Bollywood: From filmi secretaries to celebrity management

For Anirban Das Blah, founder and chief executive of CAA Kwan that manages Bollywood stars, liberalization paved way for an unconventional career choice


Anirban Das Blah of CAA Kwan. Photo: ABhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Anirban Das Blah of CAA Kwan. Photo: ABhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Mumbai: For a generation that grew up in the 1990s or earlier, the impact of economic liberalization on Indian cinema is best exemplified by the transition from beat-up single-screen cinema halls to plush multiplex theatres. The other one was of course, Shah Rukh Khan, who made his Bollywood debut a year after the economic reforms of 1991 were announced. He has since had a 25-year-long career and is one of the most enduring superstars of Indian cinema. 

This period overlapped with the advent of celebrity management in the film industry. 

At the end of the 1990s and the start of early 2000s, many leading actors were replacing their secretaries with more professional counterparts to manage their careers. This was the time when the likes of Sunil Doshi, who worked with the Bachchan family and now defunct AB Corp., Shailendra Singh of Percept, Reshma Shetty, who founded Matrix, and Atul Kasbekar, who was earlier Shetty’s partner, but founded his own celebrity management agency called Bling Entertainment, entered the business.

For Anirban Das Blah, founder and chief executive of talent agency CAA Kwan that manages popular actors like Deepika Padukone and Ranbir Kapoor, liberalization paved the way for an unconventional career choice. 

“Liberalization allowed me to have a very alternate career path from the traditional ways of life which led to financial mobility. I didn’t chase conventional salaries. It gave a me a base financial security that allowed me to take risks,” said Blah, who was born and brought up in Shillong where both his parents worked for the State Bank of India.

“The North-East is an isolated environment, where there are not too many job opportunities outside of the government. My parents didn’t have too much money. We grew up with the Indian ethos that be good in your studies and get a good, steady job,” he recalls.

In 1994, after completing his Class X, Blah moved to the national capital to study at the Delhi Public School, and that marked the beginning of his entrepreneurial journey and helped him develop an interest in both business and marketing. 

“In the 1980s and 1990s when we were growing up, there used to be these famous secretaries like Rakesh Nath aka Rikku Nath (who used to work for Madhuri Dixit) and Hari Singh (worked with Aishwarya Rai), the primary income for celebrities was remuneration from films,” he added.

Blah grew up reading about them in newspapers and magazines. Their job really was to sit in the producer’s/director’s office to say that please look at my talent for your film. They’d have to maintain the actor’s calendar and keep track of their accounts and payments among other banal things. There were no real contracts or anything.

The big change really happened on the sports side when in 1996 Mark Mascarenhas signed Sachin Tendulkar for WorldTel in a deal worth more than Rs20 crore and it introduced people to the idea of celebrity management.

On the film side, Blah attributes the changes to Khan.

“I think it was generational shift; Shah Rukh was the poster boy of this post-liberalization Bollywood. He went to St Columba’s school, studied in Delhi University, he was completely fluent in Hindi but his language of thought was English. I think what liberalization did was, it created a certain mobility of labour across the creative arts. The proliferation of television made Shah Rukh a household name and suddenly made him more acceptable as a hero compared to other people,” he said.

When Blah started his agency in 2010, the celebrity management sector was a mere handful of agents and managers that overlooked small teams and the corporatization of this business was yet to begin. The idea of working across multiple cities and multiple offices with 100-plus employees in every single aspect of popular entertainment, that didn’t really exist earlier. And that’s what the business opportunity was.

“Today, our role has expanded to manage everything from an actor’s appearance, image, films, endorsements, set up businesses for them. So it’s really about looking at a celebrity as a brand and looking at every facet of their consumption both monetizable and image-wise and figuring out how to optimize that,” explained Blah.

Liberalization also brought institutional capital into the film industry.

Until the 1990s, the norm was to receive film funding from private financiers. A tribe of 15-20 businessmen would put in money that came at phenomenal rates of interest, about 3-4% per month. So, an amount of Rs2 crore borrowed for six months would come at an interest rate of 24%, which was deducted in advance, leaving only what was net of interest. That enabled a huge component of transactions to be carried out in black money—including those with actors who often received remuneration in both cash and cheque. Of the former, no account was ever kept.

Kwan has evolved into a company that invests in entertainment opportunities, thanks to liberalization.

This is the 42nd part in a series marking the 25th anniversary of India’s liberalization. To read earlier stories, see bit.ly/1lpJFmx.

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