Thursday, May 25, 2006

Hummous

In the kitchen in my head, I am always king. My dishes, when done, are ready to be photographed, but are not because the plates and saucers are dull. Oh, where are the great white plates with African borders and colourful bands on their edge? Instead, I have to make do with what we use everyday, but the disappointment lifts when the table seats are occupied, and when people forget their manners as they reach for the food. Someone has lit candles, someone else has turned on soft music. Sheer white curtains flutter before open windows. My guests chatter happily, ignoring the clinks of metal on ceramic. Every bowl seen off, their hands rest beside empty plates and on swollen stomachs. They quieten down now and settle into their chairs. Food has dulled their senses. This is how meals should be, I think contentedly. The end is the most satisfying part, when a guest's approval is not verbal but a glazed look and a silly smile.

Outside my head in the kitchen, I am always lost. "Thapa," I command, "olive oil le aao." He will hand it to me like a surgeon's assistant, and proceed to watch me as a surgeon would a nervous intern. "Kya bana rahe ho, bhaiji?" he asks with a smile. Always the same question, always the same answer. "Kuch naya try kar raha hoon." I'm trying something new. At the end of it I have him taste it, and every time, but once, he has said, "yeh to very good hai." It didn't ring true. Except that one time when he said nothing. He just had a glazed look and a silly smile. This is what I'd made:

Hummous (3 minutes)

Find yourself a tin of hummous tahina by California Garden. These are found in shops everywhere. With a spoon, empty it into a deep bowl. Next - and this is important - you need a pack of tahina (an off-white yoghurt thing that smells faintly oily). This too is found easily. Just look for the white pack with a picture of a middle-eastern cook giving you a thumbs-up. Empty about 100ml of tahina into the bowl. Toss in about 200ml of drinking water. Less than a pinch of salt. Two drops of lemon. Two tablespoons of olive oil. Mix it all up. What you should have at the end of it is a creamy thing that slides relatively easily across your spoon. If it's too tough with a spoon, try a fork. And if you find it clumpy, throw in some more water. That's all. Try it out with hot kebabs or roast chicken. Even wafers, if you feel like it.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

New

If it's new, it's bloody unfamiliar. The common thing to do when something new happens is to take a step back. But what if even that one step is taken away when the door shuts right behind you? So there you are, with this new thing, wondering what to do. It takes time, it seems frustrating, this new thing. Sometimes it takes forever. But given time and space, you figure it out. No need to be upset. How do you create space? You fit around it, adjust into the grooves. However unjust it seems to twist yourself out of shape, it's a necessary adjustment. How else do we learn? Besides, you aren't alone. There's always someone else figuring out what to do with this damned new thing.

With soul

Aatma
A Ramsay Production

The bedside clock flashes 1:11am in red digital type. The loud ring of a door bell reverberates through the silent house, interrupting the soft coos of lovers celebrating an anniversary. The husband, who conducts autopsies, regards this intrusion with the emotion of a dead man, and wonders if it is an emergency. But his partner's ire is clear; she clasps his shoulders attempting to coax him back to bed, explaining that the ring, now a menacing rhythm of dingdong-silence-silence-silence-dingdong-silence-silence-silence, will stop when the visitor is tired. But his concern now supersedes everything else, and he makes for the door. The sound director turns up the volume, so all we hear is the ring, and the lighting director turns his lights on and off for lightening. Meanwhile the husband approaches the door with curiosity, hearing the sounds of a possible emergency where you and I hear the inevitable scrape of the deceased's feet.

As the doctor opens the door, the lighting and sound directors let rip together, showing the makeup-man's work. There, on the patio, is a man with sunken eyes who continues to ring the bell. What have we here, the doctor wonders. He catches the man's attention by asking if there's a problem. Without moving a muscle below his neck, the man turns his head slowly in the doctor's direction while the lighting director goes nuts with his bulbs. His sunken eyes lend him the appearance of a person without eyeballs, and his parched, cracked lips hint at days without water. He says to the young doctor:

"Tomorrow, when you go to work, you will find a dead man. Make sure your autopsy report is honest, or you will suffer greatly."

The doctor bristles at being told to be honest. I am always honest, he exclaims, eyebrows arched downwards in the middle to give him a slightly annoyed look.

