Featured in Masala magazine, February 2013. The man behind the slew of Bollywood films hitting Bangkok these days, Raam Punjabi, tells us about his humble beginnings, the changing industry, and upcoming celebrity visits.
Waiting for our interview in the lobby of the VIE Hotel, I expected to see a hoity-toity, filmy personality. Instead, I was greeted by a down-to-earth gentleman in a black suit who, if not for his credentials, could go unnoticed in a city with thousands of Indians. Distributor and film producer Raam Punjabi is one of those lucky ones whose hobby is their profession. Having produced 156 films and worked alongside prominent directors and actors, this Indonesian-Indian distributes Bollywood to the corners of Southeast Asia. But not all of his life has been a smooth journey. From sneaking into cinemas to failed films, Raam shares the story of his bumpy road to success.
Did you grow up in a film-obsessed family?
My dad was in the textile business. I was the one who had started in the film business. It has been 45 years, and now it is in the blood. I have two children, one boy and one girl, and both are pursuing my line. Even my son-in-law is a movie buff and is helping me in my business.
What was your childhood like?
My parents migrated to Indonesia in the early 30s. I was born in Surabaya and did my schooling in a private school. My school wouldn’t start until 2pm, so I had a lot of time in the morning. Those days in Surabaya, every cinema used to have private screenings for military personnel. I used to find out the schedules and sneak in. They would show English movies with all the logos of Fox, Warner Brothers, United Arts, and MGM with the roaring lion. So wherever I am, I still like to watch movies.
What made you enjoy movies so much?
The fantasy and the larger-than-life image. I was amazed at how the stars remembered their lines. If you ask me to remember something, I will go left and right.
How has the business changed your perception of cinema?
In those days, business was straightforward; it was on a give and-take basis. Today’s business is cut-throat. If you don’t kill others, you get killed. But I merely want to beat people, like in sports. There are rules in every game. In boxing, you have to put down your opponent. But in marathon running, you don’t care where the other guy is. You are number one if you win by five centimetres. I like to do competition like that, not the boxing way.
What do you look for when selecting a movie to distribute?
For a foreign market, we have to select star cast movies. In Bollywood today, there are only eight to nine dominating stars and a few newcomers. So those are the movies that run, and we have to cater to the liking of the public.
How did you make it to the film industry?
At the age of eight, I had some kind of instinct that if I were to become a self-employed entrepreneur, I would be in the movie business. My father passed away when I was 13, and he had been the sole earner in our family. I am the youngest. I knew that if I stayed in Surabaya, I wouldn’t grow. In 1958, I told my mother, “I am going to go to Jakarta,” and she said, “How will you go alone?” So my elder sister accompanied me. I got a job as an accountant in a textile company, for a salary of $10 a month. And it was enough in those days. I would send 50 percent to my mother and saved up the rest to buy a bicycle. Then I moved between jobs until I entered the movie business in 1969. I still remember that the first Hindi movie I brought in was Raja Aur Runk. There were others bringing in movies, too, but they were off and on. I knew I had two things to do to be permanent in this industry. First, import regularly, and second, produce my own movies. So in 1970, I approached a few friends for funds to make a movie. I hired a director, Indonesia’s Karan Johar, and produced a movie. My first movie was a total disaster because I did not understand scriptwriting and just produced whatever the director and writer told me to. Three of my movies were failures, and I lost everything I had. I felt bad about my friends who put in their money, but I kept assuring myself that I shouldn’t stop here.
How has the industry changed since you’ve been in it?
The industry has been captured by corporate entities. Now they don’t see the performance of the company by each movie. They see yearly [revenue]. In the 60s or 70s, maybe a family could get together and make a movie. Today, they cannot do it because you need corporate [funding]. The captain of the ship in this industry is the director. If you don’t have a proper director, the star will not work for you. They won’t risk it for money because if the movie flops, it will set them back 10 years.
How did the deal with Major Ekamai happen?
The owner of Major Cineplex is open to anything creative that makes the public more international. They knew that Bollywood movies have developed quite substantially in these last 10 to 15 years. They wanted to have a regular supply, and he knew that I distribute Hindi movies in Southeast Asia. So they thought that it would be a good idea to have an alliance with me to do the whole region.
How do you plan to go about promoting Bollywood films among non-Indian audiences?
That’s a big challenge. To launch a movie for Thai audiences requires a lot of investment and confidence. Our idea is to capture the Indian crowd first, which I think is happening. I can see the growth. We started with one screen, then went on to two, and now we are on three screens. Now, people don’t have to rush because the movie may go out of the cinema soon. Next, we will create awareness among Thai audiences by dubbing dialogues and buying ads on TV. Like it was in the old days—even to this day, the highest [grossing film] in Thailand is Haathi Mere Saathi (1971).
Will we see more Indian celebrities visiting Thailand?
My idea is to bring someone in every quarter, but that requires support from Indian producers. We were considering getting Salman Khan for Dabangg 2. But due to the time constraints, we couldn’t do it. In 2013, we want to bring in noted celebrities to create more awareness.
What do you think about the high ticket prices for Bollywood films here?
When we started, it was B350. Then we reduced it to B200 from Monday to Thursday, and B300 on the weekend. If we didn’t do that, we couldn’t compete with Hollywood films. If you were to watch an American movie at Siam Paragon in premier class, you will be charged B600. But for a Bollywood film, we are keeping it as low as B350 for premium class. I think it should work because the growth is obvious.
What’s your plan for the future?
I would like to produce Thai movies. We are doing it in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. We want to get it going sometime in 2013. Thailand has a huge talent pool, and they have reached international audiences.
[For orginal PDF, please click here Bollywood Business]