"We started with Rs 7500 between three of us", Sabbas Joseph reveals the untold success story of Wizcraft
A torch bearer for the events industry, Sabbas Joseph, founder of Wizcraft, is among the most influential figures in Indian events and entertainment. The man behind milestone events like IIFA, Michael Jackson Live in concert, Commonwealth Games, India's 50 years of Independence celebrations and Global Citizen Festival, Joseph shares a reminiscent narrative as he takes us through his eventful journey as a Wiz.
He was in Delhi for another one of EEMA’s meetings. A cheerful bunch of event planners towering over his stocky physique, each one artfully trying to draw his attention to them, there was a lot of chatter. It was commotion, and he stood smack in the center of it, as we observed from the relatively placid sidelines. The scene was such to drive anyone to the edge. But not him. He stood there with that unwavering smile that many would say is signature to him. Attentively listening. Acknowledging every comment, every witty remark.
At the BW Applause August 2017 cover shoot one thing was clear- Sabbas Joseph is a popular human. And while this can largely be accredited to the fact that he has given India its largest event management setup in the form of Wizcraft, it seems his admiration is not just a result of his professional accomplishments.
Usually dressed down in his casuals, Sabbas looked dapper for the shoot in a blue plaid suit, rising to the occasion with a pocket square matched with his shirt. As natural in front of the camera as he is behind, he moved from one pose to the next with ease. His signature smile throughout intact.
“I had a taste of showbiz quite early in my life”, says Joseph. Born in a catholic family, Sabbas was the fourth child to be born in the Joseph household and grew up with seven siblings. He was born in his ancestral home in a small village close to Allepey in Kerala but his entire life was set in the backdrop of buzzing Bombay.
Settling himself into the chair across the table he adds, “My father used to have a band where he would perform at weddings, christenings and funerals. The band initially comprised of three or four musicians but my siblings and I were gradually inducted into it to play specific musical instruments. I was on the violin. Together we were Josephs and his Jewels.”
Sabbas was an overachiever right from his formative years. “I was one of the toppers in my class, be it in academics, sports or cultural activities”, he says while acknowledging the risk of coming across as precocious. “We had very strong family values where all brothers and sisters would help each other out. Thanks to our catholic upbringing we also followed the principles of giving back very strongly; we contributed to services in the church and regularly featured in the church choir”, he says with a subtle whiff of pride.
“As a child I don’t remember being too much of an extrovert, but I wasn’t an introvert either. I was a regular boy. If the Joseph and his Jewels were not playing somewhere, every Sunday evening we would have a concert at our place. My childhood was great,” he reminisces.
A striking characteristic of Sabbas’ personality is his ubiquitous leadership quality, evidence of which is Wizcraft’s sizeable workforce of 480 ‘Wizzes’ and the fact that he was unanimously elected to serve his second consecutive term as President of the Event and Entertainment Management Association. Seeing him surrounded by besotted members of the association earlier only reinforces our observation as we reach this conclusion.
“I think during my time in St Xavier’s college is when I truly began to take shape”, he expresses. “I was one of the five or six students fortunate to work on conceptualization and organization of the first Malhar, the St Xavier’s college festival that has since created a legacy of its own. By the end of my third year in college the festival had its own magazine, Raaga that I was founder-editor of. Additionally, I began contributing to various societies and was appointed the editor of Xavierite- the college magazine.”
Someone who shuttles between cities as easily as going from Bandra to Colaba, does over ten meetings a day, with an average of five hours of sleep, Joseph has always liked his place to be in the thick of things. “I was involved in a lot of things from catholic student’s union, to social service activities, to the dramatics club, Sahitya Kala academy, social activities and was also editing Xavierite. At that time many controversies were brewing against the system and students were complaining of unjust policies and treatment. We began questioning the system through the medium of Xavierite to make student voices heard. I was at the forefront of any student agitation rally, a young blooded student of political science. That’s when I took my first steps into journalism.”
During college days, Joseph started working with Mid-day as a journalist, reporting to his editor Behram Contractor. “Working with Behram (better known as Busybee) was a great learning experience. One thing he said that has stuck with me all these years is to write simply and speak simply so you are understood by maximum people”, says Sabbas who packs a busy schedule as an inspirational speaker whenever he finds time from organizing events.
He moved on from Mid-day along with a few colleagues and Behram Contractor to launch the Afternoon Despatch and Courier at the young age of 23. After a stint of two and a half years he moved on to join The Daily as its chief sub-editor. It is during this time that he first encountered Andre Timmins and Viraf Sarkari, co-founders of Wizcraft.
“A colleague of mine was friends with Andre and Viraf and he kept pleading with me to do a story about them opening a night club at Juhu’s Horizon hotel. I told him I’m not into it and as a political journalist I’d rather write about more serious stuff. But he kept at it, convincing me, forcing me, so I finally agreed to meet them”, says Sabbas with a half smile.