"Just remember," the strange man with sunken eyes says, "if you aren't honest, you will suffer".

A string of unfortunate events and a brief flashback later, we discover that the man died of poisoning at 1:11am. As the days unfold in a series cuts to various clocks at 1:11am (a viewer beside me recollected that he had seen one of the clocks in every Ramsay Brothers movie so far), we see the restless spirit demolish his killers and terrorize the people he possesses. In one memorable sequence of quick cuts, he takes on the guise of a dead girl whose scream blows out a car's headlights, then its tires, then the engine (which explodes), and finally, his killer's head. A stunned moment later, the entire theatre doubled over and exploded with laughter. If you can find a funnier moment in Indian cinema, I'd love to see it.

Anyway, after the power of Om is revealed, the aatma is finally laid to rest. How? It doesn't matter. There are many ways in which to do this. There are momentary interruptions by a police officer - one of the two male leads - played by a dashing man with a deformed lip and a Woody Allen neurosis, but these are, again, momentary. More lasting is the sightly Miss Chandigarh, and the shapely item girl who dies after an interrupted shower scene. Add to this lot a desperate wife, an evil lawyer, a woman drenched in black magic - who identifies that the malevolent spirit is indeed her husband when she hears him swearing - and a mother-in-law who slides across ceilings - what we have here is the finest cast since my leg broke.

It isn't Tulsi Ramsay's best work, but he's on to something. We can't classify this as horror, or suspense, or god knows what else. But I haven't seen an audience - all 30 of us - respond to a movie with such delight. It wasn't a sadistic delight, but the kind that comes with unexpected surprises. His mind might still be in the 1980s, but in terms of entertainment, he beats absolutely everybody hands down. Watch it before it's gone this Thursday.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Hot Plate with Niranjan Shah

What is the board’s policy on Sourav Ganguly?
The board has an open mind; he’s a contracted player. Whenever the selection committee needs him, they can select him.

Why can’t players discuss Ganguly?
It isn’t a question of Ganguly. It’s a question of any player discussing anyone else, because it creates indiscipline, brings unnecessary media attention, and the board doesn’t want to get into the clarification thing all the time.

How does it create indiscipline?
If you are in the same team, you should not comment on each other, no? We think it is better to have the policy.e.

But they don’t really talk about each other. They talk about Ganguly, who’s an emotional issue…
But why does it always have to be in the media? I don’t understand. Once you are playing, you can’t say indirectly, “He should be there,” or “He should not be there”, because it’s the prerogative of the selection committee.

Doesn’t it mean the BCCI is paying too much attention to what the media is saying?
If we don’t pay attention, you will say that the board doesn’t do anything, or that the board doesn’t have an answer. So we try to clarify our position.

Doesn’t the board make a distinction between journalists with an agenda and journalists who don’t?
Yeah, we know from the newspapers about journalists who think about cricket, write about it, and help it. When they want a clarification, I like to give them a clarification so that there is no unnecessary media controversy.

Speaking of controversies, there was something that happened between Chappell, Dravid, and Ganguly before one match in Pakistan. We’ve heard that someone at the board asked Tensports to remove the clip and not play it again.
I don’t think…umm…I did not give instructions. I don’t know more. I saw one clip where they were on the field, which was played repeatedly. Afterwards I met Greg and Rahul, and the issue was never discussed. Actually, I don’t know what happened there, but I don’t think it was important. Maybe they were talking about what the team management wanted to do on that day.

OK. Now, when you tell players that they can’t talk about each other, doesn’t it stand contrary to the board’s announcements that everything will be transparent?
[Chuckles] What’s the meaning of transparency? I think the question of transparency has gone too far. Transparency doesn’t mean that you should speak only, or give your thoughts to the public. This is a team game, and discipline is a must. If everybody starts talking there will be no end to it. Because cricket is so important to the media, even the smallest thing will be magnified. So its better that people keep to themselves.

But what difference does it make to the BCCI if the media talks?
We are not saying no to interviews. If they talk about themselves, their game, we don’t bother. But if they talk about things related to our policy or our selection committee…I think there should be some constraint.

