Anirban Blah, whose Twitter description laconically reads ‘Seeker, Contrarian.’ was in Delhi University studying literature when he saw Jerry Maguire. The 1996 comedy, celebrating an unlikely friendship between a sports agent and his fastidious client, left quite an impression on him. What struck him—and stayed with him—particularly was the term ‘Kwan’, spouted by Cuba Gooding Jr, in an attempt to explain to his agent, played by Tom Cruise, why other dudes may have the coin but can never have ‘Kwan’—an abbreviation for ‘love, respect, community and dollar.’
“Great word,” exclaims Cruise. Precisely, Anirban found himself repeating. The term would come back to him when an opportunity arose to help float a talent management agency in 2009. That’s how Kwan, which today manages some of Bollywood’s biggest stars, was born. Along with rival talent-management agencies such as Bling, Matrix and Carving Dreams Entertainment, Kwan controls about 70-80 per cent of the talent in films and modelling.
The emergence of the smooth-talking, sharp-suited, MNC-trained breed that Anirban typifies has changed the game in the past few years. It has effectively put the ‘Sirji’-type star secretary out of business. Even the most orthodox-minded stars have shifted loyalties and have signed up professional talent-management firms to handle their ‘accounts’.
For some stars, like Salman Khan, talent management has worked wonders. Khan, whose image was always a bit dodgy, has evolved into a powerful brand in recent years. Turns out it is the handiwork of Reshma Shetty of Matrix, his image-builder, endorsement-getter and script sounding board. So happy was Khan with Shetty that he recommended her to friend Sanjay Dutt. But like a true backstage artiste, she wishes to remain in the shadows: “We believe the spotlight should be on the celebrity, not the manager.”
Anirban has no such problem. He gamely speaks about Kwan’s latest catch—actress Deepika Padukone. The agency has helped her crack plum deals with Sanjay Leela Bhansali for a new film and another titled Kochadaiyaan with superstar Rajinikanth.
“To help her get the biggest films and endorsements is our job,” he says.
When they rope in a star, they promise a well-rounded image makeover. The star becomes a part of their family, reversing the old idea of secretaries becoming a part of the star’s family. But then, that is the clout people like Anirban and Shetty have. When they speak, the stars listen and nod. When Freida Pinto bagged a magazine award last year, she told the gathering that much before people had heard of Slumdog Millionaire, Anirban saw potential in her.
Anirban is from Shillong and grew up in a Westernised way. Music was more a part of his upbringing than Bollywood.
“We couldn’t even speak proper Hindi,” he grins.
So, he came to the movies as a rank outsider, both in terms of his familial roots and his corporate background. B-school graduates couldn’t even look at Bollywood as a career.
His major break came with Mahesh Bhupathi’s GloboSport. He reminds you that talent management actually first came to sports. Cricketers were professionally handled much before Bolly- wood stars. WorldTel’s Mark Mascaren- has’ famous deal with Sachin Tendulkar was India’s first taste of what talent management could achieve.
Subsequently, he met producer Madhu Mantena during Ghajini. They joined hands for Kwan. Change had already set in when Anirban came to Bollywood. Outsiders to old-world Bollywood had aready made inroads, and this eased the way for people like him. The ad industry, too, was on the cusp of change with the likes of Alyque Padamsee giving way to Piyush Pandey.
The old order was crumbling. “Tradi- tionally, Bollywood was about certain families that had grown up together as a Bandra-Juhu boys club. When I came in, what I call the ‘Delhi University Movement’ had already been on for a few years. The arrival of people with a slightly pan-Indian sensibility helped us all.”
There was big money at stake now. The stars realised that diary-keeping secretaries, with their knowledge limited to logistics, were incapable of handling big money. The star had now become an industry. He needed a team to manage him. “Big change came with organisational infrastructure. Kwan, for example, has 80 employees and has offices across the country. An individual can hardly compete with that kind of scale. If need be, we can arrange a manager in 45 minutes to discuss a project.”
The managers Anirban is referring to are everywhere. You will never see a star without one. They are from different agencies and they are young; both men and women on whom, to disprove Shaw, youth is not wasted. Their job is to be available to the star 24/7. And it’s a pressure job.
Sneha Bachani from Carving Dreams Entertainment, which keeps accounts for Hrishik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan and Bipasha Basu, is one such young manager. On her feet all the time, her schedule is as punishing as the artistes she manages. “You have to be there for your artiste day in, day out; if not personally, then at least on phone or email. There is a great deal of coordination. You have to schedule their movies, endorsements, personal appearances and even personal parties. You don’t have a minute to spare,” says Bachani.
Dealing with the star’s insecurities and tantrums can also be tough. “As a manager, you become a part of their daily lives, their ups and downs and their in securities. You become their 3 am friend,” she says.
But the 3 am friendship is not necessarily always helpful. Maybe because it’s not really a 3 am ‘friendship’ but a 3 am nanny service. Karishma Upadhyay, who was once working with Percept Talent Management, received a call at 3 am. It was one of her artistes. He had decided on a whim to visit Mumbai, and woke her up past midnight to book him into a hotel. Upadhyay, primarily a journalist but who has had several stints outside journalism, calls talent management her most difficult job yet. She left it within nine months because it left her with little ‘me-time.’
