Fallen Star

How Peter Mukerjea crashed out of the television industry

After a successful stint as the CEO of Star TV India, Peter Mukerjea, along with his wife, Indrani, launched the ill-fated channel NewsX. The couple are currently in jail, awaiting trial for the murder of Indrani’s daughter, Sheena Bora. INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVE
01 December, 2016

ON 24 APRIL 2012, MXMINDIA, a Mumbai-based website that publishes news, research and analysis on the Indian media, carried an opinion piece by Peter Mukerjea, the former CEO of Star TV India. Peter began on a light note, talking about former colleagues and friends in Mumbai who had, the previous week, attended Goafest, which describes itself as a “premier advertising, media and marketing festival.” The industry professionals would be “back at their desks catching up with the backlog of work and the start of a new week,” Peter wrote, some of them still “nursing hangovers” and some “recovering from other forms of stimulation, no doubt.”

Peter then addressed the main subject of his column: the Leveson inquiry into the practices of the British press, including of News International, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which had been mired in a scandal after its reporters hacked phones in pursuit of scoops. Murdoch, one of the world’s most powerful media moguls, was Peter’s former boss from his days with Star. The ongoing portion of the inquiry, Peter wrote, would give media houses around the world “the chart and TRP-topping opportunity of seeing several media owners take the stand this week” at the court where the hearings were being held.

Peter seemed excited by the attention that the inquiry would generate in international media. The appearance before the inquiry of Murdoch, along with his son James; the Barclay brothers, who own the Daily Telegraph; and Evgeny Lebedev, the owner of the Evening Standard, would be, in his words, “enjoyable viewing for a lot of us, particularly those who have worked at close quarters with these people. A family affair once again.”

The inquiry, he wrote, raised issues of “email hacking and phone hacking” committed by journalists, “sometimes ‘in the public interest’ and sometimes in the interest of gaining an advantage over competitors. There’s the relationship between politicians and the media and also the relationship between the police and the media. All of these issues are not uncommon in our own ‘desi’ world today.” Peter suggested that “all news channels, media companies, law firms that have or would like to have media clients,” as well as law schools and regulatory bodies “make this essential viewing for all their staff who are engaged in similar matters so that they can all have a more evolved sense of how to deal with these often complex issues of media ownership, media management, media ethics and governance.”

Sheena Bora was murdered in 2012, but her body was identified only in 2015. According to the CBI, Peter and Indrani may have used an account in Sheena’s name to park funds they had siphoned off from INX Media. INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVE

The same day that the column was published on the website, Sheena Bora, 24-year-old a human-resources executive in Mumbai, breathed her last after being drugged and strangled inside a hired car late in the evening in a Bandra bylane, unnoticed by the city’s teeming crowds. At the time she was killed, Sheena was known to most people as the younger sister of Peter’s wife, Indrani Mukerjea. It later emerged that she was, in fact, Indrani’s daughter from an earlier marriage.

Sheena’s burnt body was discovered around a month later, on 23 May 2012, in a forested patch in the village of Gagode Khind, on Pen-Khopoli road, around 90 kilometres from Mumbai, in the neighbouring Raigad district’s Pen taluka. The Pen police dispatched a few bone and hair samples to JJ Hospital in Mumbai, presumably to test for DNA and other forensic evidence, and then buried the body the same day, enlisting the help of locals to dig a three-foot-deep hole at the same spot where it was found. It would be more than three years before the body was identified.

On 25 August 2015, Mumbai police arrested Indrani for the murder; soon after, they arrested her ex-husband, Sanjeev Khanna. Investigators returned to the village to exhume the body, followed by a fleet of vehicles carrying media crews. Over the next few weeks, the story dominated the news, as breathless television anchors fed viewers with details as they emerged—about Indrani’s true relationship with Sheena, conspiracy theories, possible motives for the murder. Peter maintained that he had no knowledge of the crime, or, astonishingly, even of the fact that Sheena was technically his stepdaughter. But on 19 November 2015, the Central Bureau of Investigation, which had taken over the case, arrested him and booked him for murder, along with other criminal charges.

It was the fall of one of Mumbai’s most powerful media professionals. In the 1990s, as the Indian television market expanded rapidly, no executive’s career was more immediately associated with it than Peter’s. After starting out in the television industry in 1993 as the sales director of Star TV India, he rose quickly to become its CEO in 1999. Under his leadership, over the next few years, Star grew in viewership and revenue, leading the market between 2000 and 2006 with a mix of shows that helped define television programming in India.

In 2007, Peter departed from Star and launched his own broadcasting company, INX Media, along with Indrani, whom he had married in 2002. The Murdochs had maintained a firm hold on Star, but INX would be entirely under the couple’s control. The Mukerjeas intended that the venture would compete with giants such as Zee and Sony, which dominated the Indian market, but it soon ran into trouble as budgetary and managerial problems ballooned out of control. By 2011, the Mukerjeas had sold their stake in the company.

Since then, they had been off the media radar and the Mumbai social circuit, shifting to Bristol, in the United Kingdom, to lead a semi-retired life. (Peter, who was born in London, continues to hold a British passport.) According to media reports, the couple also bought a second home in the Spanish resort town of Marbella. Around the time Sheena was murdered, they had returned after several years to Mumbai, where they retained a posh duplex in Worli, which overlooked the Arabian sea. They picked up where they had left off, making regular appearances at social events and private clubs.

