‘TV is an extremely powerful medium and has to be treated with a certain amount of respect‘
This is the second installment of Anil Wanvari‘s three-part interview with Sameer Nair, executive vice-president, content and communications, Star India where in a really free-flowing account, he talks about himself and the life he has led.Nair has bounced around doing umpteen things before settling into Star India. He traces his journey through the by-ways of life, right from his college days when his mother worried over the prospect of having an "unlettered son" in a family of academicians to where he is at now.A full account of some real Nairspeak: What‘s your background like ...are you an MBA type?
No, Full failure type ...I finished class 12th, wanted to be a scientist and all. HSC from Wilson. I joined Xavier‘s to do B.Sc and stay relatively on track.Major?
I did two years of that (1982-84) and lost complete interest.. you know it‘s in old story.. Physic-bysics...everything became a real pain. I used to stay in the hostel. In 84 I decided that this science and all was not happening.
I wanted to get into advertising but they would not have me. There was a problem there: they said you‘re not qualified properly.
It‘s just then that my family moved to Chennai. My father was in NFDC and my mother a teacher. My mom‘s full family is in education, so naturally they were much stressed when I told them that I wanted to leave studies and join advertising. My dad is very cool. So then I went to Madras (now Chennai). But...there was always this drama about how I would be an uneducated and ‘unlettered‘ person when I would grow up without a degree in hand. They then suggested that I give an entrance exam for hotel management. Which I did.
It was the first year when the Institute of Hotel Management and Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition, Dadar was having all India entrance exams. Up until they were working independently... It unified into one central board. After appearing for entrance exam I took off to Assam. My uncle has a tea estate. I thought, I‘ll hang around there and see what happen. Then I received a telegram stating that I had stood all India second in the exam. That was a real shock... but then the questions were very stupid - what is the colour of emerald... those kind. I did the three-year hotel management course. Along the way I also did a BA in Economics (correspondence) from Madras/ Chennai University. Quite difficult but I did it.
After completing this I wanted to get back to advertising. But again it wouldn‘t happen here. Now it turned out that I‘ve got the wrong qualification. Diploma in hotel management for advertising ...they said it is all wrong.. not happening. I came to Leela for an interview but it kept on getting delayed... I never joined the hotel ... I was quite impetuous those days and could not wait.
Two-three friends and come down to Mumbai so we started a business. They stayed on for a month and during that time we started a small business - prepare and cater chicken rolls. When you go down the Bombay House road, there was a shop called Grub Corner, it‘s very close to where the Hong Kong Bank is, V.T. stands (possibly Fountain but not sure) It was run by Parsi. After a month my friends went back. I continued doing that for three months.
I wanted to get into advertising but they would not have me. There was a problem there: they said you‘re not qualified properly.
It was fun, no profit though, but I did a good turnover. I was staying at Juhu and used to make 250 chicken rolls a day, initially before that I used to stay with my sister. But I was all alone. Worked 20 hours. Woke up at 4 am, prepared the rolls, delivered them and on the way picked up 20 kgs of chicken from Crawford Market. Got back home. After my afternoon snooze I would be back again - boil, shred, make mayonnaise. It was good fun: the fact is I make good mayonnaise.
It was a catch-22 sort of situation. If you wanted to grow then you‘ve got to invest more... if you got to invest you‘ve got to have the money and the only way to have the money is you‘ve got to grow the business, so it goes round and round. And I don‘t come from a business family so it was tough. After three to four months my mom came down and gave me a nice hearing. "You must be completely nuts to be doing all this nonsense" and she asked me to stop this at once and find a "legitimate" occupation.
Legitimate occupation? What kind of a deal is this? (laughs)
At that time the Yellow Pages had just been launched. My cousin was working there. He suggested that I apply there. I gave two interviews one at Eureka Forbes and another at Yellow Pages and got a call from both the places. I chose Yellow Pages over Eureka because it was paying Rs 1100 while the Eureka Fobes was paying Rs 1000.