Is there anything else they can’t talk about?
We’re not gagging them – to use the word you people used. Just selections and board policy. There has to be discipline.

When you look at Australia and England, their players comment on each other and selection. There doesn’t seem to be much of a problem over there. Why do we think that talking about Ganguly will cause indiscipline or a problem?
It doesn’t cause a problem, but it makes somebody else feel bad. I don’t want to compare with them. We have our own rules and regulations. In Australia players do speak, but the board often has to come out with a clarification. So if you give them guidelines at the very beginning it is easier. After all, some things should remain between the board and the players.

Does it surprise you that Harbhajan, Yuvraj and Sehwag have one after another spoken about Ganguly even after the board asked them not to?
We have not told them only about Ganguly. They only talk about Ganguly. It is generally known that they should mind their own business and let the selection committee decide on the issue. After all, they are players. When they become selectors they can talk about these things.

So if you’re a player, you can’t express your opinion about another team member?
No, I don’t think so, because it’s not a good sign. Once you start talking about each other, there is no end to it.

This article was published in Tehelka on May 19, 2006

Fresh strokes

It was a time of hectic change. You know the time. Economic restrictions made way for common sense and new ideas. Everywhere you looked there was freshness and newness. This is what came with creativity and freedom and experimentation. It all, in hindsight now, seems connected back then. The changes had a profound effect on art, and three men in particular. Not for a moment should you conclude it had no effect on anyone else. But these three had interesting lives, hugely different sensibilities, and as seems the case with anyone significant holding a brush in Bombay today, all three were Keralites.

Jitish Kallat, then 19, was part of this throbbing time, and unusual things were happening to him. Kallat would often visit Sakshi Gallery at Altamount Road with his girlfriend. They were noticed by Geeta Mehra, the gallery’s proprietor, who knew he was an upcoming star at JJ School of Arts, which had attracted over decades the country’s finest talents. She would soon purchase a piece without knowing that it was his first sale.

It was not a regular acquisition. Star or no star, Kallat was far too young. Her initial reaction was to wait; the gallery preferred watching young artists develop for a year or two before deciding on their work. But he kept popping up, his name, and his face. His work in school exhibitions was sharp and commented on the times. Established masters saw the gift and spurred him further. They realized he belonged to this age.

Mehra had heard about Kallat’s piece that had been rejected by the Bombay Art Society on the grounds that it was too fragile and therefore “incompatible for a group show”. The work, 5ft by 3.5ft, was enclosed in glass, making it rather bulky. Kallat convinced Mehra to see it. She paid him Rs 13,000 for it, and also visited his studio in the far suburb of Borivali. His work excited her. He had developed an artistic language, and seemed comfortable in his skin.

The art critic, Ranjit Hoskote says that Kallat’s work in school was far more mature than what others were producing. “At that time he had the ability to compress a lot of visual impulses into the same frame, so there would be layers and layers of autobiography, fiction, witty asides (some would say too witty, too clever). He was also very adept at using materials.” Abhay Sardesai, who edits Art India magazine, says, “He has a curious intelligence, a multi-disciplinary approach. It’s not often that you come by artists who do this.” Kallat used acrylics and Xeroxes, played with colour as none of his contemporaries did, and he reached for other media, and then scratched and made ridges on his work. It was a labour-intensive process that brought him recognition, and he continued to evolve until success finally came.

What kind of success? Well, monetary and otherwise. With auction houses and art funds sprouting in the 2000s, and a new breed of investor emerging, things became interesting. The work that Mehra bought for Rs 13,000 then is now worth, in Kallat’s estimate, 22 lakhs. Many things have helped the price jump, not least among them international showings at places like the Kunstrai art fair in Holland and the interest of collectors like Czaee Shah of Mukand Iron, and the more ambivalent investor-collector Amit Judge, famous (or infamous as your case may be) for raising the stakes in the Indian art market by buying out entire collections or pre-booking the output of an up-coming artist for a few years.

Kallat’s contemporaries, Bose Krishnamachari and Baiju Parthan, rode the wave too, but were hardly passengers. Krishnamachari sold work for around Rs 45,000 in 2002; today he commands 20 times that much. A Parthan piece in 2002 was bought for less than Rs 20,000. Today, Saffronart.com has him going for 15 lakhs.

