Small Business

Bollywood, Here I Come!


By Vivek Wadhwa

After 25 years as a geek, hacker, programmer, project manager, chief technology officer, and finally, chief executive officer of a technology company, I have added a new title to my resumé: Bollywood film producer. And I owe it all to a heart attack, venture capitalists, and my son. My story is a simple one. I spent five years running at top speed to build a software outfit called Relativity Technologies, which helps modernize their legacy computer systems. Relativity received worldwide recognition and in 2001, a top business magazine named it one of the world's 25 "coolest" companies.

Like all other tech players, the dot-com crash hit us hard. To make ends meet, we had to lay off good employees and raise more money. We believed so much in our company that my management team and I personally invested the first $1 million in a $5 million round of financing. After we succeeded in getting back to solid growth and profits, I decided to take a much needed vacation.

HEART OF THE MATTER. It must have been the lack of Internet access on my Caribbean cruise that led to a massive heart attack. I woke up in the hospital glad to be alive. While still in the Critical Care Unit, I received a phone call saying that my investors felt the need to renegotiate the terms of the current financing. Two days later and still bandaged, I left the hospital and walked, uninvited, into a closed-door meeting, where investors were trying to convince my executive team to accept more money for a revised agreement that would give them majority ownership. I flatly refused, and ended the meeting.

My friends sent me lots of "get well" flowers. My investors sent me a letter demanding that I step aside and allow the younger brother of a partner in one of their firms to take over -- the company I had founded, built with most of my life savings, and paid for with a cardiac arrest. For the next few months, I spent what little energy I had fighting people I formerly held in high regard.

Fortunately, that chapter of my life story had a happy ending. I won critical battles, kept control of Relativity, and eventually recruited a new CEO to take over from me. I also took my doctors' advice to do something less stressful than fight venture capitalists for a living, and regained my health. I kept my role as chairman of the board, but decided that my chief priority was to make up for lost time with my family.

A FATHER'S DUTY. That led me to India, where my eldest son, Vineet, was taking his semester abroad in New Delhi. He is as American as can be, but Vineet had not only discovered his Indian roots, he also had acquired the Indian addiction to Bollywood movies. An Indian specialty, these films tend to be spicy, dramatic, and romantic musical extravaganzas, and should never be watched without a ready handkerchief. Think Moulin Rouge or Chicago with family-values morals, but even more over-the-top musical numbers and costumes. In India, Bollywood's stars are practically worshipped by the masses.

When I told Vineet that I was taking a month off to spend with him, I don't think he believed me. I asked him where in India he would like to travel. His immediate answer? Bollywood, in the city of Mumbai -- formerly known as Bombay -- home of the world's largest film industry. And he asked for a rare favor: Could we meet some movie stars while we were there? His dad was famous and knew everyone, right?

Of course I didn't know any movie stars -- I was just a techie who started a software company. However, I couldn't admit this to him. To make things worse, I didn't think I knew anyone who knew any movie stars, since most of my friends were like me. Yet I couldn't let my son down.

After exhausting my list of Indian contacts, I recalled corresponding with an investment banker, Brad Listermann, who was raising money for a telecommunications outfit. When I talked to him a couple of weeks earlier, he had mentioned something about Bollywood. Grasping at straws, I sent him an urgent e-mail asking him for more information.

LIMO TO LUXURY. What luck. As it turned out, he was married to former beauty queen and Bollywood star, Kashmira Shah. He had met her on the Internet, and after months of romancing via e-mail, they got together, fell in love, and married.

Unfortunately, she was scheduled to be in Hollywood for a film that was shooting the week we were to be in Mumbai. Brad offered to introduce us to Feroz Khan instead. In most of South Asia and the Middle East, Feroz Khan is as well known as Clint Eastwood or Robert Redford. I gladly took Brad up on his offer. Believe me, we would have traveled anywhere to shake hands with Feroz.

Still, we were taking all this with a grain of salt. I mean, who gets to meet Robert Redford after a couple of e-mails? We were surprised to get a phone call from Feroz when we landed in Mumbai, but even more surprised to get an invitation to his house for dinner. Would it really be Khan, Vineet asked, or a practical joke? Our doubts were dispelled when his Mercedes showed up at our hotel and drove us to his beachside mansion in Mumbai's prestigious Juhu Beach neighborhood. On the ride over, Vineet's only question was: What would we talk to Feroz about?

Feroz greeted us at the door and showed us around his palace. The house boasted beautiful artwork and sculptures, massive crystal chandeliers, a film production studio, a gymnasium, and an indoor pool. Between the butler, servants, chauffeur, and security guards, there were at least 11 employees on duty that evening.

STAR POWER. Feroz apologized that his son, Fardeen, was delayed in New Delhi. Fardeen is akin to the Tom Cruise of Bollywood. Instead, Feroz had invited Celina Jaitley, Miss India 2001, who has since become a popular Bollywood actress. My son and I looked at each other in utter disbelief when she walked in the door a few minutes later. Vineet almost fell off his chair. Clearly, that night we were visiting a different universe than the one we inhabited back in North Carolina.

It was an enchanting evening. They told us stories about the production of their upcoming film, gossiped about their fellow Bollywood stars, and discussed the inner workings of beauty pageants. Feroz also gave me an interesting lesson on the dynamics and economics of the entertainment industry, and took me to his production studio, where he showed clips of his upcoming movie, Janasheen.

I learned a lot in those four hours, later calling Brad Listermann to thank him and to ask how I could possibly return the huge favor of making me look like a superhero in the eyes of my son. He hesitated, then wondered if I could spend some time to review a business plan, and possibly introduce him to any members of the Indian tech community who might be interested in funding it.

He had developed this plan with the help of his mentor, Duncan Clark, the ex-President of Columbia Tri-star's International Theatrical Division, who was fascinated by Bollywood's potential. The plan was to produce quality Hollywood movies in Bollywood, and to do so for one tenth what a comparable independent production would cost elsewhere.

OLD SKILLS, NEW PLOT. Brad had also written a lovely story about an American who falls in love with an Indian movie star, and follows her back to Bollywood (sound familiar?). It showed India through the eyes of a bewildered Westerner. This script provided an opportunity to test Brad's theory about producing quality movies in Bollywood at a low cost. What excited me the most was that it would help build on the momentum of independent cross-over movies such as Bend It Like Beckham and Monsoon Wedding -- box-office successes that have done a great job of educating Americans about Indian culture, and have helped change old, hurtful stereotypes.

Brad wanted to produce this movie called "My Bollywood Bride". Duncan Clark had agreed to take the role of executive producer and oversee the production and distribution of this film. He wanted me to take a similar role and help with funding, review budgets and project plans, and assist with positioning, marketing, and promotion -- all things I did for a living as a tech executive.

I didn't take much time to think about this, and readily agreed. I had already caught the "Bollywood bug."


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