Be it hospitality or entertainment business, Mahboob Rahman Ruhel has struck gold in both the fields and won a million hearts.
You grew up in Chittagong, and you spent your childhood there, the experience in Chittagong, how much did it shape who you are now?
I think it made me who I am now. Because the place I grew up in was actually the foothill of DC. At that time, we were roaming around the city, going to the hills, climbing trees, doing all kinds of things. My younger brother had a bicycle, that was one of my favorite activities. I remember stealing his bike, going out during winter afternoons, going up to the hill and then biking down. These experiences shaped me in a way; I liked the outdoors and outdoor-related sports. Still today I love mountain biking, surfing, running. It taught me not to be a risk-averse person.
On top of that, Chittagong was very safe at that time; I would go to the neighbor’s house, maybe sometimes have lunch there, and spend time with the neighborhood children, there was no fear. People were more genuine; we had no social media or television. People were more keen to know each other and were more friendly. That kind of relationship we had with everybody there, I loved growing up in Chittagong.
The school I went to, in Chittagong Saint Classics High was a Christian missionary school. We stayed at Nomunkamin Buddhist temple, there were also a lot of Hindus living nearby, it was amazingly diverse, multi-cultural, and multi-religious. We celebrated all the religious festivals; my teachers used to invite us during Christmas, we were also invited to Hindu festivals like Kali Puja and Durga Puja. All these experiences shaped me to become a religiously neutral person- when I meet someone his/her religious background doesn’t even cross my mind.
You are involved in a lot of things, cinema, patronizing sports, hospitality industry, etc. How do you move from one to the other? How did getting into the cinema come about?
I don’t know how it happened actually. I studied computer science initially and then switched my major into MIS. I also loved programming; it was my passion. Somehow, I got bored with computer science. I started learning about business when I moved to MIS; then, I completed my MBA from Finland. When I moved back to Bangladesh, I started my business career; I started with training people in IT.
The movie thing happened by chance; I was talking to one of the owners of Bashundhara in an elevator. He said that they were building a new mall, and I asked if they had cineplex there; he said, ‘no, can we talk?’ That’s how it all started. At that time, theatres were dying, 1200 theatres came down to 200 only. So, I thought to try and do something different. But it took me two years to educate the people again. I got creative with marketing; they (consumers) loved it. More importantly, I didn’t see it as a business; it was more of a passion, I believe that’s why it worked, if you think and do something for the sake of making money, then you’re thinking in the wrong direction. When I think of doing things, I try to involve people and excite the minds of my customers and audiences.
I have the same approach in the hospitality business also. We focus on how to facilitate the best experience for our patrons. Most of the rooms of our hotel are facing the beach; the entire infinity pool makes you feel like you’re on the beach. So you won’t have to go to the beach to experience it. That is what our hotel provides to its customers.
Growing up you also leaned towards painting and drawings. Did you continue that?
No, unfortunately, but I want to. I was doing art quite passionately until I was 24 but the passion died down because I got busy.
What are you doing to increase the number of movies you’re bringing out, the quality of the film you’re bringing out, and to attract audiences to watch them? Are we too reliant on foreign movies?
When I started, I had to rely on foreign movies, but that was a different time. Nowadays, people have Netflix; it’s more difficult to get them out of the home. Therefore, I have to specialize in 3D, Dolby Surround Sound, and state-of-the-art visuals. Unfortunately, right now films, don’t come anywhere near that quality. We don’t have 3D movies; we don’t have proper sound mixing. Technically, we are much behind. So, I do have to rely on foreign films to bring people back to the theatre.
We had a massive crowd for Debi and Aynabaji. Debi generated much more business than Avengers. I ran it for 100 days, and it worked. It was a well-made film with a good storyline line. I believe the problem with Bangla films is that they cannot connect with Millenials.