He continues, “Andre and Viraf were the cool kids on the block, shaved heads, flashy motorbikes and the hottest women. I still remember wearing a kurta and kolhapuri sandals the day I met them, my usual garb. As incompatible as this looks, we hit it off as friends and began hanging out. Soon enough their nightclub, Xanadu, was ready to open and they were looking for someone to do its PR. I had a friend from Times of India who agreed to do the promotional campaign but was charging a princely sum of Rs. 5000 during the year 1986. Since they couldn’t afford it, I shared this with my immediate boss who suggested we should do the PR for them gratis. The opening of the club was like none other. Everybody showed up, it got a lot of press coverage and that’s when our relationship really solidified. For one of the promotional events of the club, Four Square was the sponsor and that’s when we first met Lalit Modi too.”
The three friends began identifying their strength in creating events fueled by music, people and energy. “We would organize anything and everything from a birthday party to a rock festival”, says Sabbas. “We met someone one day who was planning to open a boutique named Zedd and wanted to create a noisy launch. We convinced him to let us execute the event upon which we were handed an advance of Rs 15000. That’s when we set up our first joint account in the name of Wizcraft to deposit the cheque”, adds Sabbas as he pauses to reflect at how far they have come. Zedd’s Fashion Carnival featured Ravi Behl (producer of Boogie Woogie) as choreographer, Marielou Phillips who now heads Chanel in India, Farah Khan (now a renowned director), Akbar Sami (one of India’s best DJs), and fashion models who would go on to become India’s first supermodels.
The first big event that officially launched Wizcraft was a rock competition ‘Conga Beat Contest’, which was supported by Four Square in a big way. Wizcraft attracted 10,000 people in the audience with the help of talented but ‘not-yet-discovered’ artists including Farah Khan, Arshad Warsi, Nihal Khan, Naved and Javed Jaffrey, Ken Ghosh among others. Each of these people would go on to touch pinnacles of success in their individual careers in showbiz. “We seemed to have got it right from day one”, states Joseph with a hearty laugh.
Kind, willing and industrious, Sabbas says their strength lies in the relationships they have forged over the years. “I would consider Lalit Modi and Bharat Shah as large benefactors for us in our initial years. The Morani brothers who introduced us to Bharat Shah who gave us the task of producing an entire engagement ceremony with massive sets and entertainment at a time no one knew us. Benny Pereira ( our friend who still produces the best décor and environment) helped us with décor and really showed us what perfection meant. Many people would go out of the way to bring innovation and creativity to the table. Arshad Warsi provided great dancers for the show, Atul Sonpal was a general lighting guy and he went on to work with us on hi tech lighting; Roger Drego and Rustom Pavri both redefined the quality and experience of soung design; while working with us each of these people changed the dimension of events. Mehul Choksi who gave us our first big budget kids birthday party; Bharat Shah helped us to design weddings and introduced us to Anil Kapoor, Bijon Dasgupta and Nitin Desai. As we went along to clinch the Michael Jackson concert, the Thackeray family supported us. Corporate clients like Phillips gave us events like Moving Sound and Lehar Pepsi launch got us acquainted with Remo Fernandez, Juhi Chawla, Taufiq Qureshi and Aditi Bhagwat. Channels like MTV and Channel V were launched through us and we had a chance to work with artists like Asha Bhosle and Slash from Guns n Roses who performed with Indus Creed. We did the Femina Miss India and Filmfare from 1989 till the year 2000. We were the first to pull off mega events with large mega audiences and, before we knew it, in the era of 1996, on the back of the Michael Jackson show, Wizcraft suddenly shot to public fame.”
Our session keeps getting interrupted by his phone, going off constantly. But each time he briefly answers and promises to return the call before continuing with us. Curiosity gets the best of us and we ask- doesn’t it get overwhelming, always being engaged? “I bow to everyone” he responds “Humility is the only reason that has got me here. There’s so much to learn from others. With humility one can conquer the world”
We pick up where we left off- trying to understand the unique dynamic between Sabbas and his two prized comrades. At an age where commitments are fickle and partnerships weak, it is admirable how the three ‘wizzes’ have stood the test of time for 32 years. They are, in Sabbas’s very own words “best friends”.
“Our personalities are very different from each other”, he says. “Andre is the maverick. He will dream of 20 things but want 21 things to work out, drive us nuts in the pursuit but at the same time make it all come together. He is also incredibly charismatic. He can talk to a roadside vendor or the biggest celebrity with the same ease and comfort. And that has largely worked for us because if you know how to manage human emotion and communication well, conducting business becomes easier. Viraf is the one we bank on for structural planning and detailing because he will ensure everything is down to perfection. He is very meticulous. He is a dreamer and can visualize scale. His eye for detail is unmatchable. Speaking of myself, I see my strength in being able to hold it together in the face of any challenge, and we’ve had many. I believe no crisis is ever big enough but how you conduct yourself during that time really defines how one will be able to handle the crisis”, he adds while fondly describing his co-partners.