Several months after Peter’s arrest, I phoned Pradyuman Maheshwari, the founder-editor and CEO of MxMIndia, who said he was surprised by this “very strange coincidence” of Peter’s opinion piece appearing on the same day Sheena had gone missing—and, as was revealed three years later, been brutally murdered.

Maheshwari, like many in Mumbai’s media and advertising world, had known and admired Peter. “He was successful, suave and loved the high life,” he said. “If he had to holiday, he would not think of Lonavala or Khandala, but London or Paris,” he said. His column on the website, “Media Mullings,” had begun as a regular feature, Maheshwari said, but since Peter preferred to write only when he came across a subject he found interesting, it had become an occasional affair.

Maheshwari told me that after Peter’s arrest, he had searched for the email that had accompanied his column, but couldn’t find it in his inbox. Though he racked his memory, he couldn’t remember whether it had been Peter’s idea to give the piece the headline under which it was published: “A Real Live Whodunnit?”

I attempted to contact Peter over the two months of reporting this story, but wasn’t able to arrange a meeting in Arthur Road Jail, where he is lodged, awaiting trial. His younger brother, Gautam, who lives in Goa, told me over the phone, “If Peter gets out on bail, you may get your interview. He is not the one to run away from scrutiny.” From my interactions with his family, I gathered that they believed he was going through a painful, difficult patch, but that he was looking forward to emerging from it and resuming the kind of life he once enjoyed.

THE HEIGHT TO WHICH PETER ASCENDED in the television world is evident from a 2005 profile of him in India Today magazine, which for three years, from 2004 to 2006, named him one of the country’s “50 Power People.” Peter belonged on the list, the magazine said in 2005, “Because he runs India’s most successful TV network, an 11-channel bouquet which clocked revenues of Rs 1,700 crore last year, and to which he has added two new channels.” Referring to Star TV’s earlier tie-up with the production house NDTV (which had launched its own channel in 2003) to launch Star News, the magazine lauded the fact that “despite hiccups he was able to find an Indian partner for his 24-hour news channel and keep it on air.” The write-up also praised Peter’s philanthropic instincts, saying that “he has emerged as a concerned corporate citizen, with Star TV pledging Rs 21 crore over three years for AIDS and Rs 4.5 crore for tsunami relief.”

The eldest of three children, Peter—whose birth name is Pratim—completed his schooling at the Doon School in Dehradun, and his higher education in the United Kingdom, before getting a marketing job with the food processing giant Heinz in the United Kingdom. This was followed by stints in advertising, in London and Delhi with the advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather, and then with DDB Needham in Hong Kong, where he worked as an account manager. Among the latter’s clients was Star TV—what was later the parent company of Star TV India—then run by the Hong Kong billionaire business magnate Li Ka-Shing.

The links that Peter forged with Star held him in good stead. In 1993, when Rupert Murdoch bought a majority stake in the company, he hired Peter as the company’s sales director for India. Peter began his stint with Star in Hong Kong and then moved to Mumbai to help steer the channel as the cable television market boomed after India’s economy was liberalised. People who knew Peter at the time told me that though he had no great vision for the company, he was obsessed with doing whatever was necessary to beat his competition.

In those early years, Star’s ability to expand was restricted by a deal that Murdoch had signed with Zee TV’s Subhash Chandra, whereby it had use of the AsiaSat transponder, owned by Li Ka-Shing, and leased by Chandra’s company Asia Today, in which Murdoch also had a stake. By the terms of the deal, Star could not create any local language programming, since it could potentially compete with Zee. Thus, Star’s offering was restricted to three English channels: Star Plus, Prime Sports and MTV.

Peter rose to the top of Star after Murdoch’s deal with Chandra ruptured, in 1999, following which the flagship Star Plus was converted to a 24-hour Hindi channel, which initially re-telecast programmes from Doordarshan’s library. At this time, Murdoch picked Peter as Star TV India’s CEO, to replace the veteran Rathikant Basu.

Peter’s first major move as CEO was aimed at disrupting the trend in programming: while the norm was for channels to produce and promote fiction serials, he decided to present Indian audiences with a version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?—a game show that was popular across the world, but that most Indian viewers had never heard of. The idea had come from a Star executive in Hong Kong, while the programming head Sameer Nair had recommended roping in the superstar Amitabh Bachchan as host. Rupert Murdoch had backed the idea, suggesting the generous R1-crore figure as the prize money. “When I took over as the CEO around 2000,” Peter told Business Today in August 2012, “we realised that we needed to change the rules of the game. We needed to be up there with Zee. We were driven by the belief that if Zee could do it, we could too. We only needed to think it through, make the right investments and get the right programming.”

But he admitted that it was a huge risk. “To achieve all this we had to take a major decision: to pull out our cash cow, the 9 pm English news produced by NDTV, and replace it with KBC,” he wrote. The channel pumped crores into the launch of the show, called Kaun Banega Crorepati, a considerable chunk of which went to Bachchan. The appeal of a slick prime-time game show hosted by the actor proved irresistible, and KBC, as it came to be known, rocketed to the top of the ratings. “It was a big gamble and it paid off well,” Peter wrote later.