The story of these Bombay artists is an interesting symptom of what’s happening in the Indian market. They are not the old masters – Tyeb Mehta, MF Husain, Ram Kumar, FN Souza, Akbar Padamsee
or SH Raza, the artists making headlines for selling for two and three crores. Nor do they yet enjoy the rating of an Atul or Anju Dodiya, Chitrabhanu Mazumdar or Subodh Gupta. They are on the rise and reaching their tipping point.

They are backed by individuals and galleries who now scout schools for talent more aggressively than before. Kallat is with Shireen Gandhi from Chemould gallery, who approached him before Sakshi did. Bodhi Art looks after Krishnamachari, and Art Musings deals with Parthan.

In the collusions that make an artist today, personality counts for something. Kallat and Krishnamachari lead more visible lives. Parthan, meanwhile, turns off his phone for privacy and returns to the limelight only when he feels he has been a hermit for too long. This has cast a kind of legend around him.

With Krishnamachari, it works differently. Kallat was always the Bombay boy, but Krishnamachari, an abstractionist, was perceived as an outsider -- only partly due to his birth outside the state. His smooth way with the system and sense of occasion did not endear him. Hoskote says of him, “He knows how to use the system to his advantage, whether it is the gallery system, or private sponsors of art, collectors… he’s pushed his buttons very well. He impacts people because he has constructed himself as a spectacle. His ‘AmUseuM’ exhibit…” Here Hoskote loses himself. “Were you in the country then? Did you see it? It was a fabulous period. He was really incredible. AmUseuM contributed to a whole aperture of envy that worked against him. He had a great sense of style, which hardly anybody else did. In that way, he was way ahead of the game.”

Shortly after Krishnamachari was expelled from the JJ School of Arts – he was seen as a product of the school, but he didn’t represent their interests, Hoskote says – he produced AmUseuM, in which spiral-bound books were covered with poems and framed as if meant for a museum. The show was a critical success.

A slump followed the exhibit, and this forced Krishnamachari to reinvent himself. “It is that aspect of him that I find fascinating,” a critic says, adding – in what is becoming a running joke – that he did not wish to be quoted. “I find his work gimmicky.”

Krishnamachari’s curatory efforts have been widely criticised. The infamous “Double-Enders”, which brought together 69 Kerala artists, made the participants happy, but little else came of it. “It was a good show, but the premise was a little problematic,” says the critic. “I’m not sure if Bose quite knew what he was doing,” says another critic who, again, has no name. “It was playful, it had some possibilities, but I don’t think he foresaw that it could become a strait-jacket. I don’t think he realized it could be seen by others as pushing a regionalist agenda. The major response he received was one of questioning.”

For all this, the city itself has grown to include him and accept artists not of the Bombay school because the prism through which they are viewed has changed dramatically. Had this not happened, it is very likely that Baiju Parthan would have remained an illustrator.

In 1982, bolstered with an art degree, Parthan faced a simple but disturbing truth: painting did not make you money. He turned to illustration for The Times of India, wondering when his time would come. It was a difficult period. While he was passionate about painting, increasingly people recognized him as a commercial artist. They assumed when he spoke of painting that he was trying to be what he was not. This went on for six years until he resolved what it was that he valued more. Parthan brought out the canvas.

“I would have been miserable if I had stayed an illustrator,” he says. Eighteen years later, the relief is still palpable. He was fortunate because his decision coincided with a time of change, and new collectors, who did not view artists through clich├ęs, were in the market. “These people just responded to his kaleidoscopic, psychedelic reality,” says Hoskote. “They also responded to Baiju as a person. He’s very articulate as a person. Very scholarly and impressive. He comes across as someone who is more than the sum of the paintings he produces.”

Art India’s Sardesai says that Parthan’s work has a spiritual dimension that has to be understood in contemporary terms. “It is an uneven and interesting marriage between two kinds of state. This is not to say that he’s been successful all the time. But all in all, his search has been extremely sincere, and he has been pursuing his train of thought for quite some time”. Related to this is Parthan’s choice of inspirational figure: Leonardo da Vinci. “I was interested in him because he combined art with science. Because of my background (arts, technology, mythology) I relate to that.” What is beyond him is how the market has behaved.