He points out, however, that there is one common trait between the three despite their inherent differences- their shared vision and values. “Some people say they can start a conversation with one of us, move on to the next and end it with another, but the end result is invariably the same, and that’s because our values are the same. When we decided to go down the path of Wizcraft we made a commitment that we will stick together through thick and thin. We still do all projects together. If either one of us has taken a decision that’s gone sour we will still get each other’s back. It’s kind of an unspoken rule that’s been established.”
It was also this friendship that led to Sabbas meeting his wife of 25 years, Punam Chadha Joseph. “Viraf was handling the account of a Valentines Day party at the RGs club in hotel Natraj and Punam (at that time account director at Mudra) was representing the client side. A family emergency drove Viraf to leave the project midway and I stepped in. Punam was a very intelligent woman with a successful career in advertising and strong values. I knew I had found ‘her’. We went on to get married and have two beautiful children. Since the events business is such that you have to travel a lot, she gave up her career to raise our kids and allowed me to pursue my calling. This is a blessing I will always be cognizant of”, expresses Joseph with all humility.
This journey Sabbas embarked on with Viraf and Andre as young 23-year olds has had its share of turbulences too. “Our first major financial setback was Conga Beat Contest where we lost rupees 1.5 lac. It may not seem too big a problem today but it was almost an existential crisis for us back then, since we had started our company with just Rs 7500 between three of us. Another time was when we organized the Michael Jackson lookalike contest and a project partner ran off into the night with all the gate-collection money. This was a stressful time. We had issued cheques to our vendor partners and had to buy more time from each. All except one vendor refused so we paid him before anyone else but never worked with him again. We are proud to say that our vendor partner network exceeds 10,000 different companies today and each business has flourished at the same pace as Wizcraft”, beams Joseph.
Like every rags-to-riches story this too caries the same universal message- What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. Despite all the blows, the three Wizzes kept their eye on the prize. The best was yet to come. “We were clear we wanted to be India’s number one event company. That was our one collective vision. But if you were to be the number one event company in India you had to organize India’s biggest event for the world”, shares Joseph.
“In 1999, we began exploring ways to go global. We thought of what connected India to the world. Religion divides people, politics is local, cricket is again very national, but Indian music and cinema, we realized, was truly Indian. This is how the idea of IIFA was conceived. “
“The first edition of IIFA was held on 24 June 2000 at the Millennium Dome in London. We already had the experience of organizing Femina Miss India, Filmfare and similar format events, so we knew the drill. Among many famous faces, the event featured Anupam Kher who had recently starred in movie Bend it like Beckham, Yukta Mookhey the reigning Miss World titleholder, Sanjay Dutt who was the major superstar at that point. It was a time when Hrithik Roshan was being heralded as the new super hero and Abhishek Bachchan and Kareena had just been launched. All the pieces fit perfectly. IIFA was a hit. Since then it has traversed across 12 countries, 15 different global cities over 18 IIFAs bearing India’s flag, building bridges through cinema and bringing people together.”
This year IIFA was held at New York’s MetLife Stadium, a venue with a capacity of 82,500 people. The event set the iconic Times Square abuzz at the sound of the Nasdaq closing bell, announcing its arrival in style. Forbes deemed it the ‘Oscars of Bollywood’.
Fast-forward to 2017, Sabbas Joseph is serving his second term as president of the Event and Entertainment Management Association, an association of over 400 of India’s foremost event management companies. “The ultimate tribute to my professional pursuits has been the recognition I have received from my peers. It is not easy to get agreement among peers, so this is a huge boost. The industry is willing to follow a common vision despite their own individual thoughts, they are challenging their own ideas to back me; it is very humbling, and heaps major responsibility. Moreover, EEMA presidency has allowed me the opportunity to give back to the industry that has given me and my partners so much; that has given Wizcraft its identity. I’m happy that a lot has happened in my term but I’m sure lot more will happen during the next president’s term because now we have a momentum and a sense of unity. The industry has a voice today and we stand together”, says Sabbas with a sense of gratitude. “ We understand the power of togetherness”.
“While as EEMA we’ve done considerable work with the government, industry peers, streamlining education, understanding of taxation, licensing, legal framework, and sharing of knowledge, best practices has become important and consistent. Most important for me have been the initiatives on women’s empowerment and safety WE CARE and the recent initiative on event safety Yes We Are SAFE. These are defining efforts and will help change our industry and shape tomorrow. In the coming months if we can combine this with youth empowerment and talent development, as an industry we will be very close to future ready”.
He glances at his watch. Its 7:30pm. We learn he has a flight at 8:20pm back to Mumbai.
We panic. But not him.
With his signature smile he picks up his jacket and readies to leave but turns to leave us with a concluding thought, “Don’t ever doubt the power of your will. Whatever you do you will find challenges. You might as well do something no one has done before. The important thing is Do.”
This article first appeared in BW Applause Jul- Aug 2017 issue
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