At a time when television programming was dominated by serials, Star, under Peter Mukerjea, launched the game show Kaun Banega Crorepati. The show was an instant hit, and propelled Star to the top of the ratings charts. VIJAYANANAD GUPTA/GT PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

Other programmes that the channel launched under Peter’s stewardship, too, proved successful—among them the soaps Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii, and Des Mein Niklla Hoga Chand. According to a 2015 story in The Telegraph, at one point under Peter’s leadership, the television rating points, or TRPs, “showed that 33 of the top 50 programmes came from the Star stable.” In a December 2015 piece, the veteran journalist Anuradha Raman of The Hindu, who covers the media, criticised these shows as “extremely regressive” and said they displayed an “excessive obsession with mothers-in-law, daughters-in-law, and convoluted story lines.” But their popularity was undeniable. “Peter and success walked together, as his fellowmen at Star gushed about his near-magical powers of turning everything into commercial success,” Raman wrote. In a June 2003 cover story for Business World, the journalist and media analyst Vanita Kohli-Khandekar wrote that with revenues of “an estimated Rs  1,200-crore (2002-03), Star India has emerged as the country’s second largest media house.”

Anant Rangaswami, the editor of the advertising, media and marketing show Storyboard, on CNBC-TV18, worked for several years under Peter, starting out in 1993 as an assistant manager for Star in Chennai. Rangaswami argued that Peter’s work extended beyond the network’s biggest hits. “It was something more complex, much deeper work than the success of KBC or saas-bahu serials,” he told me over the phone in late October. Alongside those shows, he explained, Peter was also expanding the range of Indian television programming. “In those days, there was no concept of channels for niche audiences,” he said. “There was Doordarshan and Zee, which were producing programmes for the masses, which wasn’t a great gamble. It was Peter who first thought of catering to the tastes of an English audience, offering them foreign sports like football and WWF etc., which was unconventional. It was a big gamble he took then.”

As he attained success, Peter built a formidable reputation as a leader. “The ability to spot talent and make them into sound managers and entrepreneurs was a hallmark of the man,” Rangaswami told me, emphasising that Peter had assembled a team that included several people who had no previous television experience. “Peter had such class and elan that he created a new category of professionals,” Rangaswami continued. He fostered a new kind of camaraderie in the industry’s work culture, he added, “where a 30-year-old salesperson is taking out the 50-year-old sales manager for a drink. Or a team gathering for a breakfast meeting at a five-star hotel in Mumbai. That was unheard of in India then.” His success and confidence gave him “this great professional stature,” Rangaswami said. “And when it rubbed off on you, it gave you stature.” In a 2007 interview with Business Standard, Raj Nayak, a former Star executive, praised Peter’s ability to “create and harness a good management team. He delegates authority and often repeats a phrase he coined: ‘Why keep a dog and bark yourself?’”

Indeed, it is widely acknowledged in the media industry that several of the professionals Peter hired and groomed went on to shape the industry. In a September 2015 Business Standard column, Kohli-Khandekar elaborated on this aspect of Peter’s career, describing him as “one of the best chief executive officers” of the Indian media industry. “Not just because Star India turned around under him to become the jewel in parent News Corporation’s (now 21st Century Fox) global crown,” she wrote, “but also because he was a good leader. Almost every person on his senior team has gone on to head some media firm or the other.” Among those Kohli-Khandekar listed were Raj Nayak, Ajay Vidyasagar, Jagdish Kumar, Sameer Nair, Tarun Katial and Tony D’Silva, who have played key roles in companies such as Viacom18, Sun TV and Balaji Telefilms, among others. As she put it, Peter “had the reputation for hiring good people and then letting them be.” He was well known to credit his success at Star to the talents of the team he assembled, rather than his own skill.

Peter was also something of a prankster. Business Standard quoted a senior Star executive recalling, “You could not leave your mobile phone unattended in his vicinity. He would send nasty messages to people in your mobile directory. He’s got people into trouble because of this habit.”

Such behaviour was of a piece with his generally playful personality. Kohli-Khandekar told me of an instance when she was travelling to the Star office in Andheri (East) in the company executive Yash Khanna’s car. “Yash was the corporate communication head for Star then and used to live very close to my house in Versova,” she said. “Since I had a series of interviews there, he offered me a ride on his way into office.” When they were on the road, Khanna received a call from Peter. “Nice car,” his boss said, at which Khanna laughed, realising that Peter was behind him in his own car, a Toyota Land Cruiser. (Rangaswami confirmed a habit of Peter’s that I’d read about, wherein he would often drive himself to work, and ask his driver to sit in the back seat and read newspaper headlines aloud to him.)

Anuradha Raman remembered that Peter gained great goodwill during this period. She recounted watching the “making of a myth, at a time when ‘Peter is a genius and a wonderful boss’ was a constant hum even at Shastri Bhavan”—the building in Delhi that houses the information and broadcasting ministry.

Government access was important at a time when media regulations were still evolving—those that did exist were often half-formed and confusing. A particularly contentious issue was the arrangement between broadcast companies and the thousands of cable operators who actually delivered programming to viewers and collected subscription revenue. India was the third-largest television market, after the United States and China, and media corporations were keen to gain greater control over this system. “We were privy to the happenings in the two camps,” Raman wrote. To ministry officials, “Peter Mukerjea, with his clipped Brit accent, appeared a better bet” than cable operators. High-ranking bureaucrats were comfortable interacting with him. Raman recounted, “One of them even remarked, ‘I trust Peter. At the very least, I can have a decent conversation with him over drinks. Those cable operators…’”

Peter was on friendly terms with ministers, too. A Mumbai-based agency journalist told me of an occasion when the then union minister for information and broadcasting, Sushma Swaraj, travelled to Mumbai to meet Bollywood representatives. Peter was present at the meeting, which included stalwarts such as Subhash Ghai, Yash Chopra, Amit Khanna and Mukesh Bhatt. When Swaraj spoke, the journalist said, she addressed him as Pratim, saying “the world knows you as Peter Mukerjea, but I’ve known you for years, and hence will call you Pratim.’”

