I owe my success to Mine is still a work in progress
Best advice I ever got Count your blessings
The day I felt really low When my dad passed away
Biggest learning Humility and integrity are the two pillars that build one’s character
Biggest mistake Getting into the movie business without knowing much about it
Sounding board Mom, wife and brother
Role model There are several, but my parents top the list
Favourite quote Remain humble - a lot was accomplished before you were born
Most relaxed when With my kids, Niharika, Nayana and Aamer
Best days of my life Family holidays
Favourite movie Gladiator would be my top pick, followed by Invictus. While I generally like sports biopics, Rang De Basanti and Lagaan were fantastic
Advice to kids Do your own thing, but being together is much stronger than being apart
I may not be the epitome of a perfect human being, but my parents always kept me grounded, and instilled in me that you need to be a good human being before you can become anything else.
I was born into a business family. Since 1939, my grandfather had been running a road freight business — Amritsar Transport Co. I grew up listening to stories about his passion for the business and how he kept customers happy. My dad, Krishan Mohan Bijli, worked hard, day in and day out, keeping the legacy alive. I knew early on that I was, eventually, going to follow in his footsteps.
Even as a student, seeing the effort my parents put in, I wanted to make sure that I never let them down. While they are the wisest and most knowledgeable people I know, they hadn’t been to the best schools or colleges. So, when we shifted from Amritsar to Delhi, they enrolled me in Modern School.
Coming from my modest background in Amritsar, I had to prove myself in this upmarket school. So, I was a conscientious student. There were opportunities to excel in a lot of extracurricular activities, be it in sports, debates, plays, drama and music, and I was getting distracted. I wanted to do everything. My grades suffered and Mrs. Sahai finally called me out. “You are always in the middle of the class and never in the top 10-15,” she said. I made an effort to do better.
Even as a kid, I had started visiting my dad’s office at Connaught Place, which was very close to my school. He used to call me over at least two or three times a week. I used to sit there and watch how he interacted with customers, how well he would treat people and how conscientious he was about service. All of this had a lasting impression on me.
In our business, goods had to reach on time and without any damage. If there was any fault at our end, my dad would immediately compensate customers. No questions asked. Little wonder that he gained a reputation as an arbitrator. Incredibly wise and well-respected, everyone looked up to him. So, some very well-known business families in Delhi mentioned him in family agreements stating that in the event of any dispute, the families would approach my dad to resolve it. It was one such arbitration in 1977, when I was 10, that saw Priya cinema’s ownership wresting with dad. There were seven to eight different owners with a whole lot of differences on how the theatre should be run. In the absence of any consensus among the partners, dad, finally, offered to buy them out. I guess that’s when my subliminal affinity for movies had begun. After school, along with my cousins, I used to watch a lot of movies — Enter the Dragon, Parvarish, Hera Pheri, Mr. Natwarlal...
Twelfth standard was crucial. I needed good marks to get into Shri Ram College of Commerce. I was actually very keen on going overseas since all my friends were going abroad. But my dad wanted me to be around him. My mom seconded him. So, admission into Shri Ram was crucial. I was doing well but, during my final examination, I got nervous while writing the accounts paper. I messed up a question, though I knew the answer backwards. In fact, I had taught many of my friends how to solve it. I lost five marks and ended up scoring 73, just above the cut-off for Hindu College but fell short of Shri Ram’s. I was disappointed.
At Hindu, I spent most of my time playing sports. There was cricket during my first year, and then I switched to basketball. I became the captain of the basketball team and then played for the University. I was doing okay in studies but it was increasingly becoming clear that I will be joining my dad in his business. After finishing college, for two years, I was like my dad’s understudy but didn’t really find the freight business exciting to run.
When I got married to Selena in 1990, I asked dad to let me run the theatre for six months. We had a brilliant manager, Mr. Sharma, who kept telling me that Priya should be an English-movie cinema house. Given its prime location in South Delhi, English movies did really well whenever we screened them, but along the way we had lost our positioning. I told my dad about the proposal and, to my delight, he agreed.
