I just saw a little news article about Bhushan Kumar being facilitated for having the most popular channel on youtube. Which I thought must mean “youtube in India”. But, nope! In the entire global youtube market, T-Series has the most viewers. By several million. And it has the second most subscribers, on track to become the most subscribed within months. How did we get here? How did an Indian music and movie company become the most popular video streaming channel in the world?
Usual Disclaimer: I don’t know this people and I have no special knowledge, this is just how it looks to me based on publicly available sources.
In 1956, a fruit juice seller in Delhi had a baby boy, Gulshan. Gulshan and his younger brother Krishan grew up like the sons of millions of other small businessman in India. They worked in the shop with their father from a young age and, with their help, his business slowly expanded. Like any other Delhi boy, Gulshan married young, at 19, to a young woman from the neighborhood. He had his first son at 21. Life was small, but good. Hard work at the family business, a happy home to go back to, and maybe someday an idea will pop into your head and you will see if it can bring in a little more money for the family coffers.
For Gulshan and his family, that idea was cassette tapes. Cassettes were cheap, and so were the players to play them. The same market that was buying fruit juice (not the types who went to supermarkets and bought imported drinks and bottled water, but the ones with a lot less money who still wanted something sweet to drink) might be interested in buying cassettes. So they opened a small store front and filled it with cassettes and started selling them.
(This isn’t their store, but it is like their store probably was. Small, over-crowded, and yet it stocked everything in the world and had an owner who magically seemed to know where everything was. At least, that was my experience of these stores)
Music rights in India have always been a bit fuzzy, and the cassette market in particular was confusing. Film music is the most popular music genre in India, followed by religious hymns. And both of those forms of music were seen as secondary to the real “product”. Film songs were played on the radio as free advertisement for the film. The music rights sale to a record company might be a nice little additional income for the producer, but didn’t bring in much money. Who could afford a record player, or the records to play on it? Who had the space and the electricity for something like that? In the same way, hymns were part of a spiritual experience, were there to be listened to for free any time you stopped by a temple or Gurudwara or Mosque or even Church. A famous singer might come to town, or a big performance be planned, but it was all for the glory of God. The goal was to pass the hat and pay off the singer in front of you, or raise funds for a school or other charitable endeavor, or simply enjoy the music. Not to sell recordings of the music.
And so as cassettes slowly became more popular, stores started casually copying them, or making recordings of live events, or radio shows, and selling them. Why not? There was no real rule against it, and no one seemed to care what happened to their music.
Gulshan and Krishan and their father started out the same way I am sure. Gulshan opened his first store at age 23 in 1978. I can picture a small crowded cassette store in a Delhi neighborhood, Gulshan’s young son Bhushan running around and “helping” but really getting in the way, Gulshan’s wife and mother coming in and out bringing in food or hustling Bhushan off to school, and the people of the neighborhood coming in and asking for the latest religious music or film song and being disappointed when it wasn’t there.
At some point, Gulshan had an idea. It was easy enough to record one tape, why not record many? Why not get a copy of the soundtrack of a film on a record, record it on a cassette, make many copies of that cassette, print up some fancy labels, and put out a nice display? Or do the same with a recording of a religious concert? Or just go to a concert with a microphone and record it? And once you’ve done that in your one store and it is popular, so popular you can’t stock them all, why not go up and down Delhi selling the same nicely packaged cassettes to other stores?
(Or combine two soundtracks in one tape, give more value for the money. Put on a nice photo and an accurate track listing, better than the legitimate options, and they will fly off the shelves)
Gulshan started a business in 1983, when he was 28 years old, called “Super Cassettes Industries”. It grew phenomenally, the way a business can when it fills a legitimate gap in the market. The Indian music industry hadn’t really figured out a way to supply cheap music to the masses. Even radio play was unlikely. And so a young company selling pirated (as much as something can be pirated when there is no legitimate source) copies of religious and film music cassettes became a national empire within a few years.
In 1984, T-Series purchased it’s first legitimate film soundtrack, Lallu Ram. From then on T-Series dabbled in legitimate music rights for films. And in 1989, now located in Bombay although the cassette factory was still in the Noida neighborhood near Delhi where the Kumars came from, they produced their first film. It was a minor flop. And so was the next movie. But then in 1990 came Aashiqui co-produced with Bhatt films. The movie itself was a hit but, more importantly for t-series, the album became one of the all time best selling albums ever. Their fortunes were made.
(Gulshan was so proud of this cassette, he put his own face on it)
Looking at this written out, it’s a very fast rise, but also one that was made up of small steps. Gulshan merely looked at what was in front of him and took one small step past it and into the unknown. A fruit juice stand to a small cassette store. A small cassette store to making his own cassettes. Making his own cassettes to building a small factory to mass produce them. To buying the rights for original soundtracks instead of just creating high quality pirated copies. To producing a few small films. And then it was Aashiqui that started to change everything.
