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BW Businessworld

Sheer Luck? No Way

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When it comes to luck, few of us will admit to getting more than our share. Does this sound familiar? Other people are lucky. I carry on despite being dealt a losing hand. I’m not successful because I haven’t been gifted a wealthy family, proper education, ready funding for my business. ‘Luck,’ David Levien writes, ‘always seems like it belongs to someone else.’ I know a lot of people who would agree. Maybe you do as well.

But I’m not a big believer in luck. Not if by luck you mean that any one person or business has an inherent advantage over another. I do believe you could be in the right place at the right time in your career. Taking advantage of this, however, requires effective planning, a high level of preparedness and openness, and an evolving mindset.

But one of the most prevalent and persistent obstacles in the path of entrepreneurship in India today is the notion that luck, or its lack, plays a major role in how successful (or not) you’ll be when you unleash your ideas into action. At all stages of your journey, you need to downplay the idea of luck as a necessary ingredient for building strong businesses. Rather, the real source of success is people who generate their own breaks by working hard and focusing on a goal....Wealth in no way ensures success. Life is about the next ten years and more, not just today, and the law of averages works for each of us—leaders, professionals, entrepreneurs—just as it does for everybody else. Come to think of it, the ingredients that make all great leaders or entrepreneurs look a whole lot like the recipe for luck.

the first time we sought to go public at UTV, the markets crashed. The second time? Right into the tank. After that one, some investment banker made a snide remark in passing. ‘Hey, Ronnie, are you planning to go public? Because if you are, I’m exiting the market.’ Even though he was joking, his point was valid. I wasn’t someone with tailwind on my side. And if I hadn’t developed a thick skin over the years, I would have taken those remarks personally and thought, I’m never going public! Twice. Come on! What are the odds? I’m unlucky!

When I had some time to think about it rationally, I wondered, Why the hell am I sitting here with the weight of the world on my shoulders? Global markets have crashed. Who am I to think this has anything to do with me, that the cosmos cares in the least about my public  offering? Hundreds of thousands of people must have suffered the same setback or worse.... When the team and I envisioned Hungama, many media observers, colleagues and others saw the channel’s eventual success and its subsequent sale to Disney as a stroke of luck. Not true. The idea worked because of a laser vision, tremendous planning, disruptive programming and bold marketing. Most of all, we went with our gut and stuck with our convictions. As I think of it now, I recall it was one hell of a lot of hard work, a great deal of fun and excitement and very little luck.

People only believe in coincidences when it’s convenient for them to do so. We had a similar experience in movies. After a solid track record of almost ten years in the industry, I still hear from people all the time, ‘Wow, you caught a few breaks to get to the top, didn’t you?’ As if the odds were always in our favour, the outcome a foregone conclusion.

Maybe I should be encouraged by the great numbers of people who seem to have forgotten how many times we failed over the years. The truth is, as outsiders, we put ourselves out there on the high wire without a net. To fail and not to rebound would have proven our detractors right. Our greatest successes in film had little to do with lucky breaks. We brought persistence, a strong understanding of the market and the audience, confidence in our team and the director’s vision, a gut for good scripts, a deep desire to push the envelope and a willingness to do whatever it took to bring it all to the big screen. When our movies flopped, and many did, were we unlucky? When they were big hits, had we got lucky? Neither.

Exactly how much the odds were stacked up against us and how little luck had to do with the outcome came home to me during one particularly interesting interaction with Rupert Murdoch. When News Corp still owned a good part of UTV, I was in Los Angeles to meet Murdoch in his frugal suite: a modest office (for the leader of one of the world’s largest media companies) with an adjoining meeting room that held a maximum of eight, and a small outer space for his two executive assistants. After a twenty-minute chat on the overall India macroeconomic scenario and an update on the media industry, he got up from his chair and walked me over to an old aerial photograph of what would eventually become Beverly Hills and Century City.

‘You see this massive patch of land? The buildings? Fox owned all of it. When Cleopatra bombed in 1963, the company was forced to sell three-fourths of it. The company was left with this,’ he said, tapping his finger on a much smaller parcel. ‘It’s some of the most expensive real estate in the world today.’ He smiled as we moved towards the outer office. ‘Of course, all that was before my time, before I bought Fox.’

Murdoch wasn’t really making a specific point. UTV had yet to even consider getting into the movie business. But his message was clear. Business, at its core, can be unpredictable and fragile. Those trucks can come barrelling your way at any time. Despite your biggest, most  disappointing setbacks, you can and do move on. After all, here was a leader talking about his insights with pride and clarity. Although he could easily have afforded the best art in the world, Murdoch decorated his conference room with a memento mori. Not by accident.