Those days, Hollywood studios had taken a very big bet on India. So everybody had an India MD or an India CEO running their offices. I went to Bombay to meet them. They could see that I was very keen and determined to revive Priya and make it even better than Archana and Chanakya, the other two theatres playing English cinema those days. They told me there were a lot of things that I needed to do to revive Priya and the best example to follow would be that of Sterling Cinema in Bombay. I went to Sterling and was amazed — just like a kid in Disneyland. The air-conditioning and sound was fantastic, the staff wore uniforms and the entire ambience was brilliant. It was my benchmark to beat.
I refurbished the entire theatre. Even the artworks were Hollywood-inspired! We had Monroe’s artwork on one door and James Dean and Brando’s artwork on the others. Importantly, we invested over Rs 25 lakh in Dolby Sound. Finally, I invited Warner Brothers’ India team to see what we had done. I was a nervous wreck. But they loved what they saw and said it was even better than Sterling. They gave me the movies and since then, there has been no looking back.
Dad was happy that his son had found his calling. Within a year, we had recovered the capital of around Rs 40 lakh that we had invested. Of course, two other things helped me. One was that ticket pricing was de-controlled, which meant that for 80% of the seats, you could charge as per market demand and just 20% needed to be sold at Rs 5. Two, the entertainment tax dropped from 60% to 40%. If these two things hadn’t happened, there was no way on earth that we would have recovered the money.
Unfortunately, dad, who was only 60, suddenly passed away in 1992. I was only 25 at that time. I was shocked and also very confused. Should I run the cinema or should I go back to the trucking company?
I didn’t know much about the trucking business or its financing aspect. My uncle, cousins and a couple of senior people, whom I looked up to, were helping me out. It was a very difficult period as I didn’t really know whom to trust or whom not to. I, eventually, understood the ropes, but in doing so, the cinema took a backseat, with the manager running the business. Complaints started to pour in — the air conditioning was not working, shows were not starting on time and tickets were being sold in black. I realised that I couldn’t run both the businesses even though Priya was a single-screen theatre.
In an adverse turn of events, a huge fire broke out at our warehouse in 1994. No lives were lost but a lot of goods were damaged. Though some of the clients had insurance, most of them did not. My dad’s trait of compensating customers for damages was so ingrained in me that I settled all claims with whatever liquidity we had. We had lost a lot of money. I was devastated. I broke down and told my mother that I couldn’t do this anymore. She said, “Fine, your uncle and cousins will run the trucking business, you can go once a month and see what’s happening.”
She asked me what I wanted to do. I said my dream was to build multiplexes in India after I had first seen the concept at Orlando during my honeymoon. I realised that to fill up a 1,100-seater cinema, day in and day out, was very tough. So, mom said if you want to try it, go ahead. By then Vasant Vihar had become very popular. Nirula’s had opened, McDonald’s was coming in and we had TGIF and Pizza Hut. It became the number one hangout spot.
I told the community that I was closing the cinema for renovation. They all freaked out. Realising that the occupancy levels were at 80%, I didn’t want to rock the boat and, hence, decided to find another location. It was around this time that one of the movie distributors, Mike of Universal Paramount Pictures in Bombay, said, “I heard you are going to set up multiplexes, so why don’t you talk to Village Roadshow? They are expanding fast in Southeast Asia.”
In 1995, I went to Singapore to meet Village Roadshow’s Asia MD, John Crawford. We did some number crunching on the back of a paper. Based on the ticket prices and occupancy levels, Crawford, who was also an accountant by profession, was really excited about the potential of the multiplex business in India. “I have never seen numbers like these,” he exclaimed. We inked a 60:40 joint venture as I was determined that I wouldn’t be a minority partner. A lot of my mentors — Surinder Kapur, Gautam Thapar and Sunil Mittal — advised me to keep the majority stake since I would be doing all the heavy-lifting in India.
The tough part was finding the right location. Though my partner loved Priya’s location, I convinced them that I couldn’t shut it down for a year since it was my only source of revenue. As luck would have it, I found a good location in Anupam. I wanted to be in South Delhi since I was only keen on playing English movies. Besides, Hindi movies, at the time, had this very strange arrangement of minimum guarantees and theatre hires, whereas English movies were very simple, you just paid a percentage.