So I thought it was a better deal to get into Yellow Pages and also that Yellow Pages was a little more interesting since there was some connection with advertising, selling space and it was a brand new concept... unheard of, in that, you had to go and speak to people about it so I thought "a little bit creativity ho sakta hai".
They used to have 200 people then. Man! I have walked all the streets of Mumbai house-to-house, shop-to-shop, door-to-door.
High turnover used to happen. Major concept selling... it was quite difficult. They used to sack people on a daily basis. Its focus was more on sales. I wasn‘t good at being a salesman, I must tell you. I couldn‘t sell! But I had good funda of the logic about what we were trying to sell.
Everytime I wouldn‘t meet my targets, the territory manager would pile on and pull me up saying: "Man you aren‘t meeting your targets, you got a problem."
Somehow, despite my logical approach, the consumers were not willing to buy. So I asked them (my managers) to accompany me and tell me where I was going wrong. We used to go together and because invariably my pitch wasn‘t bad... in fact they thought it was impeccable. "This guy is not bad," they said.
During those days, many of my colleagues, used different sales techniques. I used to tell them you guys are not convincing them, you are conning them. These guys would tell prospective advertisers: "Phone line Kaat Denge agar ad diya nahin toh."
Those were the pioneering days when company executives got scared of you when you walked into a place with a Yellow Pages visiting card. The normal introduction was: "I am representing MTNL." They would get full tension and immediately respond: "Hamne phone bill pay kar diya hai."
After six months of my not getting much sales, they promoted me. Yes, they promoted me to take charge of national accounts. That‘s the big guys like Bajaj Electrical etc. But there‘s no point yaar. The whole pitch changed. It is easier to talk to a marketing person of a large company than a restaurant owner.
Then I also got Gujarat as a territory and had quite a good exposure. Two years after joining Yellow Pages and doing all that, I got married to Jaya (her father is the big director P.N. Menon) who was in Madras. There was full pressure; her dad wanted her to get married and all that. Since I was getting married, there was no point staying in Mumbai. In order to get married, we relocated to Chennai.
Aubrey asked me
whether I had any idea about programming,
and at best the only thing
that I knew about programming at that time was computer programming.
So I applied for a job at Aubrey Sequiera‘s Goldwire Communications. One of my father‘s friends, Pratap Kauttar, an actor, had done some TV commercials for Aubrey. So, he said why don‘t you meet Aubrey, I will put in a good word for you. So I met Aubrey Sequiera. And Aubrey asked me whether I had any idea about programming, and at best the only thing that I knew about programming at that time was computer programming. So I said yes I know about programming (EDP department.) I got into servicing. I thought first lets get into this field first then we‘ll get into the creative part of it. So I joined.
It turned out that at that time Goldwire was going through a rough patch (1989). There was no work for me. They were anyway people in servicing. I used to hang out with a guy at work Surya Rajkumar who used to handle Goldwire‘s DD interests. By default I got into something to do with TV. I think within three days of joining, we did Filmfare Awards South for which Goldwire had signed a five year contract. Additionally, it had MRF as a client which is a very sports heavy company. It was into buying sports on TV and sponsoring them.
So then I was into heavy 8 multi-camera shoot, doing editing. I had never been to a studio before. But good fun. Then for some amazing reasons the entire creative department walked out of Goldwire. We had got quite pally and they asked me also to quit, but I said give me a break, I don‘t even know what you guys are fighting about. So after they quit, I inherited the films department.
Aubrey took me to a big cupboard stack with tape and said here are the tapes; MRF needs a DD copy of some film. I took the register and found the film. I went to the editor and asked him how do I make a copy for DD. "You got to put those stupid stack mark, time code and colour-bar." And I said cool, cool.
Arrey, in those days it was linear editing, Low band and High band and beta had just arrived in Prasad Studios in Chennai and it was all very very fancy. So then I took over the films department and ya it was films and television mostly. I stayed there for four years and made ads. Did a lot of work, made lots of ad films for Maatrubhumi calendars also did an ad for Jayalalitha‘s Jawaharlal football Stadium.
