It is past bedtime, which is the right time to visit Mumbai’s JW Marriott. Here, in a bar he calls “the boring option”, Shravan Shroff, 36, is holding forth on the important issue of peanuts. “Those nuts, for example, are bad news,” he says, referring to peanuts in general, for there are none on the table.
“Those things are the worst for your body. You have 10 nuts, and your diet for the day is gone.” He says “gone” with the depressing reassurance of someone who knows for certain what you’ve always suspected.
That’s when the waiter slinks up to place fried nuts on the table. “I love food, but I try to be sensible about my eating,” he says, assessing the nuts. “I travel three days a week, so I tend to eat out a lot. So you’ve got to know what’s good for you.” This reporter holds his stomach in for the next few hours.
At this time of day (rather, night), the Marriott in Juhu is a 10-minute drive from Fame Adlabs, Lokhandwala’s first multiplex, which Shroff built with support from Manmohan Shetty’s Adlabs.
It’s now one of 10 theatres, and one of five multiplexes along a small stretch of road. It’s a busy time for showbiz, with Adlabs, PVR, Pyramid Saimira, planning to set up dozens of theatres all over India.
Shroff, however, says he still sees opportunities, because there are “plenty of holes in the exhibition business”.
The theatres are his second shot at the business. His first attempt was in 1990. After graduating from Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics (producer/director Aditya Chopra, who manages Yashraj Films, was a classmate), he worked for five years in the family business of film finance.
“In 1993, I was handling the distribution for Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s film, 1942: A Love Story. I had worked on it very closely, and when it bombed, I was disillusioned. It wasn’t the end of the world, but I was a kid then,” he remembers.
After a two-year stint at the Melbourne Business School, Shroff returned, at 25, with a business plan that his father found attractive. “Given what I’ve achieved since, most people think I’ve gone to Stanford or Wharton. Maybe I will in a few years, for a refresher.” At full capacity, his 10 theatres in Maharashtra, Kolkata and Gujarat—of which eight are multiplexes—can seat 11,388 people. When his planned projects are complete by the year-end, he’ll be running 40 theatres with 52,304 seats.
Shroff says he did every job possible in the exhibition business to understand what it was about. The experience also made him wise to the various ways in which people could cheat him. In an interview with www.indiantelevision.com, he said, “I literally rolled up my sleeves and started working. I have no regrets about it because that is the only way, I believe, one can learn the retail business.”
The waiter returns with a bottle of wine and hands it to Shroff, who seems perfectly at ease here. “This place is like home,” he says. “I gym here every night. When they see me come in at 10pm, they think I’m crazy, but I don’t mind. I need to do it.”
Shroff and his three phones travel in a Honda Accord, but the one he really wants is a BMW. He prefers it to a Merc, which he dismisses as a “fuddy car”. He shops once or twice a year, purchases 30-odd shirts at one go, and that’s that.
Working out is one of his three obsessions, he says. The others are to spend time with his four-year-old daughter, and to “close the deal”. I ask him the level of his involvement in everyday issues at the exhibition chain. He brushes off the question. “Closing the deal is more important than choosing what colours match,” he says. “As long as people keep spending money in the theatres, I’m fine.”
He talks for a while about the business and its opportunities. About how multiplexes have taken over single-screen theatres. “These guys,” he says, referring to owners of single screens, “have a great business opportunity. But after 40 years of no competition, they don’t know what’s hit them. All these young people are passing them by with great ideas and VC funding.”
He considers himself fortunate to be part of a growing tribe of new Indian entrepreneurs. “I tell people of my generation that we’re lucky to be able to build businesses. It’s not in many countries that you can build a business to scale from scratch. You can’t build a software business in the US to take on Microsoft. You could have a Google, but it’s always more difficult to do it in a mature economy in comparison to a growing economy, where there many more gaps. The movie business, especially, is something everyone wants to join.”
Shroff is unfazed by the reputation the industry has. He compares it to what Hollywood went through, when it was alleged that it was driven by mafia money. “Mafia money was involved here as well,” he says. “But one or two bad apples don’t mean the whole thing is rotten. Look at the aerated beverages business. There was slush money there too. Look at the liquor business. Every business has its issues.”
He grows more animated with each sentence, and his voice becomes louder and thinner as he explains what must seem completely obvious to him. “9/11 brought an end to that. Simple. Governments cracked down. And then the government got smart and brought down the tax rates.”
Shroff comes from a line of film financers. His grandfather financed films; his father and uncle continued in the same business before venturing into distribution in 1975. Shroff himself began with distribution, is entrenched in exhibition, and is considering a shift into movie production.
“I was very clear that I didn’t want to do what my father did. I resented the fact that everyone knew my father and no one knew me. When I returned and saw production, I realized that I wasn’t cut out for it. It was disorganized and very ho jayega ji. You had to pamper stars. I’m not cut out for that. I believe that if I pay a guy, he should work. You can’t overly pamper them, you can’t chadao them.”
Stars are interesting to me. I ask him how he’d handle them, given that he wants to enter production in a couple of years. He smiles and says he’d hire people more capable of (and suited to) pampering stars. “They need to be compensated, but I’m not going to put them on top of my head. I’ll find a guy who can put them on his head. And if I need to slap the guy to get it done, I’ll slap him. It’s like ‘you will get the work done because I’m paying you. How you get the work done is not my problem.’”
Then his voice falls to a whisper, “I can’t do that. Hopefully, the stars will change. Hopefully, I will. I don’t know.”
Name: Shravan Shroff
Education: Graduated from Sydenham College and, later, the Melbourne Business School
Work Profile: Entered the family business in 1990 and left it disenchanted in 1994. Went to Melbourne Business School, and then returned to successfully start the ‘Fame’ chain of theatres, where he made regional cinema available to city audiences.