The owner of Anupam said he was incurring losses but I was welcome to take a look. When I visited the theatre, I vividly remember, it was playing Razia Sultan and you couldn’t tell Dharmendra apart from Hema Malini on the screen! The sound and projection system were lousy and the place was in shambles, not to mention the stink. My team members felt it was a horrible location and we should not pursue it. But I was all excited. Since the place was in a mess, I knew I could get it for a bargain and refurbish it. Given its catchment area was good, I straight away went to Mr. Ansal and offered him a long-term lease. He agreed.
We, however, had to change the building bylaws because you couldn’t have four cinemas under one roof. We got a lot of help from the state government and also from Village Roadshow in converting single-screen cinemas, like they were done in the west. We got an architect from England who used to work for UCI Cinemas to help us with the design — four projection systems, one box office and multiple exits while maintaining safety standards. We finally managed to open the first multiplex in India in 1997. Things were busy at home as well. Selena and I both had our hands full — my first daughter Niharika was born in 1992, second daughter Nayana was born in 1994 and son Aamer in 1998.
Customers loved the multiplex. But there was pressure to deliver the same exacting standards at every location. Since Village Roadshow was expanding across the world, they were not able to give India the kind of attention they wanted to. And, to top it all, India was a complex maze with its ticket controls and different tax structures. So, all expansion plans were up to me and my team. Also, since I was the majority partner, I had to cough up 60% of the funds each time we opened a cinema. I used to wonder where I would get the funds to do that.
I knew that there was no choice but to expand the business. So I had to keep looking for new locations. In those days, there were no malls or shopping centres. Though I decided to stay within Delhi, I started to realise that Hindi films were having a revolution of their own. I remember SRK’s Yes Boss was the first movie I screened. We offered the producer percentage sharing terms and he agreed. Yes Boss was a hit and the occupancy levels hit the roof. Since 90-95% of the box office collections in India come from Hindi movies, I couldn’t afford to get too westernised — I had to play what the audience consumed. So, we decided to look beyond South Delhi for locations.
I asked my team to look for all cinemas that were not doing well but were in good catchment areas, anywhere in Delhi. I found in Naraina, a cinema called Payal. Soon I found one in Vikas Puri called Sonia. I refurbished all of them — Sonia became PVR Vikas Puri, a threeplex and PVR Nairana, a fourplex. Both of them started to do really well. By 2000, we had a chain of sorts with 12 screens in Delhi, including Priya.
By then, I had started to hear that some developers were finally planning to set up malls in India. Projects were being announced in Bangalore, Gurgaon, Hyderabad and Mumbai. Irfan Razack, who runs Prestige Group, heard of PVR and wanted to put cinemas on the top floor of his mall. He asked, “Are you ready to take a chance with me? I don’t want to do fourplexes, I want to go bigger.” I asked him how many screens he wanted and, he replied, “At least 11.” “I am going to give you the whole floor. Given that you have been doing fourplexes, do you think you have the bandwidth to do this?” I spoke to my distributors, my team and Village Roadshow. They said it was audacious but it might do well. The only reason I felt confident was since Bangalore was increasingly becoming cosmopolitan, there was room to play English, Hindi and regional language movies. So I committed myself to this project and also signed up for another sevenplex in MGF.
In all, I had signed projects worth Rs 100 crore for about 50 screens across Hyderabad, Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai by 2001. I was really nervous about funding these projects. But people at Village Roadshow put me at ease saying, “Ajay you can bring 25-26% and we will fund you.” It was the beginning of a dream run. Or so I thought.
Just when everything was going as per script, came the most unexpected twist. Terror struck the heart of the US on 9/11 but its ramifications reverberated worldwide. All global companies were pulling the plug on their expansion plans and Village Roadshow was no different. I was in office when I got a fax stating that they were pulling out. I panicked. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that things would come to such a stage. I was looking at Rs 100 crore and here I was suddenly staring all of that going to zero! It was a defining moment in my life.
In those six months, post 9/11, I just about met everybody at Village Roadshow, but they didn’t budge. Chairman Robert Kirby and CEO Graham Burke, though, were gracious and even set up a meeting with an investor in New York — Anthony Munk, managing director at Onex Investment Corp, which specialised in cinema investments. But the meeting didn’t go well. He was not keen on investing in India and asked me a lot of statistics on the business in India but there weren’t too many available then. So he concluded that I didn’t know anything about the business. I returned empty-handed.
