Trouble is no stranger to serial entrepreneur and Zee-founder Subhash Chandra’s life.
The recent slump in the stock market fortunes of Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd (ZEEL) and Dish TV India, related to Essel Group’s link with a company under investigation by Serious Fraud Investigation Office (SFIO), is just one of the many times chairman Subhash Chandra has found himself in a difficult position. Especially, at a time when he has been trying to divest up to 50 per cent of his stake in Zee TV.
Media mogul living on the edge
Chandra, the 68-year-old founder of Zee TV, India’s first privately owned entertainment channel with 1.3 billion viewers in 173 countries and the flagship company of the nearly $3-billion Essel Group, is familiar with life on the edge. It has seen him taking on, albeit unwittingly, Dhirendra Brahmachari, Indira Gandhi’s powerful yoga guru, on rice exports to the erstwhile Soviet Union between 1981 and 1987 – something he revealed with delightful candour in his autobiography, The Z Factor: My Journey As The Wrong Man At The Right Time. He has been in confrontation with his one-time ally and the world’s most powerful media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, over Hindi programming on Star Plus. He has made formidable enemies in the past, not the least of whom is Mukesh Ambani, over a story he ran on Zee TV given by friend Mukesh Patel. And he has, time and again, switched loyalties—his own and those of his media platform—because the political establishment of the day did not back his cause, as he often portrayed himself as the Swadeshi David against the Videshi Goliath, whether it was Star TV’s hiring of former IAS officer Rathikant Basu as CEO in 1996 or its planned entry into Direct-to-Home TV in 1997.
The most recent example of Chandra’s political gymnastics was in 2012, when Delhi Police named him in a First Information Report (FIR) after two senior editors of Zee News allegedly tried to extort Rs 100 crore from former Congress MP Naveen Jindal to tone down their mention of him in a coal scam in which he was allegedly involved. In his book, Chandra writes the FIR “had the blessings of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi,” and adds that it was an “unjust act” by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. “In response, I personally supported Narendra Modi’s campaign for prime ministership.” The support has extended to almost every aspect of the ideology represented by the prime minister’s party and extended parivar, and Zee News seems to frequently plays fast and loose with video footage to raise the bogey of national security. This, despite Chandra’s formerly close relationship with the Gandhi family, so much so that when he fell short of money to lease a transponder for Zee TV, it was Rajiv Gandhi who helped him mobilise $400,000 from an anonymous London-based friend.
In a life dotted as much with colour as with controversy, Subhash Chandra, who also sometimes calls himself Subhash Chandra Goel, has been a serial entrepreneur, if not always a successful one.
Born to a grain merchant, the family business collapsed when he was 18 forcing him to drop out of the Government Polytechnic where he was studying. He started running his family flour-mill and after four years of struggle, managed to clear the debt of Rs 5 lakh. Starting off as a rice exporter, in 1983, he took a risk by going into the production of plastic tubes, used in packaging products like toothpaste, which till then largely used aluminium. In 1988, Chandra launched a sprawling amusement park in Mumbai called EsselWorld. In 1992, he had the gumption to pay $5 million a year, four times the market price, as transponder cost to Li Ka-Shing, then owner of Star TV. Chandra was the first to set up a satellite phone company in India and a private cricket league, Indian Cricket League, much before the IPL was a gleam in the eye of Lalit Modi. He was also perhaps one of the pioneering disciples of Vipassana, the ancient Indian meditation technique, which now has followers as diverse as Congress general secretary for UP (east) Priyanka Gandhi and Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari.
Having resigned as chairman of Zee TV in 2016, he became a member of the Rajya Sabha, and if ever evidence was needed of his influence among politicians it was at the launch of his biography at 7 Race Course Road (now Lok Kalyan Marg), by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the presence of an all-star, all-party cast including Mulayam Singh Yadav, Sushil Kumar Shinde, and Manohar Parrikar.
But Chandra was not always so respectable. Since founding Zee TV in 1992, he became known as a serial killer of CEOs, with a tendency to speak in rather ‘unchaste’ Hindi. He would smoke Pataka Bidi No. 502, sport sharp Armani suits, delight in conspiring against his rivals, and easily fly into a rage with his staff—as he told me in an interview in India Today in 2016, “Pehle toh haath bhi uth jaata tha, thappad maar deta tha.” Vipassana turned his life around, so much so that he didn’t hesitate to impart his philosophical learning in a self-titled programme on his channel, the ‘Dr Subhash Chandra Show’. He also built the 325-feet Global Vipassana Pagoda, a replica of Myanmar’s 2,000-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, near Esselworld, as a tribute to his late guru S.N. Goenka.
