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Ajay Bijli, full-screen ahead

  • Ajay Bijli talks about bringing luxury to cinemas and the multiplex experience to small towns
  • The PVR chairman also discusses competing with OTT platforms

Ajay Bijli. (Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint)

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A cinema hall is probably the most obvious place to meet Ajay Bijli, chairman and managing director of PVR Limited. But the reason for the meeting—the promotion of the leading multiplex chain’s Luxe brand at High Street Phoenix in Mumbai’s Lower Parel—makes it fortuitous.

Bijli is excited about his new offering to the city: a deluxe movie-watching experience that includes professional hospitality, a designed food and beverage menu, and reclining chairs with airline-like service on demand. Live kitchen counters operate at the lobby level of the seven-screen refurbished facility that includes two Luxe screens.

At one of these new screens, which started operations with Student Of The Year 2 (released on 10 May), Bijli, who is dressed in a navy-blue jacket over a checked shirt, takes a seat somewhere in the middle of the 52-seater auditorium. It’s a plush leather seat with enough space in front to push a trolley through and wide enough to sit cross-legged if one wants to. “The legroom is more than anywhere in the world: It’s 2,250mm in front and has a width of 787mm,” Bijli says.

The 52-year-old is looking for newer ways to attract audiences who, he believes, are eager for more enhanced experiences, even if they come at a higher cost. Despite so much content being available across digital platforms, watching movies at a theatre remains an experience, Bijli believes.

An appropriate example comes in the form of Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Endgame, which released on 16 April. The initial frenzy for tickets drove the prices up—to over 1,000 at PVR’s IMAX screen in Phoenix. They had to schedule shows at 1.10am and 2.40am to meet the weekend demand. While Endgame was an exception—a multimillion-dollar blockbuster that has already earned over $2 billion (around 14,000 crore) worldwide—Bijli feels people want much more from a cinema hall than just a movie.

“Our ATP, or average ticket price, is 210,” he explains, citing Endgame as a 3-hour-plus exception that disrupted show scheduling. “Given the operating expenditure required to satisfy customers today, I feel the pricing is fine. I am in this business: If I feel people are complaining too much, I will have to do something.”

“Content can be consumed anywhere,” he adds. “For people to get out of their homes, make a plan, find parking.... They should not be disappointed. One aspect is design. Another is hospitality. It’s not one silver bullet that will change everything. It’s the sum of everything we do.”

Bijli’s transition into the world of movies as an exhibitor has been adequately chronicled. He was in his early 20s when he moved on from the family transport business, taking over the family-owned Priya cinema in Vasant Vihar, Delhi, and revamping it. A joint venture with Village Roadshow, an Australian production and exhibition company, in late 1995 laid the path for the first multiplex, PVR Anupam, which came up a few years later.

Today, PVR operates 771 screens in 165 cinemas across 67 cities, with the annual number of movie-goers averaging over 70 million. In the last financial year, it showed over 1,300 films in 10 languages, all of it taking the company’s market capitalization to more than 8,000 crore.

The company today has a 22% market share in Hindi films and 29% in English (including dubbed films), making it a leading player in an intensely competitive market.

The luxury angle in theatres is not a new phenomenon—Inox, the other major exhibitor, introduced the brand Insignia a few years ago, with food designed by chef Vicky Ratnani. Indeed, as Bijli points out, Luxe is a rebranding of PVR’s Gold Class, which was first started in Bengaluru in 2004.

“I didn’t like the words ‘gold class’ any more because it felt outdated,” he says.

“When PVR opened in Phoenix 12 years ago, there was a nightclub, Fire and Ice, Big Bazaar and a McDonald’s. It was a different crowd, so it (PVR) looked like a nightclub—dark. The audience has changed now. This is a flagship property. So we thought: Why not look at every aspect?”

Bijli says they have the best of what’s available in technology, sound and projection systems. With seating systems, he “went crazy, getting the best possible”. “This is pure leather, no one has used it,” he says, pointing to the chairs we are seated on.

The focus on food is not surprising, given that 27% of the revenue comes from F&B (53% from the box office and the rest from advertising). So Sarah Todd of MasterChef Australia fame is on board as a consultant with sushi chef Yutaka Saito and mixologist Yangdup Lama—though there are no cocktails on offer (which would have helped while watching Student Of The Year 2).