But despite Peter’s clout, fortunes in broadcasting proved to be fickle. When Star entered the fray, in 1991, Zee led in ratings and revenues. By January 2000, Zee had been overtaken by Sony, but the same year, Star took the lead after the launch of Kaun Banega Crorepati. By 2006, however, Star ceded its position to Zee, which launched a clutch of new serials, as well as a singing talent show for children.

Peter’s place at the helm of Star began to look insecure when, in March 2006, Star India was split into two groups—Star Group and Star Entertainment—and Sameer Nair, until then the COO of Star India, was promoted to CEO of Star Entertainment. Vanita Kohli-Khandekar wrote in May 2006 that Nair’s “programming acumen (Star’s biggest strength) had worked against Mukerjea, still seen by some as the ad sales guy who made it big.” Nair, she wrote, was “responsible to a great extent for what Star is today.”

In January 2007, Peter quit Star. (Nair also left soon after.) Since he had a love of motorcycles, as a farewell gift, his colleagues bought him a Royal Enfield—they knew he had crashed his own a few years earlier. “I also got a set of golf clubs,” Peter told Business Standard. He added that he was moved by the number of people that came to bid him farewell, at a Marriott five-star hotel in Mumbai. “It was an emotional moment,” he said. “After all I was part of News Corp’s Star TV for 14 years.”

Peter did not immediately announce any plans after his departure from Star. In February 2007, when the website Rediff asked him what his next step would be, he said, “I can assure I won’t be very far. I’m in the country and I’ve no desire to go and work anywhere else in the world at the moment.”

THOUGH SOME OF PETER’S former colleagues and juniors agreed to speak to me about him, many declined. “I had known him many years ago. I can’t tell you much,” one executive said. “Shoot me an email about the kind of story you’re working on,” another media honcho said. “Will decide and let you know”—he didn’t respond to any further communication. “I’m too busy, won’t have time for this kind of story,” another said. Yet another said, “If you want to, mail me your queries but don’t know when I will respond”—he never did. One executive asked me not to even mention the fact that I had called him and that he had declined to speak. “Please, nothing in my name,” he said.

Most of those who did respond asked not to be quoted, and specifically refused to take queries on Peter’s career after Star, when he set up INX Media, which ran the channel NewsX. “That phase of their lives, I just won’t know. We’d moved apart by then,” one said, a response that others echoed. Referring to the INX phase of Peter’s career, one former colleague of Peter’s said, “Everyone has some inconvenient spot in their yard. It was no different with Peter and Indrani Mukerjea.”

Peter had met Indrani in 2001, after his first marriage ended. While he had lived in big cities all his life, Indrani, who came from a middle-class family in Guwahati, had spent several years in the north-east, studying in both Guwahati and Shillong.

A day after Indrani’s arrest in August 2015, the former advertising executive Suhel Seth wrote a column in The Telegraph in which he recounted the couple’s first meeting in Mumbai. “I have known Peter Mukerjea for almost 15 years now,” Seth wrote. “In fact, it was on one rather wet evening that I had invited Peter, Sumantra Dutta (a STAR executive) and the late Murli Deora to The Library Bar then at The President and as we were sitting around having our drinks, in walked this rather beautiful woman Indrani, escorted to the bar by Alyque Padamsee.” Peter, Seth recounted, was smitten, and left with Indrani that evening. Around three months later, he called Seth to tell him that they were getting married. For the next several years, the couple was a fixture on the city’s social circuit, with newspapers regularly posting pictures of their appearances, along with tidbits from their personal lives.

Employees of NewsX complained that Indrani Mukerjea, who had no experience in the television industry, mismanaged the channel. In 2009, she sold the company and shifted to the United Kingdom along with Peter. KEDAR BHAT/MINT/GETTY IMAGES

INX, which the Mukerjeas launched in 2007, was to be an ambitious venture. The couple had invested some of their own money, and also drawn investors such as Kotak Mahindra Capital and SREI. They had also applied for approval from the Foreign Investment Promotion Board, to take funding from international investors, such as Temasek, New Silk Route and New Vernon Private Equity Fund. In all, the Mukerjeas raised close to Rs 750 crore. They began with the launch, in 2007, of the music channel 9XM and the entertainment channel 9X, and prepared for the launch of NewsX, scheduled for early the following year. Headed by the journalist Vir Sanghvi, NewsX was to compete with the leaders in the English news broadcast sector. Its marketing materials promised viewers “intelligent, well-researched, analytical, un-biased and insightful news.” The channel was also touted as “India’s premier HDTV-ready English news channel”—alluding to high-definition technology that was nascent at the time, and is now common.

Unfortunately for the Mukerjeas, their new empire began to crumble even before it was built—and the cracks first began to show in the high-profile NewsX newsroom. People who know Peter told me that he put the turbulence in the company down to the financial crisis of 2008. But senior executives I spoke to said that the company suffered because the Mukerjeas mismanaged it.

