Catch a falling star

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peter-mukherjeaThe sensational, almost-unbelievable movie-like plot was scripted much earlier in 1999. In that year, Peter Mukerjea, a blue-eyed boy of Rupert Murdoch, the czar of global media, was anointed as the CEO of Star India. The next year, he created the country’s most-viewed programme, Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), hosted by Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan. Peter rode a broadcast high as he rubbed shoulders with top notch media giants and political figures.
In January 2007, he quit Star and joined INX Media, which had been floated by his wife Indrani the previous year. As INX wooed renowned global private equity players and announced its intention to launch a slew of entertainment, music and news channels, the Peter-Indrani duo planned to invest Rs 1,000 crore over the next 24 months to emerge as key broadcasters. Within two years, they were hounded out of INX.
By 2015, they were embroiled in an astounding murder case.
Investigators are working on the currently dominant theory that the reasons why Indrani allegedly killed her daughter Sheena in 2012 are rooted in the events linked to INX. Therefore, the genesis lies in what happened between 2006 and 2009. That is why the behaviour of the couple during the period may have clues that will help unravel the macabre killing. At the end of the day, it is a typical neo-rich tale of money, power and sex. It is set in an overtly-ambitious world of today that is obsessed not just with mere materialistic possessions, but also the inherent ability to grab more as and when desired.
Professional peak
While KBC helped Bachchan return to fame with a bang, it put Peter at the top of the media heap. From there on, the Star CEO could do no wrong. He was the new media Midas; everything he touched turned to gold. But in Murdoch’s surreal and ever-changing world, nothing is constant. Those who are his favourites come tumbling down for minor misdemeanours. It was inevitable that the same would happen to the starry-eyed wonder boy, Peter.
In early 2006, Murdoch decided to split his Indian operations into two entities – Star Group and Star Entertainment. Peter was made the head of the former; it implied that he had nothing to do with the entertainment programmes despite his success with KBC. This peeved Peter, who decided that it was time to move on. Maybe it was time to make a new beginning.
When asked whether his abrupt exit from Star in early 1997 was related to the 1996 bifurcation of powers, Peter replied, “If you look back, there was always going to be a time, when I would have to do something else…So it’s not something that comes to me as a surprise. What I believe is (bifurcation) was a catalyst for me to actually start thinking what new opportunities exist outside Star, and perhaps the media business.”
He added that there was never a right time to quit. So why at this juncture? “It’s funny because no matter at what point I would have decided to leave, it would have been pretty much the same question. It could be a year ago or a year from now, and I think the question would not have changed — I can guarantee you that… Some would say that 14 years is too long and perhaps that is the sensation I began to get at the beginning of 2006. It took me a year to come to the conclusion that it’s time to move on and that there are lots of things to do elsewhere,” he said.
Entrepreneurial urge
INX Media, which was owned by Indrani, had a sister concern INX News. The former was focused on entertainment and music. In one of the interviews, Indrani said that INX’s major foray would be in the regional markets. She added that she wished to launch nine regional channels – three each in entertainment, music and news. “Local content is an attractive proposition for viewers. We wanted to have a bouquet with good regional penetration,” she said.
By 2007, INX Media was wooing global investors; Singapore’s Temasek and New Silk Route Advisors purchased 20 percent each in it, and New Vernon Private Equity bought 10 percent. A 2.84 percent stake in the firm was sold to an Indian investor, Kotak Mahindra. Sources contended that INX Media raised $170 million or Rs 750 crore as per the then prevailing exchange rate, from the four investors. INX was on its way to become a major broadcaster when it launched an English channel, NewsX, a Hindi general entertainment one, 9X, and a Hindi music one, 9XM.
Some of the names behind the global investors were known then, but were later sullied. New Silk Route was founded by Rajat Gupta, Raj Rajaratnam, Anil Kumar, Victor Menezes and Abdul Hafeez Sheikh. Of them, four were charged with insider trading in the US. Gupta was sentenced to two years’ prison, Rajaratnam got 11 years, and Verma got two years’ probation when he turned informer in the Gupta-Rajaratnam cases. Menezes settled his case out of the court.
Right from the beginning, foreign investors were more interested in entertainment and music rather than news. This was the reason why their holdings were in INX Media. In contrast, INX News was owned by Indrani (17 percent), IM Media (51 percent) which too was indirectly controlled by Indrani, and Vir Sanghvi (16 percent), who was the CEO in 2007 and claimed that the stake was in the form of sweat equity. The foreign investors held a minority stake in the news venture through INX Media, which held the remaining 16 percent in INX News.