It is surprising to know that the man who changed the way we now watch movies in India had very little to do with the business of cinema while growing up. His family was in the transport business, he never studied cinema, had no aspirations to be a movie star, and for heaven’s sake, he did not even live in cinema capital, Mumbai. The only connection was that his family has owned a popular theatre in New Delhi since 1978. “I used to spend the whole day at our cinema, Priya, located at Vasant Vihar, with cousins, watching show after show of the same movie (Enter the Dragon was a favourite), seated in the family box. I guess I fell in love with films,” Ajay Bijli tells me over a cup of black coffee and many sniffles. Dressed in a pink shirt and a pinstripe black suit, 40-year-old Bijli, who has a cold, is some distance from your typical Bollywood exhibitor/distributor/producer. For one, there is no evidence of gold chains, stone rings or pan masala, and two, he does not believe in numerology and has no extra ‘j’ in his name.
This year, the PVR brand celebrates 10 years of being in the business—and what a fabulous run it has been. The company has gone from five screens in 1997 to 89 in 2007 (“and 40 more scheduled to open by March 2008”), a flourishing distribution network and two ready-for-release films under the PVR Pictures banner.
Quality, not quantity
“I just wanted to make movie-viewing a great experience. I was totally oblivious to this analysis paralysis that one ends up doing in hindsight. In fact, when I conceived of the first multiplex, I was not even sure if people would be willing to accept a smaller screen size, or pay a higher ticket price,” he admits candidly, refusing to accept that he was in any way a visionary who changed the way we watch films in India. “Visionary, pioneer—these words make me uncomfortable. I was lucky it all worked out for me before it did for anyone else.”
Today, when the biggest business houses in India are dabbling in the world of movies, Bijli’s goals have altered. Earlier, he wanted to have the largest screen count and be first at everything, but now, he says, PVR Ltd focuses on consistency in quality rather than quantity. “When people such as the Ambanis and the DLF group, who have deep pockets, enter your business, there is bound to be an impact. My way of dealing with that challenge has been to focus inwards and stick to my basics.” So, PVR’s mantra is to target only those areas where they think people will come to watch movies. “Scale matters, but I would rather be the best than the biggest.”
Bijli’s first big move was at 23, when he convinced his father, Krishan Mohan Bijli, to let him revamp Priya. His father was very passionate about the family business, the Amritsar Transport Co., and had no real interest in cinema. “Within a year of joining the family business, I was bored with it. I wanted to do something where I was 100% in control,” says Bijli.
His idea was to remodel Priya along the lines of Sterling cinema in Mumbai and show only Hollywood films. The revamp list was long—Dolby sound system, new projector, carpets, comfortable seats, and better air conditioning. “Dad had only one question: ‘Ajay, agar Dolby lagayega to log ayenge?’” (Ajay, if you install Dolby, will people then come?) A year and almost Rs30 lakh later, in 1991, a refurbished Priya cinema opened, and it has since averaged weekend occupancy rates of 50%. “In the early days, I spent hours cooling my heels in the receptions of Hollywood studio offices such as Warner Bros. in Mumbai, trying to convince them to give us movies.”
Between Priya and his first multiplex, PVR Anupam, Bijli had a seven-year hiatus. His father passed away in 1992, leaving him in charge of the business. In 1994, the transport company suffered huge losses due to a fire. “Things were getting just too hard at that end. Meanwhile, Priya was growing and I wanted to move with it to the next level.”
A chance meeting with a visiting Universal Pictures associate helped him get in touch with Village Road Show (VRS), an Australian company that specialized in multiplexes. They were keen to enter the market and Bijli wanted to open a multiplex. A joint venture was announced in late 1995, and 14 months later, Priya Village Roadshow was ready with its first multiplex—PVR Anupam.
