Bollywood's business connections in politics

Mar 03, 2009
*Special to asia!

Two of the biggest names in India Inc take sides in Bollywood's Battle Royale.

When two of India’s richest men are feuding, just about anything that involves the two can be turned into yet another bone of contention. When the two men are brothers, and their disagreement is about a movie about their late father financed by the younger brother, it is no longer a bone, but an invitation to open warfare.

Guru, a Hindi film, hit the cinemas on January 12, 2007. Despite denial by the director Mani Ratnam, no one doubts that it is inspired by—and closely followed—the life of the late Dhirubhai Ambani, who died of a stroke in 2002. Ambani is portrayed by Abhishek Bachchan and Ambani’s wife Kokilaben by Bachchan’s fiancée Aishwarya Rai. Other big names in the film are Mithun Chakraborty, Madhavan and Vidya Balan.

Ambani began life as a son of a poor school teacher in Gujarat and ended it 70 years later the richest man in India. His was a long, profitable and highly controversial life in which he manipulated currencies, controlled stock exchanges, bent regulations, bribed government officials and journalists, upset the establishment and garnered a three-million strong support base of loyal shareholders of his Reliance group, one time India’s largest business conglomerate. (Reliance lost its pole position after it was split in 2005 between the feuding brothers Mukesh and Anil, each now bent on getting bigger than the other.)

In the five years since the patriarch’s death, the Ambani family has used its power to quash anything in the media it considers unfavourable to Dhirubhai. An unauthorised biography of the man by Hamish McDonald titled “The Polyester Prince: The Rise of Dhirubhai”, for example, was never released in India after the family threatened a lawsuit.

Guru, on the other hand, was initially seen as “safe” as the Bachchan family was close to the Ambani family. But then news started to leak out that while Dhirubhai might get good publicity, Mukesh himself might not, as the film is financed by Anil’s Adlabs.

Moreover, while Anil is indeed close to the Bachchans—he and his wife Tina were at the engagement party of Abhishek and Aish and Abhishek is brand ambassador for Adlabs—Mukesh is actually much closer to Shah Rukh Khan. Khan, the archrival of Amitabh Bachchan, father of Abhishek and India’s most famous actor, sends his children to a school run by Mukesh’s wife Nina for India’s most privileged kids and ringing in Mukesh’s birthday at the latter’s home.

In India, business and the film industry intersect at many levels. It is not surprising that the two mega-battles—the Mukesh-Anil quarrel in the corporate world and the Bachchan-Khan quarrel in Bollywood—are now merging into one giant battle.

It was with this perspective that Mukesh requested a pre-screening viewing of Guru last November, a request denied by both the director and Anil’s Adlabs. The news, humiliating for Mukesh who is used to getting his way, quickly spread through India’s film and business circles and many laughed at the irony that it took an Ambani to stand up to an Ambani.

At it turns out, the fictional character in Guru does have two sons who are twins. This is one of the several deviations from the life of Dhirubhai. And someone close to Mukesh said the tycoon saw himself being cast in a negative light as the more unsavoury twin. India is holding its breath to see when and how he will strike back at his brother.


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lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


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