Sweet Smell of Success: How Arindam Chaudhuri made a fortune off the aspirations—and insecurities—of India’s middle classes.

During those early years, Arindam’s ambitions were disproportionate to his abilities and experience. He started a magazine and a research division, but the magazine closed quickly and his recruitment firm failed to take off. He had nothing to sell except himself. “In 1997, I announced my first leadership workshop for senior executives under the banner, ‘Become a great leader.’ My thinking was that if they can take leadership lessons from me, they will give me business. So they came, not realising from the photos how young this guy was. And then it didn’t matter, because that first workshop was a rocking interactive super-success.” His voice rose, his chin lifted with pride, and he looked me in the eyes. “That is how we built a brand.”

At the IIPM campus, I had picked up a brochure that featured a two-page spread of the articles that appeared when Arindam first made his mark as “The Guru with a Ponytail.” Indistinguishable from press releases, these articles reproduced Arindam’s thoughts on everything from “how not to create more Osamas” (the key, apparently, was “wholesome education”) to the negative influence of “the MBA mafia,” as he called the IIMs. But if Arindam was “Guru Cool” in these articles, he was also combative, attacking the IIMs and pushing his “Theory i Management” (the lower case “i” stood for “India”) as part of a compassionate form of capitalism that took into account the country’s overwhelming poverty. He talked about “trickle-down economics” and “survival of the weakest,” and although it was never clear from these extracts how such concepts could be put into practice, they showed Arindam’s desire to project himself as a thinker as well as an entrepreneur.

In June 2005, nearly a decade after his first failed attempt to start a magazine, Arindam began publishing a magazine called Business & Economy. This led to a newsweekly, The Sunday Indian, and a marketing magazine called 4Ps. Each was printed on glossy paper, heavy on graphics and syndicated material, thin on original content and, to judge by the misspelled names on Sunday Indian covers (“Pamela Andreson”), short of copy editors. In 2007, Arindam began bringing out an Indian edition of PC Magazine under license from Ziff Davis Media. At the same time, he began discussions with Foreign Affairs in New York to bring out an Indian edition, and when that fell through, he began negotiations with Foreign Policy in Washington DC. “In the school, I have an audience of only 6,000 students,” he had said to me (the actual enrolment, according to Sutanu, was closer to 2,000). “Now, every week, I reach one lakh people.” The business schools also produced “academic” journals with names like Indian Economy Review, Human Factor, Strategical Innovators, and Need the Dough? But the most significant arena of influence seemed to be his film business, which had turned Arindam into something approaching a household name.

In 2002, Arindam decided to enter the movie business. A few days before his first Bollywood film was to be shot, he told me, the director walked out on him. Arindam, naturally, decided to direct the film himself. He admitted to me that he had not been entirely qualified. “But I hope, some day, when I have more experience, to make a truly revolutionary film.” With a plot lifted from the American comic strip Archie, that first film flopped commercially and was panned by critics. Even the DVD stores in the Palika Bazaar underground market were unable to procure a copy for me. But Arindam learnt quickly. Before long, he had developed a careful corporate approach to filmmaking that differed from the older Bollywood model of massive budgets, dubious financing (often from underworld sources) and a hit-or-miss approach to success. Arindam’s films, by contrast, focused on the bottom line, keeping the budget small and aiming not for huge audiences but for as much presence as possible in the multiplexes proliferating in the new India, places where a number of films ran simultaneously in theatres far smaller than their predecessors. He also sought out prestige; some more recent ventures of Arindam Chaudhuri Productions have been directed by the Kolkata-based Rituparno Ghosh, who has something of a reputation as an auteur .

