All of these ideas bothered me for many weeks (even today Essel World is not the destination I would like it to be). I was looking for a way to meet the entertainment needs of people. Then I heard of one Dr J.K. Jain of Delhi. A BJP member, he called his company Jain TV, though he had no TV channel then. But he had started something very smart.
He had built about eight to ten vans that had a video projector and screen. He would rent them out to political parties for their election campaign. The parties would take them to different constituencies and play their campaign films. I read about this in the papers. This was 1990.
I asked my team how many districts there were in the country.
They came back in a few hours and said about 600. I thought I would place one video van in each district across the country. And that at one point during the day, at 6 or 7 p.m., we would show the same entertainment show on all 600 screens for the local viewers.
We thought it would be a great idea to embed ads in the shows to earn our revenues. We would get our money from the ads while the viewer would not pay to watch the show. The van would play the show in one town on one day and then move to another location. After every two weeks, we would change the programmes.
But before acting on this idea, I appointed a couple of executives to do a detailed study of the rules, regulations and taxes related to entertainment in each state. I had been so badly burnt by the Essel World launch that I did not want to take any chances.
When I got the report I realised it was going to be close to impossible. Each state had a maze of regulations on entertainment. Even if we were not to charge money for a ticket, the government would levy some tax on us. That would make it unviable for us. Secondly, the local cinema owners would see us as a threat. They would prevent us from hosting these shows in the vans. There was a fear of being attacked by them, too.
Then I thought of another audacious idea, that of setting up a high-power transmitter on a Himalayan peak in Nepal and beam shows to India, and cover the rest of the country from the waters, as India is surrounded by sea on three sides. I imagined the coastal area and the hinterland could be covered by putting up large barges in the sea mounted with high-power transmitters.
I was so tired of the strange and restrictive regulations that I wanted to operate in places where I would be free of them.
Transmitters in Nepal and the seas would keep me away from regressive thinking of state and Central governments.
I contacted an industry leader in Nepal and asked for his help. He suggested that we meet with officials working with the king of Nepal to explore the idea. I travelled to Kathmandu and, with a Nepali friend, went to discuss this idea with a senior official in the king’s office.
But the official declined to help. He said it would be impossible for them to help if the Government of India did not allow such transmission. I even met the Indian ambassador to Nepal. He actually laughed at the concept. I had no choice but to drop this idea.
I went back to the drawing board to think of new ways of reaching people’s homes. Then, a couple of months later, the Gulf War broke out. It was the beginning of 1991. My friends would invite me to hotels to watch CNN’s coverage of the war. Some hotels had acquired satellite dishes to receive signals of CNN in their rooms.
This struck a chord with me. I began to wonder why entertainment could not be shown to the Indian public using such satellite dishes. I started asking around about it. I learnt that the government-run Doordarshan (DD) network was already using a satellite to connect all its centres to beam its shows. I asked friends in Mumbai what a satellite was and how it helped beam shows. But nobody seemed to know anything more than the terms. They only knew it was some great new technology being used by CNN and DD.
Then I thought of a friend of mine from Hisar who was in school with me, Gulshan Sachdeva. He was working in DD as a producer. I contacted him with some difficulty and met him in Delhi.
I explained that I was exploring the possibility of starting a television station with entertainment programming.
He did not believe that it was possible by a private sector person as it would require a huge infrastructure. DD had thousands of transmitters throughout the country and it had more than 50,000 employees and equipment worth hundreds of crores.
However, I insisted that I had to do it. My stubborn streak was active. I was restless about doing something new. Once I got a sense of how TV broadcast worked I was excited by it. For me it was even more exciting that no one in the private sector had tried it. It is a cliché, but I did not believe anything was impossible.
Once I was convinced of the need to start a project, I would be dogged about it. I had courage of conviction that went beyond my abilities. For instance, I had started speaking English but I was miserable at it. I would speak in broken English. But that did not embarrass me at all. I felt unless I tried it, I would not improve.
I think a sense of daring also guided my instincts. I was getting ready to get into a totally new activity that had no precedent in India. After my success in bringing laminated tubes to India and launching an amusement park, I was confident.
I had been able to face challenges from global companies like HLL and I had been able to build the country’s first privately-owned amusement park. There was no reason why I should not attempt to get into the broadcasting sector.
Here again I would credit Dadaji for my attitude. I would be daring enough to jump into situations that would scare others. I did not fear anything. This lack of fear was the legacy of my Dadaji. He used to say that people feared death most. But death comes only once. Why should anyone be scared of something that happened only once.
I was also a thrill-seeker. If a project did not challenge or thrill me, I could not commit to it. I sought a sense of conquest with every new idea that I adopted.
To me, being the first entrant in a business was more important than being the last. Many businessmen enter a sector when it is mature and has many players. I prefer to be the first. I want to remain in number 1 or strong number 2 position, nothing less than that. I don’t like entering a crowded sector. By being the first in a sector, you can guide and shape its evolution.
Excerpted with permission from The Z Factor: My Journey as the Wrong Man at the Right Time, Subhash Chandra with Pranjal Sharma, HarperCollins India.