As an assorted platter and beverages arrive at Indigo Café, she says she always craved free time. Just then her phone rings and she is busy making another plan with a friend. Free time was an impossible luxury when she was managing artistes at Percept, she says.
Another manager reveals, on condition of strict anonymity, that once her artiste had recently undergone hair extension. Suddenly, she developed a head full of lice. She called her to complain about it, to which the puzzled manager now asks: “What can I do about her lice problem?” In another instance, we are told that the head of the talent management wing of an influential production house was carrying bags for an actress on a magazine shoot. The actress happened to be her boss’ girlfriend.
Managers are often treated with contempt. Upadhyay believes it can never be a relationship of equals. She points out that earlier, stars respected their secretaries. “Younger stars feel they are always right, unlike in the West, where the agent or manager is at the centre of important decisions,” she says.
Also, the agency-star relationship lacks the personal touch. And there is no loyalty. Stars frequently jump agencies, depending on who is offering a better bargain. By contrast, there was a time when secretaries were life-long companions. “Secretaries like Hari Singh, who handled Sridevi, never worked with her rivals, but he could work with Aishwarya Rai, who was a generation or two younger. Similarly, Rikku Rakesh Nath still remains loyal to Madhuri Dixit,” points out KS Sanjay, who was secretary to Juhi Chawla and Vidya Balan.
The war between old-time secretaries and talent management agencies is eviently out in the open. Rikku Rakesh Nath refuses to speak on the subject, promising to think it over and call back. But he never does.
Sanjay feels the talent management model won’t work because big stars just don’t need anyone to sell them. “Do you think Ranbir needs a talent management company to get work? He has so much work that he has to refuse on occasion,” he says. Unlike in the past, where you had to go through the secretary if you wanted to get in touch with a star, today the entire industry is on Twitter and Facebook. “Everyone has direct access to stars. If a client wants to work with Shah Rukh Khan, he can put it up on his Twitter page. How is an agency helping him get work?”
Revealing the workings of an agency, a disgruntled ex-manager says, “This model is faulty because most agencies use their top stars to sell the smaller ones. I remember an agency haggling with a magazine over a cover. They promised to let their top artiste, a model-turned actress, grace their cover only on condition that they would feature one of their lesser known actresses on the cover a few months later. When the magazine turned down their request, they threatened to pull the actress out of their award show, but to their shock, she landed up at the show with her boyfriend, who was a special invitee.”
Sanjay accuses talent agencies of not knowing Bollywood well enough. “They are good for endorsements. They have introduced stars to lucrative television commercial deals, but they don’t know much about films. They don’t understand that movies are the mainstay. A star gets ads only on the basis of his popularity and popularity comes to him/her only through films.”
Anirban thinks this perception is more or less correct, but is quick to point out: “We realise that the bread and butter for stars comes from films. In fact, someone like Madhu Mantena comes from a strong film background. So, for us, the movie side of things are as important.”
For most agencies, the consultancy fee ranges from 10 to 15 per cent. In the old days, a secretary sometimes received a commission on films (usually 10 per cent) and sometimes drew a salary, depending usually on what the star in question preferred.
Sanjay, wearing bright pyjamas with a white kurta and stylish prescription glasses that gleam in the light, could pass off as one of those very men—like Anirban—who have taken over his business. It’s 10 pm and Sanjay’s flat at Seven Bungalows, Andheri, is quiet but messy with things strewn around. An unattended laptop is perched on a bedroom breakfast table. A few copies of Green magazine are scattered about. Sanjay, who started working with Juhi Chawla immediately after Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, is not threatened by the success of talent managers.
“Her (Juhi Chawla’s) mother said, ‘We are also new, you are also new, why not work together?’ That’s how I started,” Sanjay recalls.
That kind of luck, he says, is unthinkable today. “Nowadays, everything is about contracts. Those days, it was a matter of trust; there was less paperwork,” he says.
With Vidya Balan, too, it was a relationship of unspoken faith. “I remember Vidya’s father telling me when we met the first time, ‘Sanjay, please don’t mind if I keep asking you questions about the business. We don’t know anyone here.’”
When Sanjay was starting out, secretaries like Pankaj Kharbanda, Madan Arora, Hari Singh and Rikku Rakesh Nath were legendary figures. They were also very efficient, he vouches. “There is a story I’d heard years ago. I am not sure if it’s true, but Sridevi was to shoot for the song Na Jaane Kahan Se from Chaalbaaz and she had high fever. Hari Singh, who was her secretary, told her that she must finish the song because she had to travel abroad or something afterwards. To encourage her, he himself got drenched in the rain and said, ‘Please madam, do it now. Look, I am also drenched.’”
Sanjay has sympathy for his breed. He feels Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Abhimaan, with Asrani playing the faithful old hand to Amitabh Bachchan’s superstar singer, was an accurate depiction of how things once were. “The secretaries have given their life to this business. You may not agree with their ways, but they did good work. The fact that they have less work today is a bit tragic.”
But he doesn’t seem worried in the least about his own future. “I am on a break. I want to write a book,” he says. The sabbatical apparently has nothing to do with the fierce competition from agencies.
“Come on, just like stars, we work on luck too. Can anybody take your destiny away from you?”