How Bhushan Kumar made T-Series world's most subscribed YouTube channel

Bhushan Kumar
On any given day, Bhushan Kumar easily spends four to five hours on his phone, browsing through movie promotions, film trailers, scouting for new artistes or just listening to songs. “That’s my job,” says Kumar, 41. On the wall behind his desk in his office in Mumbai numerous gold-plated trophies and mementos jostle for space. In direct line of sight from his chair — the seat of the company’s chairman and managing director — is a red, life-sized banner that summarises Kumar’s vision: “T-Series films, the best is yet to come.”

In India, where the entertainment industry is identified by the names of actors and directors, it’s easy to miss the other players steering the projects. But as a quick glance across movie credits and a bit of wandering on the internet shows, T-Series is everywhere. And while its association with music has always reigned supreme, its contribution to cinema (Bollywood and beyond) is also substantial.

Bhushan’s single-minded dedication and passion has helped T-Series scale up from a music company to one of the biggest film studios, says Ankur Garg, a producer with Mumbai-based Luv Films. Along with T-Series, Luv Films has co-produced movies such as De De Pyaar De.

This year alone T-Series, which was launched in 1984, will be credited as a co-producer in a total of 18 films. Kumar pauses briefly before naming some of these projects: Saaho (a multilingual film) and also two Punjabi movies.

From turning out box-office hits to navigating the digital space, T-Series is today a behemoth with a finger in every pie. And, its YouTube channel now has the maximum number of subscribers in the world — 98,483,625 at the time of writing this article.

Kumar and his team may have cut a chocolate cake on March 30 when it was officially announced that they had beaten every competitor — primarily Swedish content-maker PewDiePie — but this, he says, was never really their goal. “When our YouTube channel became the most-viewed back in 2017, that was actually a moment of celebration,” says Kumar, adding how subscribers don’t have monetary value, unlike viewership which churns out revenue. He was sucked into the subscriber race only after PewDiePie made it “personal,” says Kumar. “It was very upsetting to see someone speaking ill of our country through the content PewDiePie was releasing.” 

Kumar eventually brought out the big guns: a social media campaign with the hashtag #bharatwinsyoutube asking Indians to subscribe to T-Series and an order from the Delhi High Court directing YouTube to remove two of PewDiePie’s songs from the platform.  

The publicity had its upside. The channel got new viewership in countries as varied as Indonesia, Brazil and France, and T-Series also secured deals with international artistes such as the American rapper Pitbull. 

Kumar, however, likes to keep a low profile. Even when the company needed a face in the late 1990s, he was hesitant to step into the spotlight. “It took a lot of convincing and pushing to get Bhushan to start giving interviews and talking to the press,” recalls actor-director Divya Khosla Kumar, who is also Kumar’s wife. She first met him during the production of Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Saathiyo (2004). “I had never expected someone of his stature to be so down to earth.” They married in 2005 and have an eight-year-old son, Ruhaan.

Kumar was only 19 when he took over the reins of T-Series after his father, Gulshan Kumar, was murdered by the Mumbai underworld in August 1997. Before that, the only time anyone saw him in office was when he would come to “collect pocket money from Gulshan ji,” recalls Vinod Bhanushali who joined the T-Series family in 1994. Bhanushali now heads the company’s media, marketing, publishing (TV) and music acquisitions divisions.

“Gulshan ji was a one-man army who handled everything across departments,” recalls Bhanushali. After him, Kumar remembers many being reluctant to proceed with T-Series. He had to convince them that he’d follow his father's practices. “It was a very challenging time for me. I didn’t know anything about the business,” he says.

A young Bhushan Kumar (middle) with his late father Gulshan Kumar (right)
Years of learning on the job turned Kumar into a go-getter. “They say boys grow into men when thrown into battle. Our battle was for survival back then and we are thriving today with the leadership qualities he has imbibed,” says Bhanushali. “Ab hum dariya mein aaram se gotte lagane jaate hai. Paani jitna hi deep ho, hum deep dive karke moti leke aate hai (Now we swim fearlessly in the water, irrespective of its depth. We deep dive and come out with pearls).”

The history of T-Series is a crash course in the history of India’s music and film industry, 1980s onwards. Whether it was youngsters playing Bollywood hits such as “Dil hai ke manta nahin” and “Nazar ke saamne” or their parents and grandparents listening to bhajans and prayer chants, both of these distinct genres came from T-Series. That was a time when the company would buy cassettes from Hong Kong and Singapore, load them up, and launch them into an extensive distribution network that extended right up to the nukkad paan-wala.

As consumption patterns and delivery models changed, T-Series did too — rapidly. Today, it is on every platform possible: from Hungama, Saavn, Spotify and Gaana to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar and Zee5. 

“Bhushan’s business acumen and music intuition have played a big role in making T-Series one of the most formidable studios in Bollywood,” says Garg of Luv Films. Kumar says he discovered he had this “intuition” only after he was forced into the business. Today, he doesn’t touch a song if he can’t hum it after having heard it once. “I have forgotten my personal tastes. I have to like what people like, that’s the only way this works.” But there are still some things that he enjoys: like watching Tamil and Telugu films while exercising, and shopping, especially for footwear. His shoe closet reportedly overflows, especially with Christian Louboutins.

Kumar says, “I was personally never interested in music; that was my father’s dream.” It can be hard to come out of the shadow of a parent who was already a titan even when the industry was yet to bloom. But Kumar has achieved this by constantly acknowledging his father’s legacy — from the senior Kumar’s humble beginnings, when he would assist his father in his juice shop in Daryaganj in Old Delhi, to the time he founded Super Cassettes Industries, better known as T-Series, in the early 1980s (T is for trishul since Gulshan Kumar was an ardent devotee of Shiva and Vaishno Devi). The family moved to Mumbai when Bhushan Kumar was in Class VIII. 

Today, one of the projects closest to Kumar’s heart is the making of Mogul, a biopic on his father. Though some big names for who’ll play Gulshan Kumar have been in circulation, work on the film will start only next year, says Kumar. Now, here’s a story worth the big screen.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel