Amit Khanna: The Renaissance Man

By Pickle  December 13, 2019

It’s rare to find a successful poet, lyricist, writer, and filmmaker — all combined into one man. Amit Khanna, who has completed five decades in the Indian M&E industry with his career spanning all media verticals, has lived and played all these roles with relative ease. He is the man who coined the word Bollywood and steered the Indian media sector on the path of convergence. His new book —‘Words, Sounds, Images’ — traces the history of M&E in India from the Indus Valley Civilization till modern times. We dive deep into his mind to understand the past, present and future of the Indian Media

In a career spanning five decades, Amit Khanna overwhelmed the Indian Media and Entertainment industry with the sheer brilliance of his profundity and exceptional creative power as a producer, lyricist, writer, talent promoter and mentor for many preeminent personalities in show biz. As a torch-bearer of modern entertainment, he shares a great rapport owing to his intrepid entrepreneurship and prophetic vision of the future of M&E space. Becoming an executive producer, writer and lyricist with actor-film-maker Dev Anand’s Navketan Films in 1970 at the age of 21, he went on to set up India’s first integrated media and entertainment company Plus Channel in 1989, which served as a platform for many award-winning films. He is also the founder chairman of Reliance Entertainment (from 2000 to 2015), India’s leading studio. Under his leadership, Reliance Entertainment diversified into production, distribution and exhibition of films across formats, radio and TV broadcasting, direct-to-home TV, gaming and online content creation in India and abroad.

Besides serving as an important link between the government and the industry and helping shape the Media and Entertainment policy, he has also been on the governing councils of the Jamia Millia Islamia Media Research Centre, and the Film Institutes in Pune and Kolkata, as well as Whistling Woods. He was the first Indian to serve on the international Emmys Jury.

Amit Khanna is a man of many talents, and he has been a vociferous writer and opinion maker serving as an editorial adviser to The Economic Times, Probe, Take 2, Online, Super Cinema and many other publications of repute. There was a time when he was the sole person who would be quoted on important issues concerning the industry by reputed newspapers and magazines both in India and abroad. Having worked across every segment in the field of media—print, radio, television, films, stage, live entertainment and digital media, he continues to surprise us with his proficiency in Hindi, English and Urdu as a multi-lingual writer and poet.

His new book ‘Words Sounds Images’ encapsulates the 5,000 years old history of the media and entertainment in India, which is set to be a treat for scholars from across the world.

The book starts with an examination of the origins, looking at a wide array of aspects including the state of entertainment during Harappan and Vedic times, details from the Natyashastra, the early drama, music and dance of Kalidasa, the development of ragas, musical instruments and early folk traditions, the genesis of classical dance forms, developments through the ages, including in the Mughal period and in the southern kingdoms, in the northeast, and under the Marathas and the British. Independence onwards, ‘Words Sounds Image’ takes a decade-wise look at the evolution of newspapers, cinema, music, television, dance, theatre and radio. In an interaction with Pickle, he talks about his voluminous yet engaging work and its relevance in today’s India. Here are the excerpts from the interview…

You have written a history of Indian media and entertainment and not an autobiography?

Personally, I don’t want to write an autobiography because I am a very straight forward and honest person. Speaking honestly, ideals have clay feet in India, and I don’t want to hurt them because they have a certain image which may not be entirely true. These people are famous and very well respected and I don’t want to hurt their feelings. Moreover, I avoid it as I won’t be able to write false things. I don’t want to work for profit any more so I have decided to do some academic work.

Why did you decide to write a book on the history of the India media and entertainment industry?

I have been associated with various media schools including FTII, SFRTII and the Jamia Media Research Centre, among others. I came to realize that despite several books written on the media industry and lot of information available on Google, what has happened is that lot of wrong data got frozen on the internet. This has resulted in everybody quoting wrong data which is being circulated around.

Secondly, there is a lot of interest in the Indian media and entertainment sector because it’s one of the fastest growing in the world. Also, it is a very diverse market and we have a very rich cultural tradition. There are specific books written on each segment, but there is not one comprehensive book which gives you an insight on various subjects over a span of let’s say 5,000 years. My book is more like an encyclopedia. It does not delve into detail in anything but it mentions everything; records everything of significance which happened. That’s how this book’s format is.

Initially I considered the option to concentrate on a particular media or a particular time period within the media, but then decided against it and wrote a comprehensive book. However, having said that I will be writing more books in the future focusing specifically on television or films and other social trends.

I was 22 when Dev Anand handed over Navketan to me. I was influenced by him for the commitment to look ahead and keep working. He gave me this attitude

Why is it relevant for us to go back in time and reflect?

When I was writing about Indian music, for example, it occurred to me
that even though we are looking at the various developments in music in the last 50 years we still need to understand how did the music originate? Why is it that some forms of folk music still exist after 5,000 years of their origin?

