Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Ajay Bijli's Pursuit Of Simple Luxury

Ajay Bijli, the owner of PVR Cinemas, lives the good life but on three principles: It must be understated, serve a functional purpose and have aesthetic value

Published: Oct 9, 2013 06:44:14 AM IST
Updated: Oct 9, 2013 08:26:29 AM IST
Ajay Bijli's Pursuit Of Simple Luxury
Image: Amit Verma
Ajay Bijli, Chairman and MD, PVR Cinemas

A diamond-studded watch, a private island, a business jet, a chauffer-driven super luxurious car, bespoke anything—luxury is limited only by the imagination. And by the depths of your pocket. Ajay Bijli, 46, an entrepreneur who has made a fortune for himself building PVR Cinemas into India’s largest chain of multiplexes (with a turnover of around Rs 1,100 crore) has no such constraints. But, he says, “I am just very reluctant to talk about it because there is no end to luxury.”

It’s not that he doesn’t live the good life; he merely isn’t in a mad pursuit of the best things that money can buy. There is a Bentley to go to work in, first-class international travel, made-to-measure clothes stitched in the UK or Singapore, secluded destinations for family vacations and a house that’s been under construction for the past 12 years. “The fact that the choices I have made are priced higher than other things is incidental. It is not the driving factor for me,” he says. This is not a show for the world to see and judge.

Many of Bijli’s choices can be traced back to his growing-up years and to the phase after his father, Kishan Mohan Bijli, passed away—that was when he had to find his feet in the world.

It would be fair to say that Ajay Bijli had a privileged childhood. As a kid, he was pampered—he was used to being driven in good cars and travelling first class on holidays. “My dad was fond of Mercedes for the longest time and he was a collector, to the extent [that he would buy] whatever would come on the State Trading Corporation or what was possible to import—and he had a good collection. He influenced me as far as travel and cars are concerned. He would always say that if you are travelling, then travel well. That has stayed with me,” says Bijli.

Growing up in New Delhi, there wasn’t much that junior Bijli was deprived of. There were no gadgets to hanker for, remember. Life changed when he got to Hindu College—he wanted a car of his own. “So dad bought me a Volvo and immediately after that I wanted a Honda; that too he gave me. Then when I got married, he gave me a Mercedes. So I had incremental improvements in the cars that I needed,” he says.

His father, who ran a trucking company called Amritsar Transport, passed away in 1992. Ajay also inherited a cinema hall called Priya in New Delhi’s Vasant Vihar. The theatre business excited him, especially the potential of multiplexes in a country full of single screen theaters. Building Priya Village Roadshow (PVR) became priority. It was a tough period and the idea of having a good time took a back seat. “After that I became very conservative. Actually the need of the hour was to run the business and take care of the inheritance. At that time people used to wonder why I never bought any cars—whenever something would get spoiled, only then it would be replaced,” says Bijli. It was only after 2005, when PVR Cinemas had achieved a certain scale, that he found time for himself again. That’s when the cars and the holidays reappeared.

What stayed constant was this: A house. Bijli still stays in his father’s home in Rohtak Road. “My mom always used to tell me dukane banao toh ghar khud hi ban jate hai (build a good business and a house will follow). I have spent my entire life building the business and the house never took priority. I am very comfortable where I am now… just that it is not practical to live in Old Delhi. Now, a luxury or a need is to be in South Delhi. That’s one indulgence of mine that I must build a home here,” he says.

Bijli has a decidedly strong view on what a high-end life entails. And it varies depending on the expenditure head. For instance:

On Travel
I travel a great deal. And if I travel first class it is not because of the luxury element but because I actually want to sleep eight hours on the flight. I am pretty introverted while flying so I get my own space this way. It’s like this: I may compromise on other things but I won’t on the way I travel as long as I can afford it.

Some things don’t appeal to me, no matter how expensive or luxurious they are. For instance, if I stay in a decent hotel—it could be Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton—and I am alone, I will take the smallest room available. But if I am with my wife or my children, then I will book a larger space, something with a living room attached, because I get up very early and I don’t want anyone to be disturbed. And that is the functional aspect of it.
I am driven by a specific need. If I am taking a holiday with my family, then that is a precious time with my daughters—one is in Los Angeles, the other in Boston—and my son [who is in Delhi]. We get about two weeks in winter and three weeks in summer. I try and look for locations which are slightly secluded where I don’t get bothered. I will rent a villa or book a hotel because we want to spend time together, just the five of us. Again it is not luxury but about where I can get exclusive time with them without bumping into acquaintances.

On Watches
If I see a watch where the mechanics are visible—it could be a minute repeater or a tourbillon—or I like the way it sits on my wrist, something which is on the cusp of not being too blingy and at the same time elegant, I get attracted to it, to the qualitative, aesthetic aspect of it.

On the Bentley
I live in Rohtak Road and I work in Gurgaon, so I am travelling 60-70 km a day just to go to work. After I come back and if I have to go out in the evening, that’s another 10-12 km, so my car is probably the most abused Bentley in Delhi. I bought it for the safety aspect, to be able to take a nap and listen to music. It fits into my scheme of things, which is commuting. But I love the leather and the authenticity of British craftsmanship. That appealed to me too.

On Clothes

I have always been conscious of what I wear but, as Steve Jobs said, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. A good tailored shirt or a suit that fits well and I am comfortable, not conscious of what I am wearing.

They say fashion is painful but I don’t believe in that. For me comfort is very important, at the same time it should be well tailored. Then you build your own style in terms of colour or the cuts. As I have grown older, I have stopped wearing ripped jeans and clothes like that. With age, one has to realise what works and what doesn’t work on you.

Also, anything that you wear should be weather- and occasion-appropriate. Some people get away with a lot. I like understated colours. I have a certain style that I like, in terms of the size of the lapels and fabric, and I get my clothes tailored accordingly. It could be in Hong Kong, Singapore or England where I like the bespoke, made-to-measure tailors. And sometimes, I use Tom Ford.

(This story appears in the 18 October, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)