But 9/11 saw his Australian partners wanting to move out of India. “By 2001, I had already committed myself to projects worth Rs100 crore, including the 11-screen multiplex at the then under-construction Forum Mall in Bangalore. I had a reputation to maintain, and did not want to be seen as a flash-in-the-pan operator.” Since he not only had to buy out the VRS, but also raise money for ongoing projects, Bijli sought advice from his mentor, Sunil Bharti Mittal, who suggested he raise the capital from private equity funding. PVR Ltd got funding worth Rs40 crore from ICICI Ventures that year. “I could match the Rs40 crore equity with Rs40 crore raised through debt on my own, and with accruals the amount reached about Rs100 crore.” With an almost 50% compound annual growth rate, PVR Ltd decided to get listed to fund further expansion, and raised about Rs125 crore through an initial public offering in January 2006.
Like all entrepreneurs, Bijli knew that if he wanted his business to grow, he would have to identify other profit avenues. Proximity to the film industry and years of experience in the exhibition business had shown him that film distribution and production were the two areas they could easily tap, and this became part of their “backward integration plan”. So, in 2002 he set up PVR Pictures to take care of these businesses. According to him, there was a market out there for certain kinds of films which found no distributors. “We knew if these movies were released at right locations, and at appropriate show timings, they would be profitable.” That’s how PVR Ltd ended up distributing this year’s most successful multiplex movie Bheja Fry.
In 2006, the company also signed a two-film deal with Aamir Khan Productions. At present, they have six movies (two with director Rajkumar Santoshi) four of which are in various stages of pre-production and shooting, and the first film, Tare Zameen Par, Khan’s directorial venture, ready for release on 21 December.
Though Bilji is involved with many aspects of cinema, the role closest to his heart is still that of an exhibitor. “What most people overlook is that exhibitors are major contributors to film economy. PVR Cinemas alone is responsible for 10 to 15% of all box office collections of any Hindi movie that releases in the country today.” Though he enjoys script narrations (“I never read scripts”), he says his brother Sanjeev is more in command of that side. “I have a hands-off approach, and believe if I have a team of professionals, then I must empower them to take decisions. I come in only at critical points where I can add value.” What he enjoys most about his job nowadays is the chance to spot something new. “I like to send instant feedback about anything that excites me—sometimes in a structured way, and sometimes with a 9pm phone call to my associates.”
The one thing that he does do is try not to travel on the weekends—and keep his cellphone and BlackBerry switched off on Sundays because “my kids hate it”. Married in April 1990 to his high-school sweetheart Selena, Bijli has three children, the eldest being 15-year-old Niharika (Nayana is 13 and Aamer is 8) with whom he likes to play basketball at the half court at home. A cricket buff, he has stopped taking time off to watch matches because “it looks bad if the guys around me are working and I am off to watch a match”.
While his wish list of how people should view PVR is long, he is also realistic enough to realize that some things can be managed and others are out of his control. “I still get complaints about the lack of legroom, parking problems etc. at the older properties, but I can’t do anything about that. What I can work on immediately is if there are issues with hospitality or quality of food. I know if the intangibles are in place, people will be willing to overlook shortcomings in the tangible benefits.”
Known to stick by his rules, Bijli displays a streak of sentimentality. Though his business model advocates long-term leasing of cinema properties rather than buying them, he bought PVR Anupam, his first multiplex, in his personal capacity, because he was “attached to it”. He was also in the news last year for digging his heels in and not hiking ticket prices for Dhoom 2. “That ‘standoff’, as it was termed, was blown out of proportion. The fact is that we all lost in that bargain—the production house, Yash Raj Films, PVR, and even the consumer. Things are fine between us now. In fact, PVR Cinemas alone contributed 20% to the box office revenues of Chak De! India.”
Born: 9 February 1967 (New Delhi)
Education: BA Honours (Commerce) Hindu College, University of Delhi and Owner/President Management Program, Harvard Business School
Work profile: Chairman and managing director, PVR Ltd, since 1990. Also, managing director, Amritsar Transport Co., since 1988
Currently reading: ‘Pour Your Heart into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time’ by Howard Schultz
Hobbies: Gymming and cricket
Best movie watching experience: PVR Gold Class, at Forum Mall, Bangalore