FOR A MAN WHO CUTS DEALS for Bollywood A-listers such as Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Kareena Kapoor, Sunil Doshi comes across as a remarkably everyday guy. No blingy watch, just a basic Swatch—Bachchan’s son, Abhishek, gifted him a top-end Omega Deville a few years ago, but Doshi keeps that locked away; no big cars, only a Skoda Fabia hatch and a Honda Civic; and ordinary attire. What gives him away though are the jottings in ink in his Moleskine notebook (“Call Sanjay Dutt”; “Respond to Aishwarya Rai”; “Speak to Amitabh”.) and his Kindle, iPad, and a BlackBerry, which is buzzing forever. During the first interview with Fortune India, which lasted over two hours, he fielded 12 calls, despite having promised to take none.

Doshi is the quintessential middleman, with a talent for schmoozing. A couple of months ago, on his way to Paris, he ran into Mahindra & Mahindra group’s vice chairman and managing director Anand Mahindra at Mumbai’s international airport. He walked up to him and began a conversation “because Mahindra has an interest in movies”. (Mahindra studied film at Harvard University.) Nothing came of it though. “I’m always trying to join the dots to see what sort of deals I can come up with,” admits Doshi. Bollywood agents are always an anxious lot, their fortunes as fickle as those of the stars they manage. Unlike in Hollywood, where careers are managed by professional outfits such as William Morris Endeavor or the Creative Arts Agency, here it’s mostly individuals who are in charge. As director Karan Johar says, many of them just “book airline tickets and fix hair salon appointments”.

Also, stars rarely stick with their agents. Salman Khan’s business was managed by actor-brother Sohail Khan at one point. Now it’s run by Matrix, a talent management agency. Similarly, while Shah Rukh Khan may have done a few deals with Doshi, his business in recent years has been managed by Karim Morani, director, Cineyug Films, a production house and event management company. Morani is in jail in connection with the 2G telecom scam but members of his family still represent Shah Rukh, say industry insiders.

It is in this world of mass adulation, porcelain egos, big bucks, and sometimes shadowy deals, that Doshi has been a survivor. He has worked with most of the biggest names of the era, a collection unusual by Bollywood standards (see graphic). Most stars don’t like their agents working for too many others, but Doshi is an exception.

Vibha Paul Rishi, Future Group’s director of customer strategy and marketing, who headed marketing for PepsiCo, remembers Doshi from the mid-1990s when he had just started Alliance Media, an agency that worked with actors. Saif Ali Khan, Manisha Koirala, and Rani Mukherji were his first clients. “In her early days, Rani Mukherji wasn’t sure how a contract should be structured—one year, or multi-year. Doshi, with Mukherji, conducted himself as the friend of the family,” says Paul Rishi. The point she makes is Doshi had the ability to convince the stars that he was unfailingly on their side. He remembers that even today. “If I am acting as a custodian for a celebrity, I have to connect with her,” says Doshi.

He says he’s done business worth at least Rs 1,000 crore so far. This is just the endorsements, and not the money he may have made for them from movie roles, profit from films, etc. The number can’t be independently verified as Bollywood is immensely secretive, and disinformation, usually by competitors, is deliberate and rampant.

But his calling card in bright neon is that he’s been deal-meister to the Indian film industry’s biggest name, Amitabh Bachchan, for a decade and a half. He’s swung business worth Rs 500 crore for Bachchan, including the first season of TV show Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC). Bachchan admits that of all the people he’s worked with, Doshi’s done the maximum number of deals.

DOSHI’S IMPORTANCE AND ASCENDENCY lies in the way the Indian film industry has evolved. His story isn’t just about deal making in tinseltown, but equally a rare peek into how the place works. In the last two decades, as more and more companies have set up base in India, endorsements have emerged as the most potent weapon for companies waging market share battles.