“Food becomes important because, in India, the storytelling is such,” says Bijli. “Internationally, you have Act 1, 2, 3, 4, but it all happens in one go. Here it’s Act 1, 2. In between, people want to go out. They are time-poor—if they can combine eating and moviegoing, and not have to worry about which restaurant to go to later or what’s at home, we want to give them that option.”

He is familiar with running the single-screen theatre—at Priya, Plaza and Rivoli in Delhi—but believes these are not viable any longer. A 1,000-seater cannot accommodate user requirements at a time when, on average, seven films release in a week. “I had to have a blockbuster every week or I would run at 20% occupancy. The entire 32,000 sq. ft of built-up area would have 100 people inside,” he says of his personal experience.

Bijli is most excited about the PVR Utsav brand for smaller towns and tier III cities. About 50-odd cinemas are currently under fit-out, and will have ticket prices of around 100 because the input costs—land, electricity, etc.—are lower.

He is also not concerned about over-the-top (OTT) platforms eating into revenues, for two reasons: He believes the same consumers are consuming entertainment at home on weekdays and at the cinema on weekends. Film-makers are also making content in both formats—the big-budget extravaganza for one, and leisurely storytelling, for the other.

“When I started, VHS was booming and I was the only mad man renovating Priya in 1988-89. Then came DVDs. Avatars have changed in home screenings. Content is getting consumed like never before (and) there is huge room for content on the big screen. The whole industry is on the same page on this,” he says.

His work is cut out for the future—get to a thousand screens first and take the high-quality cinema experience to as many areas as possible. “Do one thing and do it well,” he says. “Do it knowing it’s a heterogeneous market. It’s not one-size-fits-all. We want to connect moviegoers to moviemakers and create a conduit between the two. I can be a global brand just by giving a global experience in my own geography.”

In the context of going global, he says: “India may have tax issues, but that’s everywhere. To have an audience which has an insatiable appetite for movies and a production industry that wants to make movies…. Hollywood is frustrated—this is the only country where their share is not even 10%. Where will I get this (market)?”

If he is resigned to the extinction of the BlackBerry phone as a victim of evolution, the cellphone also keeps him connected to work all the time—which is both good and bad, he agrees. Besides working out religiously—a combination of weights, endurance and flexibility—he has also rekindled an old passion—singing.

For two years, Bijli has been practising singing as a form of relaxation. A Hindi music teacher comes home thrice a week, an English teacher twice a week, as he reconnects with Elton John, Billy Joel and Phil Collins, among others. As a student at Hindu College, Delhi, he was the lead singer in a band called Modus Operandi, he tells me.

As I assure him that I will not ask him to sing at that precise moment, he cites old Billy Joel songs—She’s Always A Woman To Me, Just The Way You Are, and New York State Of Mind—which he is currently learning as some of his favourites. For his brother’s 50th birthday, he sang Sanjeev’s favourite, Yellow by Coldplay. “It’s tough because he (Chris Martin) goes into falsetto. I have to bring the key down,” says Bijli.

The next generation of Bijlis is already involved in films. His eldest daughter, Niharika, is working with Dharma Productions, assisting Ayan Mukerji on Brahmastra. His other daughter, Nayana, has joined PVR, doing a pilot project on cinemas of the future, “creating the next language of exhibition business”, while son Aamer is studying.

The children’s independence allows him to read Devdutt Pattanaik’s My Hanuman Chalisa—he chants it every day. Being smart, educated and virtuous are equally important qualities, he believes.

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Last film

‘The Mule’ (Clint Eastwood). I really like his movies. I also enjoyed ‘A Star Is Born’, ‘Green Book’.

Last book read

I finished this book with a bad title, ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck’, and am working through a heavy book, ‘Principles: Life And Work’ by Ray Dalio. The way he is asking you to look at life is complicated.

The World Cup team could also include

Rishabh Pant (laughs). I thought they could have taken him. I am no expert but others seem to think so too.

Last film that was tough to watch

I didn’t like ‘The Favourite’. I couldn’t stand it.

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