealth and subsequent returns that will continue for years"

So what do success and strong bottomlines mean to you?

The programme is to grow exponentially in India as well as on the global scene. However, to me, profitability isn't a graph on the wall. At Telco, it was ingrained into us that the "bottomline has to be inextricably linked to creation of wealth; and subsequent returns that will continue for years." We need to have a pool of content, of human capital and properties/brands that will give us returns for the next decade.

Our archives still yield us monies year after year; in fact, these archives must have given us 500 per cent more value as compared to the investment we made. Creating wealth has to be conducted in a contributory way. I am an Aquarian and a dreamer who lives in my own world with distinctly unique definitions of success.

Being an artiste, would you give a break to talented budding artistes?

Due to our reputation, we have many producers and wannabe actors - from small towns and non-conventional centres - who approach us. However, we research all projects before we take a decision. I feel that script writing or talent should be institutionalised in our country in a much more systematic way.

I am a great hopeful and I make it a point to go through scripts sent by budding artistes. If anything is good enough, I wouldn't shy from giving that person the money needed to register the script with the association. However, as far as actors and actresses are concerned, we have an established procedure in our office - I wouldn't like to disturb that.

Why haven't telefilms succeeded in India?

Ask the channels why telefilms haven't succeeded in India. Personally I see this a great opportunity. Some time back, I had approached a channel and though they liked the concept, they haven't really take it seriously. Abroad, telefilms are made at a budget of $7,000.

Budgets aren't an issue there or over here - the mindset has to change. But, yes, one cannot make a two and a half hour telefilm with big stars or on a grand scale in Rs 500,000. Why can't we have a Hallmark or an HBO here in India?

This is nothing but poverty of thought. Such an exercise can give back something to the system. The grammar of TV writing is different from film writing - the pathetic condition of today's films shows how much of a deterioration there is in terms of quality writing. But, the constituents in the industry don't understand that TV writing is a school. Telefilms could be the training grounds for budding talent.

Even today, I have talented directors coming to me with plans to create a pool of talented writers. People like Farhan (Aktar) and Ravi (Rai) have started the process. Every struggling writer should be given a chance and the established people should pass on the baton to them. In the West, writing comes first. I shall wait for the time when the Indian industry gives it the kind of importance it deserves.

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