Rise from the rubbles: The body blows that built Ajay Bijli
Rather than complaining about what he has lost, the PVR INOX managing director believes in counting his blessings.
Tuesday May 09, 2023,
8 min Read
- Don’t complain about all the things that have gone wrong, but count your blessings.
- If you are doing something, give it your 100%. Do it big and do it well.
- Money means success and enables wealth creation. But money cannot define you.
- Diversify your business. Don’t keep all your eggs in one basket.
In a world of glass-half-full optimists and glass-half-empty pessimists, Ajay Bijli is a league apart. He believes that the glass can be refilled. The chairman of multiplex chain PVR has been knocked down plenty of times but his resilience helps him get back up for the fight every single time.
Be it his father’s demise in 1992, the fire at his family’s transport business in 1994 or an entry into the ultra-competitive movie exhibition business in 1995, Bijli has been able to seamlessly navigate unforeseen circumstances. The testament to this is the tenacity with which he handled the Covid-19 lockdown that threatened to disrupt his business.
“You can either constantly complain or count your blessings. I believe in counting my blessings,” says Ajay Bijli in an interview with YourStory.
Heading the country’s largest film exhibitor, Ajay Bijli, managing director, PVR INOX has his finger on the pulse of the industry. He is an insider, considering that Ajay’s first tryst with movies happened at his father’s Priya Theatre (now PVR) in Vasant Vihar, New Delhi.
Ajay has witnessed the thrills and spills of the movie business and enabled the transition from single-screen to multiplexes and then the existential threat from streaming and lockdowns. His lesson: take nothing for granted.
Go big or go home
Ajay believes in giving his best shot at whatever is handed to him, even when he is not particularly interested in it. In 1988, he was pulled into the family’s transport business in New Delhi. A commerce graduate, the way businesses such as the Tatas worked fascinated Ajay, but he was not really sure about his life goals.
“I believe in pushing the envelope, so I accept whatever opportunity comes my way and give it my best shot,” says Ajay.
A few years into dabbling with Amritsar Transport, his father’s transport business, Ajay wanted to try his skills elsewhere. This was the early 1990s when single-screen theatres in India had a brand recall of sorts. Archana, Chanakya, Regal, and Liberty were some such names in Delhi. Mumbai had Sterling, Regal, and Eros, which were popular. Ajay often wondered why Priya didn’t make the list.
Priya, a cinema theatre that Ajay’s father acquired in 1978, faced aggressive competition. It only screened Hindi movies in the early 1990s at a time when rivals had added English movies as well. Ajay decided Priya needed to modernise too, making his official foray into the exhibition business.
He was incredibly ambitious and took the road less travelled. Ajay would visit Hollywood studios in India to convince them to showcase their movies in Priya. The studios were interested but insisted on a redesign of the theatre. Having visited Mumbai’s Sterling Cinema previously, Ajay knew a Dolby sound system was indispensable to growth. Once Priya was refurbished, businesses flowed in. That was perhaps the first time that Ajay truly understood the meaning of money.
“During that phase, money meant success. If we were able to generate a certain amount of income in a defined period of time, I considered ourselves successful,” he says.
But tragedy hit in 1992 when Ajay’s father passed away. The mantle of the transport business as well as the theatre fell on his shoulders. He would spend the day handling the truck business and devote his evenings to the theatre. Selena, his wife, was his trusted companion during such trying times.
In just two years, there was another challenge. A fire broke out and the site of their trucking business was reduced to ashes. His father and everything he built were gone in just two years. Emotionally and financially, it was a trying time for Ajay. But ever the pragmatic, Ajay realised that he would have time to mourn, but now was not that moment. He pivoted to his true passion: movies.
“I have been trained on the job and I have learnt to keep trying till I taste success. And that’s what drove me towards building PVR,” adds Ajay.
He wanted to improve the cinema-goers’ experience and expand the variety offered to the audience. Ajay had heard of multiplexes wherein a single theatre property could have multiple screens exhibiting different movies. The “never say never” attitude pushed him to explore this path. And that is when one of his distributor acquaintances suggested a meeting with Village Roadshow, an Australian media company that wanted to enter India. A few meetings later, a deal was sealed. Priya Village Roadshow, or PVR, as it is called today, was born in 1995.
Even with an international partner, Ajay wasn’t keen on giving up his family business of running Priya. So while Priya continued its operations in Vasant Vihar, the joint venture opened India’s first multiplex, PVR, in New Delhi’s Saket in 1997.
Just when PVR started to pick up momentum, Village Roadshow decided to exit India in 2001. Another challenge. But he had been through so many speed bumps that had hurt him deeper. This felt doable. He decided to focus purely on the customer and build with that as the base.
“I call myself the conduit between the moviegoer and movie maker. So even during troubling situations, I tried to remain level-headed and run the show,” he adds.
PVR experienced a decade and more of sustained growth. The business was booming with high occupancy rates across cities. Ajay had reached a moment where he would see a period of continued stability, but then came the pandemic. Everything was shut down. Movies switched to OTT platforms, and it appeared that there was no recovery in sight.
However, Ajay had been there, done that. Having built a business from the ground up, he knew that this too will pass. Theatres reopened in late 2021 and occupancy rates rose, slowly but steadily.
The pandemic also gave rise to newer opportunities, where rivals became partners. PVR acquired INOX to become the biggest multiplex chain in the country. The multiplex chain also touched a new milestone of 900 screens in January 2023. Priya, the theatre that made Ajay fall in love with movies, runs as a PVR property in the same location at Vasant Vihar.
Going back to the roots
Ajay may be a businessman, but he loves the movies. He insists he will not miss a single film that hits the screens and is at the movies, popcorn in hand every weekend. These visits allow him to enter a world where anything is possible and good wins over evil. He especially finds inspiration in underdog stories. “Take films such as Kantara, which was a small-budget movie but left a mark on the big screen. Or take KGF and Pathaan that broke box office collection records. These give me an assurance that the theatre is still alive and kicking,” explains Ajay.
Being surrounded by these inspirational movies nudged Ajay to pursue a passion that he had left behind in 1988. He was a member of a band called Modus Operandi that dissolved after his graduation. Call it Ajay’s Rock On epiphany or the grit to make it happen, he wanted to relaunch his band.
“My former band members were my first port of call, but unfortunately they had moved on. That is when someone advised me to start afresh,” says Ajay. Starting afresh is an idea that Ajay was accustomed to, so it wasn’t very difficult.
He used his relatively free schedule during the pandemic to reestablish his band called Random Order, the band now performs across New Delhi, with Ajay as the lead singer. PVR is back to business as usual, but Ajay still takes out 45 minutes every morning to sing.
“There are three things that are important to me: bottomline, hairline, and baseline. That is why 45 minutes of singing and 45 minutes of exercise are a daily routine that I religiously follow,” he quips.
His business is brimming with activity and as time has passed, Ajay’s relationship with money has changed as well. He considers health as the priority. To him, money now resonates with a sense of security and wealth creation for the future. Living through a pandemic has also taught him the importance of diversification.
“I used to think that one must do one thing and do it well. After the pandemic, I realise that there are risks to putting all your eggs in one basket,” he adds.
PVR, his product of love and sweat, has recovered from the pandemic-triggered slowdown. Theatres are running housefull once again. But Ajay knows better. He doesn’t take the business for granted. What he and his business endured during the pandemic has taught him the power of serenity. Ajay considers himself fortunate, he still counts his blessings every single day.