Between 2001 and 2003, I was running 12 multiplexes. In retrospect, a lot of good projects went to competitors as they kept signing up with newer malls which I could have signed. But I did not want to stretch myself. No doubt the market potential was huge, but the biggest blunder an entrepreneur can do is to get carried away. The only thing going in my favour was that the mall projects were getting delayed. But I had to, eventually, meet the milestone payments.
So, I went to Sunil Mittal for advice. He saw the numbers and was quite impressed. He felt private equity would be a good bet and asked me to get in touch with Shripal Morakhia in Mumbai. Shripal lined up meetings with some funds, which did not yield any result. In 2002-03, I met Renuka Ramnath at ICICI Venture. She really liked the business model and said, “I have never seen 500,000-1,000,000 sq ft malls with multiplexes on the top floor.” She didn’t promise me anything but wanted to go to Australia for a one-on-one meeting with Robert Kirby to understand a bit more about the business and my proposition. She said, “I don’t want you to be present in the meeting.” I said, “I totally understand.”
Despite our JV being a non-starter, I was still in good terms with the folks at Melbourne. In fact, Village Roadshow had given me two years to repay its share of the joint venture which was about Rs 6 crore. I rang up their HQ and told them: “I just want one last favour. I am bringing an investor, who wants to do a due diligence and understand the business.” They said, “No problem Ajay, we will roll out the red carpet.” So, both of us ended up visiting seven to eight properties across Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney. She said, “Wah! I didn’t know we could see movies like this.” In February 2003, a letter came from her. I had been waiting for two months with bated breath for her decision. She had to take it to her board which was then headed by Mr. KV Kamath. It was a moment of sheer joy. The fund invested was about Rs 47 crore. Luckily, we could match the contribution with debt, though I had to mortgage my house and Priya.
Every cinema had a two-year payback and since it was the first time multiplexes were coming up in Mumbai, Bangalore and Gurgaon, there was a lot of excitement and interest among movie-goers and shoppers. In fact, there were days when there would be massive traffic jams in Koramangala as people would come to watch movies in the mall. Once we got going, the numbers were way ahead of what was required to meet the bank covenants. Sanjay Malhotra, my then CFO, had a chat with the bankers and told them, “Listen, we have proved ourselves, so we don’t want to hypothecate these properties anymore.” The bankers agreed and instead of collateral, for the first time, we securitised our cash flows.
While I was warned about the pitfalls of private equity and how one had to provide a time-bound exit, my learning was that if one performed well, things would eventually fall in place. Hence, private equity is, probably, the best option for companies looking for growth capital. You only have to be confident about your performance, be transparent in your dealings and take key decisions together. I was fairly confident that, in the next four to five years, we would reach a critical mass to raise the next round of funding, thereby, facilitating an exit for our existing investors.
Renuka has been phenomenal throughout PVR’s journey, asking us to focus on unit-level economics and profitability rather than chasing mindless growth. We had signed lots of screens by then, but we couldn’t fund it through accruals, nor could the company take more debt. So, we both decided that IPO was the right thing to do. PVR went public in 2006. It turned out to be a profitable exit for ICICI Venture — it had entered at Rs 47.5 and part-exited at Rs 225 per share.
While my inherent restlessness to do more always pushed the business ahead, it also led to unnecessary hubris that “we can do anything and it will do well.” For instance, the movie production business that we, eventually, had to shut down. I wanted to expand even as competition was heating up with Adlabs and Inox coming in. Besides, there were more deep-pocketed players waiting on the sidelines. There was a lot of action in the multiplex space, resulting in rentals shooting up. I wasn’t very keen on signing projects at such high rentals as it wasn’t viable. I felt that the next best thing for PVR was to become a diversified entertainment house with exhibition as one division and production as another.
I had lost two inorganic growth opportunities when Inox acquired C89 cinemas and Fame. So from number one, we had moved down to number three. Around this time, I met Aamir Khan and told him that I wanted to produce movies. He had two scripts in mind, one was Taare Zameen Par and the other was to launch his nephew. We collaborated on both the movies. Luckily, both the films did really well and I got carried away.
Just because you understand the cinema business doesn’t mean that you understand making movies. So, I really didn’t know how to make movies. We were taking small bets, making money in some, losing money in others. We moved to movies with larger budgets. We made Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey in 2010 with an initial budget of Rs 30 crore which went up to Rs 37 crore. The movie sunk at the box-office.
