not for profit

Gulshan Kumar and the Rise of T Series

12 Aug, 2020 | Short Features by Cinemaazi Team Member Nildeep Paul
Gulshan Kumar

The biopic, over the course of its long history, has remained the genre with the closest fidelity to history (at least that of individuals). While some critics have claimed the decline of the genre following the end of the Hollywood studio era, reports of its death were grossly exaggerated. Just look at the massive success of films like Bohemian Rhapsody (Bryan Singer, 2018), Rocketman (Dexter Fletcher, 2019) and Dolemite is My Name (Craig Brewer, 2019). With Hindi cinema discovering the pleasures and profitability of the biopic, the Indian screen has seen a deluge of the genre in recent years. The success of films like The Dirty Picture (Milan Luthria, 2011), Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, 2013), Mary Kom (Omung Kumar, 2014), Neerja (Ram Madhvani, 2016), Dangal (Nitesh Tiwari, 2016), and Sanju (Rajkumar Hirani, 2018), it is a surety that this trend will continue. A quick look at upcoming releases show at least ten major biopics lined up for the year 2020, with their subjects ranging from Prithviraj Chauhan to Shakuntala Devi. While figures from sports and politics dominate the field, it was inevitable that the industry will soon deploy the biopic to narrativise its own history. Sanju set the ball rolling, and Mogul – the upcoming biopic of Gulshan Kumar will follow suit. It presents us an opportunity to look back at the career of Gulshan Kumar and take stock of the immense legacy he left behind. 

Gulshan Kumar’s story is less that of creative brilliance as of wily business acumen and sheer chutzpah. Understanding the full significance of Kumar’s actions, we need an overview of the music industry prior to his emergence. In the 1970’s the musical soundscape was a very different one. While rock and roll and blues were rolling into Indian film soundtracks and a sexual revolution was taking the screens by storm, the industrial backdrop was not much different from years prior. Saregama HMV, then known as the Gramophone Company of India, who had been pioneers of the recording industry in India with the earliest Indian recording dating back to the 19th century, were the undisputed kingpins. The label HMV was ubiquitous in film credits. Polydor emerged as their first rival in 1970, garnering some big hits with Johny Mera Naam (1970) and Sachaa Jhutha (1970). This was followed by CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc.) in the 1980’s. But Polydor and CBS both had their primary markets in other nations. Despite snatching a slice of the pie from HMV, they could not mount a significant challenge for the throne. But the key factor was not in the number of competitors but in the manner that musical records were marketed.