Within IIPM, meanwhile, Arindam was surrounded by fierce loyalists. Former students and classmates became employees and continued to refer to him in the nice, middle-class Indian way as “Arindam sir.” They were so enamored of Arindam that when I visited him at the IIPM campus or stood too near him, some of them displayed a barely disguised hostility. Upset at the proximity I had stolen, sensing perhaps that I did not entirely share their faith in their guru, they seethed with the desire to protect Arindam from me. Almost all of Planman’s employees—90 percent, according to Arindam—were former IIPM students. The same was true of the faculty members, who tended to morph from students to teachers as soon as they had finished their courses. Rohit Manchanda, a short, dapper man who would have been shorter without the unusually high heels of his shoes, taught advertising and headed Planman’s small advertising agency. The dean of IIPM, Prasoon Majumdar, was also economics editor for the magazines published by Planman. Other employees were family members as well as former students. Arindam’s wife, Rajita, a petite woman who drove a Porsche, had been a student of Arindam’s before they got married and now taught Executive Communications. Arindam’s sister’s husband, a young man with shoulder-length hair and a shirt left unbuttoned to reveal a generous expanse of chest, was a former student, a faculty member and the features and lifestyle editor of the magazines.

When Arindam met with his division heads, all of whom had been his classmates at IIPM, they joked and chatted for an hour before turning to their work. They seemed to derive immense pleasure from showing me just how close-knit they were. “We’re like the mafia,” Arindam said. It was a comparison that had occurred to me, although other metaphors also came to mind. They were like the mafia in their suspicion of outsiders, like a dot-com in their emphasis on collegiality , and like a cult in their belief in a mythology made up of Arindam’s personal history, management theories and the strange ways in which the company functioned. But perhaps this is simply another way of saying that they were a business, operating through an unquestioning adherence to what their owner said and believed.

During our first meeting, Arindam explained to me in a five-hour monologue that his business was built around the “brand” of Planman Consulting, the group that includes the business school and numerous other ventures from media and motion pictures to a charitable foundation. To an outsider, however, the brand is Arindam. Even if his role is disguised under the description of “honorary dean” of IIPM, the image of the business school and Planman is in most ways the image of Arindam Chaudhuri. With his quirky combination of energy, flamboyance, ambition, canniness and even vulnerability, he is the promise of the age, his traits gathering force from their expression at a time in India when all that is solid melts into air.

One evening in September, I went to the Grand Ballroom auditorium of the Park Royal Hotel to hear Arindam speak. I had heard him address a crowd before, but that had been a familiar audience, made up of graduating IIPM students herded into a hotel auditorium near the Satbari campus. The students seemed awestruck but restless, their attention wandering whenever the talk veered away from the question of their future to trickle-down theory; no doubt they were more concerned with trickle-up. Arindam hectored them a little, and he had been worried enough about this to send me a text message a few hours later, asking me to “discount some of the harsh words i said to students.”

The event at the Grand Ballroom was different. It was the final performance of a daylong “leadership” seminar for which people had paid 4,000 rupees, the previous speakers having included Arindam’s wife and several IIPM professors. Over 100 people, quite a few women among them, sat under the chandeliers as a laptop was set up on stage. They looked like aspirational rather than polished corporate types, the men with red sacred threads around their wrists, the women in saris and salwar kameezes, a gathering of middle-class, middle-rung, white-collar individuals whose interest in leadership skills had a dutiful air. After a number of children—it was unclear to whom they belonged—clustered around Arindam to get copies of the all-time best-seller Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch signed, Arindam took the stage. He wore a shiny black corduroy suit, the jacket displaying embroidery on the shoulders, and loafers that appeared to be made of snake skin.

Arindam wasn’t a natural speaker. In prolonged one-to-one conversations, he had the tendency to look away, not meeting the listener’s gaze. This was less of a problem in a public gathering, but he also had a high-pitched voice and a tendency to fumble his lines. He started by asking people what leadership meant to them. As his listeners spewed out answers, using phrases (“dream believer,” “reach the objective,” “making decisions,” “simplifying things”) that seemed to have been lifted from some ur-text of self-help and management, they seemed both eager and slightly combative, as if not entirely convinced of his ability to teach them about leadership. “Here’s the great Arindam Chaudhuri,” a man next to me muttered, using great in the Indian way to mean someone fraudulent. Arindam seemed aware of the hostility: his responses were hesitant, and his English was uncertain and pronouncedly Delhi middle-class in its inflection.

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