Bollywood's Newest Star He came to America without money, connections, or experience. So how did Sheeraz Hasan become the film industry's ambassador to South Asia?
By Sanjiv Bhattacharya

(FORTUNE Magazine) – In January 2002 an ethnic Pakistani named Sheeraz Hasan flew from London to the U.S. with no money, no contacts, and no filmmaking experience. Today he is the host of Tinseltown TV, a talk show that broadcasts to 500 million people in India, Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East. And he has become a Hollywood institution, showing up at virtually every film premiere, chatting regularly with the likes of Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez, Meryl Streep, and Steven Spielberg.

"Nobody turns down an interview with Sheeraz," says Rowland Perkins, founder of CAA, one of the biggest talent agencies in Hollywood. Perkins describes Hasan, 28, as the gateway to Bollywood--the nickname for India's thriving film industry, which is centered in Bombay (now known as Mumbai). Every year more films are made in India than in the U.S., and Bollywood's fans seem insatiable. "Hollywood is always looking for a way to open a market that huge--the amazing thing is that nobody did it before," Perkins says. "Sheeraz spotted the niche, saw that it was underserved, and made it his. He didn't do a feasibility study--he just did it. And now he's the Bollywood guy on the red carpet."

Today Tinseltown TV airs in 80 countries. The company says that it posted a small profit last year and that it should hit $1.45 million in sales in 2003. Hasan himself has been celebrated with glowing editorials--praising his ability to bridge the worlds of Bollywood and Hollywood--throughout the Indian media.

What with the struggling economy and xenophobic environment since Sept. 11, it would seem a tough time for an immigrant to start a business in the U.S. But experts say that despite such unfriendly legislation as the Patriot Act and the Border Security Act, immigrant entrepreneurs continue to flourish. "While we don't collect any statistics specifically on immigrant business, anecdotal evidence suggests that entrepreneurial activity remains strong," says Don McCarthy of the Milken Institute. Li Lu, a former student leader at Tiananmen Square who founded investment firm Himalaya Capital in New York City in 1997, says that the entrepreneurial impulse retains a strong hold on recent immigrants. "The American dream is alive and well," he says. "Immigrant entrepreneurs come here believing that American society is organized around the principle of meritocracy.... Long term, the best security this country can have is to keep it a free and prosperous society. You always want to welcome immigrants with open arms, because that's the true competitive advantage of American society."

First things first: Despite being viewed in Hollywood as a Bollywood expert, Hasan has never been to South Asia. He does not speak a word of Hindi. ("And my Urdu is not much better," he confesses.) And he can count on one hand the Bollywood films he has seen. "People always ask me about Bombay [Mumbai] and the movie industry there, but all I know I get from magazines," Hasan admits. "I'm going for the first time this Christmas. I'm a bit nervous."

Hasan's parents, Zafir and Nadra Hasan, emigrated from Pakistan to London in 1965, ten years before Hasan was born, and established Bloomsbury, a 20-seat cafe in the center of the city. When Hasan was 16, his father died, leaving him, his mother, and his older brother Suhail to run the family business. Hasan immediately proved himself an able entrepreneur. Over the next eight years he spearheaded the family's effort to find a bigger restaurant, secure a 24-hour license, and--when he was informed that the name "Bloomsbury" was trademarked--change the restaurant's name to Tinseltown. "I kept reading in the papers how celebrities went to parties in Tinseltown. So I thought if I called my restaurant Tinseltown, I'd get celebrities coming here too." Within two years of moving, the restaurant saw its sales expand to $35,000 a week, from $2,000.

As the restaurant's popularity grew--and yes, celebrities began to eat there--Hasan got a taste for the world of media and television. He had long wanted to build a business of his own, and his fantasies naturally turned to Hollywood. "I always believed that America would be where I would make my mark," he says. "And in Hollywood everyone has a shot, right? Tinseltown, Hollywood, it all made sense." He set up an office in what was once a spare bathroom at the restaurant, even putting down a red carpet to give him inspiration, and sure enough, it was here that he came up with the idea for Tinseltown TV. Four months later he moved to Los Angeles with $4,000 his family had given him.

Hasan's first big break came in April 2002, in a melodramatic scene that could have come right out of a Bollywood musical. A practicing Muslim, Hasan was performing his Friday prayers at the foot of the famous HOLLYWOOD sign. (He still visits that spot, appealing openly to Allah for wealth and A-list endorsements.) Michael Levy--a onetime agent of Marlon Brando's and Elizabeth Taylor's and now a prolific producer of films, including Prelude to a Kiss--was visiting a friend and noticed a tearful Hasan returning to his car.