The journalist Avirook Sen, who was hired as executive editor of NewsX, told me over the phone in November that he was the company’s “second employee after Vir Sanghvi.” About his first meeting with the Mukerjeas, in Mumbai, he said, “There was nothing much that they asked.” It was more of “chit chat, not a formal interview,” he added. But once he joined, he realised that “neither Peter nor Indrani had any clue about news, though I had expected Peter would have an overarching idea, having spent so many years in television.”

Another senior executive recounted that Indrani dominated the show to deleterious effect. “She was like the raging bull in a China shop,” he said. “She was ruthless and unscrupulous, especially while dealing with staff. Employees, who were professionals in their chosen fields, whether it was journalism, marketing or distribution, did not appreciate what they saw as her heavy-handed managerial style. “Of course, we were given a free hand by Peter,” he said. “There was no interference on his part. But Indrani, who had absolutely no professional or technical expertise to run such a big ship, insisted on having her say. I mean, it was outrageous and bizarre the way the place was run.”

These clashes extended to the senior management, with even Sanghvi drawn in. According to a former colleague of Peter’s, when the launch of NewsX was delayed, and investors expressed their unhappiness, Indrani and her loyalists laid the blame at Sanghvi’s door.

Clashes between the Mukerjeas and the professionals they hired to run NewsX extended to the channel’s highest ranks. Vir Sanghvi, who had been hired to head the channel, put in his papers in January 2008, even before the channel had launched. GIREESH GV/OUTLOOK

In a gossipy account of the troubles at the channel, published in Open magazine in October 2010, Sen recounted that news about friction between Sanghvi and the Mukerjeas spread through the company, and even externally. In mid January 2008, he wrote, a public-relations company engaged by the Mukerjeas emailed employees news clippings of the supposed fallout. Sen wrote that Nick Pollard, a veteran British broadcaster who was with the channel, was “a little baffled, asked me why a company that was trying to stop the spread of ‘rumours’ would circulate them internally. I said I didn’t know.”

The bad press worried the channel’s investors. “A concerned investor asked Peter to sort the matter out ‘INTERNALLY!’ (in an otherwise all lower-case email),” Sen wrote. But despite attempts to patch things up, towards the end of January, just nine months after he had come on board, and before the channel had launched, Sanghvi quit the company. According to Sen’s account, a period of chaos followed, as the company then attempted to force out several journalists who were seen as being loyal to Sanghvi. Among them was Sen, who wrote in Open that he was intimidated and asked to sign a resignation letter. When he refused, he was fired on the pretext that he had been surfing pornography on an office laptop. Sen contested his dismissal with legal notices, and was eventually awarded a settlement by the company.

But even as the situation unravelled, Sen noted that the Mukerjeas were careful to ensure that it was always subordinates who carried out their unpleasant work. “They were always legally well-advised,” he told me. “It was clever of them to distance themselves from whatever happened in office.” Thus, they sought to create an impression that the conflicts “had nothing to do with them. Some rogue staff had done it,” Sen said. In fact, he added, to outsiders, it might even have appeared as if “Peter was trying to settle the whole thing. He had even apologised in writing. But it was I who was picking a fight.”

The Mukerjeas’ aggressive approach surprised Sen. “They could have told me in a civil manner that things are not going to work here for you, and I would have been the first person to say thank you, and handed over my resignation,” he said. The course of events that followed “showed the level of deviousness of it all.” And though he managed to resist the intimidation, he added, the couple’s strong-arm tactics were not unusual for the industry. “Peter and Indrani understood this well—that these people can be treated in a roughshod manner,” Sen said. “So they simply proceeded to sack several people in a similar fashion.”

The Mukerjeas went on to launch the channel in March 2008. But after several months of struggling unsuccessfully to steady the company’s management and finances, they sold it in 2009. An article that Peter published on the website Campaign India in April 2009, after selling NewsX, revealed the extent of the friction between the Mukerjeas and their investors. In it, he lashed out against the entities who had put money into INX and had pressured the Mukerjeas to show returns. “They believe that the TV media business is like any other manufacturing business or a service where you buy at x and sell at y,” he wrote. But, he added, “Sadly, it doesn’t work like that in a broadcast business as there are several other factors that govern the result.” Television required heavy investment up front in the face of uncertainty, and patience for results, he wrote. “It took STAR almost 330 programs before they hit on KBC and then they built a business around that show!” Many investors, “on the other hand, not only have limited understanding but also a myopic view. They lack two critical ingredients—patience and patience. They don’t care what business it is—it’s about short term gains and a pre-determined exit strategy.”

The letter provided a glimpse into just how unpleasant the relationship between the investors and the Mukerjeas had grown. “The guys who work in these outfits are slick dicks and never seem to have enough time as very often they’ve over stretched themselves: rushing from one meeting to another and even when attending the board meeting of one, they’re on their Blackberries working on another. Clearly an undisciplined lot,” he wrote. He went on to compare them with “a pair of nun’s knickers—very thick, despite being MBAs from the IIMs.” They entered the television business because they “just love the sex appeal of being invested in TV. Bit like kids who join the TV business thinking they’ll get to hang out with cute VJs and the glam babes,” he added. But, in his view, “They simply don’t have what it takes.”

