India’s digital sector is poised to explode on the back of surging smartphone growth, fast-expanding broadband penetration and rapid 4G uptake. And nobody knows this better than Anirban Blah, founder and managing director of Kwan Entertainment.

Blah’s nine-year-old company has already built a commanding behind-the-scenes entertainment industry presence. “Effectively, we’re the backbone — the Amazon of Bollywood. Deals flow through us,” he says. “Now, the idea’s to figure out how I can scale it up,” says Blah, who’s just shy of his 40th birthday.

Kwan’s an instructive new model for the digital age. It straddles the entertainment industry with around 150 clients — top movie-stars, directors, writers and other professionals — on its rolls, which makes it a powerful player. Uniquely in the film industry, Kwan creates ready-to-produce movie-packages, which it offers to studios.

Befitting its multi-faceted role, the company calls itself an entertainment marketplace, not just a talent agency. Says Blah: “We attach a writer, a director, an actor, an actress and take it to a producer. We don’t physically produce, we exit once we sell it. It’s a low-risk, high-commission-based model that allows us to package 20-30 films a year and 20-30 shows a year.”

Kwan reckons it generates $500 million worth of business in the entertainment industry and with India’s massive millennial and ever-more tech-savvy population, the digital market is ripe for investment. Take a look at these numbers: mobile penetration is over 100 per cent and with data prices tumbling, video consumption grew by 64 per cent in 2017. This means a plethora of digital-based opportunities.

Blah’s determined to be out in front in seizing them. So he’s transferred day-to-day operations to brother Indranil and Kwan’s other CEO Vijay Subramaniam and is now focussing on the big question facing Kwan that he defines as: “How do we be effectively, the most powerful company in this popular culture space? That’s music, Bollywood, digital influencers, YouTubers, regional celebrities and sportspersons… our whole ecosystem.”

Retail push

Already under way is a foray into retailing that will employ star-power to cut through consumer clutter and catch younger buyers’ eyes. Kwan has created a joint venture, Mojostar, with Jiggy George of brand management firm Dream Theatre that’s already signed movie-stars Tiger Shroff, Jacqueline Fernandez and Ranbir Kapoor. Still, Blah insists celebrity by itself isn’t enough unless there’s clear space for the product. “If a brand can’t live without a celebrity, it shouldn’t exist,” he says.

For starters, Mojostar is launching Tiger Shroff-promoted Prowl that will be about stylish fitness-gear for 15-25 gym-goers. Says Blah: “Young people’s lifestyle is about vanity. They’re focussed on form and ease, not on functionality and comfort, and their price-points are different.”

Similarly, Jacqueline’s brand will be women-focussed gym-attire. For Ranbir, it may be about super-smart but casual, mid-point sneakers. Mojostar’s getting venture capital backing for its retail market assault.

Striking out in another direction, Kwan’s venturing into what Blah calls “shorter forms of content creation” — music videos, comedy sketches or “anything under 10 minutes outside of serialised fiction”.

Kwan’s looking at launching its own music label in the next six-to-nine months and has already signed up talent, including popular singers like Preetham and Tanishk Bagchi and also Anirudh Ravichandar and Taman in the south. He says: “If you look at last year’s 10 biggest songs on YouTube, seven were Kwan composers and singers.”

Blah reckons both clothes and short-form content could be blockbusters because rapidly changing technology makes it possible to reach buyers and audiences in newer, less expensive ways. He says: “Part of the point of having these celebrities is effectively how they control their own publishing networks — and through them and their friends — how do I leverage that to reduce my cost-to-market?” Similarly, short-form content’s attraction, he says, is that, “production cost is minimal and distribution cost is zero.”

On a different front, Blah’s looking at international markets and has a loose partnership with Ravi Krishnan, who launched IMG in India.

The venture, Blah says, will provide global brands and global capital access to Indian consumers and the same for Indian brands looking to access Western markets.”

Simultaneously, Kwan’s also making a foray into the hinterland and looking at ways to capture mass-regional audiences. It’s zeroed in on opportunities in the large, vibrant Tamil- and Telugu-speaking markets.

The company also has a tie-up with Telugu superstar Rana Daggubati. Blah notes in these two States local stars catch more eyeballs than most big Bollywood stars and says, “India has to go beyond the Hindi-speaking demographic.”

That view is backed up by the Ficci-EY 2018 report on the media and entertainment sector which says that rural Internet users will far outnumber their urban counterparts by 2021. Says Blah: “Earlier, if you looked at Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, you’d look at Chennai and Hyderabad where there was some English- and Hindi-speaking population. Today, consumption’s gone to Madurai, Guntur and Vijayawada and they’re not interested in Shah Rukh Khan.”

Twists and turns

Reaching out beyond the heartland comes naturally for Blah, a small-town boy from Shillong who was sent to study in Delhi when he reached 10th but hated the city.

After dabbling in university student politics, he raced through a string of jobs including an unhappy brief PR stint and a spell at indya.com, an ill-fated dotcom venture. Another leap took him to Stockholm where he joined a VC firm that went bust a month after he joined.

But he bounced back, landing a coveted global internship at Ericsson. He returned to India and joined Bharti Airtel, but also hated it and was wondering whether to go abroad again when he encountered Mahesh Bhupathi who was starting Globosport. Soon he found himself running the company — he was still only 25. But the sports world was “so corrupt it wasn't for me.” He moved into entertainment which he asserts is “100 times cleaner” than sports and launched Kwan in 2009.

In the flashy world of Bollywood, Blah sticks out almost like a sore thumb. He’s conspicuously low-key and is often dressed in jeans and a T-shirt.

He stands out in other ways too, and admits freely he doesn’t watch Hindi films. Instead, he spends time reading and has developed a reputation as a gourmet and a discerning restaurant reviewer.

Blah doesn’t do the deals at Kwan any longer unlike in the company’s early days when he brought home the bulk of revenues. Instead, he’s now looking to “unlock enterprise value” and ride the crest of the digital wave in which disruption will be the only constant and corporate survival will be determined by agility.

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