From logging video cassettes for Rs 20 each, to helming huge productions such as Fear Factor: Khatron Ke Khiladi and Bigg Boss, Deepak Dhar’s professional journey has been full of unexpected twists and turns. He tells Deepali Dhingra why he is an ardent fan of Amitabh Bachchan and how he assured his parents that he isn’t part of the underworld
Deepak Dhar, CEO and Managing Director, Endemol India
During his school days at Activity High School in Peddar Road, Deepak Dhar used to spend his pocket money buying video cassettes of Amitabh Bachchan’s films. On one particular occasion, the video cassette library he used to frequent was on the verge of going bankrupt, so they put everything on sale. “They were selling each VHS tape for R100 and I had the exact amount,” he recalls. While most of his friends spent their sum on Bachchan’s superhit films such as Sholay, Don and Deewar, Dhar went ahead and bought Mahaan, a hit but not-so-popular movie of the actor, where he had a triple role. “All my friends were like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ My reasoning was that I’ll get to watch three Bachchans at the price of one!” he laughs. The film buff might never have imagined that his ability to understand the logistics of entertainment, will, one day, lead him to becoming the CEO and MD of Endemol India, one of the leading content production companies in the country.
Deepak Dhar on the sets of Bigg Boss at Lonavala. Pics/Atul Kamble
Born in Hyderabad to Kashmiri Pandit parents, Dhar remembers speaking fluent Telugu till the age of 10, when he moved to Mumbai with his parents. He stayed at Breach Candy for almost 15 years before moving to Powai where he currently resides. “I was always very filmi,” says the entrepreneur, referring to the ‘Mahaan’ episode, “I always had this flair for writing and photography,” he adds. Taking up engineering in college was not out of choice, but by default. “I come from a middle-class orthodox Kashmiri family, where you are a nobody if you are not an engineer or a doctor,” he states.
However, very soon the young student realised that engineering is not his cup of tea. “A friend called Raja used to work for a production house called Magic Box Productions, and asked me to come to his office. It was my final year of engineering and I was whiling away my time, so I went to their office in Oshiwara,” he recalls. That’s how he bagged his first job in 1996 that entailed him to log tapes. He was paid a measly R20 for each tape that he logged. “I must have seen some really trashy films, but I enjoyed the stint thoroughly,” he smiles.
That same year, Prime Sports — now called Star Sports — was setting up a team for their production department that would broadcast the Cricket World Cup being held in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. “I joined the team and was assigned to cover the matches that were going to be played in India,” he says. The young trainee would carry tripods and cables and in return, get to watch some of the cricketing greats, including Sachin Tendulkar, Mohammad Azharuddin and Sanjay Manjarekar in action. “It was a big thing for a young guy like me, as I’m a full-on Bollywood and cricket fan,” says Dhar. But he adds sheepishly, “The real lure for me was the merchandise — the T-shirt and the cap emblazoned with the words Prime Sports. It might not be a big deal now, but in those days, it was a matter of pride to own something like that,” says Dhar, who adds that just like the Mahaan VHS tape, he still has the T-shirt and cap at home.
After the three-month stint, he was absorbed into Star TV as a production assistant, a job he held for a couple of years, before joining MTV. “I got sucked into writing, creating, direction and production. I worked in close proximity with Cyrus Broacha, Danny McGill and VJ Noni and started getting known as the guy who was good at creating music television,” informs the 40-year-old. But while things were going great professionally, home was another story altogether. “Extremely turbulent,” that’s how Dhar describes it. “My career had taken a detour and how. While my parents had grudgingly accepted the earlier jobs, they could not come to terms with my job at MTV. I would not come home for days, neither shower nor brush my teeth. My mom thought I’ve joined the underworld!” he chuckles at the memory.
After a five-year stint at MTV, when Dhar joined Channel V, he was asked to direct Channel V Jammin, a show that was as close to reality TV as it could get in those days. “We would lock two musicians, as different from each other as chalk and cheese, in a room and ask them to come up with a track. It became a cult show,” he recalls. That was also the time when the channel was coming up with a talent hunt show called Popstars. When Sameer Nair, the former Star India head, called Dhar to ask what he thought about the show, the latter’s immediate reply was that he could direct it. “I bagged the show, but I had to cancel my vacation with my wife to Goa. Thankfully, she’s supportive of me and my activities,” he grins.
