Charles Assisi, Deepak Ajwani, Sohini Mitter/ Forbes India
The smoothest talker in showbiz tells us how he does business
He ambled in trailing charm and cigarette smoke. An assistant placed a glass of whiskey in his hand. And we began to talk. Or rather, he did.
“I can do a line in a minute. I can memorise 20 pages and deliver it. I go for these rehearsals because in the space of work I am in, my performance, somewhere, besides the lines and production, I should be able to do something to improve the experience of someone watching it. That is the essential aspect of business I am in, or why I am in it, mashallah the business has prospered, I have the best of people and I have fantastic people, but we never discuss monies in this office.”
We had been warned: By people who have seen him from close quarters—“He’s a master of the rehearsed ad-lib”; “He can speak and speak and say nothing, and you’ll only realise that two days later”; “He will duck all questions on Red Chillies Entertainment”—by those who said we were wasting time talking business with him—“The man has no clue what he’s doing” (a big-name producer); “He’s lost it in his head” (a distributor)—and of course, we knew he’d be late—“With him, I just kill my ego and wait” (a director known for his punctuality, and whom most actors would kill to work for)—and so we spent a day waiting for the call from his office—“He’s busy, you’ll have to get here on a two-hour notice”—which didn’t come, and then another day, and then we’d got the call, and scrambled to his home, where we had waited...Five...Mind...Numbing...Hours.
And then his publicist, Mandvi Sharma, told us he was coming. But: “Be gentle with him please. He’s sick and running 101 degrees.”
And then, yes, he ambled in, and smiled, and we suspended disbelief and forgot our irritation and were enthralled listeners. At some point, though, self-preservation kicked in. Perhaps it was the realisation that we were hearing things we’d heard before. Some we recognised, word for word, from quotes we’d read in a story on him in Outlook 13 years ago.
He was feeding us pre-digested faff. Charmingly, convincingly, with all the smooth delivery and sincerity of a used-car salesman on crack cocaine. But faff.
We gently reminded him we’d heard all this before. As gently as possible, we told him many people think he’s all gas.
He didn’t blink. “They’re completely right. I don’t take offense to that.”
Did we hear a switch click? The tone was the same, but he seemed to be going off-script. “I don’t need to do all this. I have enough money to last a lifetime. But you’ve got to have passion. You’ve got to be like Walt Disney. Azim Premji is like that. Ratan Tata is like that. Mukeshbhai [as he refers to Mukesh Ambani] is like that. Like them, I’m focussed, and I know why I’m doing what I am doing.”
For the rest of the evening, platitudes were in short supply. We got logic, even if coated in self-deprecation, plans rather than sound-bites. About building a sustainable business, using lessons learned from the superstars of the corporate world.
He claims he doesn’t understand business. But 72 hours after leaving his gravity field, the effects of his charm have worn off and it is possible to look dispassionately at what is obvious: SRK knows exactly what he is doing.
Stick to what you know
Red Chillies Entertainment, (RCE, the banner he runs his various companies under), he believes, has the potential to generate a few hundred million dollars a year, much like a Hollywood major. And it will outlast him. “Else I would have called it Shah Rukh Khan Productions. Everybody in the business names their companies after themselves. Not me. I wouldn’t put my face on my company. I’d say this guy fights too much, smokes in public and does all the wrong things.”
From his idols he has learned this: Focus ruthlessly on what you know, to the exclusion of everything else. And entertainment is what he does know, understand and get excited about.
If he has got into businesses that don’t play to that strength, he gets out. Like when he started an equipment-leasing division. “It wasn’t entertainment.” He sold it to an assistant who had interned on his sets. And “I don’t understand or watch these saas-bahu kind of soaps. It’s worked well for Ekta Kapoor. She is a close friend and has done a great job. I can’t.” So Red Chillies Idiot Box, a firm he started to create television software, is now defunct.