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On a flight back from London, Amitabh Bachchan told Sameer Nair that if they replicated the format accurately and got everything right, “faad kay rakh denge [we’ll make it a monster hit]”. The year was 2000 and Nair, who was then programming head at Star Plus, had taken the megastar to the sets of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire in the UK to convince him to host the Indian adaptation of the game show. Bachchan and his family were reluctant, and understandably so. It was a time when the actor was making a comeback to films after a brief sabbatical in the 1990s. And a legend of the 70 mm screen hosting a quiz programme on television was a crazy idea at the turn of the millennium. “I was fixated on Mr Bachchan. His was the only name on my list. I really pursued him,” recalls Nair. Bachchan eventually relented and became the cynosure of all eyes on Indian television after Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) was first aired on Star Plus in July 2000. The rest, as they say, is history.
A media and entertainment industry veteran, 56-year-old Nair has had several highs in a career spanning more than 25 years. His latest bet, Applause Entertainment—a content and intellectual property (IP) creation studio, a venture of the Aditya Birla Group, set up in 2017—is currently basking in the success of Scam 1992, a web series based on the life of ‘Big Bull’ Harshad Mehta. Since the 10-episode show was streamed on digital platform SonyLIV in October 2020, it has been winning multiple awards, including one for Best Web Series at the Dadasaheb Phalke International Film Festival Awards 2021.
“It’s always good to have a big success… one can’t deny that. It’s a logical evolution from where we started. And a validation of what we are doing and what we set out to do. What the show did was it drew a whole bunch of existing viewers to Applause and SonyLIV. More people take us seriously now,” says Nair, CEO of Applause.
A self-confessed Steven Spielberg fan, Nair had been wanting to incorporate something like Applause since 1999. His inspiration was the Academy Award-winning filmmaker’s Amblin Entertainment, a classic movie studio. However, with KBC becoming a game changer and his subsequent elevation as COO and CEO at Star India keeping him busy with revamps and launches, the plan remained on the backburner.
Amitabh Bachchan promoting Kaun Banega Crorepati, a show brought to India by Sameer Nair
A chance meeting with Kumar Mangalam Birla, chairman of the Aditya Birla Group, in 2016 reignited his desire to create a studio that would focus on content creation, invest in making the show, license the finished series instead of waiting for it to be greenlit or commissioned, and make its own IP. Birla shared the same vision and they ‘revived’ Applause after Nair’s three-year contract as group CEO of Balaji Telefilms came to an end the following year. [The Birlas had a company named Applause Entertainment that had produced the Bachchan-starrer Black in 2005. It had since been dormant and Nair chose to use the same name for the studio.]
Born and brought up in Mumbai, and belonging to a family whose maternal side was full of teachers, Nair wanted to become an astrophysicist and dreamt of getting into the IITs. “I had a scientific bent of mind, but it was good enough only till Class 12. Then it became heavy duty, which is why I like science fiction more,” he says. He got his bachelor’s degree in economics instead and pursued a diploma in hotel management. The ‘foodie’ even went for an interview to The Leela in Mumbai, but left in a huff after he was made to wait for 40 minutes. Ironically, when he was at Star, he spent a lot of time at the five-star hotel because it was close to his office. “I could well have been employed there… I was suitably qualified,” he says.
Nair then set his eyes on the advertising industry, but first joined Yellow Pages as a sales executive in the late ’80s, looking after the Mumbai and Gujarat regions for two years. Later, he spent four years at Chennai-based advertising agency Goldwire Communications, where he worked closely with Doordarshan, and learnt the nuances of making advertisements, documentaries and films.
The turning point, however, came during the 12 years that he spent at Star India—at a time when satellite TV changed the landscape—where he was responsible for bringing some of the defining shows on TV such as Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki, Koffee With Karan, The Great Indian Comedy Show and Sarabhai vs Sarabhai, among others. But it is KBC that has remained the coveted trophy on his illustrious CV. Nair had not anticipated the popularity that the show would garner, but understands why people still associate him only with it despite having done a variety of work in his professional life. “KBC had many firsts attached to it. And it became such an absurd success that it dwarfed everything else. It became a BC/AD [before and after] thing in TV,” he says, adding that he vividly remembers Bachchan shooting the first promo of the show on the sets of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire in London. “He did it in one take. The foreign crew on set was stunned and full of admiration for him.”
In subsequent years, Nair continued to make an impact as CEO at NDTV Imagine and Balaji Telefilms. While at the former, he was instrumental in the success of shows like Ramayan and Rakhi Ka Swayamwar, he helped the latter launch digital streaming platform ALTBalaji and raise money for it. Once he achieved that, he knew the time was ripe to fulfil his long-cherished dream.
