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BW Businessworld

Entrepreneur: Creating History

Welcome to the magic of Lord of Battles, a Dehradun- based company where master craftsmen create a whole medieval world with costumes, armour, and battle gear so that film audiences lose themselves to the bygone era of kings and queens and castles and conspiracies.

Photo Credit : Ritesh Sharma

Few can claim they were not mesmerised by Thorin Oakenshield as he leads the charge on a quest to reclaim the lonely mountain from the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit. Scores remain awe-struck by Jon Snow as he takes on the world, wielding the Longclaw, his legendary sword in the Game of Thrones; and spellbound is the word as Merlin the wizard helps King Arthur return magic to the kingdom of Camelot.

So what is the thread that binds these fabled heroes and these period stories? It is a mid-size Indian manufacturing unit that has taken Hollywood by fire and brimstone. Welcome to the magic of Lord of Battles, a Dehradun- based company where master craftsmen create a whole medieval world with costumes, armour, and battle gear so that film audiences lose themselves to the bygone era of kings and queens and castles and conspiracies.

Lucky Order
Lord of Battles had quite a serendipitous beginning with Capt. Saurabh Mahajan seeking an early retirement from his regiment to assist his father, a retired colonel, in running his adventure company, Colonel’s Adventures. In the early days, Mahajan chanced upon an Australian lady in the January chill of 2005, who gauging Mahajan’s penchant for the exotic, handed him a $1,500 contract to manufacture and export battle gear for a re-enactment company in New Zealand.
Capt. Mahajan came through with flying colours, and then there was no looking back. “I wanted to do something in the civil sector, and I was still exploring possibilities when this lady gave me something I was interested in — I loved history and medieval times, even though in the first order I didn’t earn much; but I learned the nuances of running a manufacturing export house,” says Mahajan, sitting in his quaint Dehradun office, with the Mussoorie hills behind him, listening to Justin Bieber songs.

The proficiency Mahajan exhibited Down Under soon began to echo in Europe, and it wasn’t long before in March 2005 that he bagged another contract from Swords from Toledo, a Spanish firm excelling in manufacturing, buying and reselling handcrafted swords, chainmails, medieval gambesons, costumes, armours, and other weaponry of the medieval era. The gear was sourced for a variety of performances, including re-enactment, fencing and live action role playing (LARP), a very popular form of game in Europe and Russia, where the participants physically act out their fictional characters in a live setting.

Mahajan met the deadlines with ease and élan. “I got the items manufactured by craftsmen who made metal items, including auto components, and five years later built my own manufacturing unit with the same set of craftsmen,” says Mahajan, founder and managing director of Lord of Battles.

With two consecutive ‘victories’ under his belt, Mahajan was now all set to take the plunge, and Lord of Battles (LoB) was born. The company today manufactures replicas of medieval era weapons like helmets, gauntlets, suits of armour, painted decorative shields, daggers, axes made of mild steel and a whole range of antediluvian accessories including leather satchels and other products, items made of buffalo horns and more such wonders. LoB is registered as a small scale production unit as all products are handmade, and are crafted in a two-acre manufacturing unit in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh. It has 70 full-time artisans including women, and it encourages local Muslim women to work from home to make products such as chain mails.

Perfecting History
The order size varies from 20 feet to 40 feet containers that cost between Rs 40-80 lakh per shipment. “Movies like Runestone can fetch you a huge order, while a theatre act like Morte d’ Arthur will give you a relatively small one. In a year, we get 20-25 orders for movies, theatre, re-enactment and LARP. They are either shipped or sent by air. The copyright is bought by the companies, who buy the items in the respective countries.

“There is a huge market in Europe, UK, US, Japan and Russia. It is my aim now to select distributors and companies that exclusively sell and re-sell medieval items that we specialise in; like the Berlin-based Zeughas, which only resells medieval era items manufactured by us,” says Mahajan.

He has also been a supplier to movies like Game of Thrones’ season 4 and 5, The Hobbit, the famous play Morted’Arthur by London-based Royal Shakespeare Company, TV series Bastard Executioner, Russian movie Kolovrat, The Treasures of Lake Kaban, and French movie Excalibur, amongst others. He has also supplied khukris, the Nepali half sword, to three Gorkha regiments in London. “We supply around 500 khukris per year for gifting purpose,” adds Mahajan.

