'The Seinfeld issue has become a joke in the international community'
Vijay Nair, founder and CEO of Only Much Louder, which organised stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s show that ultimately got cancelled in dramatic fashion, talks to Anu Prabhakar about how he is helping change the country’s licencing laws and why Mumbai is his fourth city of option for events
We catch Vijay Nair at a bad time. Not only has it been a few short weeks since the controversial cancellation of what could have been stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s maiden performance in Asia, but it is also almost the end of the financial year. When we meet at his Lower Parel office, Nair is busy looking at the company’s accounts — a task which, as he had candidly admitted in his official statement issued shortly after the cancellation, is “unpleasant”.
Only Much Louder (OML) CEO and founder Vijay Nair at his office in Lower Parel. Pic/ Satyajit Desai
However, the entrepreneur assures us that the fight is far from over. In an interview, Nair talks about approaching state governments for the installation of a single window licencing system, Section 66 A, and why he prefers to host events in Delhi over Mumbai. Excerpts:
Q. You have been tweeting about approaching state governments to change licencing laws. So what is the licencing system like today?
A. Right now, you have to approach about 15 people for a single permission and there are 20 such licences that you need to have, which is such a waste of time. Take the Andheri Sports Complex for instance — a place where a lot of events happen. Let’s say there are four events happening in the same week and everybody is applying for the clearances such as the fire clearance, traffic clearance and so on. But some 300 events have already taken place so far at the complex. Such venues should be able to have a permanent licence for events in some sense and have basic things covered beforehand.
Q. The current system does sound pretty complex.
A. Event licencing is designed in such a way that you get the licence the day before the event. And if you are new to the business, you will get it on the afternoon of the event. This is one of the major problems. Some licences are designed for the last minute in such a way that you have to beg and you know what happens next — you will have to go and ‘look after people’. They are structured in such a way that they benefit those working in the government and not businesses.
Q. What about Maharashtra in particular?
A. Maharashtra is the only state where an international artiste needs a CID clearance to perform. This is also the only state which has a censorship for events — and this is one of the biggest challenges stand-up comedians face because they don’t know what they are going to talk about as they make the content the day before. Recently, somebody applied for a clearance and there was a joke about Gujaratis. They were told that jokes about communities are not allowed. Neither are jokes about men and women allowed, so what are we supposed to talk about? At some point, the government has to protect the right to entertain and to be entertained.
Q. So, what are your top demands?
A. Our main thing is that we should have a one-window licencing system so that we can have more events as big events can bring in anything between Rs 40 to 50 lakh a day. We also want a better tax structure. Right now, there is a 25 per cent entertainment tax in Mumbai and Delhi and the new Union Budget has added a 14 per cent service tax to this. So 40 per cent of ticketing revenue will go in taxes. How will we ever make a profit? A Rs 4,000 ticket cannot suddenly become R4,700 or Rs 5,000 — a fan won’t pay that much. Also — this is pretty damn shocking for a country that does so many events — safety and security guidelines do not exist in India. So abroad, an event’s capacity may be 5,000 people. But in India, the concert will have 15,000 people, because there is nobody to look into this. This is a major security hazard as that’s how stampedes happen. We want such guidelines to be laid down as we are one disaster away from things collapsing.
Q. So far, you have already approached the Delhi and Maharashtra governments. How supportive were they?
A. We sent an email on March 13 to the Delhi Chief Minister and we got a response from Arvind (Kejriwal) himself on March 19. His response was encouraging, which started off saying (Nair quotes from the letter) ‘Your letter indicates towards three important systematic issues that plague the government — arbitrary decision making, corruption and inefficiency in government machinery’ and that the ‘Aam Aadmi Party government is already in the process of simplifying, rationalising and digitalising all government related paper work under a single window and website’. So they have asked our help to recreate this system. In Maharashtra, we have spoken to Poonam Mahajan and she has promised to help us. She has called for a meeting sometime soon. She will send the draft to the CM. What is disappointing is that Devendra Fadnavis participated in a conference about Mumbai as an entertainment destination and yet, three or four weeks later, the show got cancelled.
Q. How far into the whole process are you?
A. I am in the middle of writing my suggestions. I will put them up online next week and see what people have to say. We have decided to make this whole campaign public. Let people see for a change who is responding and who is doing what. In the first 10 days of April, we will meet with the Delhi government. My personal focus is Delhi.
Q. And why is that?
A. Because we sell the most number of tickets for any event in Delhi. Also, we got a response from them within five days and it is a government that is trying to prove a point. Also, none of the best events in the country like NH7 and Sunburn happen in Mumbai because none of us want to do it here. You have such nonsensical laws. For instance, take MMRDA. It’s a good venue but the city’s debris get dumped there at night and every time we go there, we have to have road rollers clear the whole thing. Secondly, we are not allowed to serve liquor there. We can serve alcohol at the NSCI Racecourse, but not in Bandra. Why? Is Bandra more precious? I prefer to host an event in Delhi and Bangalore. Mumbai is my fourth option, after Pune.
Q. Sounds like it’s a pretty bleak situation for fans in Mumbai.
A. What is more disappointing is that the scenario can be so much better with some interest from the government. Look at the guys who run Liberty cinema. He doesn’t want to do mainstream stuff. But since cinemas have a weird tax structure, he is not allowed to hold concerts because you have to pay a huge tax. Another example is Rang Bhavan. I get that there is a sound guideline there but it has been lying empty for 10 years. Why can’t we convert it into a creative hub or an incubator place where theatre artistes can rehearse? You could make R30,000 per day just from rentals. My artistes have to book a studio to go and practice. Instead of multiplexes, we need diverse, cultural spaces and multipurpose venues.
Q. The Supreme Court’s Section 66A verdict earlier this week was cheered by all. Your comments?
A. The way different people came together to work on this was phenomenal. But I think we are getting carried away as people can still file a charge under Section 295 because you made a joke about religion. People can still file under Section 153 because they think there is incitement.
Q. How has the Seinfeld show fiasco affected your, and to some extent the country’s, standing in the international arts and culture community?
A. The Seinfeld incident has become a joke in the international community of agents. I have received emails asking me ‘Are you kidding me?’. The kind of nonsense that happened around it was something right out of a Seinfeld episode. The big artiste will always get scared because they plan eight or 10 months before and around the event. Luckily, the show in Mumbai was a one-off, but if the artiste was in between a multi-country tour, it would have ruined everything. The other day (for an event), somebody asked me, ‘Are you sure the show will happen?’. Sometimes they are serious and sometimes they are sarcastic.
Q. How do you deal with setbacks of this magnitude? Humour seems to be a defence mechanism.
A. Absolutely. We have been through a lot of sh*t — we had an NH7 event blocked by a Kisan morcha. Authorities sold our tickets in black and we were even lathi-charged during the Enrique show. But in terms of attitude, nothing has changed. You can’t let something like this deter you because then they will win.