Meet Sameer Nair, the suit-clad storyteller

Jul 05, 2015, 07:30 IST | Phorum Dalal

From selling the Yellow Pages to becoming Group CEO of Balaji Telefilms, Sameer Nair talks about the creativity behind making a sale

Sameer Nair, Group CEO, Balaji Telefilms

We have been sitting in his first floor cabin for just 10 minutes, when Sameer Nair walks in. All six feet of him. But, as he dials an office extension, calling for a “big cup of coffee”, he tells us the spurt in height came rather late in his life.
“Through school, I was shorter than most others in my class,” says the 50-year-old. “In college, I shot up by a foot. With height, my perspective on life changed too,” he adds. “I had spent all my life looking up. Now, it was my turn to look down.” With this, came a new persona. The thick-rimmed geeky glasses were replaced by contact lenses and the “studious look that convinced him that he was born to be a physicist” gave way to long hair and ‘cooler’ jeans. In fact, today, for the interview, the Group CEO of Balaji Telefilms — he completes a year this month — has dressed casually in faded denims and a sky blue shirt.

Sameer Nair at the Balaji Telefilms office at Andheri West. Pic/Sameer Sayed Abedi
Sameer Nair at the Balaji Telefilms office at Andheri West. Pic/Sameer Sayed Abedi

As he makes himself comfortable on a swivelling chair, Nair says the journey to this office was en route the gates of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT). “My father, Chandran, was the general manager of the Films Division of India,” he says, but before we interrupt him to ask if that helped him chart his career to one of India’s biggest production houses, he adds, “But, as a studious child, my aim was to crack the IIT entrance.” Though he studied physics at Dhobi Talao’s St Xavier’s College, the Bandra boy — his childhood home was at Almeida Park — confesses that the IIT dream is one he didn’t manage to fulfill.

A foot into advertising
By the time he graduated, Nair was bitten by the advertising bug. “I am an ideas person, and wanted to explore my creative side. For those growing up in the late 70s and 80s, advertising was the profession to be in.” But, getting a job in advertising proved difficult without a degree. Nair then switched to hotel management.

Amitabh Bachchan
In 2000, when Nair and his channel bought the rights of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire for Indian television, they created a vehicle for veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan’s comeback. File Pic

After completing a three-year course at Chennai’s Institute of Hotel Management, he returned to Mumbai in 1987, and tried his hand at food entrepreneurship, a successful phase he calls a learning experience. However, his two ventures lasted for six months since he landed a job as a sales executive for the Yellow Pages. He was paid Rs 1,000 a month. The two years of trying to sell the 1-kg directory taught Nair that selling is tough. “I came to the conclusion that I could not sell. I respect anyone who can sell; it is an art,” he says. We recall a plaque on the first floor corridor, leading to his office: ‘If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative’. “Two years of a sales job equals two years of storytelling,” says Nair, who identifies himself as a solutions man.

Ideas and selling came together when, in 1989, Nair managed to get a foot in the advertising door. Within three months of joining Chennai-based advertising agency, Gold Wire, started by Aubrey Sequiera of Lintas, in the client service department, Nair moved from client servicing to creative after the entire team quit. Here, he made commercials and corporate videos for MRF and acquired edited shows for DD, including Street Hawk and Glo Friends. He also got his first taste of making audio visuals. “In 1990, Gold Wire produced the 34th Filmfare Awards, held at Juhu’s Centaur Hotel (now Tulip Star). Ronnie Screwvala and Zarina Mehta were line producers. This was the year that Aamir Khan was best debut actor for Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak,” says Nair, adding that while he was watching the awards, sitting with the audience, his brother-in-law Dalip Tahil saw him. “‘Why are you sitting in the audience,’ he asked me and pulled me onto a high camera scaffold. We watched the entire evening unfold from up there,” says Nair.