The whole company was demotivated. Most of our operating profit, which we created by running cinemas at beyond optimal levels, got completely wiped out. We still had about Rs 15 million lying in the bank so I just went up to the board and said, “Please take this money back.” So we returned it to the investors in PVR Pictures and closed the division.
Getting into the movie business taught me a big lesson. If you don’t focus on your core business and start something you don’t have the competence for, just because you are getting restless, it can be disastrous. You have to very quickly recognise your competency. So, we also decided to get out of the bowling business, bluO entertainment, that we had started in 2009 as a joint venture with Thailand-based Cineplex. It had been our plan to be a retail entertainment brand where we offered skating rinks, bowling, food and cinemas. Cineplex understood all those businesses really well, but I was an entrepreneur who couldn’t understand five businesses.
Luckily, all the five bowling alleys were doing quite well, so there was no real damage but we didn’t scale up the business either. Shripal came into my life the second time and told me that since bowling was not my core business and since he needed to grow Smaaash, my real estate locations were a good fit. We, finally, sold the bowling business for Rs 86 crore in an all-cash deal to Smaaash in 2017. You see location played a very important role in my journey, so all locations were fantastic. Now, Smaaash has got some of the best locations in the country.
While in 2012, L Capital Asia had invested over Rs 57 crore in the company, we needed more funds to grow. I remember sitting in my office with Renuka, who had just launched her own fund, Multiples. Our stock was down from Rs 225 to Rs 88. We were at number three. I told Renuka, “I don’t know what to do but our position is really bothering me.” She asked me not to lose heart and said, “Things will work out. Keep your team’s morale high. You have a good brand so you will bounce back from this.”
While exploring growth options, I knew that organic growth will just not be enough to catch up with the rest. Cinemax was at number four then. I realised that if I was getting beaten down, so would be the fourth player. I also heard that Rasesh Kanakia had said his first love is his real estate business. So I gave him a call to see if he was interested in selling out. He seemed excited and asked for six months time, promising me that if he were to sell, I would get the first call. Then, diligently, every month or two, I would go to Bombay and have a cup of coffee with him. One day, he said, “Fine, let us do this. But this is my number — Rs 543 crore — and the deal has to be finished in four days.” We didn’t have that kind of money and to cough it up in four days was tough. I ran like a madman from one place to another.
Once again, Renuka came to my rescue. Sunil Mittal, too, told me not to worry about the dilution because I was getting a piece of a larger pie. Over the next four or five days, we were able to put the funds together. Rasesh stuck to his word and didn’t shop around despite having offers from rivals. He just wanted his price and said, if we could meet it, he would not go anywhere. I was grateful that he stuck to his word — we were numero uno again.
Realising how important inorganic growth initiatives can be, I was on the lookout for more. So, when the opportunity with DLF came along in 2016, it was a very important one. It was an asset that I was after and had been constantly discussing about it with the owners all the time. I told the Singh family that if they ever wanted to exit the business, I would love to take over. When they realised it was time for them to exit the non-core business, they were keen that a good operator steps in because, in most of their malls, cinema was an important component.
I needed to raise private equity for the buyout and Renuka came in as investor for the third time at Rs 700 a share and we touched a billion dollars in market cap. Couple of months ago, we added Satyam Cinemas — an important milestone in our journey to reach 1,000 screens.
As I look back, I couldn’t have done all of this without the support of my brother Sanjeev. We are only five years apart but he has supported me throughout our journey. A big learning is that even in a family business, each individual can do their own thing and yet come together for all the important decisions, and that’s what we have been doing all along. Selena, my wife of 28 years, has stood by me through it all, supporting me in everything I did and being a part of all key decisions.
My mom has been my biggest mentor and kept us all together. The best piece of advice she ever gave me was never let anything go to your head. Every time I got carried away, it hasn’t gone well. That’s something entrepreneurs tend to lose sight of in their ambition for growth and that proves to be their undoing. As an entrepreneur, you have to very quickly recognise whether you can be very good at a lot of things or good at only one thing. But the biggest realisation that every entrepreneur should have — don’t be smug about your success, there’s always someone smarter than you.