Maran and friends: The rise and fall of a camaraderie which built Sun empire

Dhanya Rajendran traces the bonhomie between Sun TV’s CEO Kalanithi Maran, Kalaignar TV’s CEO Sharad Kumar and Sun Pictures’s former COO Hansraj Saxena, that crafted a media empire in Tamil Nadu and the ensuing bitterness and rivalry.
Maran and friends: The rise and fall of a camaraderie which built Sun empire
Maran and friends: The rise and fall of a camaraderie which built Sun empire
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Student elections in Chennai’s Loyola College are legendary. But the year 1985 saw one of its most fiercely contested elections, and the one which had the most far-reaching consequences in the history of Tamil Nadu politics and on the business of television channels. The battle for the student cabinet was so fierce that, according to an alumnus, it was the first time in the college’s history the management had to announce that candidates cannot influence the student electorate with inducements.   

Fighting against AK Vishwanathan, former Commissioner of Police in the city of Coimbatore was the man who would later become one of India’s most powerful, rich and influential media barons. For Kalanithi Maran, son of the late DMK stalwart Murasoli Maran and grand-nephew of DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi, and his friends who were also his campaign managers for the elections, this was the beginning of a long journey into the world of business, politics and media, the crown jewel being the Sun Network. Backing Maran for the President’s post was his best friend from his schooling days at Don Bosco, Sharad Kumar. He later went on to become one of the key executives in Sun Group.

Sharad Kumar - Picture courtesy Deccan Chronicle

Both Kumar and Maran, thick as proverbial thieves, were students of the Commerce department. Another student from the Department of Physics offered his support to the Maran campaign. Hansraj Saxena, now popular in business circles as Sax, was with Maran throughout the Sun-journey till 2011, ending his stint as Maran’s point-man for his film production and distribution business. This is a story of a three-decade long friendship – one that began youthfully and vibrantly within the walls of Chennai’s Don Bosco school and then continued at Loyola College, and went on to build one of the biggest media conglomerates in India. But that friendship now lies in tatters, the lives of each of them disrupted with incarcerations and criminal trials. The protagonists of this story, who rubbed shoulders all the way from college to the world of the media business, are at loggerheads today.

Where they stand now

Sharad Kumar is now facing charges of money laundering and criminal conspiracy in the 2G-scam. Saxena faced three major criminal cases. He was arrested in 2011 over allegations of cheating in his role as the CEO of Sun Pictures, the film studio company from the Sun stable. Sax is also now a key witness in the alleged BSNL-telephone exchange fraud by the Maran brothers being probed by the CBI.

Kalanithi Maran, the undisputed media mogul of the South, heads the Sun Group, a giant conglomerate that owns 33 television channels, 45 FM radio stations, 5 magazines, two daily newspapers, an Indian Premiere League franchise, a cable distribution network and DTH service. An introvert but a ruthless businessman, Maran stormed the television industry in the 1990s in the south with political patronage and influential connections, and has seen his businesses evolve into an empire making quantum jumps in the last two and half decades. Today Maran is facing multiple probes, including a probe by the Enforcement Directorate for money laundering. Maran and his brother, former Union Telecom Minister Dayanidhi Maran, are alleged to have operated an illegal BSNL telephone exchange from their residence to benefit the Sun TV Network face a CBI enquiry. They also face a CBI case for forcing Telecom Company Aircel to sell itself to Malaysian company Maxis. His biggest acquisition, SpiceJet airlines, was a failure and he has since sold it back to the previous proprietors. 

The beginnings

After graduating from Loyola, Kalanithi Maran and Sharad Kumar left to pursue higher education in the U.S. Meanwhile, Sax started working as an executive in Tata group’s oil mills in Chennai and later took up a Tata tea dealership. Maran returned soon to run the Kungumam group of publications owned by his father. Sax gladly quit his job to assist Maran.

Meanwhile, Maran introduced Sharad Kumar to his friend and entrepreneur C Sivasankaran, who then owned and operated Sterling Computers. Sivasankaran later started the telecom company Aircel, and was allegedly forced by the Maran brothers to sell the company to a Malayasian businessman backed by the Marans. The same Sivasankaran filed a complaint against the Marans leading to a CBI enquiry in what has come to know as the Aircel-Maxis scam.

Kungumam group back then had five magazines- Kumkumam, Mutharam, Vannathirai, Kumkuma Chimizh and Sumangali (a fortnightly). The group also managed DMK’s party mouthpiece Murasoli which was housed in an office next to the Kodambakkom Bridge. It was in 1989 when Murasoli Maran became a minister in the National Front government that Kalanidhi Maran assumed full charge of the publication. The same year he started ‘Tamilan,’ the first color newspaper in Tamil. It was in 1990 that Maran started Poomalai, a monthly video cassette magazine. Around the same time Sharad Kumar left his job at Sterling Computers, and along with Maran tried his hand at various businesses like exports of laser printers. The duo even took over Saxena’s tea dealership. 

