‘We saw both sides of Tamil film industry strike’: Meet the CEO of AGS Entertainment

Born into a family of entrepreneurs, Archana Kalpathi talks about her family’s humble beginnings and her journey so far.
‘We saw both sides of Tamil film industry strike’: Meet the CEO of AGS Entertainment
‘We saw both sides of Tamil film industry strike’: Meet the CEO of AGS Entertainment
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It’s not often that you’d chance upon the CEO of an enterprise standing behind counters, taking down orders and patiently addressing customers’ queries. But Archana Kalpathi of AGS Cinemas is not your regular CEO. She doesn't think twice about taking down orders for popcorn and soda.

“I believe it is important for you to learn and experience just about everything that makes your business. It is important to understand the pain of standing for long hours and of handling difficult customers. I always believe this knowledge is invaluable and almost like a rite of passage,” says Archana.

Born into a family of entrepreneurs, Archana talks about her family’s humble beginnings. “I was about 8 when my family began its first business, a small computer training centre - SSI. Back then, as a joint family of 10, we lived upstairs and the centre was run downstairs.”

The Kalpathi family then sold SSI for a good profit and ventured into the entertainment industry. Archana, who had just completed her masters in New York, always knew she’d assume the mantle of her family’s business.

Just before she joined, however, AGS had ventured into producing cinemas. Its maiden venture was Susi Ganesan’s Thiruttu Payale, which turned out to be a commercial success. AGS Entertainment then went on to produce several other successful films like Santosh Subramaniam, Irumbukkottai Murattu Singam, Madrasapattinam, Engeyum Kaadhal, etc.

Seven years after they began producing films, in 2013, AGS Entertainment inaugurated its first movie theatre – AGS Villivakkam. The next year came AGS OMR, following which they opened a theatre in T Nagar in 2016.

AGS T Nagar

AGS Villivakkam

Archana gushed that the theatre in T Nagar, the neighbourhood in which her family resides, has been a long-time dream. “My father always wanted a theatre within walking distance. AGS T Nagar took us quite some time to complete since we’ve always built our own theatres,” says Archana, adding, “We’ve always given prime importance to all the building compliances mandated by the government. We’ve got an automated car park in AGS T Nagar, which is probably the only theatre in India to have it. We also give high importance to fire safety. There’s a separate team for every floor in AGS T Nagar.”

Archana passion shines through when she talks about the business. Having entered it at a young age of 23, she says her family stood with her through thick and thin. “They’re very forward thinking, which did not prepare me for the prejudices I’d face later on in the business. When my gender was brought into a conversation, it was quite surprising to me.”

But having supportive family network has helped Archana power through in business. “My husband, who works out of Singapore, too is very encouraging of what I do and thankfully my son, who’s 9 years old now, is a sweetheart. He does not need me around all the time.”

Speaking at a recent speaker-series event called Meraki - an initiative of Glassbox - Archana shares that work-life-balance does not really work for her. “It beats me. I don’t know how that works. Both work and life are the same to me, and I should feel grateful for the kind of people who make my life.”

Discussing the kind of prejudices she had to face as a woman, Archana shares that many have asked her about how she manages a long-distance marriage. “I find it bizarre when people comment on my personal life. It is also disappointing when someone asks me ‘Are they (my father and uncles) the decision makers?’ We’ve never so stuck by society’s impressions of a women’s role.”

Would that make her a workaholic? “I actually work in breaks. One day I’m working 20 hours and for the next couple of days, I don’t because I’ve taken care of what needs to be done. Most of the festivals I'm not home because it is the most important time of the year for us. I don’t have weekends off, Monday blues … I only have days that I work and days that I don't,” she laughs.

The recent turmoil in the industry was a challenging period says Archana. “I had 350 employees and over 50 days of no work. I was especially worried that people would move on to other forms of entertainment. We had to power through the longest strike the industry has had and the worst part was we were on both sides of the strike - as theatre owners and as producers. When the strike concluded, my entire team was so happy to be back at work. I got pictures of filled-up parking lots from my employees and people who were so happy to answer phone bookings,” she laughs.

This was not the only period of turmoil Archana had to go through. In 2016, three major theatres in the city - AGS, PVR and SPI Palazzo were caught in a licensing process that was progressing at a snail’s pace. “We had invested greatly in this property and the whole burden of it was on my shoulders. However, we patiently waited for the license to come through and AGS T Nagar finally opened its doors in early 2016,” she says.

Talking about the kind of films that AGS produces, Archana admits that she rarely sits on the creative bench. “I’m a science and math person. I do listen to scripts, and pass them on to my father and uncles to make the decision,” she says.

While Archana has the opportunity to work with a medium that has a great impact on society, she says the problem lies in not having enough writers writing about women. “Directors themselves writing scripts is no good, their creativity is bound by financial factors. Whereas, a scriptwriter can write better roles for women. We need to make more films like Mozhi and English Vinglish. On the positive side, we have more female actors doing lead roles now,” she says.

Not a stickler for stereotypes, Archana has been breaking molds in her own way. The young entrepreneur has a bigger project up her sleeve. “We’ve got a theatre coming up in Maduravoyal. It is the biggest we’ve built so far. It will have 5 screens of the large-screen format.”

A movie-buff herself Archana makes it a point to watch as many movies as she can. “Although, I can never watch them in my own theatres. I’m way too critical inside our theatres to enjoy a good movie,” she laughs.

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