It was the turn of the millennium, the year of the Y2K bug. The year Vladimir Putin was first elected president of Russia, and the billionth Indian was born. It was 2000, a neat number. It was also the year Indian television changed.

On 3 July that year, quiz show Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) and serials Kyunki... Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi... went on air. Then came Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii. The protagonists of both these soaps, Tulsi and Parvati, respectively, became household names. Amitabh Bachchan’s booming voice on KBC turned inanities (“Computerji, lock kiya jaye") into catchphrases. These shows also catapulted the Rupert Murdoch-owned general entertainment channel (GEC) Star Plus to pole position.

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

We are meeting Nair 15 years after that big bang, over breakfast in Mumbai. Today, he is the CEO of Balaji Telefilms which, incidentally, produced three of the four shows that Nair launched on Star Plus in 2000-01. It is 10.30 on a Thursday morning and coffee is first on the agenda at the Indigo Deli in Bandra. Nair, 50, walks in dressed casually in jeans and a blue blazer, every bit the media executive.

Nair’s first love was advertising, but somewhere along the way, he stumbled into media. He grew up in the same neighbourhood where we are meeting, and studied at Wilson College and St Xavier’s College before doing a hotel management course from the Institute of Hotel Management and a bachelor’s in economics from the University of Madras.

His mother, who hails from Andhra Pradesh, moved from Ajmer to Mumbai in 1950, the same year that his father, a Malayali, came to the city from Kerala. His father, a theatre enthusiast and amateur actor, worked in Films Division and then the National Films Development Corporation of India (NFDC), but it was his mother who instilled a love of films in him.

“My mother and I watched zillions of Hindi movies together, and because of my father, I became and remain an avid reader," he says. He was particularly inspired by a book he read when he was around 10, titled 100 Great Modern Lives; he still revisits it once in a while.

In 1994, Nair landed his first TV job as a director-producer, and shortly after as an executive producer, for Star Movies. His job was to produce the fillers that air between movies. His rise was swift. Over the years, he took charge of movie acquisitions for Star in India, went on to become programming head, and eventually became the CEO of Star TV (India)—a role he performed till 2007.

Sameer Nair is a “huge Michael Jackson fan. For him, one of the late star’s most memorable performances was at Motown’s 25th anniversary in 1983, where Jackson performed the ‘Billie Jean’ routine for the first time in public. Jackson insisted on performing his own music at the show even though it was a tribute to Motown. “I like the old songs, but what I really like are the new songs, Nair recalls Jackson as saying at the concert. There was a message in there that Nair held on to, he says. “Always look forward. ‘Jo ho gaya, ho gaya (What has happened has happened).’ Now move ahead.

In 2008, he helped launch NDTV Imagine (later called Imagine TV) as its CEO, in partnership with New Delhi Television (NDTV) promoters Prannoy Roy and Radhika Roy.

It didn’t pan out as planned. The channel was launched by NDTV Networks Plc., with NBCUniversal holding a 26% stake. The plan was to enter the GEC segment, with director Karan Johar providing creative direction to the channel. But it didn’t take long for things to start falling apart. The GEC space proved tough to crack. As luck would have it, the channel’s launch coincided with the global financial crisis.

In October 2009, NBCUniversal decided to exit and NDTV bought back the 26% stake. A few months later, in December 2009, NDTV sold its holdings in Imagine to Turner Asia Pacific Ventures, a Time Warner company. Nair quit finally in May 2011. In April 2012, Turner decided to shut down Imagine TV.

Nair was involved in a couple of entrepreneurial ventures—a digital video content company, a film and TV production house, and a home and kitchen online site—before taking over as CEO of Balaji Telefilms last year. It marked a return to mainstream media, this time with a television and movie production house.

“I’ve been trying to get into the movie business for the longest time and I’m here now," he says. Nair first joined Balaji as a member of the advisory board which was intended, among other things, to direct the search for a professional management. That search eventually homed in on him. “It’s exciting. This is India’s largest production company—and one of the top 5 film movie studios. A listed company with a lot of ambition to grow and scale up. I always say there are two types of people, you can either work in big companies or you can make companies big," Nair says.

Before we get to his ambition for Balaji, Nair insists it would be a waste not to order eggs at Indigo Deli. The Eggs Benedict is the star of its breakfast menu, but he eventually settles for an omelette; I order hot porridge.

As we wait for our orders, we go straight to Nair’s work at Balaji and his plans to grow the company. Do his ambitions match the plans of promoters Shobha Kapoor and Ekta Kapoor?

The company’s financial performance over the last five years has been mixed—with revenue and profit both remaining volatile. For 2013-14, the company reported revenue of 407 crore, but a net loss of 17 crore. The stock, too, is trading well below its peak of 353—in November 2007—at levels close to 65 per share.

What could be a turnaround plan? Nair doesn’t agree that a turnaround is needed. It’s about unlocking value, he says. The idea is to hold on to the strength of the group’s TV business and scale up the movie side of things.

Balaji will keep growing its television arm through its own shows and partnerships with other creative talent. The movie vertical will see a steadier pipeline of six-eight movies a year.

Balaji’s track record with movies has been chequered. While some productions, like Ek Villain (2014) and The Dirty Picture (2011), were big successes, many others have failed to make a mark.

“If you make a couple of movies and they don’t do well and then you backtrack, then that’s not a strategy, that’s not a vision. That’s how the independent producers work—you make a movie, it does well, so you buy a Bentley and make another movie. That’s not how you run a studio. This is really more about figuring out the creative strategy," says Nair, adding that as the movie pipeline builds up, the ratio of success improves.

He is acutely aware that the industry itself is changing and any company that hopes to remain relevant will have to be quick to adapt to change. The growth of digital platforms will let content creators reach consumers directly and eventually allow them to charge for high-quality content, reducing the industry’s dependence on the advertising-funded model.

“The future can well be this: 10 million people are willing to pay you $2 for 26 episodes of a top-quality show. That’s 120 crore. Even if you split that, it’s a good amount. At this point, it all sounds like we are smoking something but Netflix has already done it," says Nair.

So digital video is an area Nair would like to see Balaji grow into, over the next two-three years. He is also looking at sports programming through ownership of a team, perhaps in kabaddi or football. “Creating programming surrounding alternative sports could be an option too," he says, adding that there is no concrete plan yet. “We are going to look to collaborate now. We have got our strengths but we want to do more things. We want to grow the company—grow it tenfold, for argument’s sake," he says.

By the time breakfast winds down and a second round of coffee is ordered, the conversation has turned nostalgic. Nair’s success at Star TV India was well documented, but by the time he left there were murmurs of declining revenue. Nair, however, puts his exit down to the desire to do something new after a 13-year stint with the company.

“…it just became one of those things—let’s do something new. And Star was anyway pretty rock solid. We had built up Star into a pretty big organization. When we were leaving, their GRPs (gross rating points) were some 500 or 600 or something like that. It was just that entrepreneurial bug. Let’s do something ourselves," recalls Nair.

In October 2013, Nair joined the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), wanting to be part of the change that AAP was trying to bring to Indian politics. Nair remains a member of AAP but has not been active since he joined Balaji as CEO. “I am thrilled by the Delhi election victory obviously, but recent events are concerning. It’s time to get down to work, to walk the talk," he says

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