We find that some forms of music that find mention in the Sangam literature have survived to date, especially in Tamil Nadu. Folk music in parts of Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, and Andhra remain relevant even today. So, some of the relevant questions that needed to be answered are: What have been the influences? How did the Raga system emerge? How did Carnatic music diverge from Hindustani music? Though the answers provided by the book may not give you a complete picture, it still explains a lot of things. Whether you are a student of media, a media professional or you have a special interest in the arts, it will give you some touchpoints.

Which period in the history of media and entertainment in India you find much closer to the present?


Fortunately, there is a huge repository of data and knowledge available on the internet today that makes us a more informed society. Also, today there are a large numbers of media students and other professionals who have studied at least theory, making them more aware about the history of media compared to the people 30 years ago. But the pertinent questions to ask are: Have we traded knowledge for information? And are we able to preserve the wisdom which comes out of distilling of knowledge?

Everybody talks about our rich cultural traditions but they confuse time periods. For example, according to me the richest period of our history was the Vedic age but a lot of people confuse Vedic age with Puranas and with the epics, although epics predate the Vedas and the Upanishads. The fact is there is a clear distinction between them. Vedic knowledge or wisdom was distilled over a period of 2,000 years.

The two great Indian epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana have become a part of our cultural heritage. But in each region, virtually every 200 kms, the interpretation of these great epics changes because we come from a rich tradition. The transmission of wisdom and knowledge has been oral. Part of transmutation of this is possible, or is likely over a large span of time. We use very simple markers in history that this particular event marks the beginning of this era. But it is not like that. There are no ages and eras and time overlaps. The cultures, which keep on subsisting simultaneously before they get subsumed by one mass culture over spans of time; they are the first signposts of change.

We should produce only 500 to 600 films in India. But we are making over 2000 films. That ’s the biggest problem. Also, we cannot have 900 TV channels

How can this book be relevant for people?

The book is like an encyclopedia. It’s a reference book. There is no bibliography, so there are no reference materials. There is no arcane material which is normally written in scholarly books. It’s a very reader-friendly book. You can actually pick up the book and start reading it from any page. For example, if you want to read about music in the book it’s been so divided; if my interest is only music then I need not read the rest of it. I can read about music only. Similarly, if within music my interest is in classical music then I can read about it, or if it is theater or drama, I can read about drama or films. Each subject has been covered separately. It can appeal to anyone depending upon their interest.

We have been waiting for this book for a long time, why it took so much time?

The book required lot of research, therefore, lot of primary research went into it. Moreover, it was rather a challenging task to decide what to include and what not to in the book.

It means total number of pages were much more than the current 953 pages?

Originally it was planned in two volumes. But that would have meant devoting more time in rewriting it, and it would have been appealing to scholars and libraries only.

People of my generation or one generation after that are the last ones who are still obsessed with the sanctity of the celluloid films

Are you happy with your five decades devoted to the Indian M&E industry?

I am happy because I think we as a country have shown tremendous resilience to overcome various challenges, and have made tremendous progress in terms of technological advancement and realignment with the global geopolitics to come out stronger, and that’s the case with our media and entertainment sector also.

The case in point is when films moved from silent to talkie, the people said that live entertainment would disrupt the older forms of media because people are so infatuated by the moving image in the darkened auditorium. So they said: Who is going to watch Nautanki? Or who will watch Yakshagana? But the fact is that these have survived in some form or the other till today.

Then colour pictures came, and the people said that cinema would change. Later, other technologies like Dolby, iMax, Atmos and Virtual Reality were introduced in cinema. In the last five decades, the tools and the craft have definitely changed. Today, there is no analogue material or analogue link in the entire film value chain right from the conception stage. When you plan or write your film there is software to write it. You use it as the breakdown for your story boarding; you do your budgeting and everything online, and then you shoot on digital equipment. You do your post on digital equipment. Distribute it digitally, exhibit it digitally, and store it digitally. People of my generation or one generation after that are the last ones who are still obsessed with the sanctity of the celluloid films.

You are among the very few people in India, even in the world, to have seen closely all the mediums, what was it like back then?

When I first entered the film industry, very little tape was used back then. Songs were recorded on optical sound and if anyone in the orchestra, or the singer made a mistake then the film got wasted because you had to then put a new film.

At any point in time did you feel the frustration of accepting change?

No, there is always resistance to change. I became producer in 1976. Initially the Producers Guild had only 30 members and the membership was restricted. They did not admit new people. There were originally 20-25 people, who were giants of their time including people like V Shantaram, Meboob, Bimal Roy, Sohrab Modi, AL Srinivsan, AVM, LV Prasad, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, BR Chopra, and Subodh Mukherjee. However, in the early 70s they admitted some 4-5 of us—Mushir Riaz, Yash Chopra, Raj Tilak, Yash Johar and I. I was only 24-25 year of age when I became a producer. I came from a different background. I used to write in magazines.

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