By August 2017, when Nair took charge of Applause Entertainment, the OTT space was witnessing hectic activity, with the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hotstar establishing themselves in India and eyeing a lion’s share of the booming market. Zee5 and SonyLIV had also finalised their launch plans. Besides, the availability of not-so-expensive smartphones and easy and cheap internet access meant that the potential to acquire subscribers was huge.
“We wanted to create content because we had anticipated a need that would arise with so many platforms coming up,” says Nair. Applause has so far followed a three-pronged strategy—creating originals, opting for book adaptations and adapting foreign shows such as Criminal Justice and The Hostages for the Indian audience. “In a way, Applause is first-of-its-kind, not one-of-its-kind,” he adds.
A stickler for perfection with an eye for detail, Nair’s meticulous involvement in projects is seen as a positive by those who have worked with him. “He gives full creative freedom, but if he feels strongly about something, he’ll make it known. What was pleasantly surprising is that he is hands-on with the company he runs. He seems interested in the details and the nitty-gritties,” says Arjun Mukerjee, who directed Applause Entertainment’s web series Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors (2020) with Rohan Sippy. “He is down to earth and seems one of the crew rather than the head of a company. He is pleasant to deal with and has no airs.”
Deepak Segal, head of content at Applause, has worked with Nair for over two decades. He says Nair gives the final sign off only after the team comes up with what it thinks is the best. “Actually, it is his gut feeling which is usually right. Sameer looks at a situation from all angles and can pre-empt pitfalls,” he adds.
It’s early days for Applause yet, but Nair is quick to absorb the learnings over the last three-and-a-half years as he now looks at expanding the company. He wants to focus on making things bigger, better and brighter. And instead of producing economically priced shows that do not have much of an uptake in a growing market, the entrepreneur is keen on ensuring distinctive and unique offerings. That apart, he claims to have gotten better at anticipating budgets and is learning to make season twos, eight of which are in the pipeline.
Applause is also venturing into movies (theatrical releases), documentaries, animation, reality shows, gaming content and other unscripted forms of storytelling. It’s producing a film directed by Aparna Sen, starring Konkona Sen Sharma; has joined hands with Drishyam Films for a movie on Major Mohit Sharma, who was posthumously awarded the Ashok Chakra; and is remaking the Tamil hit Aruvi with actor Fatima Sana Sheikh playing the lead role.
Content in regional languages is another area that it is banking on. So far, Applause has produced three Tamil shows, one in Gujarati and recently shot a Kannada-English one with standup comedian Danish Sait. “The kind of content we are making… it’s not designed to shock. The idea is to tell good stories, provocative stories,” says Nair. “We are taking the same hub-and-spoke model and expanding. Our focus is to build a full-blown studio. We are a strong creative, business and commercial fore… we bring finance to the table, we monitor and supervise the production process and monetise it.”
Pratik Gandhi, the lead actor of Scam 1992—based on journalist Sucheta Dalal and Debashis Basu’s book, The Scam: Who Won, Who Lost, Who Got Away—is bullish about Applause’s line-up. “It’s going all out, exploring a lot of different subjects and formats. It has an interesting mix of content in its portfolio,” he says, while giving credit to Nair for being unafraid of pushing the boundaries. “Despite having such a rich legacy and wealth of experience, he has a fresh approach… he is ready to explore. He’s open to trying new things… it is rare in this industry. He’s a soft-spoken, gut-based guy with a clear vision: He wants to be driven by content, not by faces or any other factor.”
Agrees Segal: “Sameer has a big vision for Applause. And he is not inching towards it, but moving by leaps and bounds to achieve his goals.”
Despite holding senior positions in a demanding industry, Nair finds a lot of spare time. “This is not a job… I am on a perpetual vacation,” he insists. The ‘family man’ escapes to his farm in Karjat, on the outskirts of Mumbai, at every given opportunity; he finds it therapeutic even as the five dogs, six cows, 16 goats and 20 chicken make it a busy place. The sports lover also enjoys playing squash, tennis and table tennis. He even took membership at a golf course in 2004, but did not go there for 16 years. Just when he developed an interest in the game and began playing there in January 2020, the lockdown came into effect. And he’s taken a liking to yoga in the last three years.
A still from Scam 1992, the award-winning web series created by Applause Entertainment
Apart from reading voraciously, he also consumes a lot of content. “I am a genuine consumer. I am always seeing the content that I make, as a consumer,” says Nair. It is perhaps this single-minded focus that makes churning out good content an obsession for him. “I am obsessed with detail. Our business should be obsessive. You have to be crazy. It’s not just a creative medium… there’s an art, science and magic to it,” he says. And when done right, he knows, it can lead to a thunderous applause.
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(This story appears in the 23 April, 2021 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)