Saregama HMV, then known as the Gramophone Company of India, who had been pioneers of the recording industry in India with the earliest Indian recording dating back to the 19th century, were the undisputed kingpins. The label HMV was ubiquitous in film credits. Polydor emerged as their first rival in 1970, garnering some big hits with Johny Mera Naam (1970) and Sachaa Jhutha (1970).
In the 1970’s, the music industry was not yet the behemoth that we know today. LP records were expensive and record shops were few. Music records were considered a luxury commodity, accessible to only the privileged. But the entry of imported Japanese cassette players in the market brought about a sea change in consumer demand. Liberalisation of imports in 1978 also played a role in making cheap electronic goods accessible to a larger section of the population. The writing was on the wall – cassettes were the future. But even in the face of this, HMV and Polydor continued to focus on LPs. This sparked off bootlegging operations in most major cities, providing people with easier ways to access music. It was in this scene that Gulshan Kumar and T-Series arrived. 
In the 1970’s, the music industry was not yet the behemoth that we know today. LP records were expensive and record shops were few.
Gulshan Kumar Dua was born the son of a fruit juice vendor of Daryaganj, Delhi on 5 May, 1956. His family later acquired a records shop, which was Kumar’s first foray into the music industry. Recognising the potential of audio cassettes, he soon began a bootlegging operation of his own. Taking advantage of the cassette industry’s status as a Small-scale Industry (SSI) Kumar was able to cut down expenditures for the business through loans and incentives offered to SSIs. This allowed him to price his cassettes at significantly lower rates than a GCI or Polydor record. His first business venture Super Cassette Industries thus became hugely profitable and allowed him to branch out into recording. Super Cassette Industries later morphed into T-Series. 
Gulshan Kumar Dua was born the son of a fruit juice vendor of Daryaganj, Delhi on 5 May, 1956. His family later acquired a records shop, which was Kumar’s first foray into the music industry. Recognising the potential of audio cassettes, he soon began a bootlegging operation of his own.
Competing with respected names like GCI and Polydor was no easy task for a fledgling company with very little resources to pull established artists to their label. At this juncture, Kumar came up with a masterstroke – to not compete at all, at least not on their terms. Spotting a loophole in the Indian copyright laws, he realised that ‘cover versions’ of existing records can be produced, only with different orchestras and singers. If these cover versions were sold with the same title, it would be difficult to understand the difference for a purchasing consumer. Kumar did exactly this. The Copyright Rules Act only needed permission from the original publishers, which could be circumvented through only a notice from the recorders, accompanied by a nominal sum as royalty. Add to this their unique distribution model, which included a network of groceries and paan shops selling T-Series cassettes. T-Series also had no qualms about working with younger, virtually unknown singers. Instead of acquiescing to the lofty demands and fees of established artists, T-Series could rope in younger talent at a much cheaper rate and bind them to exclusive contracts. The presence of Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle did not leave much breathing room for younger singers in the music scene. The GCI catalogue was also dominated by these two. Many talents such as Anuradha Paudwal, Mohammed Aziz, Udit Narayan, Kumar Sanu and Alka Yagnik were willing to accept T-Series’s contracts for the billing they offered. Priced significantly lower than the originals, these ‘cover versions’ were the major factors in T-Series’s rapid expansion in the 80’s. They achieved their first success in film music production with 1988’s runaway hits Qayamat Se Qaayamat Tak (Mansoor Khan) and Tezaab (N. Chandra), scored by Anand-Milind and Laxmikant-Pyarelal respectively and never looked back. 
 
Tezaab proved to be one of T Series's early successes in music production. Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
Spotting a loophole in the Indian copyright laws, he realised that ‘cover versions’ of existing records can be produced, only with different orchestras and singers. If these cover versions were sold with the same title, it would be difficult to understand the difference for a purchasing consumer. Kumar did exactly this.
Another market that Kumar tapped was that of devotional music. The inaccessibility of Sanskrit chants and hymns in text form created a ready market for audio recordings of the same. The production costs of a devotional album are also significantly lower than that of a pop album which helped Kumar’s profit margins. Cheap devotional audiocassettes from India started enjoying a booming market in places as far flung as Fiji amongst the diaspora populations. Kumar’s business innovations were all about discovering the blind spots of the media economy which cut sections of the population off from enjoying certain products. When he realised that many impoverished devotees did not have the means to go to pilgrimages, he came upon the idea of filming major pilgrimage spots and selling them as VHS tapes.
Kumar’s business innovations were all about discovering the blind spots of the media economy which cut sections of the population off from enjoying certain products.
By the late 1980’s, GCI’s dominance of the music industry was over. New players like T-Series and Venus were ruling the roost. GCI failed to capitalize on changing technologies and fell into the doldrums until the success of Maine Pyar Kiya (Sooraj Barjatya, 1989) brought them back into the game. They managed to get one definitive victory over T-Series though. In the copyright violation case against T-Series over the music of Hum Aapke Hai Koun…! (Sooraj Barjatya, 1994), the court ruled in favour of GCI, stating that a company’s express permission was absolutely necessary to release cover versions. But by then the chessboard had been permanently realigned – the music industry was bigger, T-Series was undoubtedly on top and Gulshan Kumar had passed away in one of the most sensational murder cases of its times.

While T-Series was establishing itself as a major player in the music industry, its entry into film production took a more subdued approach-beginning with the telefilms Lal Dupatta Malmal Ka (Ravindra Peepat, 1989) and its follow-up Phir Lehraya Lal Dupatta Malmal Ka (Ravindra Peepat, 1989) which attained moderate success, primarily due to the hit music by Anand-Milind. With the proliferation of cassettes, music sales were becoming increasingly integral for a film’s success. No other film exemplified this better than T-Series’s biggest hit Aashiqui (Mahesh Bhatt, 1990).
 
