Shah Rukh Khan smilingly admits that punctuality is not one of his virtues, having made us wait five hours for the first interview. But then, in conversations spread over two days, a chilled out Khan tells Dhiman Chattopadhyay and Anusha Subramanian about plans for his growing business empire, on why he is passionate about everything he does and the lessons he has learnt in his journey towards becoming India's most successful "actorpreneur" till date. Edited excerpts from a candid interview.
Please define Shah Rukh Khan the businessman. Is business a means for you to invest the money you earn, or are you passionate about actually building businesses?
(Laughs) I am not a businessman, honestly. I am Zero on 10. I am not as intelligent as people think I am. If I were a businessman, I would be happy with how KKR (Kolkata Knight Riders, the IPL team owned by SRK) has fared till now. They were the first team to become profitable and they continue to make profit. But am I happy? No, I am not, I'd rather win the tournament, even if it means making a financial loss.
So what made you start up Red Chillies Entertainment— was it a business vision you had or an avenue to invest your earnings from films?
I never really thought of being an entrepreneur when I started Red Chillies (in 2002). Yes, there was this feeling about wanting to contribute something to the entertainment industry, but then or now, I do not see myself as a businessman in the true sense of the term like you say Mukesh Ambani is a businessman. And most definitely, my enterprises are not just a means to invest my hard-earned money. These businesses are my passion. You will notice that they are all related to the entertainment industry. If you ask me in one sentence to say what my aim is, then it is to help promote all these very talented people working with me, so that one day each of them can become producers, film makers, do their own VFX work; and that all the divisions give me a busy time once my acting career is over.
What is your core business philosophy?
When things go right, everything goes right. I believe in striking when the iron's hot. My basic philosophy is very retail-like: "Subah ko dukan kholo, raat ko shutter down karo" (open the shop in the morning, close it at night). I have seen people like Mukeshbhai (Ambani) and Lakshmisaab (Mittal). I have sat at their meetings and tried to understand what they say and do. They are awesome. I am nowhere close to them. For me, "bijli paani ka kharcha nikal jaaye" (if I am able to pay electricity and other bills and salaries I am happy)—that is how you start business.
So, you do not start a business to make money?
No, that is not the main reason. I didn't buy an IPL team to make crores of rupees. For two years now, we have made a profit, but not because of the cricket! My theory is simple: If I am going to be earning from a business that is not working because of the business, then it is redundant. This is where I feel I have a certain amount of honesty left in my business. I still haven't sold my soul. If my team is not going to play good cricket this year then woe be upon the fact that they make money this year. It amounts to zilch. I can make money by dancing at weddings and I do. Why do I have to stress about the controversies, feel sad when the team loses?
The sports industry seems to take up a lot of space in your mind. Why?
Because I want sports to be a big thing in this country. I feel bad when I hear we are lagging behind in (preparations for the) Commonwealth Games. Look at our stadiums! I wanted to do a promo shoot for Chak De! I went to Pune because I was told that the Balewadi Stadium was the best. And we made it look better because of the ad. How cheap is it that a guy who comes to shoot for a night does up the stadium better than it should be done by the sports people! I want my son to come and say, "Dad, I want to play hockey." I want that option to be there.
I feel sad when I see sports suffering. Athletes come from small nations and win every race here. Their facilities are far better than in India! I am a genuinely good hockey player. I have played in the Ambedkar Stadium (in Delhi), in Bombay also.... But when we went for Chak De! in Australia it was completely different. I couldn't play on the astroturf field. I thought to myself, I haven't seen this in my country. Look at football. Every developing nation is fantastic in soccer because it is the cheapest game to play— Surinam, Nigeria.... I want to inculcate a sporting consciousness. I am a movie star. I endorse so many things. Why can't I endorse sports in my own way? I had wanted to make a stadium. I spoke to Nike, but it didn't work out. Now, this is my way of giving back.
