Manmohan Shetty: Game for a ride
The chairman of Adlabs on the future of cinema in India, the possibilities the digital world offers, and why Adlabs Imagica hasn’t gone according to plan
Manmohan Shetty, like many others, believes that the movie business is on the cusp of dramatic change. “People are putting money on Netflix, Amazon, etc.,” he says. “How much time do you have for the cinema, unless you are on a date? Tomorrow, you will buy all films on the internet on a Friday. Then what happens?”
The 70-year-old might come across as belligerent but he isn’t. Soft-spoken to a fault—my recorder strains to catch his words over the ambient music of the Atrium-Lounge at the Taj Lands End in Mumbai—amiable and self-deprecating, he chuckles often when he comments on his life and business.
His views on the future of cinema in India stem from his potential, as yet undecided, future plans. That includes venturing into some form of digital media.
It has been, by all accounts, an eventful professional career for Shetty, the man credited with bringing multiplexes to India through his company Adlabs Films, the first Imax screen experience (in Wadala, Mumbai). He has also run film laboratories, been involved with movie production and imagined the country’s first theme—not amusement, he corrects me—park, Adlabs Imagica, in Khopoli near Lonavla.
Dressed in a casual blue shirt tucked into jeans, Shetty has arrived for the meeting ahead of time—something, he says, he does habitually. The weather outside is schizophrenic—summer dry when we enter, pouring with fury minutes into the conversation.
The chairman of Adlabs Entertainment is candid, straightforward and unapologetic. Only once during the conversation does he ask for the recorder to be turned off, when I ask his opinion about a business head he has dealt with. He slips into Hindi often, his choice of words very “Mumbai” in feel and context.
Even as Imagica, which completed five years in May, struggles to find the kind of numbers the promoters had hoped for, Shetty is wondering what the next step should be. He is open to expansion through partnerships, as well as buyers. He has also given a resolution plan to the bank for managing debt, and in general “tried (his) best”.
He is unable to explain why Imagica did not perform according to plan. He gives the examples of Shanghai Disney Resort, which opened a couple of years ago, Dubai Parks and Resorts and Ocean Park Hong Kong. Neither is a traditional tourist hot spot, but each theme park gets millions of visitors. “Why Hong Kong is doing well and we are not, is anybody’s guess,” he whispers.
Shanghai Disney gets about 11 million visitors a year, and Ocean Park around six-seven million, while Imagica is at 1.6 million.
He attempts an explanation, though he admits he does not have all the answers. India has outbound, but not enough inbound, tourists, he says. So while the Imagica founders thought tourists would come from places as varied as Delhi and Dehradun, they found that people could go to Dubai, Hong Kong or Bangkok for a similar price.
“People come to Mumbai for some or the other reason and then see Imagica; they do not come to Mumbai to see Imagica. So we were reduced to visitors from Mumbai, Pune and Gujarat—we have 20% from that state,” says Shetty, whose initial estimate was three million visitors a year.
“You have to plan to go to the park, so distance does not matter,” he says, explaining why the location could not be the reason (Imagica is less than halfway from Mumbai to Pune). “Except for me, it would seem, everybody knows how to market and run a park. Someone told me, get a McDonald’s there to increase footfall. So people will come to eat at McDonald’s? His idea is, when I go there, I should get McDonald’s. But my point is: You should go there first, right?”
Imagica is but the latest venture in the portfolio of this serial entrepreneur and risk-taker. The fourth of nine children, the teenager growing up near Mangaluru gave up studying engineering after the first year. In the mid-1960s, Shetty decided to join his two elder brothers in Mumbai.
He enrolled in an evening college course to study arts there, but that too ended after the second year. He decided not to pursue a graduation degree, joining an engineering construction company that taught him much of what a college would have.
In 1968, when his brother Manohar started a film-processing unit (Quality Cine Labs Pvt. Ltd, now called QLAB) Shetty found his calling—cinema, or something associated with it. He founded his first company, Adlabs Films Ltd, as an advertising and film processing unit in 1976 after differences with his brother, even venturing into advertising and film production.
His first feature film Chakra (1981) was a test in demonstrating that films made in 16mm could be converted to 35mm in a lab—a technology he was trying to promote among producers here so they could make films for less money.
But he wanted to focus on the expansion of the lab business. “I am not a director, it needed deep pockets (to produce),” he says, though the company continued co-producing and financing films till 2008, including Sarkar Raj and Singh Is Kinng.
Considering that he switches businesses often, does he not form an emotional attachment with his work? “I am attached but not beyond a point,” he says.
In the early 1990s, he started construction of multiplexes and Imax projections, buying land in Wadala, an industrial locality in Mumbai, and going public with an initial public offering (IPO) in 2000-01 to raise ₹50 crore. Though the multiplex business did well, Imax did not, because it was perceived to be expensive and “people expected movies to change every week”.
In 2005, Anil Ambani’s Reliance Capital bought a majority stake in Adlabs from Shetty and his partner of four decades, Vasanji Mamania. According to Shetty, whoever Ambani spoke to had good things to say (about Shetty), and that’s why he bought Adlabs. “I agreed to work two more years and hand over,” Shetty says.
His choices then were to retire or do something else. He chose the latter, something no one else had tried—and Thrill Park Ltd, the company that runs Imagica, was incorporated in 2007.
Shetty orders a fresh-lime soda as he shows me the video of a possible business venture. He is excited by the prospects the digital world offers but also wary of what his daughters, Pooja (non-executive director, Adlabs Entertainment) and Aarti (who acted as adviser on the Imagica project), would say.
It may seem that he gets bored easily but that is not true—unless he has to do the same thing again and again. “You need to add value, not to your every day, but periodically. So people ask: Why did I sell (Adlabs)? I managed the company for (about) 30 years, how long to do it? In fact, I wonder why I waited 30 years—should have been shorter.
“What else could I do? Build more cinemas? My managers or anyone could do that because it’s a set financial model. Will you have numbers? I am willing to take the risk, except my daughters will be unhappy. But after the park is over, now what? Someone can run it; I have no interest in running it.”
He does not consider his decisions risky. “If you don’t take a risk, what do you do? I always did calculated ones. The question I would ask myself is: How much will I lose? I will not come to be on the streets, right?
“People who are professionals: They will earn a good salary, travel, buy a house in Lonavla, etc. Did this person achieve anything? He did not become Rashesh Shah (chairman, Edelweiss) or Uday Kotak (founder, Kotak Mahindra Bank). People who have not taken risks, nobody knows them.”
He continues, “Everyone is taking a risk at some level in their life. I like doing something new, most times it has worked.”
As we near lunch time, Shetty says he has to head to office—he is as particular about three other activities. For several years, his mornings have been dedicated to playing doubles tennis at a club in Andheri. Evenings are dedicated to a glass or two of (usually) Black Label and a movie—mostly English.
We return to the earlier conversation, this time not about the future of big-screen cinema, but of cinema halls in Maharashtra under pressure from a lawsuit to allow patrons to bring food from outside, given the overpriced fare available inside.
Shetty believes such an impractical and illogical move might not stand in a court of law. He says that if people have a problem with the pricing of food in multiplexes, they should simply not go to the movies. “You can’t say, ‘I want to go there with my own food.’”
He narrates an anecdote in the context of Imagica: A cobbler goes to a village where no one has footwear. He thinks the place has lots of potential, without realizing that no one wants footwear in the first place.
“You can’t push something if people don’t want it. You can’t convince people to put money if they don’t believe in it. We were bringing something that India did not have but never knew that India did not want it.”
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