Now, what makes Mahajan’s products so special? The answer lies in ‘mild steel iron’, high carbon steel EN 45, the raw material used to make the products. Then titanium is imported from China, and buffalo leather from Africa, along with brass and oak wood from Europe. “The clients demand high quality, and insist on strict adherence to timelines,” says Mahajan. Being from an army background helped him deliver on time, apart from keeping the production process disciplined, and meticulous. “This is the reason why my clients WETA Workshops and Pinewood Studios give me huge amounts of work,” says Mahajan chuckling.

“There is also huge respect and market for this kind of business. Once we were given a standing ovation by the Royal Shakespeare Society,” recalls a proud Mahajan.

Big Bucks
The UK-based firm FB FX, a leading supplier of SFX costumes and medieval era battle gear to the film and entertainment industry, is a major client of LoB. It has provided a wide range of SFX costumes for recent Hollywood blockbusters like The Martian, Exodus, Guardians of the Galaxy, Wonder Woman and Prometheus 1 & 2.

Another big name in this space where LoB’s big business comes from is Wellington-based Weta Workshop that manufactures and supplies fantasy armour, costumes and hand-made weapons to mega-budget movies like Avatar, Tom Cruise starrer Edge of Tomorrow, Elysum, and Robin Hood, amongst others.

“In the past 10 years, we must’ve supplied to hundreds of Hollywood, Russian and French movies, and most of them we are not even aware of because the products come through the prop companies,” informs Mahajan. He has to sign a pile of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) before signing a deal with these firms. “Imagine if the Captain America shield is leaked before the release of the movie! The filmmakers will lose billions of dollars, therefore strict confidentiality needs to be maintained,” says a visibly cautious Mahajan. He recalls he lost an order worth $8,000, when a friend posted a visual of a new product on a social media site much before the release. “Once bitten twice shy, I have never invited any friend ever since I lost the contract,” says Mahajan.

LoB’s 60 per cent revenues come from creating re-enactments and LARP, while 20 per cent comes from the more exciting area of creating sets for movies and theatre. The rest 20 per cent from schools that teach sword fighting, like a company called Jousting in New Zealand. The company also plans to ramp up its revenue from the gift and souvenir market, where the potential is huge.

Czech Republic and Poland are big markets for the manufacture and sale of these items, while India occupies the third position, but it’s predicted that it will eventually outshine the others on account of cheap labour and competitive pricing. Interestingly, the labour cost in Europe is €14 per hour, while in India it is just €3 per hour.

“We could be the market leader in another two-three years, but a lot of business continues to go to the Czech Republic as they have been perfecting the craft for years. But we can still beat them because of the price advantage we have,” feels Mahajan. He has been contacted by Warner Brothers for an epic drama that is yet to be announced. The craft has a huge future, as he feels there will be a 30 per cent jump in period films in Hollywood.

Studios of these mega-budget period and epic movies and series like The Hobbit, Thor, Captain America, Game of Thrones, and many others sell the costumes, battle gear, armour, weaponry of their popular characters as souvenirs, miniatures, gift items; and there are websites that exclusively sell movie memorabilia. One Medieval Collectibles sells exclusively these items where a brooch will cost $4.5 and a Witch King costume worn in The Hobbit will be for $132. “We supply to museums, castles, gift shops, both miniatures and functional items like swords and others. Besides, we supply chains, koftgiris, and armour directly to the Wallace Collection, the Tower of London as well as the Leeds Museum in London” says Mahajan.

The Horizon
Two years back, we started manufacturing nautical items, as in the West, the charm of the sea beckons all and sundry. “People in the US want to deck up their house like a ship, so we supply such items to interior designers, who in turn transform thousands of houses spread across the world into ocean liners, yachts, pirate ships and tugboats. It is a huge market for us,” says Mahajan. He plans to have local distributors across Europe as in countries like France, Spain and Italy, apart from Germany and Sweden, the re-enactment and LARP performances are picking up in a big way.

“An assortment of gift shops sell our items in Italy, and there is huge potential beyond that, which we are going to tap,” says Mahajan.

The possibilities are limitless as long as Mahajan puts his finger on the right kind of history product and medieval nostalgia that we all like to identify with.

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Twitter: @monicabehura