A night before the auditions were to begin, Dhar messaged Nair to inform him that everything was set for the auditions the next day. “Within a minute, I got a reply from him that said, ‘Remember, it’s not about auditions, it’s about emotions.’ For me, that was the brief. You won’t believe the number of girls who cried at the auditions — I think Popstars was known more for its emotions than its music,” Dhar says of the show that went on to become a cult series and gave birth to pop bands such as Viva and Aasma.
By then the maverick producer/director had had enough of music television and decided to shift gears. Nair put him on to Star One, a new channel. Here, the television whiz was in charge of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, which made stand-up comedians Raju Srivastav, Sunil Pal and Naveen Prabhakar overnight stars. The triumph for Dhar was getting Navjyot Singh Sidhu to co-host the show. “Nobody thought that Sidhu could be a perfect fit for the comedy genre. Everyone thought I was making a huge mistake by getting him on board. Star thought this was going to be the biggest misfire, but Sidhu’s one-line repartees helped him garner a huge fan following,” he adds. After a few seasons of the show, when Dhar went to Nair seeking a change of job, the latter let him go, but not before putting him in touch with then Endemol India CEO, Rajesh Kamat.
What lies ahead
Dhar may have decided to join Endemol, but it didn’t happen before facing some stiff opposition back home. “My parents, who had by now accepted and were even happy with what I was doing at Star TV, had never heard of Endemol. To my mom, it sounded like Paracetamol!” he laughs. He joined the production house in 2006. Things moved on pretty quickly from there. “I would have breakfast in Filmcity on the sets of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, lunch on the sets of Fame Academy at RK Studio and dinner at Karjat on the sets of Bigg Boss. My driver Dilip and I are buddies now. His number on my speed dial is even before my wife’s,” he guffaws.
Dhar took over from Kamat after the latter quit Endemol in 2008. “Sameer and Rajesh were the two biggest influences in my career. While Sameer taught me entertainment, Rajesh taught me the business of entertainment,” he says. Today, Bigg Boss and Fear Factor: Khatron Ke Khiladi are two of their most successful shows, with the former currently on air in its eighth season and the latter’s sixth season about to go on air soon. Bigg Boss, of course, has its share of critics, but as Dhar points out, everyone’s hooked on to the show. “When we got Sunny Leone in the house for season five, my mom stopped going for her evening walks,” Dhar chuckles. When she told him that their relatives don’t like it, his response — ‘This means they are watching it’ — put an end to the discussion. The show also has its regional counterparts in Kannada and Bangla and they plan to introduce it in Telugu as well. The company has also ventured into fiction with shows such as Mile Jab Hum Tum, Sabki Laadli Bebo and Lagori on Star Pravah in Marathi and with the Telugu version of the Hindi blockbuster Kahaani, they ventured into the business of cinema last year. Their next move is into the digital space. “I love treading into unchartered territories. One has to swim in the river to reach the ocean,” he philosophises.
With so much on his plate, how does he find time for himself? At this, the producer shares yet another anecdote from his Popstars days. Between two seasons of the show, Dhar, too, had got a little star of his own — his baby daughter Anushka. “Work was really hectic, so when I went to inform Sameer about the birth of my daughter, his boss, an Australian, who was present in his office asked, ‘Deepak, how do you find the time?’ I didn’t know what to say,” he bursts into laughter.
Dhar loves to spend his free time with his family. He enjoys watching Hindi movies with his daughter on weekends, playing badminton with her in the mornings and going with her and his wife for vacations. “For the last season of Khatron Ke Khiladi, I took my family to Cape Town, and we had a lot of fun participating in adventure sports, like deep sea diving and sky diving,” he says. The doting father reveals that as a child, he owned two Alsatian dogs — Gabbar and Bullett — and now, it’s his daughter’s now wish to own a pet dog. “In Hyderabad, we had a huge house but here, our house isn’t large enough for one. Last year, I got parrots for her for Christmas, but she’s extracted a promise from me to get her a dog by Valentine’s Day,” he says. So will he? “Difficult to say, I’ve broken that promise twice already!” he quips.
Born: April 23, 1974
Education: Electrical engineering from Mumbai University
First job: As a logger at Magic Box Productions
Mantra in life: Take a leap of faith
Best advice I ever got: Sameer Nair’s words ‘It’s not about auditions, it’s about emotions’ and Rajesh Kamat's lessons on the business of entertainment
Film: All of Amitabh Bachchan’s movies
Sport: Racquet sports including squash and badminton
Destination: Cape Town, South Africa
Tv show: From Endemol’s offering, it’s Fear Factor: Khatron Ke Khiladi. I also love Kaun Banega Crorepati