Birth of an era
When we talk about the geniuses of Indian publishing and write about the magazine boom, there is one name that rarely comes up. And yet, in my view, there is nobody who has been more influential in the development of the Indian magazine industry than Nari Hira.
If your response is, “Nari who?” do not be perturbed. That’s how Nari Hira likes it. Throughout his astonishingly influential career, he has kept a low profile, promoted young people and then sat back and let them take the credit for achievements which are largely his own.
If the name Nari Hira means relatively little to you, then I am sure that the name Stardust will certainly ring a bell.
Stardust was the first modern Indian magazine. Not only did it virtually invent literate film journalism (after the broken English of the Baburao Patel and Devyani Chaubal era), it also invented people journalism for the Indian market.
It happened this way. Hira ran Creative Unit, an advertising agency, which employed a talented former model called Shobha Rajyadhyaksha. One day, Shobha told Hira that she was bored of advertising and wanted to leave. “Don’t go,” he told her. “Let’s start a magazine.”
And so, the two of them started Stardust with Nari as the owner and Shobha as the first editor. Not only did Stardust transform the relationship between film stars and journalists, it also began the process of taking Hindi cinema to an English-speaking audience. Throughout the Seventies, even as Bollywood movies were resolutely down-market, Nari and Shobha managed to write sophisticated articles about the stars that were read even by those who never bothered to watch Hindi films.
I may be exaggerating but I do believe that if Stardust had not created this constituency, there would be no audience for the movies of Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar and Farhan Akhtar. Stardust made Bollywood hip and a new generation of film-makers reaped the rewards.
In the late Seventies, Shobha said she was bored again. So, Nari encouraged her to start a new magazine. She decided that she wanted to start a woman’s magazine, meant, she said at the time, “for the woman who does not think with her uterus.” She decided to call it High Society until, shortly before launch, Nari found a hardcore porn magazine called High Society on the news-stands in New York.
So, they settled on Society as a title. In a month or two, it became clear that a) the magazine was much better at people coverage than it was at tackling women’s issues and b) that Shobha was bored again.
Shobha left soon after launch to start her own Celebrity magazine and Nari hired Leela Naidu to replace her. Leela turned out to be a figurehead and Nari ran the magazine himself, behind the scenes. His vision was simple: Society would be a people magazine that would refuse to kiss ass just as Stardust had refused to suck up to movie stars in the way that such magazines as Filmfare had done.
Take away Stardust and Society and you have no Indian magazine boom. The two magazines between them set the template for many of the magazines that followed. Editors came and went but the quality never suffered because Nari was always the super-editor.
Since then, Nari has launched many other magazines of which Savvy is probably the most famous. He does many other things and his career has taken in the establishment of Bombay’s Otter’s Club, a successful travel agency in New York, a book-selling operation, various low-budget movies and a home décor exhibition sideline. All of them have made lots of money for him.
But his heart remains in the magazine business. His devotion to his publications is matched only by his commitment to the staff. He will hire people with no experience, will nurture their careers and will make them editors, never ever acknowledging publicly that he has been entirely responsible for their success.
Even now as the Indian magazine market faces an onslaught of foreign titles, Nari’s products have more than held their own. Stardust is a global phenomenon. No magazine of its type has as much impact on any film industry anywhere in the world. Society remains in a class of its own. I won’t compare it to the suck-up magazines, the Hellos, the OKs, Hi Blitzes and the sadly disappointing People, which are content to print any lies that any self-promoting neo-celebrity tells them.
In fact, Society deserves to be compared to other, more serious, magazines. I nearly always learn something I did not know when I read it. And am always astonished by its willingness to tell it like it is, attacking the famous and the powerful if the story demands it.
I haven’t met Nari for years. He must be nearly 70 by now. But judging by his photographs he looks exactly as he did when I knew him in the early 1980s. Because I know his style I can spot his interventions in his magazines and they are nearly always delightful.
In a world that is full of shysters and self-promoters, it is encouraging to find a true pioneer who seeks no credit for himself. But one day, when the history of Indian publishing is written, Nari Hira will get the credit he deserves.