In late January, T-Series hit a significant milestone, when it became the No 1 channel on YouTube with over 14 billion views, besting the likes of Justin Bieber, WWE, Rihanna and Katy Perry.
It is now also within striking distance of becoming the most viewed channel of all time. Nearly two decades after his unexpected rise, Bhushan Kumar, T-Series’ chairman, seems to have stamped an indelible mark on India’s music — and more recently movie — business.
When Bhushan took over T-Series two decades ago (1997), he was 19 years old and his father Gulshan Kumar had just been shot in cold blood. Even though his uncle Krishan Kumar (younger brother of Gulshan Kumar) was involved with T-Series, people in the company struggled to deal with the unexpected elevation of the junior Kumar. However, he quickly if quietly asserted his authority over the company (officially yet called Super Cassettes Industries).
Today, Bhushan, 39, is in a tear to grow his dominance from music to movies, in the process building an entertainment behemoth. While T-Series’ music business is seemingly on auto pilot, with industry observers pegging its share at least 70% (and growing), Bhushan’s attention is on the company’s relatively new movie production business.
“Making movies is very different from music… I can now make music in my sleep,” he says. The movies business has been harder work. “We have had mixed success with our film-making…we had some huge successes such as Aashiqui 2 and Yaariyaan, but there were also films like Joonuniyat which didn’t work.” To be fair, T-Series is hardly the only movie-maker to have mixed results. The previous year was extremely hard on film studios: Disney has suspended film production in India and Balaji Telefilm’s movie business is struggling.
“If you play your cards right and have the right budgets and content, then it is not a difficult market,” Bhushan contends. “The problem is so many movies were with budgets of Rs 80-100 crore and did business of barely Rs 30-40 crore.” People who know Bhushan closely say he’s a rare combination of left-brain and right-brain abilities.
“His uncanny understanding of the movie-going masses, derived from his experience as a music maker, and his sharp business acumen give his leadership at T-Series a significant competitive advantage,” says Vikram Malhotra, CEO at Abundantia Entertainment, a film studio that is coproducing many films with T-Series. “He is also quick in decision-making, which is a powerful asset in a business that offers limited windows of opportunity.”
To try to win this game, T-Series will be investing about Rs 300 crore per year on mid-budget films with forecasts of at least Rs 400 crore in box office collections. “The year 2017 is crucial for our moviemaking business.” An avowed fan of Amitabh Bachchan (he claims to have seen Satte Pe Satta “thousands” of times), he says the success of content-centric movies such as Pink,Neerja and Kahaani have given him much food for thought. Filmmakers say Bhushan, as a movie producer, does give his directors plenty of creative leeway but closely monitors the numbers of note. Just like his music business, he isn’t ceding control with movies.
“I am not a passive investor in movies… rather, I am active producer… I am tough on budgets and not the type of person to let a director spend any amount on a movie, just for passion’s sake,” he says. While he may be able to tightly control the purse strings, ideation may be another matter. In some cases, he’s struck gold – as in the case of Airlift, a movie based on the true story of airlifted Indians from Kuwait starring Akshay Kumar; and Baby, where opposition started with the movie’s title itself. There have been flops, too, such as Wajah Tum Ho.
T-Series plans to make nine movies in 2017, and has locked in 12 projects for 2018. Plans are afoot not just for Hindi cinema, but forays into Marathi, Telugu and Tamil too. “We will focus on content-driven films and not just on stars alone,” says Bhushan. In 2017, he points to the Irrfan Khanstarrer Hindi Medium, a rom-com about a couple from Delhi’s Chandi Chowk keen to be a part of the city’s upper crust. As he transforms T-series from a musiccentric business into a broader entertainment entity, Bhushan’s spurned offers to go public or seek external investment. “I don’t want to take it public and be answerable to anyone,” he insists. “I am fully in control, growing the business and profits and every big director, actor and singer wants to work with us.”
People who work with and for Bhushan say he is fixated on scaling up the business. He’s known to push himself and his team hard (music inspiration, for example, can strike at a reasonable 7 pm or a more challenging 3 am). “His energy is infectious...he also wants to know everything that is happening in the company. Every transaction, be it of Rs 100 or Rs 100 crore, he needs to be aware — that is the kind of ship he is running,” says an employee. Most senior staff have worked at T-Series for an average of 15 years.
A petrol head (he owns over a dozen topend cars, including a Ferrari, Bentley, Audi R8 and Maybach) and adrenalin junkie, the last few years have seen him give responsibility priority over racing. “Time changes everything,” he says with the beginnings of a smile. “Now, my driving is restricted to the occasional drive with my five-year-old son. My love for business has replaced my mad passion for cars.”
Along the way, Bhushan has had to keep pace with changes in technology for both the music and movie businesses. In music, T-Series has gone from cassettes to CDs, YouTube and streaming services to generate revenue. In movies, the goalposts have shifted as audiences have to be catered to not just at theatres, but on cable TV and increasingly OTT video services too. In September last year, T-Series signed a pact with Amazon to distribute its movies. “Earlier, you could escape without being proficient with technology, but now everything revolves around it,” he says.
“Due to my passion for music and movies I have to be proficient with it.” As T-Series grows, it may be hard for Bhushan to be in control of everything his company does. Even today, he admits, he’s devising the way forward for the company not only when he’s awake — but even in his sleep. Despite external appearances, those who know him well say he’s learned to delegate and is willing to listen to others. “His core strength is that he understands music … from a consumer and listener point of view,” says Devraj Sanyal, CEO, South Asia, at Universal Music Group.
“Today, when the country’s largest song label makes a film without songs (Baby) you know that the organisation’s vision has truly matured,” says Malhotra of Abunduntia. “A significant and critical chapter in T-Series’ journey has just begun.” He’s come a long way, baby.