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Lessons in success from Ramu

Ram Gopal Varma's life story throws light on the cognitive errors we make while evaluating opportunities and justifying success or failure

Lessons in success from Ramu

I am a Hindi-film buff and am always on the lookout for any material that tells me what really goes on inside the Hindi-film industry. Over the years I have realised that the mass media (newspapers, magazines and websites) essentially do a puff job of reporting on the Hindi-film industry.

Stories in most entertainment supplements of newspapers are paid for and cannot be trusted on most days. Further, even the negative stuff that gets written about is largely limited to who is seeing whom, who is not seeing whom, who has fallen out with whom and who has patched up with whom.

The process of how a film gets made is rarely written about. Given this, I have always been interested in any book that talks about the same. Recently, I came across Ram Gopal Varma's autobiography, unusually titled, Guns & Thighs: The Story of My Life. In this book, other than talking about how and why he made the films that he did, Varma also talks about success and makes some very relevant points about it, unlike the most management books that one reads.

Varma talks about the logic he used while starting a video library in Hyderabad. As he writes: "The reason I started a video library was that I knew around twenty of my friends and relatives owned video players. So I thought that if between them they hired twenty cassettes, at ₹10 a cassette a day, I would get ₹200 a day or ₹6,000 a month, which was the running cost of my shop. Anything extra, I thought, would be a profit."

Varma's library turned out to be very successful, and within one month of starting he was renting out more than 100 cassettes a day. Nevertheless, the irony was that none of the twenty friends and relatives whom he had thought would rent cassettes from his shop ever came to his video library. And even if they did, they never paid, given that they were friends and relatives.

But the thing is that if Varma had never backed on those twenty people hiring video cassettes, he would have never started the video library. And it was the success of the video library that allowed him to later become a film director, something that he talks about in detail in the book.

In contrast, Varma offers the example of a cousin of his called Chitti, who decided to open a bar and restaurant on the Mehdipatnam Road in Hyderabad. His logic for doing that seemed very sound. As Varma writes: "He [Chitti] reckoned that with an investment of just ₹20 lakh, he could make a crore in the very first year. There was a huge colony on that road and not a single bar within 5 km either way of the location he had chosen."

Nevertheless things did not turn out as expected. By the end of the year, Chitti had lost his investment and had to close down the bar and restaurant. It was at that point of time he figured out that none of the residents of the area liked to drink in a bar close to their homes. And that is why no one had opened a bar in that area in the first place.

So both Varma and his cousin had reasons for starting a new business. Both were wrong about the basic proposition on which they had based their businesses on. In Varma's case it did not matter. In his cousin's case it did.

As Varma writes: "Believing in [Chitti's] reasons, his family backed him financially. If the bar had become a hit, he would have been hailed as a visionary but since it flopped, he is now considered blindly stupid by his family because it could not afford the loss he made it undergo."

In Varma's case, his family thought he was being blindly stupid when he decided to start a video library and decided not to support him financially. Nevertheless, when the business worked he was hailed as a visionary.

Once Varma succeeded people started coming up with reasons for his success. Reasons like everyone had a VCR those days along with Varma's library having better parking space (in comparison to other video libraries) were offered. As Varma writes: "If something doesn't work, people will say 'we told you so', and if it works, they will come up with a new theory and will conveniently forget what they had said earlier... The same people advised me not to do Aag and my various other failures, and today they will all remember what they said about Aag and conveniently forget what they said about Satya." Ramgopal Varma Ki Aag was Varma's ambitious remake of Sholay with Amitabh Bachchan playing a character similar to Gabbar Singh. It bombed big time. On the other hand Satya is perhaps Varma's best film, and at the time it released nobody gave it a chance. It has become a cult classic over the years.

There are several things that we can learn from Varma's experience. Something succeeds and later we come up with reasons for why it worked. Something fails and later we come up with reasons for why it failed. This happens in the media all the time. Glowing profiles of businessmen are written while they are successful. And then reasons are offered for their failure when they fail. Rarely is the media able to predict the downfall of a successful businessman.

Further, luck plays a very important part in success. The trouble is it rarely gets offered as an explanation for success. It's boring to say that so and so was successful because he was also lucky. Entrepreneurs start businesses based on various reasons. It doesn't necessarily mean that they succeed precisely due to those reasons.

Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected]

This column appeared in the January 2016 Issue of Wealth Insight.