He has come a long way from Hisar. Media analyst Amit Khanna who has known him from the early years says his biggest ability is his risk taking. “He created a great brand in Zee TV, but he changed senior professionals far too often. Also, he diversified into areas where he has neither the scale nor the expertise. He has to keep both his ambition and politics in check to stay in the top league,” he adds.
What got him there was also his faith in talent.
Managing from the gut
In those halcyon, initial days of satellite TV, Chandra showed great instincts: betting on production editor at Zee, Gajendra Singh, to direct ‘Antakshari’, the country’s first musical reality show and persuading print journalist Rajat Sharma to do a weekly celebrity interview show, Aap ki Adalat, which was unusual for its rudeness, however artificial it was. Founder of Spatial Access, the country’s leading media audit and advisory company, and his “number one fan”, Meenakshi Madhvani who was with Zee TV between 1994 and 1996 remembers Chandra with fondness, calling him one of her three gurus – the other two being ad legends Alyque Padamsee and Shunu Sen. Madhvani says, “SC manages from the gut. If he believes in you, he supports you but his trust in you is fragile and needs to be earned and retained every day you work with him. It puts an incredible load on his direct reportees. Many of them did not realise this simple truth.”
“With SC, you are only as good as your last delivery, not the one before. You cannot let the grass grow under your feet. His inability to take anything at face value is, in fact, the incredible uniqueness of the man,” she added. She describes this aspect with an anecdote: It was the Diwali season, a jewellery box landed on her desk, sent by an agency that belonged to one of his distant relatives. It had four gold bangles. She took it to Chandra and said she would be returning them, but he needed to know since it was a relative. He laughed and asked her to have the bangles tested since he knew that particular relative was a skinflint. He also told her that they would never take back the gift and that she should keep it if she liked. There was no way she was going to keep the bangles. She attempted to return them but the people who gave them refused to take them back claiming she was insulting Lakshmi. So, she donated them to non-profit organisation CRY, and asked CRY to send the donation receipt to the agency owners. They were shocked and upset. Chandra was amused and relieved. She had passed his test. “That was our relationship. SC threw challenges at me and in most cases, I was able to handle them. His management style is unique. His approach to issues absolutely hatke.”
Madhvani says Subhash Chandra is a manager who manages through his emotional hold and control over the people who work with him. He is like a benevolent parent who can turn into a tyrant on a whim. But this is often a well-planned drama. “He showed me how to use emotions in managing people. How to harness the constructive nature of anger, affection and attitude,” she said.
Chandra also understood the power of news, which got politicians to take him seriously when he launched a daily television news bulletin in 1994 with Rajat Sharma. “My profile and reputation in the government changed after the news bulletin started airing on Zee TV,” he wrote in his autobiography. Not surprisingly, a 24X7 news channel followed in 1995.
For a man who could see the future of satellite television even when it was a free-for-all, the inability to keep pace with digital developments must be galling. Iqbal Malhotra has seen him closely since the years when he was a political adviser to Executive Co-chairman of Fox Corporation, Rupert Murdoch, in 1993-1994. As Malhotra says, “His biggest personal disappointment has been his inability to overtake both Star TV and Bennett Coleman despite being an early starter. Now that the broadcast industry is in the twilight zone, he is anxious to sell a large stake in Zee before valuations go tumbling down.”
There is hope. In October, ZEEL became the first Indian entertainment company to take its OTT video service, ZEE5, to over 190 countries. So far, only international players such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have a global presence of this scale. The company, according to a report in The Economic Times, is looking for global strategic partners to foray into virtual reality, augmented reality, Internet of Things and 3D printing to build a robust platform beyond traditional audio-visual content. It will need money for this—which is why the stake sale is important. There is enormous interest in Zee’s library from telecom majors hungry for content. Indeed, as Chandra said in an interview last year: “The bride has many suitors.”
Now it’s for Subhash Chandra to ensure the perfect match. As Madhvani says: “SC taught me that business is less about money and more about motivation. It’s that fire in the belly that keeps you alive. The rest is all on the balance sheet.”
The writer is a senior journalist
Read Global Pulse for a sampler of the big international stories, and why they matter.