Reliance Big Entertainment, the Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group’s media and entertainment division, has been garnering a continuous stream of media coverage since a landmark announcement made at Cannes earlier this year. In May, the company announced that it would invest a billion dollars (around Rs4,400 crore) in seven Hollywood production houses—owned by stars such as George Clooney and Tom Hanks—to develop 30 scripts and, eventually, 10 films. This was followed by an agreement for an equally big tie-up with Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks, which is expected to be signed soon.
While the company has not shied away from high-profile media mileage, its president, Rajesh Sawhney, prefers to keep it low-key. After months of persuasion, Sawhney agrees to talk to Lounge on two conditions: One, he will not field too many personal questions and two, we will meet for lunch during a weekday. His weekday evenings, I am told, are usually booked for overseas conference calls and the weekends are reserved for the family.
Planet Hollywood: Sawhney’s company will now face off with the biggest film studios in the US.
Sawhney’s reluctance to be in the limelight could perhaps be explained by his choice of employers. Before Reliance Entertainment, he worked with the leading media house Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd (BCCL) for 14 years. Both are companies that prefer their ventures, rather than the managers behind them, to hog media attention—key executives are seldom found making big statements or giving expansive interviews.
Eventually, Sawhney agrees to meet for lunch at The Oberoi in Mumbai. On the apppointed day, he arrives 7 minutes before time and graciously sends me a text message saying: “Reached. Take your time.”
“I will have a light lunch,” he says as we make ourselves comfortable at Tiffin, the hotel’s Pacific Rim and Indian cuisine restaurant. As we browse through the menu, Sawhney asks me if “life is too hectic”. I am forthright: “I start each day with at least 10 items on my to-do list and go back home with half of them not done.” I add that while a colleague felt I was inefficient, a friend thought I’d bitten off more than I could chew.
Sawhney has a different perspective on the situation: “I don’t agree with either of them. I say it’s good to have an unfinished list than to not have one at all. For me, it’s the nature of the list that will determine the good and bad.” After a pause, he adds: “The list should point to a consistent direction. That’s all I will worry about.”
What about Sawhney? Does he have a list? And does it point in a direction? “I don’t remember having written, ‘I have to become the CEO or the president of some company’ on my list ever. But yes, life has largely moved in a direction and I am wherever I am because of consistency in what I sought to do,” he says.
Today, Sawhney leads a company that is trying to build a sweeping media and entertainment enterprise on the back of emerging technology. And even before the complete roll-out of the business, the firm has been valued at $3 billion. In March, billionaire investor George Soros expressed interest in picking up a 3% stake for $100 million—something that even the most established media and entertainment (M&E) companies can’t boast of.
While many have shrugged off the business as a product of Anil Ambani’s obsession with media, the same people admit privately that Sawhney is one of the few business leaders in the M&E industry with a profound understanding of new media and the technology that supports it.
“In the past three years, I have met with top media owners and executives. I asked them all about their vision of the industry. Nobody could tell me anything beyond the fact that digital is the future of the media industry. Their other obsession is developing markets such as India and China. And most of them don’t know what exactly to do in these markets,” he says. “Everybody is shooting in the dark.”
At BCCL, Sawhney launched and managed some of the company’s newest ventures, such as Times FM, Times TV and Indiatimes.com. In the same vein, at Reliance Entertainment, Sawhney is rolling out initiatives across a number of innovative platforms. Reliance Entertainment currently runs a social networking site called BigAdda.com; a video-on-demand and DVD rental service, BIGFlix.com; an online gaming portal Zapak.com; and the mobile gaming service Jump Games. It just acquired a majority stake in US-based Willow TV, an online cricket streaming video portal. BIG TV, its DTH broadcasting service, was launched recently and the company has also announced plans to invest in the US in mobile gaming and cinemas.
All this activity might look frenzied and the company’s strategy akin to carpet-bombing, but Sawhney is a cautious planner. For instance, he finds the current pace of action in the print and television business a bit misplaced. “I like Bill Gates’ statement on how we try to overestimate change in the short term and underestimate it in the longer term. In the last year, so many new TV channels and newspapers have been launched to tap the short-term opportunity. Nobody seems to be thinking about the long-term. Will these businesses be sustainable five years down the line?” he wonders.
Besides new media, Sawhney has developed a deeper understanding of the traditional industry as well. “In the US, the print boom happened 50 years ago, TV flourished 30 years ago, radio even before that, and now that market is trying to figure out the digital medium,” he says. “In India, however, the past, the present and the future are playing out simultaneously. That makes this market both extremely challenging as well as attractive.”
Sawhney’s short-term vision for Reliance Entertainment is quite audacious: He sees it growing into a $10 billion venture in the next five to six years. “We haven’t branded our media and entertainment business ‘Big’ for nothing,” he says with a laugh. “Once we connect all the dots, you will see it as a leading global player with interests across every single media and entertainment domain.”
With a successful professional record behind him, Sawhney is a prized scalp in the industry. Suitors have approached him several times. Yet he says he is “not jumping ship” anytime soon. “Availing of opportunities simply because they come your way is not my way of leading life. I believe in stability, in giving and getting one’s due to the fullest, be it a professional relationship or a personal one,” he says.
His personal life exemplifies that stability. Sawhney is married to Chhaya, the girl he met in a University Special bus (the buses that the Delhi Transport Corporation runs for college students in the Capital) during his Delhi College of Engineering days.
After dating for five years, the duo got married when they were both 25. Chhaya, who has a doctorate in linguistics, initially worked with Tata Interactive Systems but then realized her interest lay in writing books for children. Her career, however, took a backseat as Sawhney’s professional life became more demanding and their two sons, Rohan and Arjun, now 14 and 7 respectively, started seeking more attention.
Sawhney’s hectic schedule doesn’t allow him to spend much time with them, but if he is in Mumbai, his weekends are committed to them without exception. “For me, a balance in personal and professional commitments is a must,” he says.
Born: 2 February 1966
Education: BE from Delhi College of Engineering in 1987; MBA from Mumbai University in 1990; fellowship in globalization from London School of Economics in 2000; advanced management programme from Harvard Business School in 2007
Work Profile: President, Reliance Entertainment, leading the media and entertainment business of the Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group since 2005
Hobbies: Watching cricket and films, playing soccer with his two sons
Favourite cricket and film stars: Sachin Tendulkar, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Farhan Akhtar
Management mantra: Think big