THE MUKERJEAS’ TROUBLES AT INX were not limited to questions of poor management. In a resignation letter leaked online, and published on the media-journalism website The Hoot in February 2008, the senior journalist Nagendra Nag wrote, “Not only do I question Mrs Indrani Mukerjea’s credentials to run a channel, I am also perturbed by questions about the source of her funds. She has told the press that she owns over 60 per cent of NewsX. Is this her own money, or is she fronting for somebody? I believe an investigation is called for.”

In an internal mail to the staff after Sen’s departure, published by The Hoot, Peter brushed aside issues related to funding and attempted to explain away the conflicts with senior journalists as human-resource-related matters that would be resolved in due course. “We had to part ways with 4-5 people who are seriously disgruntled,” he wrote. Referring to a meeting senior staff members had held with the then information and broadcasting minister, Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi to raise concerns about the channel’s finances, he said, “Maybe we need to go meet him as well. If we need to open out books to the finance ministry then we will.”

The company’s finances did come under intense scrutiny in the months that followed—both from a central government probe, as well as an internal probe by Temasek, one of the company’s major investors. While no news emerged about the former, the latter, as reported by the media, unearthed several instances in which the Mukerjeas had allegedly misallocated or siphoned off funds meant for the company. Based on its findings, Temasek threatened to prosecute the Mukerjeas. Under this intense pressure, the couple sold NewsX in January 2009 to Indi Media, an entity promoted and owned by Vinay Chhajlani, the owner of the Indore-based Hindi daily Nai Dunia, and Jehangir Pocha, the former editor of Business World. Over the next two months, the Mukerjeas also stepped down from their broader roles at INX Media.

Though with the sale the Mukerjeas may have sought to distance themselves from their company’s ostensibly murky finances, in November 2013, it emerged that the sale itself had come under scrutiny by law-enforcement authorities—specifically the Serious Fraud Investigation Office, an agency that works under the ministry of corporate affairs. As part of a larger probe, led by the income tax department, into criminal acts revealed in the tapped telephone conversations of the corporate lobbyist Niira Radia, the SFIO prepared a 35-page draft report detailing alleged irregularities in the sale.

The SFIO draft report, submitted to the ministry of corporate affairs in 2014, said Indrani Mukerjea and other directors were “liable to be prosecuted under Section 120B (conspiracy). All these individuals conspired in the game plan of causing wrongful loss and in accomplishing the dishonest intention of cheating the companies M/s INX Media Pvt Ltd and IM Media Pvt Ltd.”

News of the draft report was broken in November 2013 by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, now the editor of the Economic and Political Weekly. Around the same time, the lawyer Prashant Bhushan also submitted it to the Supreme Court, along with a two-page letter urging the court to order a new investigation into the allegations made in the report. “At the time the articles were published, there was apparently not much interest in what I had written,” Thakurta wrote on The Hoot in September 2015.

In an interview in October, the Maharashtra chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis, suggested that the senior police officer Rakesh Maria had taken an undue interest in the Sheena Bora murder investigation. PRADEEP KOCHREKAR/INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVE

But the frenzy of media attention on the Sheena murder revived interest in the report—particularly after the Central Bureau of Investigation, which was investigating the case, quoted it in a December 2015 remand application before a CBI special court, seeking further custody of Peter, who had been arrested the previous month. The CBI told the court that Peter and Indrani had siphoned off Rs 900 crore from the sale of shares of INX companies.

The SFIO report also cited earlier transactions as suspicious. For instance, on 15 March 2007, shares of INX News, which owned and operated NewsX, were bought by two entities, IM Media and INX Media, for two different prices—the former at Rs 208.23 and the latter at Rs 100.07. According to the SFIO report, this caused a wrongful loss of Rs 43.81 crore to INX Media.

The 2009 NewsX deal involved the sale of INX News shares to Indi Media, which was funded by Reliance. INX News itself was owned by multiple entities, including IM Media and INX Media—around 95 percent of the ownership was directly traceable to Indrani. But as the SFIO report noted, while IM Media had purchased INX News shares between March 2007 and January 2009 at around Rs 208 per share, the shares were sold to Indi Media in January 2009 at Rs 10 per share. “There is no reason to show a sudden decline in the share price by a difference of Rs 198.24,” the SFIO report said while stating that this deal had caused a wrongful loss of Rs 124.69 crore to INX Media.

The SFIO report noted that in the deal, the “strategy adopted was to enter into sham transactions and book losses.” It added: “The maze of companies and the web of fund movement was created to hide the identity of the group (Reliance) and to induce losses to INX Media and IM Media and gains to Indi Media as per a premeditated plan.”

In its remand application before the Mumbai court, the CBI, through the then additional solicitor general Anil Singh, said that it suspected the Mukerjeas had been using Sheena’s name to park illicit wealth. “The couple had floated nine companies and there are layers of financial transactions,” Singh told the court. “The nine companies were used to siphon off huge amount of monies and this might have been parked in Sheena’s account in a Singapore bank.” The agency said these financial transactions, about which it received information from the income tax department and the SFIO, could offer a clue to the motive behind the murder.

Peter’s lawyer, Mihir Gheewala, dismissed these theories when I met him at his office in Mumbai in September this year. “The CBI’s theories have fallen apart one after the other,” he said. “Peter was supposed to have made tons of money in the INX deal. Some 900 crore of rupees. Nothing came of it. Sheena’s account in Singapore too seems to have vanished.”