Bringing Bachchan to TV
After four years, Nair started working as an independent filmmaker in Chennai. In 1994, a call from Star Movies had him joined them as executive producer. He returned to Mumbai in 1994. While Nair counts Malvika Shangvi’s Bombay Times (later renamed City Lights) in his resume, his turnaround contribution to Indian television came when he brought Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) to TV with Amitabh Bachchan as anchor. By 1999, Nair had become the head of programming at Star Plus, and when Star TV became a Hindi channel in 2000, he met Ekta and Jeetendra Kapoor and commissioned Kyuki Saans Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi.

“A friend had sent a VHS of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and, at the time, we were planning to launch something big. KBC, would be the first show with such a large takeaway prize. And Big B was our one and only choice,” says Nair.

The first meeting was a bit awkward, though.

“In 1999, I had made an appointment with Bachchan since I was to discuss a script for a movie I wanted to make. I never made it to that meeting as I got promoted that very day. When I met him a year later, he said: ‘Weren’t you supposed to meet me last year?”

It’s been a long journey since and the medium has changed drastically, first with the rise of cable TV and then with digital media allowing access to shows at the touch of a screen. “We are in a highly confused period of transition — people are consuming content on their laptops and cell phones. In the next five years, Netflix, which is the holy grail for subscriber video on demand will be in India,” he says.

The AAP sabbatical
Work is one long vacation for him — colleagues are allowed to send mails till late into the night — yet in 2011, he took a sabbatical of sorts and used the time to incubate a few entrepreneurial ventures, assist friends with theirs and even helped wife Sanvari with her ecommerce site.

This was also the period when excited by the idea of the changing political scenario, he joined hands with Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Admi Party (AAP).

“I helped them shoot ad films for the first Delhi elections in 2013. Later, I worked with the Mumbai chapter and helped in publicity and fund raising,” he says, adding, “They won a great election in December 2014, but it is time for the party to deliver.”

Farming for Thought
He returned to the corporate world in 2014, but life isn’t just work. Once he is back to his Pali Hill home, Nair picks up a read. “I am drawn to military history and intrigued by Hitler. My mother was a school teacher and once I stole a book from her library on 100 great lives. I continue to be surprised by how amazing people can be,” adds Nair, who switches from a voracious reader to a story-teller for his eight-year-old daughter, Midori. It all started with making up stories for his son from his first marriage, Rahul.

“My most recent story for Midori is about a planet called Blob. Everything here is made of blob, the sticky white kind,” he laughs.

Though his day starts at 7 am, Nair is usually up till 2 am catching up on American television. Coffee, tea and power naps keep him going. He likes cooking and barbeques on weekends.

And, when he can, Nair heads out to Karjat for the weekend where he has a 10-acre farm that has mango, litchi, cashew nut and papaya. “I sowed the seeds on my own and nurtured them with help from my sister, who is the green thumb of our family,” he says, adding that the process has instilled patience in him. “Seeds take time to grow... I often compare this to the entertainment business. A movie project, too, needs to be nurtured over time. You don’t see immediate results.”

The farm is also home to eight stray dogs and three cows, who Midori has named Chandni, Gauri and Sonia. The farm is home away from home, made comfortable with a large-screen TV and direct-to-home cable that helps him stay on top of who’s winning the latest IPL.

“Life is like a game of cricket... When you come out to bat, you must ensure that you don’t get out since you will be stuck in the pavilion for long. Watch out for the ball at all time. If you get out, your career is over,” he signs off.

On working with Ekta Kapoor
“She is full of energy and gets involved in projects. She is super fun and is extremely hardworking and passionate about every project. One day, she called me and told me about Box Cricket League. I looked into it and we ended up producing the reality show where eight teams, comprising television actors compete against each other

Inside track
Born: December 3, 1965
Education: Hotel Management degree from Chennai’s Institute of Hotel Management, BSc in Physics from St Xavier’s
College, Mumbai
Favourite books: Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
Favourite musician: Michael Jackson
Favourite tv series: Everybody loves Raymond
Favourite movies: Rocky series, Untouchables

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