When Richard Li, a 25-year-old business tycoon from Hong Kong, flew down to India in early 1992, one of the items on his agenda was to call on Subhash Chandra, a relatively small but wealthy businessman, who had agreed to pay $5 million to lease a transponder on Li’s AsiaSat satellite. For Chandra, who was still in his early 40s, this meant he could, by October that year, set up Zee TV, India’s first private Hindi satellite channel. Convincing the often-mercurial Li was not easy, going by Chandra’s earlier experience of negotiating with him in Hong Kong. It was only after Li came to India and was shown Chandra’s existing businesses that the deal was inked.
It wasn’t entirely unexpected. By then, Chandra, whose family was once engaged in rice trading, was a significant player in the manufacture of laminated tubes (Essel Packaging) and had already had his first brush with the entertainment world in the mid-1980s when he moved into the theme park space. The project, Essel World, located on the outskirts of Mumbai, had slowly begun to make an impact after a lukewarm start. Having sufficiently impressed Li, the younger son of Li Ka-Shing, chairman of Hutchison Whampoa and the owner of Star TV, with his scale of operations and financial heft and with the crucial deal in the bag, Chandra decided to invite him home for dinner. On impulse, he called a friend in the advertising industry and asked him to come over, bringing along a couple of young models. “My wife was shocked when she saw the models and actually became very unwell for three weeks afterwards. She fervently requested me not to enter this business,” Chandra recalls. “I promised her I would not run after any of those girls and then she was convinced,” says the Essel Group chairman with a hearty laugh.
If Sushila Chandra Goenka was discomfited by just that little hint of glamour, the ensuing years could have been very uncomfortable for her. Only, it is all too evident her husband has been unfaltering in his focus on the business, leaving no room for distractions of any sort. Today, Chandra lords over a ₹17,000-crore group with interests in media, technology, entertainment, packaging, education and infrastructure. Starting with the launch of Zee TV