Journalism to entrepreneurship, motherhood to management, Anita Kaul Basu never shied away from taking on a new devil
Anita Kaul Basu balanced motherhood and her career to come up trumps with one of India’s most successful TV production house, BIG Synergy
Anita Kaul Basu knows all too well the importance of striking the right balance between family and the commitments that accompany entrepreneurship, especially when young children are a part of that equation. After all, this was the reason it took her a decade to assume a full-time role at Synergy Communications (now BIG Synergy), the production house she co-founded with her ‘quizmaster’ husband Siddhartha Basu in 1989. “ I had no idea that I’d end up running a huge production house like this, especially managing the business side of things,” says Kaul Basu. “I was a journalist with India Today and took a sabbatical when I had a child. I knew I could not be running after stories and at the same time do justice to my family.” From being a journalist with no special training or prior family background in business, Kaul Basu ended up overseeing several aspects of Synergy, such as finance, legal, administration, and human resources. Though this came later, once she had assumed a full-time role around 1999, during her initial stint, Kaul Basu would juggle home and work part-time for Synergy. A Kashmiri who grew up in England, Kaul Basu studied English literature at Miranda House, graduating in 1978, and followed that up with a course in print journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. She subsequently worked at India Today for nearly five years.
It was during her academic run at the University of Delhi that Kaul Basu first met Siddhartha, who by 1977 had already begun a career in television. The duo first met at the audition for a play called The Serpent in Delhi and went on to date for about eight years before finally tying the knot. In 1983, Anita took a sabbatical from work to raise her first child. “I wanted to be a hands-on mom and give a certain amount of time to my children. I was a hysterical mother and very particular. There were certain value systems that I grew up with and I wanted to bring up my children in the same way,” says Kaul Basu. “Every woman goes through this dilemma where she has to make a choice and balance things out. A part of me thought I should not be working and a part of me knew that I can’t be sitting at home.” Around this time, Siddhartha had become a very popular television anchor. The first nationally successful quiz show that he helmed was Quiz Time, which premiered its first season in 1985, two years after the Basus’ son Aditya was born. “A lot of things coincided with each other. Synergy evolved when Siddhartha got the offer to host Quiz Time in 1985, around the same time that our first child was born. By 1986, we had decided that we didn’t really want to go back to our jobs. We decided to take Quiz Time ahead independently, and it was something new for us,” says Kaul Basu.
Good old days
Kaul Basu says the 1980s was an era when journalism and other semi-corporate jobs were not well-paying and television, too, was only about Doordarshan. “TV was at a nascent stage back then. We decided to retain creative control, although we did not have a plan as to how to achieve that. That was one of the things we looked at: how do we make a difference, how do we do something that is not just cutting edge but which also creates a niche for us in the sense that we raise the bar in terms of content and technology,” says Kaul Basu. With Synergy, the husband-wife duo would guard their ideas and not let the client dictate the creative execution. They worked with Doordarshan on numerous projects and eventually produced numerous popular shows, including Kaun Banega Crorepati, the Indian version of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’
Kaul Basu was still focusing part-time on Synergy and juggling family and work till the late 1990s, when she decided it was time to raise her commitment to the venture she co-founded. Months before Kaun Banega Crorepati’s phone lines were opened to the world, Kaul Basu made a rapid leap to take full-time charge of the affairs at Synergy. “As far as work was concerned, I took very small steps in order to achieve what I wanted to. From being a journalist, I was suddenly managing a company and its finances and ensuring that business kept coming, and all of it was a huge jump. I was never a numbers person. But then business was growing,” she says. “I got into it full-time just before we started KBC. There was a lot of resistance within the company as I was taking control of the critical pillars of what makes a company — people and finances. There was a lot of resistance from people who had experience but were not really efficient. It took me a year and a half to reorganise, restructure and re-thread the company’s profile. It was pretty much done by instinct rather than training,” says Kaul Basu. There was no cutting and chopping involved, although a firm approach helped her make inroads into the organisation.
On the job
Coming from a journalism background, with little knowledge of finance, Kaul Basu learnt on the job and followed her instincts. “The discipline was deep-rooted and I managed to learn diametrically opposite things. All this happened because of a very strong instinct to learn. I never really thought I had that in me and that I could achieve so much by staying focused,” she says. The biggest challenge for Kaul Basu was maintaining a balance between home and office. While at work she took things in her stride, being very particular about how she wanted to raise her children, she would at times drop all work and rush back home to look after them if they fell ill. In 1998, Kaul Basu herself suffered a severe bout of hepatitis. Her entire body was locked down and it took her eight months to recover.
Kaul Basu makes it all sound quite easy, emphasising how donning many hats comes naturally to most women. She chuckles at the story narrated by one of her heroes, Indra Nooyi, who after being selected as the CEO of PepsiCo came home to her mother, who asked her to go fetch some milk. “It is pretty much what happens with any other working woman. There is an expectation of full-time attachment, which is not there for a man. I don’t know of any women leaders who are not married and have focused only on work; most of us have had to look after both our personal and professional lives,” she says. “You do get a very good output from women, as they are able to multi-task easily. It comes naturally to them and it’s predominantly what women do,” Kaul Basu adds. And her commitment to the work front shows — her production house now has offices in Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai and has generated over 4,000 hours of varied content.
In 2007, Adlabs, the then entertainment arm of the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group, bought a controlling stake in Synergy and it was renamed BIG Synergy, although the Basus continued to run the show. By that point, the duo realised that in order to sustain, they needed to grow in size. They were keen about the takeover but at the same time apprehensive about the dilution of creative control, although Kaul Basu says they still have all the freedom that they need.
From raising children to styling Siddhartha’s clothes on Quiz Time, from being a part-time project coordinator to managing children on quiz shows, Kaul Basu has done it all. She says she understands that the business environment is changing and that the company will have to innovate in order to stay relevant. But undoubtedly, Kaul Basu believes that a woman’s role in professional and entrepreneurial spaces will be much greater in future, not just with respect to issues that are personal, but also things related to governance and leadership. And things have paid off on the home front for Kaul Basu as well. Her son Aditya has taken a liking to films and is currently pursuing a screenplay writing course in Los Angeles. Her daughter Medha is pursuing a course at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Not content with siting idle, Kaul Basu and her business partner-husband are busy contemplating innovations that will take their company to the next level.