They had an office space inside the Murasoli building and ran entities like Kal Exim Pvt ltd. It is unclear if some of these companies exist now. But Maran’s primary interest was always the media business. Nalini Rajan, a senior journalist who has worked with the Sun Network writes in her book 21st Century Journalism in India, “Kalanidhi Maran's contribution to Tamil journalism during this period is comparable to G Kasturi's (of the Hindu) contribution to English journalism. In the preceding decades, Kasturi modernised the publication scenario in English. Kalanidhi did the same in Tamil, brought in state of the art machines and reduced the production time lag considerably.” “We were doing quality programming for Poomalai, but the ambition was to do something much bigger,” says Hansraj Saxena. But with piracy becoming rampant, Maran dropped the idea of Poomalai.

Maran and Saxena with Rajinikanth and director Shankar.

Soon, Maran approached ATN media house in Mumbai trying to sell their programming. Instead of buying their programme, the media house told Maran that they would give them a three hour slot every week, and they could make money through advertisement revenue. That was how the idea for Sun TV was born. In 1993, when Sun TV was launched as a part programming venture, uplinking was done weekly once from Russia. Every week, one of them would fly to Russia via Delhi and the programmes would be uplinked. Later uplinking stations in Philippines and Singapore were used.

Three years later, Sun TV became a full-fledged channel. But that wasn’t enough. Maran was soon eyeing a bigger chunk in the South Indian market, and decided to acquire Gemini TV and Udaya TV from industrialists Dr Murali Manohar and Manohar Prasad. This is when Sharad Kumar entered the media business. He was given charge of both the channels and was made a partner in the venture. It was a time of camaraderie and excitement at the Sun Network. Nalini Rajan describes Maran as a hands-on-manager in her book. Another former Sun employee says, “Maran and Kumar were very good friends, always on first names. They both would even buy the same car model. Saxena was out of the immediate circle, but was still thick with them. “

“Maran never used to speak much to employees, but he was a boss who was always excited. If there was a new launch, he would stay late night in the studio and work as much as anyone else. Once his car broke down, I remember him repairing it himself,” says the former employee. Maran was shy and reticent, never opening up much to the world outside.

“Sharad and Maran were very close, Saxena used to call him 'Kala'. But he was generally shy and would never speak out of turn. Inside his cabin, he would transform into a lion,” says the former employee. The break up By 2003, differences cropped up between Kumar and Maran too. “I vividly remember that it started as small arguments regarding the shareholding pattern, Sharad felt he was being short changed.Around 2005, one day he came to office and realized that his office cabin was closed and shifted to another building. His car too seemed to have gone. No one knew clearly what was happening, but the estrangement was evident,” says a former employee.

What started as a disagreement over allotment of shares later ballooned into a full blown war. In 2006, Sun TV Network decided to go public. The Maran brothers bought the stakes owned by the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi and his wife Dayalu Ammal for Rs 100 crore. Sharad Kumar too exited Sun TV network just before this, giving away his shares. Unforeseen perhaps, but the decision to offload Karunanidhi’s family proved to be a costly decision for Kalanithi Maran. Karunanidhi’s son Alagiri and others managed to convince Karunanidhi that they were paid peanuts for the shares.

From 1993 to 2006 many publications, 33 channels and FM stations grew under the Sun umbrella, but actively aiding this growth was the DMK government. The monopoly of Sumangali Cable Vision, the cable network run by Marans, became absolute as the state government distributed 1.62 crore TV sets free of cost. The cable vision and the channels belonged to the Marans, the government provided TV sets. As the family split in 2006, a furious Karunanidhi decided to deliver a double blow. The DMK first mooted the idea of a state run cable network, to counter Sumangali cable vision. The family also started Kalaignar TV, and who else would Karunanidhi choose to head the brand new channel but Maran’s estranged friend Sharad Kumar. He took a large chunk of Sun employees with him, many from the core team. Saxena however stuck on.

From 2007 to 2011, the journey was precarious for Maran’s media business in Tamil Nadu. The relation with Karunanidhi’s family was restored, but it was not as strong as earlier. Sharad Kumar had by then firmly become an enemy to the Marans, but Saxena climbed the ladder in Sun Network. He was made COO of Sun Pictures, a film distribution and production studio set up in 2008. The company soon became a formidable force in the Tamil film industry buying rights of almost every big ticket project and distributing low budget movies. Slowly, Saxena was also gaining reputation of being a tough nut, sometimes accused of using unflattering ways to force producers to sell titles.

The cookie started to crumble in April 2011, when former friend Sivasankaran registered a complaint with CBI that he was being pressurized to sell Aircel. In June 2011, Saxena was arrested on charges of cheating a film distributor TS Selvaraj to the tune of Rs. 82.53 lakh. First arrested on a complaint by a Salem-based film distributor, later two more cases were lodged against him. “But it was later in October 2011 when CBI raided the Marans that they had a fall out with Saxena. They suspected him of misappropriating money. Soon, he too left the company,” says a Sun employee. Things became precarious for Sharad Kumar too. His association with Kalaignar TV cost Kumar dearly. He is now facing charges of money laundering and criminal conspiracy in the 2g-scam.

With a BJP-lead government at the centre and Jayalalithaa as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, the Marans are politically weak. And with several cases against their businesses, their financial stronghold is also showing signs of loosening. Marans could be left without their 100 plus crore house, from where the alleged cables were laid, and their swanky, state-of-the-art office in Chennai's up market MRC Nagar. But the brothers are not to brazen it out and it will be interesting to see how the Marans will pave their way out of present woes, or not.  

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