I think there are a lot of beautiful stories in Bangladesh that needs to be told in a cinematic way, only then will people watch. This movie I’m making is titled No Dorai, which in Chittagonian language means, ‘I’m not afraid.’ In English, it’s called Dare To Surf. It’s about this girl who dared to surf and the struggles she faced for her passion. it’s based on a true story. The first female surfer in Bangladesh, Nasima, inspired me to make this film. Her story inspired me. I saw how she struggled for her passion; she was forced to get married at age 15, she broke away from her marriage, religious bigotry, etc.
It’s not her biopic, rather a story of all the surfer girls and the struggles they face. I think stories like this should be told.
We have a ban on Hindi movies being shown in cinemas, would you wish that you could show them?
Of course, we cannot draw the crowd back. The golden days are over. Now we have to think differently. You cannot protect an industry like this; like a protected species, once you confine them, they die.
MOST OF THE ROOMS OF OUR HOTEL ARE FACING THE BEACH; THE ENTIRE INFINITY POOL MAKES YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’RE ON THE BEACH. SO YOU WON’T HAVE TO GO TO THE BEACH TO EXPERIENCE IT. THAT IS WHAT OUR HOTEL PROVIDES TO ITS CUSTOMERS.
Have you ever been involved in the policy level, to try and change that?
When we started, we had a punitive tax of 35 % entertainment tax in Bangladesh, a lot for an industry that’s dying.
I lobbied a lot, made the finance minister and others understand, and now it’s at a level where we are happy to give the government their share. Now they have reduced it to 10%. With the previous tax, I lost money for two years. Later, when they withdrew it, I was able to pay off my bank. At the policy level, more has to be done.
You’ve studied in the US, you were there for 12 years, then came back to Bangladesh and started working here, leaving many opportunities behind. Do you feel like that was a big sacrifice, or are you happy with the decision?
I saw a career in IT. I was not fond of the US lifestyle. In the US, I could serve myself; here, I could probably help millions. That’s why I moved back.
Our honorable Prime Minister initially said that there would be dedicated spots in Cox Bazar, for tourists. How do you think that will help bring more people from abroad?
They have a plan for doing an exclusive tourist zone, which is useful in a way, depending on what kind of incentives they are offering to the tourists. They have to understand that tourists nowadays don’t go anywhere for luxurious five-star experiences. They want to meet the locals, see the culture, nature. The government should not be in the service business. They should focus on creating policies, opportunities, infrastructure, and safety; so people could go and build hotels and create the experience. It includes creating a proper sewage treatment plan for every hotel.
In addition to establishing policies, there have to be set rules, like if you have a beachfront hotel, what activities you could do in the front, how you can have more of a beach lifestyle over there. And exclusive tourism for foreign tourists is a good idea; it will also ensure some safety for them.
Foreign tourist gets harassed or followed for selfies. So for them, there could be an exclusive beach, so the locals don’t disturb them. You have to involve everybody in the integration of tourism, let the private sector be a part of it, as well as the policymaking.
What is your opinion about the human resources available for our hospitality industry?
We have a big problem with this. One of the biggest challenges is middle management training. I have two hotels, and both the managers are from Sri Lanka. We don’t have highly skilled managers and chefs from Bangladesh. The good ones are all going abroad, that’s why we have to rely on international chefs, general managers.
I’m the chairman of the Peninsula; we are now becoming a chain, opening the second one in Chittagong, near the airport. There we don’t have enough people, whatever we are bringing in, other hotel takes away some of them. We are opening up a training center, a small one, but hoping for it to become significant in the future. We are doing it on our own, but there has to be a concentrated effort by the industry and government.
You’re a very stylish person. Who is your inspiration for that?
I don’t follow anyone, but movies from the 60s inspired me. I love the 50s-60s fashion which stayed with me. I used to watch old James Bond movies. My formal clothes follow very classic styles of the 60s. I wouldn’t say that I am into trendy fashion. Nowadays, I see how Millenials are into fast-fashion and how bad that is for the environment. Being fashionable is good. If I buy a suit, I won’t spend a lot of money on it, but it should have a classy style, and I should be able to use it for a long time.