Suddenly Gulshan wasn’t a small unnoticed businessman, he was on top of the heap. Age 35 with 3 young children, and he was one of the richest men in India. His next two movies as producer where failures, but his 6th film (another collaboration with Bhatt films) was a hit, Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin. More importantly for T-Series, the songs were a hit. By tax year 1992-1993, he was the top tax payer in India.
(Gulshan and his youngest daughter Tulsi, born in 1986 3 years after he founded Super Cassettes)
T-series had another handful of flops, then in 1995 came Bewafaa Sanam. Gulshan launched his younger brother Krishan in that movie, it wasn’t a big hit at the box office but the soundtrack was huge. Instead of launching Krishan, it ended up being the launch for young singer Kumar Sanu.
Let’s take a step back and look at the long view of this. Gulshan was a small businessman who made it to the top like a rocket thanks to finding a gap in the market (cheaply produced high quality popular music for the people). And then moved on to a higher profile, arriving in Bombay, throwing money around, making the list of top tax payers. It was an enviable position, but also a precarious one. Gulshan had found a gap, but gaps are dangerous. They exist in a place without rules, without structure, without establishment, and they can so easily be forced to be more and more open.
Especially in 1990s Bombay, where the D-Company ruled. Dawood Ibrahim and his D-Company had discovered how very profitable it was to find those gaps and force them open even wider. If you threaten an established and powerful wealthy man, he might defy you, or bring the police down on you. But if you threatened a man with new money, a man who still remembered what it was like to lose, then he would give you anything. And so Dawood went after Gulshan. (you can read more on D-Company here)
Rumor has it that he went through Gulshan’s favorite composers, Nadeem-Shravan. Half of the duo, Nadeem Saifi, felt disrespected and used by Gulshan. He was also a popular performer, he was secretly hired to perform for the fugitive Dawood and arranged a hired killing that same evening. Nadeem ran from these accusations for two decades, he ran all the way to London continuing his career and collaboration by long distance, before finally being exonerated by a London court and returning to India.
(Nadeem-Shravan before the scandal, Nadeem is on the left)
Another version has Ramesh Taurani, owner of Tips Cassettes, funding the operation out of professional jealousy. Ramesh has a similar story to Gulshan, owner of a family record store that got into cassettes, opened a manufacturing plant, and started producing. The evidence wasn’t enough to convict him, just like Nadeem.
Ramesh and Nadeem, in their own ways, had the same problem as Gulshan. They were wealthy enough and well known enough to make themselves a target. But they were unknown and new and powerless enough that they couldn’t fully defend themselves. Ramesh and Nadeem from the police and media who smeared their names without the evidence to back it up (they may be guilty still, but certainly there wasn’t enough evidence for it to be proved and for them to be hounded and libeled), Gulshan from the violence of the D-Company.
Every afternoon Gulshan visited a temple near his house. He may have become fabulously wealthy, living in the best area of Bombay, but he still had that humble Delhi fruit seller’s son in his heart, he still went to temple every day. He also donated huge amounts to religious organizations. The very name of “T-Series” as his company came to be known was from his faith, the “t” stands for Shiva’s “Trishul”. His religion was a strength, kept him grounded and calm and sincere, not the kind of flashy spirituality of the rich, but the same basic faith he learned as a fruit sellers son. But his religion was also a weakness, because it made him predictable. He was walking out of temple at the same time and the same place as he did every day when three men came up to him and shot him 16 times. He died instantly.
(Gulshan and his wife praying)
This is the threat that is held over the film industry to this day, this and Rakesh Roshan’s shooting. Don’t mess with the mob, don’t fly too high, don’t give up your police bodyguards, remember what happened to Gulshan Kumar. No one is beyond their reach, no place is truly safe.
The one person who doesn’t seem to remember is Bhushan Kumar. He was 20 when his father died. He spent the first 7 years of his life in Delhi in a small cassette shop and then a factory. He spent the next 13 living in the best suburb of Bombay rubbing elbows with movie stars. And then at 20, he was handed over the business his father had built, days after he had been chief mourner at his father’s funeral. Bhushan took that business and built it and built it, up and up, with no fear of being cut down for his hubris. He sent his sisters and mother away, back to Delhi, back out of danger, and he stayed in Bombay and held his head up high and made himself a target and made his company an empire.
(Bhushan with his wife and younger sister, years after his father’s death)
T-Series started out by looking at films as a way of selling cassettes, the popular films with their forgotten songs that could be repackaged and resold. Then they started looking at making those films, 3 hour advertisements for the cassettes they would sell of the soundtrack. Very successful advertisements, T-series produced a few extremely popular films. But the music was where the money was.