"This guy was so passionate about launching his company, he was crying. How could I not be impressed?" recalls Levy. "And he had this terrific idea of packaging a show for the Bollywood audience. Of course, it helped that he looked the part for Indian TV. Had he been white, I'm not sure how successful he'd have been."

They talked awhile, exchanged phone numbers, and arranged to meet at Levy's office on Wilshire Boulevard in ten days. The meeting was a success, and within a month--armed with Levy's support--Hasan had persuaded the Indian executives at New York--based Bollywood 4 U, a satellite provider of Indian shows to immigrant communities in the U.S., to give him a prime-time television spot on the B4U channels throughout India. "I promised them celebrities, basically," says Hasan. "When the guy asked to see the pilot I acted insulted, after I'd come all that way from L.A. Of course I didn't have a pilot. I didn't even have a camera!" Levy found Hasan a lawyer, who agreed to close the deal free, leaving Hasan with a contract for 52 shows a year and an on-air date in six weeks.

It was a huge opportunity. But it also presented a huge problem: Hasan had promised celebrities, yet had never spoken to one, much less secured any interviews. So Hasan hit the phones--with numbers courtesy of Levy's Rolodex--and began schmoozing celebrities' publicists. "I told them, 'Look, I got 500 million fans in Bollywood, all over India, who are desperate to hear about this movie....' I was really polite about it. If someone asks you something really politely and it's so easy for you to do, how can you say no?" Once he got past the publicists, Hasan also quickly endeared himself to his interviewees, lobbing a series of softball questions. One of Hasan's trademarks: asking stars about their spiritual life.

"My first-ever question was to Eddie Murphy," recalls Hasan. " 'What do you do spiritually to stay grounded in this industry?' " It's an appealing question to Hollywood denizens, especially those with interests in Hinduism or Buddhism, many of whom assume from Hasan's skin color that he shares their beliefs. "I don't tell people I'm a Muslim unless they ask," Hasan says.

It's unlikely that Hasan would have been able to make such hay out of his ethnicity back in his hometown. Compared with the one in London, the South Asian community in Los Angeles--and certainly in the entertainment industry--is relatively small and unfamiliar. "I couldn't have done this in the U.K.," Hasan says. "There are already a lot of Asians in the U.K. media, and many have Bollywood connections, so it's harder for me to stand out there."

Meanwhile, Tinseltown continues to grow as a family business in the immigrant tradition. While he leads the Beverly Hills office with a staff of seven, his elder brother operates the website from an office adjoining the restaurant in London. Between them they have kept their overhead low, their work rate high, and their lifestyle humble, opting to pour the bulk of their profits back into the business. Hasan drives a Volkswagen Beetle and lives with his wife in a small apartment near the office. He eschews designer clothing and doesn't even wear a watch. "Why wear a Rolex when I could get another camera?" he asks.

Although Hasan is courting investors, his family retains complete ownership of the company, financing its daily operations entirely through sponsorship and advertising from Dada footwear and EMX Corp. (which produces batteries that are claimed to help counteract cellphone radiation) and by turning Tinseltown into a thriving commercial platform. For example, Hasan airs a segment on Hollywood real estate and takes a cut of any sale made as a result of the program. (One recent featured home: the Sultan of Brunei's $22 million Bel Air mansion. The house had not sold as of presstime.)

Tinseltown, meanwhile, is making a name for itself in the U.S. as well as abroad. In October, Hasan was declared runner-up South Asian business leader of the year, an award given by global networking group TiE in Santa Clara, Calif., and sponsored by Deloitte & Touche. (Kleiner Perkins venture capitalist Vinod Khosla is a notable member of TiE.) And Tinseltown's reach is extending. Since August a version of the show has aired on California's channel 18--a station for the state's South Asian immigrant community--and since October a different edit has appeared on BEN, an urban British channel offered through SKY Digital.

Now Hasan is looking to new territories: "Bollywood was just a stepping stone. I could get that audience because it was ripe, and being Pakistani, I look right for the job. But now I'm looking at Latin America. If I can sell a show there, with a Spanish-speaking presenter, then by the time the studios catch up and decide they want to do a show like mine, by the time they make a pilot ... by that time I'll be in two-thirds of the world!"