Sindhi Kings of Indonesian Entertainment World

Entertainment History Research
Dhamoo Punjabi with his family

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

Sindh Courier Monitoring Desk

Located off a leafy street in central Jakarta, in a neighborhood dotted with central government offices, MD (Manoj Dhamoo) 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 son of Dhamoo, clutching awards, making speeches and posing with his family for publications like Indonesian Tattler and MillionaireAsia.

Manoj with his family

Forty-Seven 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, writes an Indian newspaper The Hindu.

Manoj’s father Dhamoo is now 79 years of age. Dhamoo was born on 10th November 1940 in Surabaya, Indonesia. Dhamoo’s father, Bhai Jethmal, passed away when Dhamoo was only sixteen. This placed responsibilities on him at a young age. Dealing in the family business of carpets and textiles, Dhamoo added a line of motorcycles made in Italy.

In spite of marketing these items, Dhamoo was mesmerized by the magic of cinema. The film line remained his number one priority. He soon became a distributor of Indian and foreign films. Finally in 1959, he made Jakarta his home to seek better opportunities. Although he pursued his garment export business and supply of goods to diplomats by mail order, cinema was his passion and he kept dreaming of developing a film line. For the past four decades, Dhamoo’s life has been woven with the filmi-duniya. In fact, his entire family and relatives are active in the production line.

During the year 2002, due to reorganization within family members who were jointly involved in the entertainment business, Dhamoo established his own production company, with his son Manoj, called MD Entertainment.

Cinta Fitri (Fitri’s love), an MD sinetron, is one of Indonesia’s longest running TV shows, at 1,003 episodes. The company has several thousand 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. The film bagged a prestigious award equivalent to a Guinness record. Dhamoo had organized a special preview of the movie for which he had invited the President of Indonesia together with 85 diplomats representing all countries around the globe, stationed in Jakarta.

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.

Manoj’s uncle Ram

Manoj Punjabi’s uncle, Raam Punjabi was also the original Indonesian media magnate. Raam’s company, Multivision Plus, had become MD’s big competitor.

In 2013, talking to Pallavi Aiyar of Indian newspaper The Hindu, about the family split, Manoj once said, “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, and part of the strong Sindhi diaspora in Indonesia. Like thousands of other Sindhis, Raam and Dhamoo’s parents moved to the South East Asian archipelago. The family 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 this family is the most dominant, they are far from the only Sindhi players in Indonesia’s “entertainment-scape”. According to a newspaper story on Indonesian films, in which every single movie producer was 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.

Sunil Samtani is the executive producer of Rapi films. He looks similar to Manoj. Sunil is a third-generation Indonesian Sindhi as well. Both Manoj and Sunil attended the same school in Jakarta, the Gandhi Memorial International School, 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 thousands of hours of sinetrons to its credit and has produced over 150 feature films. One of their offering in 2013 was Sang Kyai , a biopic of Hsyim Asy’ari, the founder of the Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organization 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,” he had told The Hindu.

Manoj, on the other hand, is “very clear” that he is “as Indonesian as Indian.”

“I have made many movies with a Muslim theme,” Manoj told. “I have never distorted Indonesian culture.”

Manoj believes that success of Sindhis is the result of the entrepreneurial spirit that’s “in the blood of the Sindhis.”

“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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This article is based on articles published in The Hindu and a website sindhishan.com   

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