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NEW DELHI : For many Indians, T-Series is a brand that means music—whether you are the cassette-hoarding ‘jhankar beats’ listener from the 1990s or the GenZer tripping on YouTube shorts. But Bhushan Kumar, chairman and managing director of Super Cassettes Industries Ltd, wants it to be the talk of the town not just for melody, but also the movies.

With 40 films on the floors and another 30-35 in various stages of development, the 44-year-old is a man in a hurry. His day begins early, as he checks 2am messages from writers and directors, and ends fairly late. “Nobody works by the watch at T-Series," says Kumar, during a Zoom interview. In the 21 months since November 2020, when Hindi films resumed theatrical releases post the covid-19 pandemic, T-Series has had 17 releases in cinemas and another 10 on streaming platforms. To get a sense of how busy T-Series has kept itself, compare it with an older Bollywood studio like Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions, which released only three films in theatres since the pandemic while three have gone to OTT. Yash Raj Films, another big banner, released five films in cinemas post the pandemic.

Some of T-Series’s productions hit a bullseye. Horror comedy Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, made on a budget of 90 crore, earned over 180 crore in box-office collections—a rare profitable Hindi film in recent months. Ek Villain Returns, which released last month, just about recovered its investment. Three things worked for Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 and older successes like Kabir Singh (2019) and Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety (2018)—they were made at modest budgets, had good music and the right marketing push. In the next few months, T-Series productions such as Thank God (starring Sidharth Malhotra, Ajay Devgn and Rakul Preet Singh), Vikram Vedha (a remake of the Tamil hit by the same name, starring Saif Ali Khan and Hrithik Roshan) and Rohit Shetty’s Cirkus will hit theatres. There’s more to follow—from Adipurush, a multilingual mythological featuring Prabhas, Kartik Aaryan’s Shehzada, a remake of Allu Arjun’s Telugu film Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo, and director Luv Ranjan’s untitled venture with Ranbir Kapoor.

For Bollywood watchers, it is clear: T-Series wants a bigger slice of the movie pie. It is betting big on theatrical releases despite the uncertainty of the business. It is churning out the stories. What it is banking on are the relationships it has nurtured with other studios and filmmakers as a music label, its strong marketing expertise and easy cash flow. But will that be enough? Or is it over-reaching itself at a time when the box-office has proved impossible to please? As the dismal fate of its films such as Jhund, Radhe Shyam, Satyameva Jayate 2 and Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, all released in theatres soon after different lockdowns, suggests, no one is immune from the audience’s rejection.

Original soundtrack

“This was never pre-planned," says Kumar. His father Gulshan Kumar had made films sporadically in the 1980s and 1990s, churning out a bunch of musical hits such as Aashiqui and Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahi. In 1997, Gulshan Kumar was shot dead outside a temple in Mumbai, throwing the family and the business into a crisis. Kumar, then barely 19, was forced to take over the reins of the business. Naysayers doubted whether T-Series would survive without Gulshan Kumar, the mogul of devotional music. The setback meant a brief hiatus from movie production for about five years. T-Series was back soon enough, in 2000, with Papa The Great, starring Krishan Kumar, Gulshan’s brother and Bhushan’s uncle.

T-Series continued to make a few films every couple of years, coming into its own by the mid-2000s. By 2014, it had a robust pipeline of small and mid-budget films like Akshay Kumar’s Baby (2015) and Amitabh Bachchan’s Bhootnath Returns (2014). “We saw success with different films and built relationships with producer and director partners. It gave me the belief that good partners can together do great work," he says. In the years before the pandemic, OTT platforms were emerging as another destination for T-Series content.

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Kumar’s ambitions as a movie producer might be growing, but he steers clear of debt. “We use 100% of our own money, we don’t borrow from the market and we are not a publicly listed company. It’s a company privately owned by the family," he said. Kumar has spent lavishly—and plans to continue to—on multilingual action flicks and period dramas, especially those featuring top southern stars. His mythological drama Adipurush featuring Prabhas is touted to be worth over 300 crore. But he mixes that up with small- and mid-budget titles, films such as Kabir Singh and Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety, all made under 70 crore.

At T-Series, Kumar calls all the shots. He sits on script sessions as well as edits, especially because, he says, this is not the time to simply ‘go by branding’. “We can’t just go blindly without approving the script. Today, even big stars are not bringing in big numbers. I’m not saying that whatever we decide works. But we have to keep trying to understand the taste of the audience," he says.

Film and entertainment industry experts say Kumar has taken his time to understand the rules of the game and use his expertise as a music label to ramp up movie production plans. “He was also the first to recognize the potential of YouTube as a medium and the value of owning IPs (intellectual properties)," said Atul Mohan, editor of trade magazine Complete Cinema, referring to the immensely popular YouTube channel Kumar has built for T-Series.

In December 2021, T-Series became the first channel globally to cross 200 million subscribers on YouTube, with 29 channels across languages and genres. The total subscriber base for the T-Series network was estimated to be more than 383 million with over 718 billion views.