Aubrey was a major dreamer, huge dreams. We did a TV guide, quite interesting, got a taste of publishing. We got in this big project of hotel cable. As you know then hotels played pirated movies so he came up with this idea of legitimising running movies in hotels. So much time was spent on how to buy movie rights and understand how to run the whole operation, but we couldn‘t do it finally.
But ...luckily for me what used to happen was the way MRF uses advertising. It used to do 4-5 commercials in a year. Then an annual season arrives in their life where you have to do a whole set of corporate videos, R&D video, marketing videos, opening session, closing session... so I have done zillions of those videos.
The thought was that we should do the Gulf war that had just happened. So Aubrey had this idea that we should make this essentially the basis of the Gulf War and make it into a Gulf War theory. Post production by Prasad. It was a really nice piece with some 800 odd cuts and finally music by A.R. Rehman. He doesn‘t generally do this. He was into jingles. But I believe they kept using it for four, five years.
At one point we were wanting to start a TV channel. We made a presentation to Richard Li and David Manion. Additionally, we pitched for a big presentation to Asiasat. It was quite ironic we wanted to call it G-TV (G for Goldwire)
We called him (Rahman) Dilip then. He is a south Indian Tamalian. His dad‘s name T. Shekhar. He has this belief. They have faith in a Baba, when he was doing Roja, the first movie he got to do. So according to the numerology and star his name came out Allah Rakha Rehman - A.R. Rehman.
Anyway, to come back. I quit Goldwire in 92 because...
Because you got bored...?
Not bored. Just towards the end, Aubrey was getting into television. I had produced two shows, one the original magazine format, much before these Hindi channels had started to do it. At one point we were wanting to start a TV channel. Much drama had got into that. In fact we even went to Hong Kong. Met the Asiasat people. We made a presentation to Richard Li and David Manion. Additionally, we pitched for a big presentation to Asiasat. It was quite ironic we wanted to call it G-TV (G for Goldwire) but finally what happened was Zee TV.
I left. I was getting to a point where... not much more nah now. Actually, when I left Goldwire one of my ex-colleagues of Yellow Pages was in Dubai. "This is an advertising company. We‘ll give you good money ...this ..and that." I had nothing else to do. And also Aubrey was quite an isolationist kind of person and I really took after him, that one attribute. So I wasn‘t much into social networking and those kind of things. No parties, no peers. So normal logical thing to do was to set up an independent business which is what I really wanted to do. So I took it up. Left my wife, son, parents in Chennai and went off to Dubai in April 1992.
My trip there turned out to be quite a surprise actually. There was no advertising agency. The only reason I was taken there was for this lady. Basically my former boss in Yellow Pages was unable to get a license and had got into partnership with an Arab sponsor who was in the police department. He wasn‘t giving her the license. So there was some sort of quid pro quo between them: "That, I‘ll provide you with a real smart guy to work for you provided you help me get the license." I couldn‘t believe it! But anyway I had arrived there. I stayed there for six months.
This entire plan of setting up an ad agency ... it was connected to an alimony settlement of hers. And I couldn‘t believe that after all this my career had got connected to somebody‘s alimony settlement!
The company had no money. So I told those guys. You guys have no money and I have arrived here. I have a wife and kid back home. So we did a settlement. Give me some money to send back to my family. We‘ll manage the way it is here.
The project they wanted me to work on was a tourist guide. Something along the lines of the Yellow Pages. Since there wasn‘t enough to pay, there was an understanding. They gave me a certain amount per month to send back home. As far as my expenses went, things could be managed. And they had basic facilities like car...
I stayed there for six months, and returned back to India since filmmaking is what I wanted to do. I set up my own company called Imagine. The I got a call from MRF and was asked to work in tandem with a Belgium crew for Sriperembudur. They were a group of three guys and had covered Formula One races and things like that. I was the producer from India. They had this nine-camera set up and they taught me, the placement, the classic frame... about how to shoot a race basically.
In June 1994, Sunita Rajan (currently with the BBC), a dear friend called up asking me to give Star TV a try. One month after I applied there was no response. Then later I got a call from a STD booth saying that a fax has come for me. The letterhead of that fax was from Hong Kong Star TV. From a guy called Tony Watts asking me to meet him in July or August.
The first thing I did when I joined Star was blow up a bus. It was a BPL promotion for Speed the movie that had a contest.
We had to do 15 minutes of interstitials for each month. We finished that job in two days or so and I had a lot of time on hand. We had to do a lot of those programmes which were in line with Bajaj Ki Lehren for Star Movies. Basically, behind the scenes or interviews.
I‘ve interviewed almost everyone. And Amitabh Bachchan quite a few times. We did Bol Bollywood. We covered the Dubai Shopping festival and then went for a four-day shoot to Jordan for a film called Passion in the Desert. This was a freaky thing. Shooting behind the scenes for Passion in the Desert sounded fun. It was being shot in the middle of Acabar on the shores of the Red Sea. The movie was set during Napoleonic times when the soldiers are moving towards Egypt. The storyline was very weird. It was about a soldier who, while heading towards Egypt along with some others, loses his way in the desert, and in the process proceeds to have a love affair with a leopard.
I was so dejected. But it was good fun.
I have also covered Dev Benegal‘s English August and Bobby Deol‘s debut film Barsaat which was being done for the first time. We even had a tie-up with Mrityudata.
In 1997-98 I was on Star Movies for which I had grand plans, I made a deadly 10-page document detailing the plan. It came back to me with a line scrawled: "Seen. We must stop all Indian production with immediate effect R. B."
One day when I got to meet programming head Basav Raaj. That‘s when I suggested that we have a ‘Saptahiki‘ sort of a programme which will showcase the forthcoming Sunday movies for the week. Pretty impressed with the idea he praised it and said that Bhaskar would be the right person to go about this project. That got me pondering. I was wondering who this Bhaskar Ghose was. He turned out to be Basu‘s boss. I had to head for Delhi and it all got approved and I began with four episodes. We had a launch function in Delhi. Basu was very happy with it, he applauded, and handed over the mike to me. And I began with Mukul Anand, my good luck charm.
I took over acquisition of movies for Star TV. Then in November 1997, Mr Basu gave me Star Plus promos and presentation to look after. Then in 1998, another interesting thing happened in December: The Big Blast. I bought nine movies in two day. Satya, Ghulam, Pardes, Raja Hindustani, Hero No, 1 Coolie No 1, Gupt...
We broke the industry‘s five year window then. Ghulam we put on air within five months after its release, Satya in six months, Pardes in one year.
I‘ve seen Star Plus from very close quarters. But to give Basu his due, he made the transition of Star Plus from an English channel to a Hindi English format. It was 50:50, 24 hour and prime time, that‘s what led to those talk show and programmes like Tu Tu Main Main, Saans, Chandrakanta. Chandrakanta did not do well but that‘s what programming is all about. "Hit hai to fit hai types".
In January 1999 and February 1999, I was getting closely inducted into programming. Everything went upside down and Basu and his team all suddenly vanished one day. Mr Mukerjea called me and said that he is going to make me the head of programming. I was taken by surprise.
I have always wanted to head programming andhere I was doing it. But
what took be by surprise
was the way everything
Tony Watts gave me some insights into television and I always believed in what he had to say about programming. He says at a TV station you are an invited guest in that person‘s home, so there is a certain amount of courtesy and decorum that are required of you. That social responsibility you are aware of. With this medium you can reach a lot of people quickly and actually influence them. The awareness of that has to be kept in mind in whatever you do. So that is what I believe. It is an extremely powerful medium and has to be treated with a certain amount of respect. Got to be careful with what you do.
I have always wanted to head programming and here I was doing it. But what took be by surprise was the way everything happened.
A meeting was called where about 40 people gathered. Announcements were made, there was loads of applause. The next moment when I got to the room and I had a call asking what should Star do with Asha Parekh who had been calling up.
So I took off from there and got completely immersed in the work. You really can‘t afford to have a blank on air. With hundreds of producers calling in saying you had promised this and that... Two-three months zoomed by quickly.