A-list actors easily endorse between half a dozen to a dozen products in a year, besides appearing in store openings, performing at weddings, speaking at seminars, etc. So their income from endorsements and appearances can be as high as 70% of all earnings. In other words, the money they make from their core business—acting—is minuscule compared to their takings from elsewhere. This is unlike anywhere else in the world, be it the U.S., Korea, China, or France, places where movie-making flourishes.

Amit Khanna, chairman of Reliance Entertainment says that anyone can strike a deal here as long as the numbers are lucrative. “They are all brokers on the lookout for a deal, no different from real estate brokers.”

What separates Doshi from the others is the kind of deals he’s cracked, not just the number of deals per se (that too, he’s been remarkably consistent). As Atul Kasbekar, managing director of talent agency Bling, which competes with Doshi’s Alliance Media, points out, till KBC, no major league movie star did anything big on TV. “At that point, it was anathema. Almost absurd to consider it, but he [Doshi] set the tone for that,” says Kasbekar. Sure, you can argue that Bachchan’s troubles may have made a TV stint easier to accept, but equally, it had as much with Doshi’s ability to spot a format the superstar could do justice to. Kasbekar adds that, since then, Bollywood has gravitated towards the TV chat-show format.

And it’s again Doshi who took it to the next level. In 2001, Nestlé was seeking to add a dash of showbiz to its coffees and began preliminary talks with Doshi. He figured a conversation over coffee by stars would work nicely and took the idea to Johar. By then, Johar had delivered hits such as Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham... and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. But more importantly, he was a Bollywood child—the son of legendary film director, the late Yash Johar. Johar knew tinseltown’s intimate secrets and was a chatty conversationalist with impish humour who wasn’t above fanning the occasional controversy. That’s how, Koffee With Karan, now in its third season with consistently high television rating points, was created.

Johar believes that the show’s success has to do with the way in which Doshi married Nestlé’s objectives with his personality. “How I was positioned [by Doshi] reflected a corporate mindset and brand vision that operated on a much higher level than just being a deal about the money.” Johar has parleyed his chat-show success in to corporate speaking gigs such as the India Knowledge@Wharton during the Wharton India Economic Forum in Philadelphia.

Doshi’s insight: first, it’s always about the right fit. Omega Watches international vice president Raynald Aeschlimann “wanted a family with credibility, history, and respect”. Doshi’s solution—use the Bachchans, specifically Abhishek, as the brand ambassador.

SMART BOLLYWOOD AGENTS are faceless and egoless. Sunita Menon, a professional tarot card reader with a large fan base among actors, says ultimately it’s the agent’s ability to “manage” the star that ensures his longevity. How do you deal with a fading actor and tell him that he doesn’t make the cut? “Actors tend to be very watchful of competition and are highly insecure about the fall that usually follows any rise,” she says.

Those who know Doshi, including some of his detractors, say it’s his ability to stay nearly faceless that has ensured his survival. He never comes across as a threat.

In the late 1990s, Doshi signed on Govinda for a Mirinda ad. On the day of the shoot in Mumbai, he discovered that the actor had disappeared to Hyderabad. “We didn’t have a choice but to fly the crew down to Hyderabad,” says Doshi. There, Govinda’s entourage initially didn’t let him meet the actor. Late that evening when Doshi finally met Govinda, he was told that an astrologer had recommended any ad be shot in South India (Hyderabad), facing a certain direction, and only
at 7:10 p.m.

Does this anger Doshi? “In this business, I can’t afford to be angry,” he says. “Because the star is always bigger than me. That’s something many agents forget at times.”

It’s also about persistence. Doshi says, if hypothetically Bachchan dumps him, he’ll never build a wall between them. “For your star, you have to be aggressive to get a good deal. But, with the star, you have to be passive, even subservient. Ultimately, it’s a personality trait that makes a good Bollywood agent, much of which is influenced by the life that you’ve lived.”