Aashiqui was a major milestone for Gulshan Kumar's company. Image Courtesy: Bollywoodvinyl.
With the proliferation of cassettes, music sales were becoming increasingly integral for a film’s success. No other film exemplified this better than T-Series’s biggest hit Aashiqui (Mahesh Bhatt, 1990).
Aashiqui is by no means a perfect film. But in truth, it never needed to be one. Buoyed by its incredibly successful soundtrack (which remains one of the highest selling music albums in history) the film starring newcomers Rahul Roy and Anu Aggarwal laughed all the way to the bank. The film itself is boiling over with contradictory currents. Grand sweeping gestures of romance sit side-by-side with crippling insecurity. The rough-edged performances brought out the awkward yet intense passions of a teenage romance. Alienation from parental authority and the fears of stepping into adulthood tugged at the heels of new-found love. While young romance was all the rage after Qayamat Se Qaayamat Tak, Aashiqui was the film to really bring out the angst and confusion of those years. 

The music was the centerpiece of the film and Bhatt clearly understood it. He gives ample space for the songs (as many as 12 of them), using them to drive the narrative forward. The Nadeem-Shravan soundtrack featured the voices of Anuradha Paudwal and Kumar Sanu with evergreen hits like Jaane Jigar Jaaneman, Bas Ek Sanam Chahiye, Nazar ke Samne and Dheere Dheere Se is revisited fondly by music lovers till date. The ghazal-inflected music brought back the memories of the heydays of melody, before the disco rage had taken over in the 80’s.
The film proved to be hugely influential in hindsight. It established Gulshan Kumar as a successful film producer and gave Mahesh Bhatt a bankable formula to repeat ad nauseam. Even the modern ‘Bhatt camp’ films (not to mention the hugely successful ‘sequel’ Aashiqui 2) show clear influences of Aashiqui. It also established certain tropes that the T-Series films would return to – the focus on troubled youth, a tortuous romance and any disjointedness in the narrative tided over by hit music.
The film proved to be hugely influential in hindsight. It established Gulshan Kumar as a successful film producer and gave Mahesh Bhatt a bankable formula to repeat ad nauseam. Even the modern ‘Bhatt camp’ films (not to mention the hugely successful ‘sequel’ Aashiqui 2) show clear influences of Aashiqui. It also established certain tropes that the T-Series films would return to – the focus on troubled youth, a tortuous romance and any disjointedness in the narrative tided over by hit music. The next few films that Kumar produced – Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin (Mahesh Bhatt, 1991), Ayee Milan Ki Raat (K Pappu, 1991), Jeena Marna Tere Sang (Vijay Reddy, 1992), and most notably Bewafa Sanam (Gulshan Kumar, 1995) would all more or less apply these strategies. Bewafa Sanam would also star Gulshan Kumar's brother Krishan Kumar
 
