Bollywood Dreams

Kishore Lulla is a spotlight-shunning movie mogul who has made a fortune distributing Indian films worldwide. Now he's making another one as a high-grossing producer, and has Hollywood in his sights. Paul Arnott reports.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Anyone who really knows Indian film understands there is no such thing as Bollywood. The elision of the words Bombay and Hollywood is lazy shorthand in the West to describe the movie business in India, even though Bombay was renamed Mumbai years ago. Mollywood, perhaps? Not that either. All the Indian industry ever had in common with LA was a horrifying lab bill for processing miles of 35mm film. Otherwise, the two have been fish and fowl. Their concepts haven't merged. At least, not yet.

In the early 1990s, I made a Channel 4 documentary at the Indian Film Festival in Bangalore. Our most memorable interviewee was the bull-shouldered 'minister of culture'. It was a nervy shoot with a combustible character who insisted we film him with Miss India. We heard shortly afterwards that 'the minister' was in prison for shooting his secretary dead in a fit of rage. Less dangerous but just as strange were the big-shot film actors: demi-gods, avatars with the mightiest egos in history.

Mainly, though, we came away convinced that the Indian film business was the biggest money-laundering operation in Asia. Simply take your criminally earned cash, hand it to a producer who pays for a film out of brown envelopes, and then collect your legal rupees from the box office after every screening. The Indian government was so suspicious of this game that it refused to grant 'Bollywood' official status until early this century. If a producer tried to borrow money to make a film, no Indian bank was allowed near him.

Yet it was the Indian government's decision to recognise the industry in 2002 that has put one very shrewd Indian into a position where, if he plays his cards right, he might just become the biggest combatant in the film world.

Kishore Lulla lives in an elegant house in the north London suburb of Totteridge, by the wealthy green belt. Like its owner, the house is anonymous and discreet, but when the big security gates swing open you can feel the power. A houseboy opens the front door and invites me to remove my shoes. This meeting was scheduled for Lulla's office in Park Royal, the hub of his Eros International film empire, but he has decided to work from home today so that he can have lunch with his wife. This is significant.

Lulla joins me in a room that has been rigorously designed in greys and browns, with art books on the coffee table and overlooking an immaculate lawn. He's a small man in a fine charcoal suit who talks so fast that it takes me a working day to transcribe his interview. Courteous and open, he's pretty blunt, too. 'Sorry about this, but if I had my way I wouldn't do any interviews. My people tell me I have to do it for our corporate profile. I simply don't believe in parties and I don't believe in glamour. I've been given one or two awards by the Indian community in the UK for my business achievements and that is good of them. But I accept them for the industry, that is all.'

The reason he now needs to maintain some degree of profile is the 2006 listing of Eros International, of which he is chairman and CEO, on London's AIM (Alternative Investment Market) exchange. This effortlessly raised $100m to fund his expansive ambitions, and it didn't come from small-fry, loyal UK Indians - it was the pensions companies and big fund managers who climbed aboard. Now he needs to make sure they know what he's up to. It's all new terrain for Lulla, because for the first 30 years of his career with Eros it was solely a family concern.

Arjan Lulla, Kishore's father, spotted a gap in the market in 1977. There were 50 million people of the Indian diaspora living outside their country of origin, and many of them were crazy for films they had no way of seeing. Arjan started by distributing Indian movies the old-fashioned way - in steel tins - to the UK and US, and to less obvious places like the UAE and Israel. His son wanted to take part, having studied law first. Kishore persuaded Arjan that they needed to open offices across the world rather than depend on local agents, and that they had to expand further into Malaysia, Australia and Africa.

'I always dreamed it in the early days,' he says. 'I just knew Indian cinema would go global. That's why I convinced my dad to open those offices. If I hadn't stuck to this idea I couldn't have created Eros as it is now.'

Kishore Lulla's unsentimental business plan was clear to him from the start. 'We were purely in the IPR (intellectual property rights) game. Eros was about acquiring the rights in movies, exploiting the copyright worldwide, trying not to sell it to anyone, and getting the revenues.'