How involved are you with your various businesses? Day-to-day running, key decisions, finances?
Finances? Zilch. But yes, in creative decisions I am totally involved. I let my boys and girls take the business decisions. There are people to manage the finances, do the deals, take decisions on the spot. My job is to provide creative inputs, come up with concepts and ideas to take a division forward in the general direction I visualise what could be in the medium to long term. You want to know how uninvolved I am in day-to-day activities? I haven't been to one of my offices for almost two years now! But yes, as I grow older, I am focussing more on how to centralise things. So, the new office in Khar that will be complete by end of 2010 will bring all of Red Chillies' divisions under one roof. My idea then is to go to office only on Saturdays and Sundays, so that the boys have to work twice as hard (laughs) and be present on those days as well. Jokes apart, I am proud of the people I have hired. They don't just work hard but each of them thinks of the business as their own. They think of ways to improve matters, not just like employees working to a mechanical plan.
What are the key goals you have set for yourself and your businesses over the next three to five years?
The past four years have been spent starting new businesses. The baby steps are over. The next couple of years will be crucial. I have set two basic agendas: First, I need to consolidate my existing businesses before getting adventurous again. Second, personally, I need to get more professional as an entrepreneur... learn to sound like one at least (laughs) and be a bit more handsoff— in a sense worry less if things are going okay or not—so that I can spend more energy building the creative side. After all, whatever we do, will be in the creative field.
Hollywood studios such as Walt Disney have evinced interest in picking up stakes in Red Chillies. How open are you to the idea of such partnership and stake sales?
I like my things to be mine—well, at least till I am able to prove that I have done most of what I set out to achieve. I like to invest in my own stuff! (Laughs). I also look at it from the other person's perspective and I can never look into your eyes if I have lost your money. When I am sure I will not lose any money in business X, Y or Z, I may want a partner. Not now.
As an actor and entertainer, what is your view on involving your family in your career?
Of course, I am an actor and an entertainer, first and last. But I am strangely formal with my family. And I never bring my family on the sets because I can never act in front of them. I say this with due respect to many of my women co-stars who bring their moms to the sets—I know they need the security or the feeling that they have people around. I have never really told my children how I do what I do. Being a movie star is a strange part of my life that my family does not know about.
I think the Discovery Travel and Living documentary (Living with a Superstar — Shah Rukh Khan) is the first attempt to bridge that gap. I saw some of the episodes after they were edited and I am really glad about what I've said about my wife and my family and my sister—things I will never be able to say to them directly. I am strangely formal with my family. I have still not opened my wife's cupboard. I do not open her handbag. I knock on my kids' door. My wife says "Are you mad?"—she is a Punjabi—"Why are you knocking. Just enter." But I can't get into personal spaces.
What is the next business opportunity that you see?
I am an entertainer. So, it has to be in that genre. I understand only that. Internet is one of the possible options. But not immediately.
What SRK's men have to say about the man
"SRK doesnt make you feel that you are working for him but with him. So whilst he is certainly the boss he does not behave like one."
"He has a keen sense of business, and knows instinctively what will work and what may not. But seldom has he tried to veto us if most of us have backed a project he is not sure about."
"We are blessed that we are part of SRK's company... but the flip side is that there is pressure because of the brand name we carry with us."
Lessons Learnt (And one I haven't!)
IN TOUGH TIMES, do not try to cut costs. Try instead to increase your income. This is something my mother would always tell me — my first lesson in enterprise.
THINK BIG. If you want to jump eight metres, aim for 16. You may not be able to jump 16, but to aim higher than the others is important. This is something Mukeshbhai (Ambani) taught me.
ALL BUSINESSES and friendships remain strong till they are profitable for both parties.
DRESS CASUALLY at work—not shabbily but casually. People need to be comfortable, feel cool, to be able to give their best.
I NEED TO LEARN this—Close deals fast! Haggling over small things is a waste of time.