A dedicated buyer of Kallat’s work says that people are willing to pay a higher price now because there is greater professionalism. Gallery owners have become smarter marketers, and know that it is not enough that the work is shown in, say, New York – which sounds impressive enough – but where it is displayed in New York. They also know how to play the market. Swaroop Srivastava’s 100 crore agreement for 100 MF Husain’s paintings is a case in point: it cornered the ageing artist; both old age and scarcity lead to a rise in art prices because there is a collective realization that the artist will not produce work infinitely. There are others who claim that this new investor is uninterested in art, only in profiting from it, and that prices are being manipulated through a series of collaborations and alignments. But this demand benefits artists hugely. In 2002, Kallat’s ‘Untitled Specimen’ sold for US$2055. This year it was resold for US$44,000.

These days, the debate over art prices and the true purpose of collectors is conducted loudly. There is a divide between supporters of the old order, and those of the new, more money-minded and professional sort. The argument is not just about ethics or artists “selling out” – as an art historian put it, but of beliefs that have come to epitomize people on either side. However, if the noise is filtered out and only the artists remain, we are faced with a reality once thought unlikely: they live well now, confident that their work will be judged objectively and valued accordingly. They don’t have to be illustrators anymore because they can be painters.

This article was published in Tehelka on May 19, 2006

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Oh, the horror

I watched Aatma by the Ramsay brothers yesterday. Books will be written on it.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Monday, May 15, 2006

Gordon Ramsay and Asterix on eating together

Do you remember the last page of every Asterix comic book? The village would sit for a banquet together with boars roasting over a fire. It was my favorite part.

The most pleasant memories of my childhood were at the kitchen table, because meals with the family were always satisfying. We might have said nothing on occasion, but that didn't matter because it helped us understand one another as much as on days that conversation lasted well past the meal. The family's composition has changed since, but they are still good company, and even today the effects of a satisfying meal together remain with us long after we rise from the table and return to our corners.

Here are two extracts (one, two) on bringing back the Sunday lunch from Gordon Ramsay's new book. I agree with him. It takes very little to turn off a television, turn to each other, and switch on the conversation. Watch the difference.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Modi interview

The Modi profile based on this interview can be found here. There are a number of spelling and gramatical errors. Please do bear with them. Transcribing the interview was exhausting enough.

Was the board was underselling itself in the past?


Without doubt. There is no doubt that the board was underselling itself for whatever reasons. The value was known. It’s not that the value was never known. I had projected the value years ago in a press conference. I had made a presentation two-and-a-half years ago in Punjab. But even back in 1993, when I came back from the US, and I saw the opportunities that lay ahead for businesses in all spectrums, I saw that one business that wasn’t looked at properly was the sports business. When we looked at the sports business, we saw a great opportunity called crucket. When we looked at it globally, we saw that it was not being marketed in a proper manner by any cricket board. So at that point – I put on my hat as an entrepreneur – we launched ESPN. There were no contracts with any cricket board at that point in time. Prime Sports used to take the product and Doordarshan used to take it. So ESPN came to us and we decided that if we had to make a business model that worked in this country or any country, as a matter of fact, it had to be – number one – exclusive – number two – something that people would pay for – and number three – unavailable anywhere else. When you look at all genres of programming across the world, look at movies for instance: you can watch it on dvds, in the cinema, on video – there’s no hurry in watching it. But when you watch a sporting event, it has to be live. That’s where the value of it is. Once the match is over, it’s over. The results are out. Nobody’s interested the next day.In the US, the NHL, the NBA, the NFL, had all done it very well. But cricket in India in India was a religion. Everybody wanted to watch it, but nobody was marketing it in the right direction. So we then, at ESPN, under the nose of Murdoch, went in and bought the rights of the English Cricket Board, the Indian Cricket Board, the Australian Cricket Board, New Zealand Cricket Board, West Indies Cricket Board, Sri Lanka Cricket Board, and by the time Murdoch got wind of it, he bought South Africa and I think Zimbabwe. But we had pretty much wrapped up the whole world. Thereby we had a business model. In those days, also, there was no pay tv. And people, including Jagmohan Dalmiya, told me at the time “You’re foolish. You’re paying us so much money.” We signed a contract for US$12 million. Indian cricket had never seen that kind of money in those days. And [they] said, “where are you going to get this money from?” I said we’d get subscription revenue. And people believed subscription revenue would not be possible, that there was no subscription revenue in the country. So the model that I worked with ESPN on was that if they came in as a partner and helped buy the rights, we would guarantee bringing in x numbers of paying subscribers. We would build a network across the country. There were 80,000 operators in those days. Mom-and-Pop [types]. It was a challenge. And today, if you see, it’s a flourishing industry. Pay Tv is the order of the day. Everybody’s gone that route. It was ESPN that basically kickstarted the entire pay tv business.