THE MARLOW BUILDING IN WORLI, south Mumbai, is a tasteful old construction, whose flats open out into quaint circular balconies, many of which face the sea. It was here that the Mukerjeas lived in the past few years, after their return from the United Kingdom. Apart from their main residence, on the fourth floor, they also own another apartment, on the fifth, which I visited one afternoon in mid October. It was a sparsely furnished flat, its walls decorated with mementos and memorabilia, including a cricket bat signed by Sachin Tendulkar.

According to a police officer I spoke to at Khar police station—which was assigned the Sheena murder investigation before the CBI—it was to Marlow that the Mukerjeas’ driver, Shyamvar Rai, drove Indrani and her co-accused, Sanjeev Khanna, a Kolkata-based businessman, on the evening of 24 April 2012, after they drugged and murdered Sheena. Rai, the officer said, spent the night sleeping in the car, with the body stuffed in a suitcase hidden in the boot. Early the next morning, he drove Indrani and Sanjeev to Pen, and helped them dispose of the body. The officer said Rai confessed to his role after police picked him up, in August 2015, for possessing an illegal firearm. Indrani and Khanna were arrested on the basis of Rai’s statement. All three were named as accused in the case.

The CBI arrested Peter on 19 November, a day before his sixtieth birthday. But more than a year later, his alleged role in the crime continues to be shrouded in some confusion. “Peter, a British citizen, chose to stay back in Mumbai and cooperate with police,” his lawyer Gheewala told me when we met at his Fort office on 14 September this year. “There were no allegations, no motive prescribed to him at that point of time. No one thought he would be arrested, least of all those who had known him professionally or personally for years.” A bulky blue folder labelled “Peter Mukerjea,” presumably containing the charge sheets and other legal documents accumulated since his arrest lay on his desk.

“Peter was initially charged with shielding the prime accused”—Indrani—“and for inconsistencies in his statements after his arrest by the CBI,” Gheewala said. But by the time the supplementary charge sheet, in which Peter’s name was mentioned, was filed, on 16 February, he faced a slew of far more serious accusations. In it, the CBI charged him with murder, as well as abduction and giving false information about an offence, among other crimes. The charge sheet contained details of calls made between Peter and Indrani after Sheena’s body was disposed, as well as a text message exchanged between the two. But Gheewala disputed the agency’s accusations. “The CBI claims that he was in touch with his wife and hence knew of the plot to murder Sheena,” Gheewala said. “But there was no contact over phone between Peter and Indrani until late in the night that day, that is 24 April 2012.”

Despite investigators’ confidence about Peter’s involvement in the crime, those who were following the case were puzzled by remarks made by Maharashtra’s chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis, late in October. “I was always briefed that the involvement of Peter directly in the case is not seen,” he told Times Now in an interview that aired on 29 October. “This was briefed to me for a long time until I decided to give the case to the CBI. It is strange why Peter’s role was not established at that time.”

Rahul, Peter’s son, recorded several conversations he had with Peter and Indrani after Sheena’s disappearance. According to the CBI, these recordings form an “integral part of the evidence.” AMIT HARALKAR/OUTLOOK

Some uncertainty centred around the role in the investigation of Rakesh Maria, who was the police commissioner of Mumbai when he took up the assignment. In fact, according to the Khar police officer, the tip-off that kick-started the investigation had reportedly come to Maria, after which he chose his three most trusted officers—assistant commissioner of police Sanjay Kadam and inspectors Dinesh Kadam and Nitin Alaknoore—to investigate the murder. Maria reportedly visited the Khar police station on four occasions to hold discussions with the probe team, as well as lawyers involved in the case. He had also quizzed Peter for nearly six hours on one occasion.

On 8 September 2015, Maria was transferred to the position of director-general of police of the state’s home guards—this was technically a promotion, but it removed him from charge of perhaps the highest-profile criminal case in the country at the time. The transfer order was issued a day after Maria had summoned a team of forensic auditors, chartered accountants and officers of the Economic Offences Wing, and instructed them to probe the Mukerjeas’ investments. He had called this meeting hours after forensic tests confirmed that the skeletal remains exhumed at Gagode Khind were Sheena’s, and that she was Indrani’s biological child. “By bringing in EOW sleuths to investigate the complex financial dealings, which were possibly linked to the crime, Maria was broadening the scope of the murder case,” The Week magazine said in a cover story on 20 September 2015, adding that the investigating team “had been asked to focus on various companies, investments and properties not just in India, but also in the UK, Spain and other parts of the world.”

In his October interview, Fadnavis defended the decision to move Maria. “He was to be promoted at that time,” he said. “We could have waited for three weeks. We promoted him early. But that is not unusual.” But Fadnavis also appeared to cast some doubt on the Maria’s conduct. “At that time, questions were raised as to why he is taking keen interest in the investigation,” Fadnavis said. “Questions were raised since a commissioner does not take that much interest. That controversy was there around him.”

Maria’s transfer puzzled journalists, since the line of investigation that the CBI pursued later followed the same direction—one that pointed to Peter’s involvement in the crime. “If he wanted to protect Peter, he wouldn’t have asked his officers to get details of his investments in the UK, Spain, and the US,” an officer close to Maria told me.

Even as investigators deepened their account of Peter’s role in the crime, his lawyers maintained that he was innocent. According to a 1 October report in Midday, his counsel Aabad Ponda, arguing for his bail, told the Bombay High Court that Peter was “just a husband who has been fooled by his wife.”

