An animated Abhishek at an ISL match featuring his team Chennaiyin FC.
Recently, actor Abhishek Bachchan spent some quality time with the members of Young Indians for a virtual discussion that covered the gamut of films, sport, entrepreneurship and more. Young Indians, with members between the ages of 21 and 45, comprises entrepreneurs, professionals, young business leaders, innovators and talents drawn from diverse fields. Excerpts from the session that was moderated by film exhibitor and distributor Akshaye Rathi.
You have grown up observing the world of entertainment. In the two decades that you have been a part of it professionally, what do you think are the parameters that set apart this world and also give it an edge?
The act of going to the movies… I don’t think it’s quantifiable, it’s an emotion. I feel it now more than ever because I can’t go to my favourite place — which is a dark movie theatre and enjoy a film with a tub of popcorn, cold drink or samosas. The whole experience… buying a ticket at the box office, getting your snacks from the concessions counter, walking into the theatre and sitting on a seat and looking up in near reverence at the screen while the lights dim… it allows you to forget, in a manner, who you are. It doesn’t matter who is sitting next to you, what their religion, caste or creed is. You submit to the journey that the film-maker takes you on. If you quantify what’s magical about that, then it will no longer remain magical. I hope we never, as movie-goers, stop believing in the magic of cinema.
It’s shattering for me to not be able to go to a theatre and watch a movie. It’s one of my favourite things to do, and I think that’s the emotion most Indians share. That’s where the germ of the love story with the movies starts. After that, the rest of the paraphernalia takes over, which is the glitz, the glamour and all of that. But that’s only a very small percentage of the business. The fact that a movie allows you to go vicariously on a journey for close to three hours to a make-believe world, and come back and laugh, cry, fall in love, hate and with a smile on the face, is where our love for cinema starts from.
Apart from the magnetic draw that people have towards the movies, if you just look at it as a business model, it’s one of the few truly commercial creative arts. The minute I expect the audience to purchase a ticket, I owe them their money’s worth. If I want to make something so creatively artistic that it goes over people’s heads, I may as well make it for myself and watch it at home. We make our films for our audience, and because it’s a business, we have to make it for the majority of the audience. The ground rules of Bollywood film-making — masala, commercial, box office — come from that. To fill a 900-seater single-screen theatre with people who all want to watch the same film is a balance that requires immense hard work and talent. Yes, it’s an art form, but we also owe the audience entertainment and their money’s worth. If you give them something they don’t understand, then you have robbed them of their money. It’s also about selling a dream that if you are successful at it, your success could go through the roof, but it comes with an aspect of risk as well.
Is the notion that it’s difficult to get into the movie business true?
Are there barriers to get into the film industry? The blatant answer is ‘yes’. Those barriers are very high and those walls are very difficult to climb over, as they should be. But it’s never really easy to do anything, and not just in the movies. Life is tough, there are no free lunches. To go out there and entertain millions of people takes an immense amount of talent and hard work and team work and so on…. Not everyone is going to be able to do it. But that’s the case in life, whether you are in business, in an artistic field or in an administrative post.
The film industry is the same. But if you have belief, talent and the ability and intent to work day and night, then you are going to ace it, sooner or later. There will be obstacles, there will be times when you feel it isn’t worth it… but if you have the belief and keep to the course, you will make it.
You are also a sports entrepreneur and your two ventures, Jaipur Pink Panthers (kabaddi) and Chennaiyin FC (football) are hugely successful in terms of business as well as on the field. What prompted you to choose sport as a field to invest in?
I am the kind of person, whatever I do in life, it has to be driven by passion. I am a bit impatient, so I need to be emotionally invested in what I am doing. I have been a keen sportsman all my life and also a sports fan. I always wanted to do something with sports in India. We are such a large country with so much talent, but in sport, I feel that we are just at the beginning of our potential. I have travelled the length and breadth of India scouting for sporting talent, and it’s immense. How do we nurture and cultivate this raw talent is something I have always wondered.
My journey in sport entrepreneurship started with kabaddi in late-2013. The Pro Kabaddi League started in 2014. Honestly, initially I did wonder whether people still played kabaddi. But then it started making all the right noises. It’s India’s indigenous sport played by over 33 nations internationally. It’s highly exciting, and it ticked all the right boxes. It gave me the opportunity to work with a sport where I felt that maybe I could make a difference. I am often asked why I don’t do anything with cricket. I love cricket, but I don’t know what I could have contributed to cricket. With kabaddi, I feel I could make a difference. And I would like to believe that ever since the start of the Pro Kabaddi League, the sport has got a huge leg-up.
Then came the opportunity with football. Having grown up in a British boarding school, football was pretty much my life. I played basketball though… no points for guessing why! (Laughs) When the ISL (Indian Super League) came along, my partner Vita Dani and I franchised for Chennai. It’s been a fruitful and rewarding six-seven years. As business models, they are different because football is a far more expensive sport than kabaddi. But they both have been very exciting to work with.
What do you think requires of a person to identify those demand and service gaps to be able to venture into entrepreneurship?
I am too small a cog in the wheel to give you a definitive answer on that. From my own experience, I can say that you have to believe in what you do, and also back yourself. Life is going to throw a lot at you and you have to be prepared for it. I just feel that I am a little under-qualified to answer this question.
The pandemic has made this a gruelling time for all businesses. As a successful entrepreneur, what will your message be to businesses who are struggling to survive and remain relevant?
A good thing to keep in mind is to follow the functioning of nature. If you read (Charles) Darwin and his laws of evolution, what you have to understand that it’s always been about survival of the fittest. There is a particular food chain and the question is that how do you remain the apex predator. One of the things constant in life is change, and nature forces you to adapt. If you can’t adapt, you will be left behind. And that’s not just because of the pandemic.