With Bhushan’s direction, T-series started looking bigger. It wasn’t about the 3 hour advertisements any more, it was about the little 3 minute advertisements placed on music channels and streaming services. They kept producing, made more of those low budget movies with hit soundtracks (like Tum Bin). And sometimes slightly higher budget movies with hit soundtracks (like Humko Deewane Kar Gaye) or even high quality movies with hit soundtracks (like Airlift). But the common thread of every film they produced is the quality of the soundtrack. The music is what it is all about.
The Kumar family started to change too, Gulshan and his brother were raised in Delhi by a small shopkeeper and Gulshan married at 19 a local girl. His brother Krishan married an actress, a minor actress he met through a film they produced and who kept working off and on after marriage. Bhushan’s sister Tulsi is now a playback singer, mostly on films made by her family, and also has a few albums produced by her family. Which isn’t to say she isn’t talented, she has a few hit songs to her credit.
And Bhushan himself is married to an actress and director, Divya Khosla who went from having small roles in a few movies to training as a director and making ad films and music videos. When she married Bhushan, she was only 24 and he was 28, she had just had a few small film roles and a part in a music video, and he was one of the most powerful men in the industry.
What I am seeing from this family history is that they accepted their place in a new community, the film and entertainment community rather than the small shopkeeper world. But they were not marrying for power or position. And their wives were not expected to sit at home and host parties, but to dig in and help just as much as they would have if the Kumar’s were still running a small shop.
Here’s a quote from Divya:
He is also very practical and dedicated to the only reason of his life: to take ahead his father’s dream. He keeps very busy with work and thinks that I as a wife am also the same, although at times I feel like just giving work a bit of a rest and talking about our lives….As a filmmaker, I’d appreciate if people will review my work and not me or my personal relations as anyone’s background shouldn’t matter to them. Does being married to a successful man just mean being a trophy wife? Well, not for me, I’ve my own dreams and aspirations, nobody has the right to tell me that I’m wasting my husband’s money as both Yaariyan and Sanam Re have been made on meagre budgets and have been profitable ventures!
Divya after marriage and even after children made music videos for the family company, and eventually started directing and producing full length films. Tulsi is still working too, post-marriage and children. It’s still a family business in the best sense, the whole family throwing whatever talent they have into it instead of looking for what they can get out of it.
Bhushan’s newest idea is full length elaborate music videos to promote their songs, featuring star casts and star directors, and available exclusively on the T-Series youtube channel. He doesn’t need to go party with Hrithik Roshan, he can hire Hrithik to be in his music video. The Kumar’s are the little Delhi shopkeepers who secretly control the industry and the stars that most others of their class can only dream about and read about in fan magazines.
And now they have conquered the world. Within the next few weeks, T-Series will become the most subscribed channel on youtube. They are about to knock out PewDiePie, the long time king of youtube subscribers. PewDiePie is a Swedish white man who makes English language videos about video games and memes and internet culture in general. He found cross-cultural popularity thanks to focusing on the things that cross borders, the entertainment enjoyed around the world. Well, enjoyed around the world primarily by young men.
T-series is different. They release trailers, song videos, for every movie they have the rights to. And they release their own original music videos. Half the videos I link to here are from t-series. And another quarter are from a t-series related channel (Bollywood Classics, Tamil t-series, etc. etc.). They have taken that little cassette shop and brought it to the world, shaken out every song and every sound and made it available, for free, to whoever wants it. T-series is there for the Indian population (which is rapidly gaining internet access) and the diaspora. And it is there for everybody, sincerely, without irony or humor about it.
A lot of the coverage I am seeing of T-Seris’ rise on youtube is focusing on the geographic part of it, that it is all just because India is gaining internet (I already talked about that here). Or content, that T-Series is able to release so many more videos and such high quality videos versus the humble regular youtuber. There’s a strange kind of tone to it of “did you know there are people in the world who aren’t white men? And they go online? And there is a massive decades old entertainment infrastructure that supports them?” It’s a familiar tone to me, the idea that “Bollywood” is some kitschy niche interest instead of a massive global juggernaut. T-Series is doing better than other music channels because more people listen to popular Indian music than music from anywhere else in the world, and more people want to watch the videos. And there is a lot of content because there are more music videos available from India than anywhere else going all the way back to the 1940s and 50s. The world is coming into balance, the internet world that is, and Indian film is taking its rightful place as the main provider of popular entertainment to the masses.
The thing none of these articles is talking about is the history of T-Series, and the shadowed history of the Kumar family. Maybe they think it doesn’t matter, but I think it does. Here is a family that worked hard, stayed humble, stayed faithful, and overcame tragedy-and music was their way out.
“Music can change the world”. T-Series is India’s largest Music Label & Movie Studio, believes in bringing world close together through its music. T-Series is associated with music industry from past three decades, having ample catalogue of music comprising plenty of languages that covers the length & breadth of India. We believe after silence, nearest to expressing the inexpressible is Music. So, all the music lovers who believe in magic of music come join us and live the magic of music with T-Series. (their introduction to their youtube channel)