Eros found itself bucking the market. World cinema was in steep decline in the '70s but the growing niche in exporting Indian films allowed Eros to expand. With the arrival of video in the '80s, it diversified from shipping reels of film to cracking the new home-entertainment market. In the '90s, cinema exhibition revived as multiplexes opened across the world, and this served Eros well too. Many an Odeon in an ethnically Indian area had Robin Hood on Screen One and a Bollywood delight on Screen Nine. The cash poured in.

With the new century, Lulla has turned his gaze back to the East. The stats run through his brain like tickertape. 'Four hundred million Indians are now considered middle-class, with 40 million joining their ranks each year. They fuel the growth. India has 13,000 screens, 1,500 multiplexes. In 2007, 3.9 billion cinema tickets were sold.'

It is to this enormous market that the conquering hero of international distribution is returning as a fully fledged producer and power player, and the numbers are mouth-watering. 'That 3.9 billion will grow to 5 billion admissions in the next five years,' says Lulla, 'and the average admission price will rise from 70 cents to $2 or $3. The Indian film industry will soon be worth about $15bn in India alone.'

The key to Lulla's positioning is that he has lived abroad since 1977. His Big Bang moment, his jackpot, was the recognition by the Indian government that gave the film industry formal status. 'Bollywood was all about the black economy until 2002, so Eros had never got involved in any production. Our turnover was 100% international. Our job was buying the rights and exploiting them outside India. That was all.'

Because Lulla and his father had done all their business outside India for 25 years, their hands were clean. Given the huge growth in their domestic market, Lulla's timing for a return was perfect. It's little wonder that $100m of investment came forward so quickly.

Lulla sips at a glass of chilled water, rattling out the words as I lean forward to catch them. 'In India, it is the same as in the UK or US - egos can kill a film. The thing about Eros is that we know how to handle people's egos. If you look at any successful film it is not one person's affair. It is a team: director, actor and marketing. I believe that marketing is the key thing.'

I ask Lulla how he handles a director having a tantrum over the final cut. 'I tell him that at the end of the day we are all working for the box office. You want the box office, and we'll give it to you - provided you incorporate such-and-such element the movie needs. Otherwise, I will lose my money, you will lose your name and nobody will give you your next movie. You satisfy your creative whatever-you-want-to-do but give us the box office.'

There's a very firm fist in Lulla's velvet glove: no second chances, little romanticism. 'I believe in life there is not a single thing you cannot solve by talking. So, if you look at Eros' history, we are a litigation-free company. My father has taught me that if we can settle anything with money, do it. Thirty years, no litigation.'

In the film business, Kishore Lulla is an anomaly. He seems genuinely a man with little ego in an Indian industry whose vainglorious thesps put our own self-absorbed luvvies in the shade. Yet this quiet man has these big egos in his sights. He's been spending three months a year in LA, signing deals with Sony and Lionsgate to go into co-production on bigger-budget Indian films on the one hand and to sell their libraries into India on the other. Clearly, he's been paying attention.

'Everyone knows content should be king. In Hollywood, the screenplay drives the director and the director drives the actor. In India, there is still too much star power. The stars drive the director and the director drives the screen writer.' Imagine Richard Gere telling a writer what he'd like to say today, please. Lulla won't put up with this. He may be a fan of Indian movies, but his attitude is one of reform.

'Exactly what you saw in Hollywood in the '80s will happen in India. If the stars want to get paid too much, the industry will simply look elsewhere. We have already set up Eyeqube, a visuals effects studio in Mumbai, which is driven by visual ideas, not stars. If 20 years ago there were two stars in India, now there are 10 controlling it; soon it will be 20. And so that too has diluted their power.'