Compared to the 10-12 crore that an average popular channel can make from YouTube advertising revenue, T-Series is estimated to earn around 125 crore per month, ensuring the company remains cash-rich. “He brings out a minimum of two new singles every month, plus there are the film soundtracks that he acquires from other producers. He truly comes with business acumen to recognize that any channel needs to be consistently updated to keep viewers engaged," Mohan pointed out.

The music opened doors to movie success. As Karan Taurani, senior vice-president at Elara Capital Ltd, points out, several entertainment industry players have realized that the cost of acquiring music through film soundtracks is far too high, without significant returns in the short term. That’s where T-Series has an edge. Co-production of films helps monetization through emerging revenue streams such as digital sales and overseas release. “As a value proposition, music rights only pay off in perpetuity, over a period of many years. On the other hand, licensing film rights can pay off through satellite and digital sales within five to 10 years," Taurani says. Having worked with producers and talent closely over the years, T-Series is the best place to tap into synergies between music ownership and film production. “They already know how films are made and what goes into it. Music is a subset of the larger filmmaking process," Taurani says.

Kumar doesn’t speak of a conscious strategy for YouTube but believes their long-standing presence in the music market helped ease them into film production. “Everything was there. I just had to take that leap and ensure actors and directors have that confidence in us. And I’m very happy with all that we’ve gained now. So many actors recognise that T-Series is now a place to be, jahan se itni filmein ban rahi hain," Kumar says.

Studios such as YRF (Yash Raj Films) and Zee Studios have preferred to work backwards—they started as a movie studio and have now gone on to operating their own music label. That T-Series also owns the music of all the films they co-produce, plus some others, is a bonus. Compared to the 150 crore they would spend per year only on acquiring music earlier, T-Series is estimated to spend around 500-600 crore on content creation now, with several added streams of revenue. The company still owns 40-45% share of India’s music market and is the largest label in the country.

Super Cassettes Industries Pvt. Ltd, or T-Series, reported a consolidated profit of 515 crore for the financial year ended 31 March 2020, According to data accessed by business intelligence firm Tofler. Revenue from operations stood at 1,099 crore. In comparison, for a company like Dharma Productions, operating revenues range between 100 crore and 500 crore for the financial year ending 31 March 2021, according to Tofler.

The regional push

Shahir Muneer, founder and director at Divo, a Chennai-based music and media company, said T-Series is one of a handful of music companies to have a presence in every regional market. In 2015, it inked a long-term strategic deal with Lahiri Music, a leader in Tamil and Telugu music, to market television and audio-visual content, making all of Lahiri’s entire catalogue available on T-Series’ own YouTube channel. The regional presence makes co-production of films in southern languages easier. T-Series backed Saaho (2019), an action thriller featuring Telugu star Prabhas, which released in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. It is also producing Adipurush with the actor that will also follow the multilingual route.

As it churns out film after film, the criticism that T-Series is taking on far too many projects is inevitable. Several media and entertainment industry experts point out that a huge slate doesn’t necessarily guarantee dominance for T-Series in India’s cluttered and uncertain movie market. As their recent flops, including Anek, HIT: The First Case and the high-budget multilingual Radhe Shyam suggest, quantity doesn’t always translate into quality. “They may have green-lit a lot of films but none of them comes with the guarantee of success. A spate of flops will make the eventual losses equally hard to deal with," a media and entertainment analyst said, declining to be named.

But Kumar disagrees. “Everyone recognizes the creative freedom the directors and producers working with us get. That’s why leading filmmakers like Luv Ranjan, Anurag Basu, Sandeep Vanga Reddy, Om Raut, Nikhil Advani or Anubhav Sinha work with us again and again. They are not doing a single movie outside our banner," Kumar says. He has a point. Apart from assured cash reserves and lucrative deals with OTT and television companies, filmmakers know that easy marketing and brand promotions are a given when it comes to T-Series, considering the company’s relationships across the radio, print and TV ecosystem.

But the company’s recent foray into web originals is a way to hedge its bets and placate investors, when the theatrical business is uncertain, the person cited above added. As far as web originals go, Kumar has announced a biopic on choreographer Saroj Khan and also has projects with Anubhav Sinha, Luv Ranjan and Aanand L. Rai lined up.

At heart, though, Kumar remains a staunch supporter of the 70mm experience. “I hope films start working in theatres. That is essential. There is obviously something wrong with what all of us filmmakers are doing if people are not coming to theatres. So we must rectify that," he says, referring to the spate of box-office disasters Bollywood has witnessed since the reopening of cinemas.

The second challenge is the actor fee, he admits. All actors had upped their prices, and reasonably so, three years ago, because OTT platforms were bringing in big additional money for producers. But now they must rationalize their rates and make it work for everybody, Kumar says. “Actors should agree to a share in profits if the film works or to a more rational fee overall. Otherwise movie making will be very, very difficult," he said.

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