Meet Anirban Das Blah, the man behind the stars
Kwan Entertainment founder Anirban Das Blah on the talent management business, building the right kind of company, and living life intensely
Food gives you this combination of sensory and emotional experience that very few things can," says Anirban Das Blah, before taking a bite of the aptly named Edible Optical Illusion, sculpted out of truffle-roasted cauliflower and buckwheat. It’s a Monday afternoon, and I’m meeting the founder and managing director of Kwan Entertainment & Marketing Solutions Pvt. Ltd for lunch at the POH restaurant in Mumbai.
Chef Vikramjit Roy has served up a 13-course tasting meal just for the two of us, and we find ourselves stopping often mid-conversation to savour the food. Dressed in a black shirt and dark blue jeans, Blah discusses the intricacies of each course with Roy with the ease of a professional food critic.
In another life, he may have ended up as one. As it is, he tweets regularly and blogs occasionally about his food experiences, and has served on the jury of major food awards such as Epicurean Guild Awards India and Top Restaurants Awards. This year alone, he has eaten at 13 of the top 100 restaurants in the world, including Gaggan in Bangkok.
The passion with which the 39-year-old entrepreneur approaches food is awe-inspiring. And he brings that same intensity to everything he does, whether it’s the company he has built from scratch over the last nine years, or an impromptu discussion about the state of contemporary Indian hip hop. Where does it come from? I ask.
“One of the formative moments of my life was when I first read Ulysses," he says. Poet Alfred Tennyson’s blank verse about the mythical hero’s determination “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" had a profound impact on the 15-year-old Blah. “Since then, my life has always been about seeking out experiences. I believe life has to be lived intensely, and I’m passionate about most things I do."
Blah grew up in Shillong, where his parents worked at the State Bank of India. He moved to Delhi to finish his classes XI and XII at the Delhi Public School (DPS) Mathura Road, before enrolling for a Bachelor’s degree in English literature at Delhi University’s Kirori Mal College, where he became involved in student politics as the head of the North Eastern Students’ Federation of India.
“There was a lot of violence, because student politics in Delhi University is always violent," he says. “I couldn’t relate to the environment at Kirori Mal at all, so I drifted into music, writing and politics. I think I was pretty lost."
While still in college, he joined the global youth-run not-for-profit AIESEC. The bright and ambitious young men and women there were exactly the sort of peer group Blah had failed to find at DPS and Kirori Mal. “And then my competitive instincts took over," he says. “That’s also when I first got exposed to business and marketing. I had never even thought of that as an option."
After graduation, Blah did a brief stint in public relations before moving to a marketing job in a dotcom. He spent the next four years specializing in IT and telecommunications, working as a marketing manager for Ericsson in Stockholm before returning to join Bharti Airtel Ltd.
In 2002, sick of India’s “stifling and bureaucratic" work culture, he was about to take up a new job in the UK when he was offered a job at Globosport, the sports event management company that tennis player Mahesh Bhupathi was setting up.
“I actually joined Globosport because I’d watched Jerry Maguire and I wanted to become a talent agent," says Blah, who took over as CEO soon after joining. “But we didn’t have a talent management business. I approached Mahesh with the idea and he was okay with it, but said he couldn’t force anyone to sign just because he knew them personally. I’d have to build the business from scratch."
That’s what Blah did. At the time, the talent management business in India was largely about cricket. But nobody wanted to sign up with an unknown outsider, and, as a young company with limited cash flow, Globosport couldn’t match the minimum guarantees that the big players were used to. “So I had to sign people that nobody else wanted to represent," he says. His first few clients were cricketers Aakash Chopra and Aavishkar Salvi, and junior tennis players Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza.
But the minimum guarantees remained an issue, and Blah became increasingly disillusioned with the sports scene. He tells me of signing a promising cricketer at 17, only to find the player stopped answering his calls after he was picked for the national team. Blah claims that the cricketer was pressured to drop Globosport and sign with the agent who managed the team captain. “That’s how it works. I realized I wasn’t connected enough with the right kind of people to compete."