With the stars put in their place, and a London listing allowing further capital-raising, Lulla's plans to dominate India are astonishing. With its vertical integration, Eros has a slice of film production, with 65 deals signed to feed its distribution network; it has ownership of all world rights, with platforms on cable, satellite and digital channels in India and across the world; it has part-ownership (moving to whole-ownership) of a TV channel; it has rights to distribute thousands of Hollywood films into India and emerging markets across south-east Asia; it sells the music soundtracks adored by Indian people worldwide. And it is now dubbing movies into new languages such as German, cashing in on the voguishness of 'Bollywood' - the food, the clothes, the sound. And Eros' 2007 film Om Shanti Om was the highest-grossing Hindi film of all time.

Only a fool would bet against Eros growing richer with every year. It's a capitalist's dream - a one-billion-person home market addicted to your product, which is also loved by a growing audience overseas. The question is: will Lulla's five-year plan for India be enough for him? And what happens if he returns to LA with a bigger bank balance than any of the studios? The guys from Abu Dhabi have just put $500m into Hollywood and, like the Japanese, who burned $2bn there in the '80s, you wouldn't fancy their chances of getting any of it back. Here, then, comes the hubris question. Lulla takes another calm sip.

'I think cross-pollination between Hollywood and Bollywood is inevitable. This will be driven by the new media powerhouse. You cannot ignore 1.1 billion people and Indian films grossing $100m in India alone. That will go global. I have my options open. I have so much to do in the next five years because India is where the goldmine is. Bollywood is not a risky industry; Hollywood is. Everybody has had their hands burned there. They have lost so much money. But, after the next five years, why not? Maybe a full merger between a Hollywood and a Bollywood studio - it makes sense for the shareholders. We are open to anything that makes a contribution to the bottom line.'

He returns to his favourite theme. 'So, we don't have any egos, we just do what's right.' This, it seems, is what would differentiate an Eros move into Hollywood from a Japanese or an Arab one. Zero sentiment, all bottom line, and a real player with real cash who knows the game from photography to DVD production and can bash heads together without people being hated. But how did Lulla get to be such a solid character?

'For me, the only thing that really turns me on is my family. My wife and one of my daughters have joined the company, and even though my dad is no longer the most active in the family, he still gets the respect as if he is the biggest in the business. On any big deals he still gives me sound advice. Everybody says you must make your dream come true, but I say you must make your wish come true. I wish that Bollywood films would gross worldwide the same as Hollywood: $200m, $300m. I think we can do what Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did - a billion.'

As things stand, Kishore Lulla has wished himself from a small-time distributor of film prints to a worldwide force. Is there anything he won't countenance? His answer is not one you'd hear from any mogul in LA.

'I don't want Eros putting our name to any Tom, Dick or Harry movies. We cannot put our name on a sex movie, or drugs, or an anti-family film. For the next five years, we have the outlines for what we want to do and there is not a single script that goes against this. I feel very socially responsible. We don't want to give out a bad message.'

I consider this improbable mission statement for a moment. But has any studio in the modern era ever managed to pull off such a wholesome manifesto? His answer comes in a flash.

'Yes, Disney has done it. It still does. And it seems to have done just fine.' he concludes.

So watch out, Mickey. Masala Mouse might be driving his tank down Main Street, USA sooner than you think.

FILM FORTUNES
Hollywood Bollywood
Films made in 2006 500 1,050
Average cost of production dollars m60-100 dollars m5-20
Three biggest all-time grossers
at the Indian box office
Dhoom:2 (dir: Sanjay Gadhvi, 2006) $20.73m
Krrish (dir: Rakesh Roshan, 2006) $20.22m
Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (dir: Anil
Sharma, 2001) $19.80m
Three biggest-grossing films of
all time, worldwide
Titanic (dir: James Cameron, 1997) $1.85bn
Lord of the Rings: Return of the
King (dir: Peter Jackson 2003) $1.12bn
Pirates of the Caribbean, Dead
Man's Chest (dir: Gore
Verbinski, 2006) $1.07bn
Three biggest actors in India,
by career gross
Amitabh Bachchan $831.61m
Dharmendra $522.55m
Dilip Kumar $321.26m
One country, many voices:
the seven languages in Indian cinema
Hindi, Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam,
Tamil, Marathi, Telugu

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