Best Buddies 2017

Ajay Bijli and Sanjeev Bijli

Brothers-cum-best-buddies, the PVR founders' compatibility has become the base of their business partnership

Soumik Kar

Who doesn’t love a good movie? And if you are an avid moviegoer in India, the ‘Bijlis’ are hard to miss — brothers in arms and best buddies, who in their pursuit of passion for cinema, introduced the concept of multiplexes to the millions of movie–crazy Indians, making the theatre one of the coolest places to hang out. Ajay (49) and Sanjeev Bijli (46) of PVR Cinemas were born in a business family and it was obvious to them that they were not going to become doctors, engineers or lawyers. “However filmy it might sound, our mother always taught us it was good to be together,” laughs Ajay. Since mom always knows best, the siblings thought it was wise to heed to that advice. Twenty-two years, 500 screens, two acquisitions, and an IPO later, both are still partners. 

But it wasn’t the case of blood being thicker than water that made this long journey smooth, it was their compatibility. While Ajay is the go-getter entrepreneur, Sanjeev is a patient conscience keeper in this partnership. Ajay adapts quickly and Sanjeev ensures the transition is smooth. Both live in the same house and have managed to not lose the childhood fraternity. Their childlike love for cinema is not only the glue that holds and strengthens this bond till date, but also helped them build a world-class chain of cinemas.

How would you describe each other? What’s the one thing you admire the most about each other?

Ajay: Sanjeev is patient and pragmatic. Sometimes when I take bigger risks than the company can afford to take, I am glad Sanjeev is there to balance it out. He will tell me ‘Okay fine; go ahead, but can we prune it down a little bit?’ In retrospect, I am very appreciative of that fact that he never gets rid of the idea, but makes it more practical. We complement each other and that’s why this partnership has lasted since 1994 for 22 years, which, in this day and age, is difficult to see. 

Sanjeev: Ajay is a visionary and very innovative. He always thinks ahead of time and is able to anticipate what’s going to happen next in the industry. It doesn’t come to most of us within the organisation, but he has already thought about it and also put wheels in motion to deal with it. It goes without saying that he has great leadership skills. But the best part about him is despite all the frenzy around work, he ensures that he has time for his wife, his three kids, our mother and me.

What is your idea of a great business partner? Does he fit the bill?

Ajay: We complement each other. Sanjeev sees the lighter side of things, while I see only the serious side. He lightens up any situation because he believes there is more to life. He plays a very important role in de-stressing me. 

Sanjeev: Of course Ajay fits the bill. In fact, he goes way beyond.

When you know the other person is extremely upset, angry, how do you react?

Sanjeev: Not just with him, it’s best to leave anyone who is upset for a while. Even when I am angry, the situation only worsens when someone keeps prodding the issue. When Ajay is upset or angry, it’s best to let him be alone and simmer because it is an emotion that is very negative and unproductive. In his case, it’s very short-lived also. 

Ajay: We give each other space. Sanjeev is the personification of patience. If both of us are angry, we acknowledge that something has gone wrong. So instead of contradicting each other when we are upset or saying, ‘I told you so’, we see the other person’s point of view. I participate with him in his anger. 

Who among the two of you has better intuition? Do you bet on your partner’s gut feeling?

Ajay: There are areas where one of us is better than the other. When it comes to technology and digital strategy, I have no clue what is going on, and he is way ahead. So, in matters like these, he is more intuitive and tells me yeh karna chahiye. Similarly, there are some things that come naturally to me. Thankfully, these are different from his capabilities and that works perfectly while we run the company. 

Sanjeev: He is being humble; I remember when we started, our ticket prices were at Rs.75 per ticket and then we were at Rs.100-120 per ticket for a long time. When we reached Rs.120 per ticket, we would have a lot of debates on where prices should move from there. The consensus was that we have reached the peak but Ajay said, and rightly so, that we are in for a surprise and that ticket prices would move to Rs.200 very soon. This was back in 2006 and we were pretty sure that consumers were not going to pay that much. We were only too happy to be wrong on this one. We acted on his intuition and offered our consumers a better viewing experience for which they were glad to spend more. 

Ajay: When you are running a listed company, you have to take care of the interests of other shareholders and generate superior returns for them. So, it is crucial that certain intuitive decisions that you make based on your gut feel go in your favour. We are fortunate that most of our experiments have worked — be it opening an 11-screen complex in Bengaluru or foraying into luxury cinema. We generally tend to mix gut feel with some sort of market intelligence. 

Where do you concur with each other and where are you poles apart?

Ajay: There could be movies which I don’t like and he likes. In khaane pine ki cheezein, we concur on our choice of restaurants, but we are poles apart on our choice of dessert. We are brothers, but we are not clones of each other. 

Sanjeev: He is strict with his diet. He doesn’t like the sweets and desserts that I like. We concur on business ethics, conduct, governance, and overall strategy. Well, there will always be some minor differences, but we are not poles apart.