HIS LIFE COULD WELL HAVE BEEN written by a scriptwriter. He was born in Chennai in 1961, but moved to Mumbai’s Malad when his father’s electronics business in the South went bust. P.S. Narayanan, a leftist Malayali neighbour and an accountant by profession, introduced Doshi to the movies, and the early stuff he saw were films such as Padre Padrone (award winner at Berlin and Cannes film festivals) and Christ Stopped at Eboli (Best Foreign Language film, BAFTA, 1983). Narayanan, who was involved in screening movies at Mumbai’s Iskcon temple, started taking Doshi along and there he met lyricist Gulzar. In turn, Gulzar helped Doshi find a berth in the Children’s Film Society of India, chaired then by Jaya Bachchan, Amitabh’s wife. That was the beginning of Doshi’s relationship with the first family of Indian cinema.

Not entirely convinced about a career in Bollywood, Doshi tried to join the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. He failed his first two attempts, but managed to get admission on the third. However, he couldn’t stump up IIMA’s tuition fees and became a salesman instead, selling soaps, newspapers, and, ultimately, telecom (for the Tatas, in Gujarat).

In 1993, the Bachchans started Saraswati Audio Visual, an entertainment company, and Jaya Bachchan brought Doshi over as its CEO. There, he got Amitabh Bachchan to endorse BPL for a two-year contract of Rs 75 lakh a year. That was 1993 and it was the first deal of its kind. By the following year, the Bachchans had set up Amitabh Bachchan Corporation (AB Corp.), a private equity-funded, one-stop entertainment conglomerate that would do everything from producing movies to hosting beauty pageants. Saraswati Audio Visual was folded into this company and along with it, its CEO.

The Bachchans wanted to run AB Corp. as a professionally managed outfit and brought in a legion of managers from India Inc., including a few MBAs from IIMA. Doshi didn’t quite fit in with this lot, and in 1996 was out of AB Corp.
By 1997, AB Corp. had gone bust thanks to a series of moves that backfired, chief among them the hosting of the Miss World 1996 pageant in Bangalore. Its professional team was dismissed, Amitabh Bachchan was drowning in debt, and his reputation in tatters.

Doshi, who had started Alliance Media by then, was recalled by the Bachchans, and he pulled off something that would define him as Bollywood’s smartest agent. NewsCorp-owned STAR India’s then CEO Peter Mukerjea, was looking to create a local version of the hit reality show from Britain, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Doshi parleyed to bring Bachchan on board as the show’s host, and KBC, now in its fifth season, was born. “Initially, Jayaji threw me out of the house because she thought I was exploiting him,” says Doshi. The resistance sorted itself out when Amitabh Bachchan was signed on for season one of KBC at Rs 10 lakh per episode. The TV quiz would ultimately power a second innings for Bachchan, when everyone had just about written him off.

It hasn’t been just a one-way street. Doshi’s used his proximity to the stars to break into the world of film production and has produced successful movies such as Bheja Fry and Mixed Doubles.

AND, AS HAPPENS ONLY in Bollywood, these days there are rumours swirling around that there’s a new kid on the block and Doshi’s days as Bachchan’s chief rep are over. Anirban Das Blah, head of Kwan, which handles the account of current heartthrob Ranbir Kapoor, has reportedly said that Bachchan is about to sign up exclusively with him. Blah has apparently snagged the superstar with a three-year contract that comes with a Rs 75 crore minimum guarantee. He refused to answer a direct question from Fortune India. In an e-mail reply, Bachchan said that so far his relationship with agents were on a case-by-case basis, but now he was “getting into an understanding of giving it [business] to one group”.

Doshi, for his part remains unmoved and shrugs nonchalantly. “I don’t know how exclusive it would be because I’ve just signed on a few new clients [for Bachchan] and renewed an existing one,” he says, adding that he’s fallen out with Bachchan at least three times. “So no big deal if it happens again.” The new contract Doshi is referring to is Bachchan endorsing Force Motor’s new 4x4; as Fortune India went to press, the campaign broke. He’s also signed Bachchan on for ICICI Bank, Tanishq (jewellery), and Just Dial (directory services) in the last four months.

Ultimately that’s Bollywood, where you win some and lose some, and never take your eyes off your back.

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