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Sabbas Joseph: The larger-than-life showman of India

In the last two decades, Sabbas Joseph has created an unparalleled legacy in the event management business in India. And IIFA is not the only success credited to him. By Ambica Gulati

Sabbas Joseph did not seek success but walked into the unorganised world of entertainment and events way back in the late1990s, little knowing where the journey would take him, his company Wizcraft International Entertainment and his partners. Two decades later, he is hailed as one of the founding fathers of the Rs 5,000 crore event management business in India. “Life is unpredictable. We should celebrate all the time, celebrate every little success in our lives,” begins Joseph on a positive note, sitting comfortably in the artistic lobby of Shangri-La’s – Eros Hotel. To his credit, he has got some of the biggest successful events and brands over the years. However, Joseph does admit that the International Indian Film Academy Awards (IIFA) have perhaps been ‘the flag bearer’ for the company, putting it among the stalwarts globally. Now, Joseph is also the president of the Event & Entertainment Management Association (EEMA).

With many years of managing events and working with the stars under his belt, Joseph now spends a lot of his time mentoring—taking workshops, participating in seminars and conferences, sharing his expertise and knowledge. But he says the road to this started way back in college and credits the grounding to his initial years of being a journalist. “It was a rich and rewarding beginning. I was studying political science at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai and worked as an intern with the Times of India and Sunday Observer during my first year of college,” he says. It was a blend of the theoretical and the practical.

He then enrolled for the journalism course at the Xavier Institute of Communications and simultaneously started working with Mid Day under the well-known journalist Behram Contractor. “As I had classes in the morning, I took the evening and night shifts, working till 11:30pm and longer. On Sundays, the work would finish by 3am, sometimes even till 5am,” he reminisces. He later went onto join the newspaper that Contractor started, Afternoon, and moved onto the Daily and India Today before happily bidding goodbye to the world of news and stepping into the events industry.

Sabbas Joseph

Sabbas Joseph | Location: Shangri- La’s – Eros Hotel, Delhi | Image: Fotuwalle by DHP Labs

On the shift to a different platform, Joseph elaborates that journalism made him happy but had become frustrating. The positive was the change that crept in with impactful stories. “I covered demolitions, slums, Bhopal Gas tragedy, riots and more. I saw power changing hands, and a difference being made in the lives of the people. But business always won over truth. Wizcraft gave me the opportunity to open a new platform for communication,” he says.

While he might have been new to entrepreneurship, he was not new to handling events. He had been involved in many activities during his college days. “St Xavier’s is a culturally active college and prepares one for leadership. I was part of the team which started the college festival, Malhar, which is among the iconic college festivals in the country today,” he says. He was also the editor of The Xavierite, president of the political science academy, university representative, and was involved with different societies and the college theatre group.

Along with this, journalism had given him the skill of transformation. And he carried this to Wizcraft. “We were passionate about organising events, rather the A-Z of events. A meant birthday parties, magic and ventriloquist shows, and Z was rock shows,” he affirms, but then rues that the country wasn’t even aware of event management as a business opportunity which already existed in other parts of the world. “We also didn’t understand this until much later,” the rueful smile widens.

Their first event was a fashion and dance show, followed by a magic show, birthday party until the milestone. Wizcraft organised a rock show competition, inviting nine rock bands from across the country to participate. The show got an audience of astounding 7,000 people.

From there to organising the Filmfare awards, Femina Miss India pageant, designing Zee Cine awards, Channel V’s music awards, the journey was thrilling. Soon enough, a chance look at the list of the rich and famous gave birth to IIFA. It was in 1999-2000, that they saw seven Indians listed among the rich in the UK, two in the US. “We wondered whether India was finally emerging on the global level. We wanted to connect India with the world too. I know politics and cricket do that, but they are limited to the country. We also thought of music. But cinema has a wider reach; it builds bridges and helps people connect. Just as Hollywood was the brand ambassador for the US to the rest of the world, Bollywood could be at the same platform.”

It was not an easy task, getting together people from different countries, but the first IIFA was held in London. Since then the awards have travelled across the globe, the most recent being to Bangkok. “At the first IIFA, we had everyone who mattered there —Angelina Jolie, Richard Branson, Shah Rukh Khan, Dilip sahib, Amitabh Bachchan and more. After that night, I was walking on the Oxford Street and my friend Laila Rouass, former VJ with Channel V, called me and said, ‘Thank you for making us all Indians proud. Last night, for the first time, I felt proud for Indians’. Our vision was now real! IIFA belongs to India and this is what every Indian feels with IIFA,” he beams with pride.

Since then, there have been many more fabulous nights for Wizcraft such as 50 years of the Indian Independence celebrations, Michael Jackson concert, The Indian Millennium celebrations, ceremonies for the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, the CWG handover ceremony in Melbourne, amongst others. “At the Melbourne handover ceremony, we had Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan, Shiamak Davar, Rani Mukerji, Sunidhi Chauhan, Sonu Nigam, Kapil Dev, Sunil Gavaskar and others. They came in a chariot. BBC’s reaction to that ceremony was that ‘what Melbourne tried to do in over one and half hour of programming, India managed to do in eleven and a half minutes.’ We felt proud, just as every Indian there felt proud,” he says.

Over the decades of working across the globe, Joseph says that there have been many lessons, personally as well as professionally. “There is value of time, of being on time. There is proper planning, programming, execution and delivery. For instance, everything is so meticulously planned that when the trucks bring in the equipment, they are parked near the point where the stuff needs to be offloaded. This saves time. It is a focused and proper way of functioning. For the international community, safety comes before creativity. Health is important, protection of the workers is important. We are passionate about our work, but they are all seriously committed towards the work.”

With growth and learnings, expansion and segmentation have been a natural process for the company. There has been investment in infrastructure, technology, lighting, sound, experience creation with different verticals having been created. Wizcraft offers services to corporates, retail industry, for weddings and social events and many other verticals. There is a PR and talent management firm which caters to the industry as a whole. “At Wizcraft, we believe that leaders should be dispensable. For each business and vertical, there is a separate head. There are processes in place and monthly meetings happen; business carries on without the founders,” elaborates Joseph.

The latest movement has been into sportainment, which is a combination of sports and entertainment. “We launched FIFA under 17 in which we invited five global legends to play with five Indian players, which is not the traditional way of launching the event. So, we engage to entertain and connect.”

But no journey can be complete without its reforms and that’s why EEMA was created. “The events management is a sunrise industry. It gives employment to over 10 million people. It is going to grow to become a Rs 10,000cr industry in the near future. But there are issues related to taxes, licenses, manpower, education and EEMA works towards solving those issues in tandem with the government,” cites Joseph. “It is the voice of transformation. From the invisible, it makes us invincible.”

On legacies and partnerships, Joseph says that IIFA has been the trigger for bonding people. But the FICCI-IIFA Global Business Forum is a way of opening economic opportunities. “Many subsidiary industries benefit through IIFA—there is rise in tourism, film shootings, better systems for film distribution. The summits pave the way for strategic long-term partnership and opportunities for all. That is the true legacy of IIFA.”

But for an entrepreneur and leader, there is no end. “A leader must have a goal, a vision for tomorrow which fulfills a larger purpose. This must elevate your being and you must craft small steps to achieve these goals. With every achievement, you must celebrate,” emphasises Joseph who doesn’t believe in stopping at any stage. “If there is a road block, find inspiration, get up and move ahead because there is a lot more to do,” he signs off.

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