What are the things you tend to disagree when it comes to running the business?

Ajay: With firing, it becomes obvious. Luckily a lot of people have been with us for nine to ten years and if somebody doesn’t fit the bill, it sticks out. Integrity and attitude issues bug us more; performance is defined. When it comes to hiring, whenever we are confused about candidates, we get a third person’s opinion from either a board member or from someone in the HR department. 

How do you deal with inter-personal differences? Do you take work issues home?

Ajay: We completely switch off when we are in the work mode; you have to get the task done. In any healthy relationship, there are differences and agreements. We have our own secret way to find our common ground. But the moment we reach home, we rarely bring work discussions back with us. If something is really playing on our minds, we may talk about it. But other than that, we have completely stopped talking about work. We talk about what time we are meeting for dinner, whether we are eating dinner together, alone or with our mom or about our workouts. 

Sanjeev: If there is an issue to be resolved, we discuss it over a glass of wine. But we don’t discuss work at home because once you go home you only have those few hours. Ajay is always at the gym, he also likes to sing. I just sit with my mom and destress with her. We discuss things going on around the world, say Donald Trump’s Presidency or some such thing.

How do you resolve professional conflicts generally? Recall the worst conflict or argument that you have had. How did you resolve it? 

Ajay: There has actually never been any reason for us to argue. There are a couple of reasons why we managed to remain conflict-free largely. One, the organisation has grown at a good pace. And two, we always had the fortune of having great advisors and professionals surrounding us. 

We instantly know when a situation needs an outsider’s perspective from someone with more experience. We never hesitate to consult people we admire and look up to on difficult decisions — right from our mom to any successful entrepreneur. When we started our joint venture with Village Roadshow, we discussed what the partnership ratio should be (60:40 or 50:50), the timing of our IPO, the exit from the partnership and all our private equity deals. We realised that there is no point wasting time fighting over routine issues. Secondly, we have built a strong internal team and are lucky to have had solid professionals at key positions, like our CFO. That has helped us navigate through difficult situations and take crucial decisions. 

So, do your personal views align? 

Sanjeev: Yeah pretty much...we both can’t stand Trump! 

Is there any one sport or food or something similar that he has introduced and hooked you on to? 

Ajay: Sanjeev is more experimental. I keep going to the same places all the time. Many a times, he is the first to explore a city and then recommends it to me. In fact, I never went to Cannes because coming from the industry I had this huge mental block that I don’t want to go to such a busy place. And then I went once to the Southern part of France on his recommendation and never looked back. I went there for six years straight. He had recommended Barcelona and I went there, too.

Sanjeev: We usually talk about travelling and food. Travelling is a common interest. 

What is that one skill which you learnt from each other?

Ajay: One skill I learnt from him is to see the lighter side of things even when you deal with serious issues.

Sanjeev: Where do I start! Attention to detail and perseverance. If he puts his mind to something, he will make sure it’s done, no matter what. In business, I learnt to think long term and not worry about the short term. We build our cinemas to make sure they will sustain in the future. We don’t believe in cutting costs, and focus on making movie-going a surreal experience for our consumers. 

What’s the one thing you’d want to change about him?

Sanjeev: He should worry less about things.

Ajay: I wouldn’t change a thing.

What has been your most memorable moment with each other?

Ajay: It has to be acquiring Cinemax and DT Cinemas. Also, having the first successful IPO in this space and producing our first movie, Taare Zameen Par

Do you have a favourite hangout place or a meeting place? How often do you meet there?

Ajay: We have this tradition of meeting twice a month at any of the PVR cinemas since we started the company. 

Sanjeev: Our favourite hangout place is PVR Director’s Cut, where we watch a movie and have sushi in a Bento Box. We also hang out at the Delhi Club House or Grappa. 

What’s that one thing he hasn’t stopped pulling your leg about?

Ajay: My joint eyebrows!

What’s the one thing he can talk about for hours on end?

Ajay: Movies that he likes.

Sanjeev: We can both talk about movies and TV shows with each other and our family for hours. That’s another common interest.

How has he influenced you personally or professionally?

Ajay: I admire his pragmatism and calmness, which I also try to bring into my life.

Sanjeev: Looking after my health, exercising and eating right are some of the many things that I have learnt from him. I have also learnt to laugh and spend time with like-minded, positive people.

If you could steal one thing from him what would it be, and why?

Ajay: His laughter is contagious.

Sanjeev: His sense of style and height. I wish I was taller. I would also like to steal his attention to detail when it comes to anything and everything

What role does he plays in your life?

Ajay: A very mature younger sibling, friend and confidant.

Sanjeev: A mentor, a friend and father-figure. 

What’s the secret to your relationship?

Ajay: Trust, admiration and most of all, love

Sanjeev: It’s best not to take things too seriously. Let go and don’t hold on to things! Appreciate what you have.