The repackaging of Attaullah Khan's songs for Bewafa Sanam is exemplary of Gulshan Kumar's business practices. Image Courtesy: IMDB
But under Kumar, the fundamental philosophy of T-Series remained the same. He was aware of the expectations of his base audience and stuck to his guns – keeping production costs low, lowering risks and wherever possible repackaging an already existing media product.
With commercial success, it would have been expected of T-Series to venture into big-budget prestige productions. But under Kumar, the fundamental philosophy of T-Series remained the same. He was aware of the expectations of his base audience and stuck to his guns – keeping production costs low, lowering risks and wherever possible repackaging an already existing media product. Consider the case of Pakistani singer Attaullah Khan and his songs featuring on Bewafa Sanam. The songs Wafa Na Raas Ayee¸Ishq Mein Hum Tumhe Kya Batayen and the ever-popular Accha Sila Diya Tumne were key factors behind the success of the film’s soundtrack. T-Series originally started selling recordings of Attaullah Khan and its distribution networks in small towns and rural markets helped immensely in this. Once the market had been inundated with the records, a myth started circulating centering the song Accha Sila Diya – that the song was autobiographical and Attaullah Khan was actually jailed in Pakistan for killing his lover. Bewafa Sanam itself was touted as Attaullah Khan’s autobiography, with the re-recorded songs carrying forward the legacy of a man martyred for love. This once again shows Kumar’s market savvy, knowing that the success of a film is not determined by its artistic quality alone. 
The reliance on music to drive a film’s success showed the increasing importance of cinema’s partner industries – music, fashion, cosmetics. These industries would grow over the next few years to exert an incredible amount influence not only over the business aspects of cinema, but over its form as well.
The reliance on music to drive a film’s success showed the increasing importance of cinema’s partner industries – music, fashion, cosmetics. These industries would grow over the next few years to exert an incredible amount influence not only over the business aspects of cinema, but over its form as well. Think of all the blunt product placements you have seen in cinema over the years and the changing looks of stars. Kumar’s business practices themselves started the process of aggressive commodification of the music record. Under Gulshan Kumar T-Series diversified its production practices – branching into selling of music players and even washing powder at point. After Kumar’s death, once the control of the company passed to Bhushan Kumar, their aggressive policies continued. These practices earned T-Series an unenviable reputation in the industry – their executives were deemed ‘traders’ without any ‘taste’ for music. The ‘tasteless’ tag re-emerged again recently, with the blunderous remake of Masakali earning universal flak.
Under Gulshan Kumar T-Series diversified its production practices – branching into selling of music players and even washing powder at point. After Kumar’s death, once the control of the company passed to Bhushan Kumar, their aggressive policies continued. These practices earned T-Series an unenviable reputation in the industry – their executives were deemed ‘traders’ without any ‘taste’ for music.
This criticism has not hurt their prospects though. T-Series is the largest music company operating in India, owning as much as 35 percent share of the market.  Its greatest success, though, has been once again in transitioning from one media to another. They started uploading videos on YouTube in 2010 and by 2017 had become the world’s most-viewed YouTube channel. Branching out from Hindi music they also branched out into regional music. The ‘remaking’ of songs is still in practice, only they no longer have to fly under the radar to do it. They were also quick to identify the market potential of the diaspora populations. The popularisation of Bhangra in the UK and US was largely facilitated by the proliferation of music videos among the diaspora populations. 
In a way, Kumar’s legacy is just as Janus-faced as T-Series’s reputation. Accusations of ethical violations and exploitation of talent have followed them around. But they are also hailed for breaking the elitist barricading of music by HMV and making it accessible to all.
In a way, Kumar’s legacy is just as Janus-faced as T-Series’s reputation. Accusations of ethical violations and exploitation of talent have followed them around. But they are also hailed for breaking the elitist barricading of music by HMV and making it accessible to all. Contrary to popular belief, this version of bootlegging did not result in a diminishing of value. But their piratical actions actually increased the value of the music industry than ever before. While the sordid details of Kumar’s murder has been talked about in detail before, it’s impossible to ignore the long-term impact of the event. His murder at the hands of contracted killers allegedly hired by notorious gangster Abu Salem received sensational news coverage (amplified by its retellings in ‘true crime’ shows) and has become part of Mumbai’s mythos. But the alleged involvement of people from the industry casts an even darker shadow. The police initially named Nadeem Saifi, one half of successful music composer duo Nadeem-Shravan as its prime suspect. Ramesh Taurani of rival music company Tips Audio was also arrested. The case brought into sharp focus the illicit dealings between the mafia and industry-insiders. The implication of influential names in the industry would mean the upcoming biopic would be negotiating a tricky terrain. It will probably cover the murder, hopefully without turning it into a further spectacle. Whether Hindi cinema can refrain from its tendency to self-mythologise its history (see Sanju) and bring out the ethical ambiguities of Kumar’s life remains to be seen.  

Notes

https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/indiascope/story/19971020-gulshan-kumar-murder-case-mumbai-police-arrests-tips-audio-owner-ramesh-taurani-832352-1997-10-20

Arunachalam, Param. BollySwar: 1981-1990. Mavrix Infotech Private Limited.

Kasbekar, Asha. Pop Culture India! Media, Arts, and Lifestyle. ABC-CLIO, 2006.

Beaster-Jones, Jayson. Music Commodities, Markets, and Values: Music as Merchandise. Routledge, 2016.

Roy, Anjali Gera. Bhangra Moves: From Ludhiana to London and Beyond. Routledge, 2017.

 Sarrazin, Natalie. Focus: Popular Music in Contemporary India. Routledge, 2019. 

“The T-series Story”, icmrindia.org, 2002. Accessed on 21 May, 2020. 

 

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