The more we looked into cricket, the more we found that the business of the cricket boards was run by one or two people. There was no focus, no professionalism in the game. While TV companies had gone out there and were highly professional in the way they operate, when we dealt with the boards – which we had to on a regular basis – we always came across barriers. For the interest of the board, people for some reason or the other were not ready to listen or adapt or let the game go forward. There were vested interests, and within them even more vested interests. And there were roadblocks after roadblocks.

What kind of roadblocks?

First and foremost, rights. Once they realized the value of the rights, people wanted a cut out of those rights. They would want an X-Y-Z, I won’t name names, to be made the agents for giving the rights. In other words the money would flow through those agents. The broadcaster had no choice but to buy the rights from that agent. One particular board, say board A, would appoint an agent to market its rights. And the agent would buy the rights for say a million dollars. Then the agent would sell those rights for ten million dollars to the broadcaster. The broadcaster would make 50 million on those rights. So the value was never coming to the cricket board. Only to the agent and the broadcaster. If you start to analyse the last ten years, contracts of each and every board, if you look at the middle men in each and every board, you’ll find it to be a revealing story.

Personally, my interest in cricket started developing at that point in time because we saw the value in it. Thereafter we ran into roadblocks because we wanted to expand the game. One of my key projects in those days was to launch the inter-city cricket league. I spent a lot of money on it. I spent close to seven million dollars of my own cash. In those days, in developing the concept, we had the New Delhi Panthers vs the Mumbai Stallions and so on. We had signed up all the sponsors. We had approval from the board to own, stage, and run the tournament and we were going to pay a fee to the board. It was under the aegis of the Madhya Pradesh Cricket association under the chairmanship of Madhavrao Scindia. We had gone out and signed probably the top 120 players in the world, including in India, to play a domestic league, under lights, on a home-and-away basis. There was no concentration on domestic at that time. People told us we were foolish and wasting our money on domestic cricket as there was no interest. Yes, the point is correct but unless you build the property, the interest, and make people want to go to the stadium, how do you do that? That was a challenge. If you did it with regular players, it was a losing proposition. You have to fill up stadiums with 20,000 people, 30,000 people. They have to come and support their city. You have to pay the players well, and build things around it. Anyway, they killed that. We lost a lot of money. The reason they killed it was that one gentleman in the board at that point suwggested that we give the marketing rights of the tournament to an agent and then we buy it buy it back from the agent. I told them we were the broadcaster, and were ready to fund the money going forward, we’re paying the boards for it. Why do we have to take those rights of ours, give them to an agent, and buy them back? So [they said] “we will not allow any foreign players to play in your league”. I was like “that doesn’t make any sense because we have their approval.” “Okay, so we will not allow any Indian players to play in your league.” You are arm-twisted from time to time to do these things. So it died a natural death because we got fed up of it. We had already paid advances to the players. It was a sunk cost for us.

That led to differences with the board. I got more and more frustrated, because as we interacted with the board, we also interacted with the associations down the line. We fond that the associations had great potential but were not being run in a professional manner and didn’t have funds. The money had just started to come to cricket but was not being deployed the right way. More and more differences arose, and every time we tried to find a resolution, we found the doors were locked. Every time we made a suggestion, everyone said, you don’t know a thing about the cricket board, so stay out of it. This is our internal politics and internal way of working. That’s where things came to a grinding halt. And I said the only way to fight this is to fight it from the inside. By that time years had gone past, differences had been created between the cricket board, ESPN, and me because my interest was to make sure that we go in for a cleanup act. ESPN’s interest was to broadcast in those days, and members of the board used to say, “his interest is different, yours is different, his job is to take us out, your job is to get the rights. So differences were created. Then I launched Ten Sports. Same thing. Rights were being pulled out because I was involved in it. My agenda was simple: we needed transparency and cleanliness in the board, and we were not getting that answer. That’s what led to my jumping in and finding a way of finding a solution from within.