So he shifted his attention to Bollywood, where the high-profile secretaries who called the shots were so focused on the film business that they ignored the potentially lucrative opportunities for brand endorsements. Through a friend, he swung a meeting with Saif Ali Khan at the actor’s house.
“He was one and a half hours late and showed up for the meeting in a towel," remembers Blah. At the time, brands picked a celebrity from among five-six options and approached a star only after they had taken a call or the other options had not worked out. There was nobody from the celebrity’s end trying to influence that decision. “I basically said, how does it hurt you for me to go and talk to brands on your behalf?"
Khan signed on, Genelia D’Souza followed, and things took off from there. Blah had a special talent for taking on young stars who weren’t that big but appealed to young urban India, and making them lakhs of rupees in endorsement deals. “That’s how I built my reputation. People started thinking that if this guy can make these people so much money, he must be doing something different."
“I had ₹ 3.5 lakh in my bank account, one kid, with twins on the way. I was severely in debt in my early 30s, and I lost my biggest client (Khan) in the first week of starting a new company."
In 2009, Blah quit Globosport to start Kwan. Part of the reason was that he was tired of the celebrity management business. Kwan does work with celebrities, but it does more than talent representation. In fact, it’s pretty hard to pin down what Kwan does. The company calls itself the “leading marketplace for pop culture in India" but what does that actually mean?
“There are three types of people who want to work in the entertainment business," explains Blah. “There are professionals, there’s creative talent, and there are entrepreneurs. Kwan aims to be the place where the best of all three come to fulfil their potential."
Over nine years, Blah and his team have built Kwan into a conglomerate that generates more than $500 million (around ₹ 3,404 crore) in business annually. With a roster that includes 115 creative artists—not just actors, but also directors, writers and music composers—it’s an entertainment powerhouse. Kwan was involved—which could mean anything from representing the film’s stars to finding directors and producers for a script—in over 50 films last year, including eight of the top 10 grossers. Other verticals include TV and web content, product placement, live programming, brand positioning and marketing advisory, sports team franchise management, and, most recently, fashion retail.
“Just purely on social media, the Kwan talent pool generates a billion eyeballs a month," says Blah. “And we live in a country where everything from newspapers to phones is sold by celebrities. So, for us, the play isn’t the film or TV business, it’s anything that the Indian consumer consumes."
While he’s happy to talk numbers, for him Kwan isn’t so much about building a lucrative company as it is about building the right sort of company. “I wanted to build an organization based on the principle of empathy," he says. “To do the right things for the right people."
This organizational culture reflects in every aspect of the company, from a commitment to transparency to letting high-value clients go for misbehaving with an employee.
“I’ll tell you what my actual milestones are," says Blah, who stepped down as CEO in April to take a more strategic role and let younger blood take over the day-to-day running of the company. “When I look at Vijay (Subramaniam), who was my intern at Globosport, become the CEO of Kwan. When I look at Jaya (Saha), who was working at a call centre before she joined me at Globosport and now she’s one of the five most powerful women in the industry. That is how you define success. The lives you transform, the careers you make, the social and individual impact."
Social impact is something Blah finds himself thinking about more and more. The celebrities he works with have incredible power, and he wants to leverage that power to create change. He’s also one of the handful of Indian corporate leaders who are outspoken on social media, calling out bigotry and majoritarianism wherever he sees it. “Maybe it’s because I’ve seen what it’s like to be in a minority and to live in fear," says Blah, referring to the violence against non-tribals in Shillong in the 1980s and early 1990s. “Having experienced that, how can I be okay with other people having to go through that?"
By now, our one-hour lunch has been going on for well over two. Blah is an engaging conversationalist, part tech futurist, part amateur philosopher, and part pop culture shaman. As we call for the bill, he takes a moment to reflect on his journey so far.
“As a kid, I wanted to join the Indian Foreign Service, because I thought it was the best way for me to travel to another country," he says. “This year I’m going to my 40th (country). Bollywood is such a tough business, but I can never complain, because look at my life, look at where I come from. My life is bigger than my biggest dream."