As I walked to the parking lot, I thought about my conversation with Murdoch. The world sees Cleopatra as one of the magnum opuses of all time, a grand success that swept the Oscars that year. My mind goes back to the wonderful chemistry between screen legends Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and I can only think of that film as a classic. As with most things in life, there’s another side to every story.

one of my most important lessons from the media and entertainment business was not taking anything for granted. We took big risks and had the gumption to back them, digging our heels in when necessary. Those challenges allowed us, forced us, to build a robust, resilient organization. We created opportunities where we could attract more partners because we situated ourselves at the right crossroads, looking at scale when we broke through with innovation. Sometimes, we also got it wrong.

Higher risks pay higher rewards. That might sound like luck. It’s anything but. What we discovered, and what so many entrepreneurs who stay the course and make their own ‘luck’ discover, is that the outcome is in direct proportion to the risk and effort. However, it sure as hell wasn’t all roses. On more than one occasion, I waited alone to take that final call, not knowing if our next product would succeed or crash and burn under its own weight. But on each occasion, I felt I was in the right place at the right time with the right offering, the right team, the right effort and the right instinct…and when you put so many rights together with passion and the desire to climb, you push yourself to the summit. And when things go wrong, as they so often do, you need the resilience and maturity to accept, recalibrate, communicate, fix, learn and move forward. Blame it on bad luck after so much preparation and you’re only fooling yourself.

Because I was so enamoured with the idea of becoming an entrepreneur, I embraced the uphill climb from those early days, understanding that when I tested my limits, planned for the future and committed to a clear vision with a strong team, I would make my own luck. With nothing ventured, how can even Lady Luck help you?

the days leading up to the premiere of Rang De Basanti provided interesting learnings in innovation and resilience. It was also a movie that—once it had released and become a runaway success at the box office—became known to a lot of media-watchers as a lucky strike. Despite how groundbreaking we knew the film could be, it wasn’t easy to greenlight. ...When we saw the rough cuts, our team was riding high in anticipation of the movie’s reception. But we were in for a big surprise. When it was time to get our censor certificate, usually a formality, the chair of the censor board called me with some bad news. ‘We are not ready to issue the censor certificate,’ was the apology. ‘Not that we found anything offensive about your film, just that we want you to get approval from the air force and the defence ministry before we sign off.’

When news of the censor board’s concerns came in, we rallied the troops and planned a meeting with Rakeysh, Aamir and the other principals. By the time we gathered at Aamir’s place in Bandra, the censor board chairman had got back to me with some additional news. ‘Look, we’re trying to get a special screening organized tomorrow on an emergency basis with the head of the air force,’ she said, trying her best to sound helpful. ‘We just want them to see the movie.’ I knew the censor board was just doing their job. As much as I disliked the thought of not getting a censor certificate, it was a no options directive, for sure. No one had objected outright to the movie. Until we got the sensitivities out of the way, though, Rang De Basanti wasn’t going anywhere.

We went to Delhi and held the screening as scheduled. The scene outside the auditorium was surreal—Bollywood, the purveyor of fantasy, rubbing elbows with the most powerful military leaders in the country. ...Inside, we had our second shock: Not only was the head of the air force in attendance, but the heads of the army and the navy, as well as the then defence minister, Pranab Mukherjee. Sharmila Tagore was there as chairman of the censor board, as well as one of the film’s leading ladies, Waheeda Rehman, who played Ajay Rathod’s mother in the film. .

Two-and-a-half hours later when the lights came up, Rakeysh, Aamir and I went in front of the group to answer questions. The heads of the army and the navy both liked the film and had little to say. ‘I really enjoyed the movie, too. What’s the problem?’ the defence minister asked with a shrug. In Rang De Basanti, much of the blame for Ajay’s death falls on the shoulders of the defence minister. Clearly, Pranab Mukherjee wasn’t bothered by the parallel.

The last to speak was the head of the air force, who looked pointedly at each of us while composing his thoughts. ‘Mr Khan, Mr Mehra, Mr Screwvala, thank you for sharing your work with us,’ he said, choosing his words carefully. ‘I think it’s a fine movie. We’ve never done this before,’ he made a sweeping motion with his arm to the assembled audience, ‘and we would never censor a movie except under extreme circumstances. You should do whatever you plan on doing. Go ahead and release the film.’

After coming within a hair’s breadth of having our film made irrelevant by an unfavourable censor hearing, we couldn’t have bought more or better publicity. News of the meeting was on prime time news for an entire week after the screening. A part of me understands that if the film hadn’t been released, we’d have had different challenges. I’m equally confident that, even in that case, we’d have worked to find solutions. At the end of the day, when your job is to lead, you’ll adapt to the circumstances that are presented to you and move forward with the best intentions.

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 20-04-2015)