A chance meeting with Star-Filmmaker Dev Anand in 1969 got Amit Khanna involved in films while he was still in college. “Dev Saab must have seen some spark in me. He asked me to manage Nav Ketan’s work in Delhi, which incidentally involved liaison with Government and as well as getting involved with his distribution in Delhi,” he recalls.
His interests in college included theatre, journalism, advertising, radio and TV, which stood him in good stead. He even wrote the dialogues for a couple of scenes in Dev Anand’s Hare Rama Hare Krishna. So when Amit Khanna passed out of the college in 1971, Dev Saab asked him to come to Mumbai and work with him. However, it wasn’t easy for him to take the decision, as “my parents were against my joining films,” he admits. “We had no background. Mostly in my family there were professionals, engineers, doctors and even civil servants. Nobody was in films. They were scared that I have no contacts. Moreover, nobody from St Stephens College preferred to join films at that time,” he adds. But given his fascination for films, the family allowed him to join Dev Saab.
It was a big break for him. “Nobody gets a chance where the top production house or top a star asks some boy from college that you please come and work with me and I am sending your ticket. I flew down to Bombay and on day one went straight to the studio from the airport. There was a car waiting for me there,” Amit Khanna says. Eventually, he got involved in every aspect of filmmaking. “Since I had been writing poetry (in Hindi and English), I ventured into lyrics writing and script writing.”
Talking about his schedule, he says that he was working 18 hours a day seven days a week doing different things. “My age and my educational background aroused a lot of curiosity among film industry and media at the time. Even singers like Lata Ji, Kishore Da, Rafi Saab, Asha Ji and others and other film stalwarts found me a strange mix of a creative person and a business head.”
In 1976, Amit Khanna turned Producer, and this got him involved in the Film Producers Guild which at that time had only 35 members including veterans like V Shantaram, BR Chopra, and Raj Kapoor, among others. “They told me that you argue a lot but we still need you,” says Amit Khanna. He was the youngest member of the Guild and became its treasurer in 1976 and later its VP and then President. “Since I was articulate, I was a natural choice to be part of all film delegations meeting the Government,” he adds. Over the period, he also developed a strong network with bureaucrats, new parallel cinema directors, and the film festival circuit. He also developed friendships in advertising and corporate circles with almost all the leaders in these fields, and began writing on Industry affairs in various national publications. “During the emergency and post emergency I became the spokesperson of the industry on everything. Officially they would ask me to speak on almost every issue,” he says. He single-handedly pioneered the fight for industry status for films. “I was the first person who arranged the meeting between industry and FICCI.” He also chaired FICCI’s Entertainment and Convergence Committee and was Chairman of CII’s National Committee on M&E.
“I was the first person to take the Indian delegation to Cannes. I had to persuade people like Yash Chopra, Subhash Ghai. This is when Devdas was released in 2001. We took a big delegation to Cannes,” Amit Khanna recalls.
Amit Khanna does not mince his words when he speaks about harnessing India’s soft power through the M&E sector. “Let’s not forget, the global Media & Entertainment is a USD 2 trillion Industry while in India we are struggling to reach even USD 30 billion! The G20 countries have a Media & Entertainment sector averaging 3-5 % of GDP while India is at 1%. So much for the soft power and knowledge economy,” he says.
For him it’s time for the government and the industry to get the focus right. “Why are you obsessed with getting foreign guys to come and shoot in India. For that you don’t need a film festival. You need to go to individual countries and market your films. He wants Indian film stars to do more when it comes to showcasing Indian M&E sectors’ soft power. “All the Indian stars with one exception of Amir Khan, who decided that China was a big market and he has nursed that market, other Indian big stars are happy going and getting mobbed by South Asian audience. If you see the audience profiles when Shah Rukh did the David Lettermen show, there were all south Asians sitting there. I would have been happy if he had smattering of 100 people. Indian stars have been honoured in various universities. There are books being written about them. People have done PhDs on Indian cinema, Indian television and Indian stars, but they are all catering to the minority South Asian segment,” he observes.
The future of India’s Media and Entertainment sector lies in digital space, says Media and Entertainment industry veteran Amit Khanna. For him, internet is the ubiquitous currency of our world and connectivity is our lifeline. In this ecosystem these two enablers are leading to monetization of our leisure and increasingly work, he believes.
“Today’s it’s about personalization, privacy and performance. As institutive web (3.0) is replaced by thinking web (Web 4.0), m2m and IoT, it is estimated that Digital Media & Entertainment (inclusive streaming audio, video, broadcast, gaming, Out of Home will account for about 40% of the entire leisure Industry in 2026 totalling to more than USD 1.5 trillion empowering nearly 6 billion people. A similar scene will be repeated in India where out of a total size of 70 billion E&M Industry the digital part will be more than 40 %. This year the digital M& E in India is worth more than the film Industry and will exceed the Print Industry in 3 years and the TV industry later in the next decade,” he says in a recent article.
He also believes that the changing media landscape calls for the craft to evolve afresh. “We can already see more news being accessed through social media sites and apps like twitter and What’s App. Fake news is a temporary blip as AI assisted filters will soon spot manipulated reports and doctored news. In the next few years news breaks will be accompanied by short blurbs on known political and other biases of the source or reporter. Even newspapers and magazines will have to value add to their print versions to survive. A pay per use model has to provide premium service,” he says.
The industry veteran counts himself amongst those who do not believe that our freedom of expression is in peril. He says that “fear is overstated”.
“It is in every generation. In 70s I have seen censorship during Mrs Gandhi’s time. Even in my book I have mentioned, particularly during Nehru’s time, lot of films were censored and banned; books were also banned. But there was no platform where a person or artist could agitate. There was no social media. National press was not bothered to write about films being banned. No newspaper wrote about cinema except the review. That has now become magnified,” he adds.
Amit Khanna is of the opinion that artists and citizens have to find a voice, and social media and electronic media is helping them find that voice. “But that voice has to be somewhat reasoned. It is not that for the first time things in recent Indian history or independent India have become so bad. During Emergency years anybody could be arrested and threatened and you had to be quiet.”
Regarding censorship in film industry, he says that the government made a rule that liquor bottles could not be shown in films. “They also said that you can’t show blood in films and that’s why the words ‘dishoom dishoom’ came into the films of that era. Then they passed this rule that you can have only 6 action sequences of 90 seconds each in a film.”
Amit Khanna credits the current Government led by Narendra Modi to have actually opened the film facilitation offices after nearly 40 long years of only talks and no action. “They have only talked but execution has happened now. I hope it is streamlined,” he says.
“The Prime Minister has reformed many sectors of our economy and industry then why not Media & Entertainment? A nation of 1.3 billion people wants options to be informed and entertained in Digital India,” says Amit Khanna, who wishes that “before we celebrate our 75th anniversary of Independence we had a National Media & Entertainment policy framework, which takes into account the rapidly changing world. This is too important a sector to be neglected.”
He also put his views strongly on the “inherent conflict in the role of Ministry of Information & Broadcasting and Ministry of Telecommunications & Information Technology”.
“Besides the HRD Ministry handles IPR (Copyright) and Culture Ministry does its sideshow. It’s time we have one omnibus Ministry handling all subjects relating to Media & Entertainment,” he demands.
“We must have a group of experts and not Ministers and bureaucrats working on the future of our web-based content and delivery. Unfortunately, we have half-baked self-styled IT cells headed by vague people.”