From producing long-running soap operas to blockbuster movies, the community commands prime slots in the country’s entertainment industry

Located off a leafy street in central Jakarta, in a neighbourhood dotted with central government offices, MD Entertainment’s headquarters occupy prime real estate. In the lobby, a white marble statue of Ganesha beams, seemingly at the rows of TV screens built into the room’s walls. They display multiple scenes from Indonesian soap operas replete with quivering lips, arched eyebrows and other staples of high melodrama.

Upstairs, in another waiting room, the walls are even more crowded with magazine cover spreads of the company’s youthful honcho, Manoj Punjabi, clutching awards, making speeches and posing with his family for publications like Indonesian Tattler and MillionaireAsia.

Forty-year-old Manoj is today the king of Indonesian entertainment. In the 10 years of its existence, his company, MD Entertainment, has come to account for around a third of the market for popular soap operas, known as sinetrons, and has produced some of the country’s most successful movies.

Cinta Fitri (Fitri’s love), an MD sinetron, is one of Indonesia’s longest running TV shows, at 1,003 episodes. The company has seven hours of soap operas running on different channels every day. And its movie business is also booming. In 2008, MD’s Ayat Ayat Cinta (The Verses of Love) became the first Indonesian movie to break the 10-year box office record held by Hollywood blockbuster Titanic. Four years later, in 2012, another MD production, Habibie and Ainun, became the highest grossing movie in Indonesia of all time with an estimated 4.6 million viewers.

“Whatever Manoj touches kind of turns to gold,” enthuses Anirudya Mitra, a former journalist-turned-Bollywood scriptwriter, who now works for MD Entertainment as a co-producer. He gives the example of how Indonesia’s SCTV channel shot up from fourth place in terms of market share, to the number one position when it began airing MD sinetrons in 2007. Similarly, MNCTV’s (another channel) fortunes were transformed, when MD teamed up with it in 2011, taking it from the number seven position, to the top.

Manoj Punjabi comes with a pedigree. His uncle, Raam Punjabi, was the original Indonesian media magnate. Raam’s company, Multivision Plus, had straddled the sinetron landscape of the 1990s like a colossus. In 2003, Manoj and his father Dhamoo parted ways with Raam to set up MD, thereby spawning Multivision’s first big competitor.

Dressed nattily in a grey jacket, pale blue shirt, and paisley tie, Manoj is brisk when talking about the split. “We had a different vision,” he says. “I am someone who thinks big. Even if we have ten more competitors of our stature it would not bother me. The entertainment pie in Indonesia will not shrink.”

Rooted in entertainment

The Punjabi family is Sindhi, part of the over 100,000-strong Indian diaspora in Indonesia. Like thousands of other Sindhis, Raam and Dhamoo’s parents moved to the South East Asian archipelago following the turbulence of India’s partition in 1947. The Punjabis had a textile business in the east Java city of Surabaya, a trade that was the mainstay of the Indonesian Sindhi community. By the time Manoj was born in 1972, the family had moved to the capital, Jakarta, where Raam, Dhamoo and another brother, began a business importing and producing movies.

Although the Punjabis are the most dominant, they are far from the only Sindhi players in Indonesia’s “entertainment-scape”. I came across a newspaper story on Indonesian films a few weeks ago in which every single movie producer mentioned had an Indian name: Punjabi of course, but also Samtani, and Soraya, and Dheeraj. Together, these producers account for some 50 per cent of the Indonesian entertainment industry’s output.

Sitting in a newly renovated office building, Sunil Samtani, executive producer of Rapi films, looks unnervingly similar to Manoj. Dressed in the same dapper, starched collar-style, Sunil is a third-generation Indonesian Sindhi as well. Both Manoj and Sunil attended the same school in Jakarta, the Gandhi Memorial International School, the majority of whose student body comes from the local Sindhi community. His grandparents had also been in the textile business when they moved to Surakarta, a city in central Java. It was Sunil’s father, Gope, who pioneered the entry into the movie business, setting up Rapi films in the late 1960s.

Today, Rapi has 6,000 hours of sinetrons to its credit and has produced around 150 feature films. Its latest offering is Sang Kyai, a biopic of Hsyim Asy’ari, the founder of the Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia.

“A lot of people ask how come an Indian Hindu has done a Muslim movie,” smiles Sunil, “but why not?” He’s quite clear, however, that his identity remains Indian. “My [Indonesian] passport is just a formality. We are Indians. Our relationship with Indonesians is business-oriented.”

Manoj, on the other hand, is “very clear” that he is “as Indonesian as Indian.” The phone rings and as he answers the call I take in the half-dozen murtis of Hanuman, Saraswati and Ganesha scattered around his office. On the phone he speaks in a strange patois, half English and half Bahasa Indonesian. “Jadi [so], you can come on Hari Selasa pagi [Tuesday morning],” he concludes before hanging up.

“I have made many movies with a Muslim theme,” Manoj picks up the conversation again. “I have never distorted Indonesian culture.”

On the whole, Indonesia’s Indian businesses are careful to keep a low profile. They cannot help but be aware how easily their success can create resentment. Anti-Chinese sentiment is rife in Indonesia, given the dominance of the Chinese diaspora in the country’s economy, and in 1998 large-scale riots targeting Chinese Indonesian-owned property broke out across the country. The Indian presence may be smaller, but is also disproportionately wealthy.

It raises the question of why the Sindhis have been so successful. Manoj believes it is the result of the entrepreneurial spirit that’s “in the blood of the Sindhis,” while ethnic Indonesians themselves are less driven by the business of profit. “You have some Indonesians in the entertainment industry, but for them it’s about art or passion. No one ever thought of making money out of it until us.”

Tapping Indian talent

The Sindhis also had the advantage of being able to tap the bountiful Indian marker for creative talent. Anirudya is himself one such hire. The Sindhis, he says, were able to “beat the local Indonesians at the number crunching game.” They hire writers and directors from Bombay who are able to churn out story scripts and projects much faster than the locals.

Moreover, until the last decade, the Chinese, who form the backbone of Indonesia’s economy, were focused on manufacturing and trading, and had kept out of creative sectors. It was only in 2003, that Sinemart, a Chinese-owned production house set up shop, and today it is MD’s main competition.

For the moment, the bread-and-butter of these entertainment barons remain television. Indonesia is still not a cinema-going country, with only just over 600 movie screens for the 240 million people who live here. But Manoj has big dreams. Ownership of a TV station is in the pipeline and he has ambitions to produce movies in Hollywood. “Whatever happens, I’m here to stay,” he says in a tone that brooks no dissent.

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