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September 2, 1997


'Gulshan Kumar just couldn't help
himself. He had to steal'

Companies soon began to feel the heat. When he was asked why he did it, his stock reply would be: "Hamne nahin kiya: hamara naam likh kar chori karta hai." But when his rivals remonstrated, his ready answer always was he wouldn't do it again.

In the late seventies and early eighties, Gulshan Kumar was on a virgin wicket. Audio cassette production was defined as a small-scale industry for the next five years. This meant that it got subsidies, loans and all the other perks that go to the SSI. Now, all he had to do was set up a legitimate plant to manufacture cassettes and he could come overground. There was a huge unsatisfied demand for cassette music. Gulshan Kumar undertook an Operation Flood. Everyone began stocking T-Series.

The problem with pirated cassettes is their short shelf life and high risks: if a distributor was found to be keeping pirated cassettes, he could be fined. But Gulshan took care of everything. The retailers loved him and the police looked the other way. Such was the efficiency of the operation that if you bought a T-Series cassette and found it was defective, it was instantly replaced -- because there was no major pirated brand which could be a replacement.

"Gulshan Kumar was a kleptomaniac. He just couldn't help himself. He had to steal. He could have had a legitimate business. But he just could not stand seeing anyone put out a hit without wanting a share in the cake," says a source in the Indian music industry.

However, there was another side to him: he had an unbelievably strong music sense. Even his rivals concede that he could tell which songs in which combination would sell. He was obsessively finicky about the quality of duplication. And though he was involved in piracy, he was passionately market- and consumer-driven. Small matters like law and legality did not bother him. He wanted to give the customers what he thought they wanted.

The scene changed some years later.

HMV and Polydor's abject pleading and mounting losses only meant that the managers changed and the banks were left holding the baby. Piracy was now a mega war with mega bucks at stake. Many others, some of who had none other than Gulshan as their tutor, also came on to the scene. They were new companies owned by owners rather than shareholders, set up on money borrowed from the market. They had now come to realise that it would take no time at all to finish companies like HMV and that the pickings would be rich. Companies like Plus, Tips, etc had not been in the industry long enough to have amortised any films -- Awaara and Shree 420 were still amortised by HMV -- but music selling meant good money. And some could be legitimate, some done on the sly.

However, everything they tried Gulshan sabotaged. They would buy rights to films and Gulshan would flood the market with the cassettes within a few hours of their release. If you buy music rights of six films, and pay Rs 10 million for each film, your financial exposure is huge.

The financiers now got worried. The world of the Bombay financier has a morality all its own. You can borrow money and return it at a certain rate of interest. If your film bombs, the financiers are often compassionate about getting their money back -- what the hell, everyone has business setbacks. But if your film is a hit, the interest rates are flexible. Then over and above the interest you already have to pay, you are expected to share a part of your booty.

Gulshanji wouldn't.

Not only was he undercutting other companies; he wouldn't share. Like he didn't when Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge was declared a hit. Gulshan Kumar made huge sums of money pirating the music of this film. Media reports said 20 million cassettes of this film had been sold. So the financiers began asking some tough questions. If so many cassettes had been sold, where was the money?

Music company owners said much of this was the illegitimate sale by Gulshanji.

Then Gulshanji will have to be warned that you can't sit on the branch of a tree and saw it off, said financers.

In July, Gulshan Kumar was given an ultimatum. The industry set a figure of Rs 100 million, which it would have earned, had Gulshan Kumar not mounted his undercutting operation. This was a rough calculation: he was producing 300,000 cassettes a day of which not even 10 per cent were legitimate. This meant a profit of about Rs 1 million a day. So Rs 1 million was not a big sum for a man of his standing.

This is the sum that was floated as the extortion money demanded by Abu Salem. In fact, this was given the colour of extortion. In Bombay, extortion is always based on profit-sharing -- a Shakti Samanta would never face threats of extortion.

There are many unanswered questions about Gulshan Kumar's assassination: his carelessness about his security, his bodyguard's absence, his reliance on the UP police rather than Maharashtra police. However, industry insiders say he was asking for it. Many had, in private conversation, predicted something like this would happen to him.

Whether you admired Gulshan Kumar or despised him, it is impossible to deny that his death has left a vacuum, and there will be a big scramble to fill it in the coming months.

His murder is definitely a signal to the pirates; that it's fine to be a small player, but to be really big, you risk an end like Gulshan's. The problem is, to be a pirate you have to be big -- the payoffs are huge and the overheads are large. So the business isn't worth it if the volumes are small.

But this will also mean that there will be a boom in the legal cassette trade, because T-Series will leave a vacuum that no one player can fill up. (HMV doesn't have the capacity, not by a long shot, to meet the demand. It was meeting 50 per cent of the demand, with the rest being met by T-Series).

The other fallout of Gulshan's death is that prices of audio cassettes will shoot up. Most people don't realise that Gulshan was shoring up the market. Now there will be a rise in cassette prices as well as in the cost of recorded cassettes.

The T-Series empire will almost certainly collapse -- neither his bothers nor his son have the vision to hold it together. But it has to be seen if Gulshan Kumar's buccaneering spirit will live on in an industry which operates in the twilight zone of legality.

Kind courtesy: Sunday magazine

'A man of music cannot be a murderer '
Music director Nadeem accused of killing Gulshan Kumar
Gulshan Kumar killed

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