At the heart of this alleged deception was the claim that Peter—like Indrani’s friends and acquaintances—had been led to believe that Sheena was her sister. “When the police came to arrest Indrani, he pleaded with them that there seemed to be some confusion,” Gheewala told me. Peter, he said, told Indrani he would “call Sheena on her number and settle” the matter.

Whether or not Peter knew the truth about Indrani’s relationship with Sheena, the rest of the world learnt of it only after the crime. Investigations revealed that Sheena and her younger brother, Mikhail, were born out of Indrani’s relationship with her former partner, Siddharth Das, whom she met in Shillong. In the early 1990s, both children were legally adopted by Indrani’s parents, after which she shifted to Kolkata, where she met and married Sanjeev Khanna, in 1993. They had a daughter, Vidhie, and divorced in 2001, by which time Indrani had already moved to Mumbai and met Peter.

Peter, meanwhile, had two sons, Rabin and Rahul, from a previous marriage. Around 2007, Rahul and Sheena grew romantically involved—a relationship that would prove key to the course of the investigations after her murder. “The relationship had Peter’s blessings, but Indrani was against it,” Gheewala told me. “Extremely insecure as she wanted to suppress the fact that Sheena was her biological child.” According to him, Indrani was “also apprehensive of Sheena cementing her position in the family through marriage with Rahul” and, therefore, “even tried sending her away from Mumbai, to Delhi and Bangalore.”

But the young couple remained firm in their commitment to each other. After Sheena’s disappearance, Rahul’s insistence on trying to trace her proved to be an impediment to Indrani’s alleged attempts to conceal the murder. According to a person working with the CBI on the investigation, in his statement to investigators, Rahul said that he had dropped Sheena on the day of her murder at a spot near National College, in Bandra, to meet Indrani. He said Indrani was waiting in a silver Chevrolet for Sheena when he dropped her, along with Shyamvar Rai, at the wheel. Also in the car was an unknown person who was smoking—later identified as Khanna.

In his statement, the person for the CBI told me, Rahul recalled that after her disappearance, he tried repeatedly to contact Sheena, but received no reply. “I continued messaging her,” Rahul said. “One day I received a reply saying she had found someone else. The message advised me to forget her, as she was very happy with her new lover. Another SMS informed me she would get in touch after two to three months. I really got suspicious with such messages.”

Indrani, according to multiple media reports that emerged after the murder came to light, stymied all efforts to file a missing person complaint after Sheena’s disappearance. When Rahul approached the Khar and Worli police stations, Indrani intervened and assured everyone, including the police, that Sheena had moved to the United States for further studies. As a result, no complaint was ever registered. Around a year later, when Mikhail, Sheena’s brother, grew suspicious of the story, Indrani threatened to stop his allowances and disinherit him from her will.

But Rahul grew increasingly frantic. He called Peter and Indrani repeatedly, seeking their help in tracing Sheena, and urging them to treat the matter seriously. The couple assured him that she was fine, and that he needn’t worry. Towards the end of April 2012, the Mukerjeas approached Deven Bharti, a joint commissioner of police in Mumbai, for help in locating Sheena. The senior IPS officer directed the officers under his jurisdiction to track down her mobile tower location. But, Bharti said in a statement to the CBI, neither Indrani nor Peter followed up on the matter with him.

Unknown to Peter and Indrani, Rahul recorded a number of his conversations with them, and handed them over to investigators after Sheena’s murder came to light. The recordings, which run for a total of over four hours, were broadcast by Times Now on 25 August. The channel quoted the CBI spokesperson Devpreet Singh as saying that “all the tapes aired on Times Now are being investigated by the CBI. They form an integral part of the evidence” in the case, which is currently crawling through the courts.

But though Peter’s son appeared to have turned against him, his stepdaughter came to his defence. In a statement issued the day after Rahul’s recordings were broadcast on news channels, Vidhie lashed out at the very industry that Peter had nurtured. The media, she said, was making “attempt after pathetic attempt to scandalise the case.” She was particularly caustic about Times Now and its journalists, accusing them of turning her father’s statements “into things that weren’t, leading to false accusations and false predications,” and charging them with “feeding on the vulnerability of our situation.”

Peter is currently lodged in Arthur Road Jail, awaiting trial on multiple charges, including murder. His lawyer has claimed that he is “just a husband who has been fooled by his wife.” BHUSHAN KOYANDE/HT PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

“My father has contributed immensely to the progress of the media industry in India,” she continued, “and it is ironic how they have repaid him.” The writer Sonia Faleiro also alluded to the irony in a March 2016 story she wrote for the California Sunday Magazine. “If Mukerjea played a role in defining the Indian media scene,” Faleiro wrote, “then the media returned the favour.” Gheewala, too, told me that Peter felt pained by how the industry had treated him. “He is extremely upset the way media has gone after his family, invading their private spaces in the manner it’s done,” he said.

Peter’s family responded to the intense media scrutiny by withdrawing, rather than standing by him publicly. At the end of October, when I spoke on the phone with Peter’s younger brother, Gautam, who lives in Goa, he politely declined to speak about him. “I am his brother,” he said. “I know the personal or family side of Peter, but if you ask me about his professional life or business affairs, I don’t know anything.”

As Peter awaits trial, Gheewala said that given his circumstances, he was holding himself together pretty well. “He’s not desperate or despondent,” he said. “He’s charming and very courteous during our interactions. He goes through charge sheets, and carefully peruses all legal documents, underlining, highlighting and flagging important paragraphs. He remains the CEO.”