How’d you find your way around once you were inside it?

That was a very difficult task. First and foremost, we needed to find out which state association was ready to accept us and work with us. We spoke to a lot of members. One member who was key to my entire strategy going forward was Mr. IS Bindra. He was very straightforward and he understood the vision I wanted for the game. His vision was aligned to mine. He had done a lot for the board. He gave me the opening and made me a member of the Punjab cricket association, and I became vice-president of the association, which I still am. With his help I started understanding board politics and its issues. My entry was through Himachal. We found that it was a small state which had no cricket ground in those days. I offered to help them build a state-of-the-art cricket ground. Also, two issues: we found that if you look at the country as a whole, we had no summer venues. If we developed Himachal as a summer venue and built a great ground in Himachal, it could become a great focus for Indian cricket. We worked it out and I became a member of the association in 99. In 2000 I attended a meeting by the BCCI asa representative of the Himachal association. That’s when I got involved actively in the politics of the BCCI.

The mandarins running the board didn’t like my entry because the minute I came in, I began raising issues. They found ways of taking me out of the Himachal Cricket Association by applying…the local government had changed then, Mr Dhumbar had become the chief minister, he asked me to leave. And, you know, we don’t fight with political powers. His son became president of the association. So again, we looked at how to get in. I started to work towards getting myself into the Rajasthan Cricket Association. I found a district which I became a member of, which is Nagore. Rajasthan was core in a group loyal to Mr. Dalmiya. It was run by the Rungta family for 40 years.

Was it true that his wife and driver were members of…

Not only his driver. It was everybody. Peons, drivers, everybody. 57 members of the Rajasthan Cricket Association were members and peons of the Rungta household. We found that there were 32 district associations and 57 individual members. The individual members were Rungta’s family members. So I became a member. I didn’t give my full name in those days because my name would crop up and all of a sudden – pssch! – people would want to cut off my entry. So I gave my name as Lalit Kumar and not my full name as Modi. That was passed through and I became a member. Then I worked very hard to expose what the Rungtas were doing, running it like their fiefdom. The money never filtered down. You’d be surprised, a district association loyal to him would be paid 10,000 a year for running it, and the rest of the money would never reach anywhere else. Nor at the RCA level was anything being done. In land mass, Rajasthan is the largest state in India, and we didn’t even have one stadium. We didn’t have a single ground. Where did all that money go? People in the RCA had been presidents of the BCCI, secretaries, treasurers of the BCCI. Having such powerful positions in the BCCI, they never did anything to help the state. Also, there were no elections held for 40 years. It took me two years to convince the government that this is what was happening, and the government then came out with a sports legislation act which has now become a landmark act, and which did away with any private membership. Today, neither I nor anybody else is a private member. The government said that if you want to be a member, you can only do it through a district. When elections are held, may the best man win. Then I convinced all members of the districts that they had no power, that they were rubber stamps. They come for meetings, but what is it that is being done for them? I had a vision and a plan. But as they say, it was all on paper. At the same time, Mr Dalmiya’s propaganda machine was saying that I was a broadcaster who was interested in getting into the business of taking over the BCCI. So I voluntarily got out of all cricket-related activities and said I would have nothing to do with the business of cricket. I began devoting myself to the development of cricket. I spent a lot of money, crores and crores of my own money in fighting legal battles because there were a few hundred cases against me.by people with vested interests so that I did not enter the game. But fortunately we were able to defeat the Rungtas in a very difficult battle and that gave me presedentship of the association. That was a year ago, on the 28th of February last year. Within one year, no, within months, we were able to demonstrate that what was being done at the state level was a joke, because when we looked at the accounts of the RCA when it hosted an international match, we used to lose 40 lakhs. I can’t understand, for the life of me, as a cricket lover, a spectator, why an association lose money on a cricket match?

What was it due to?

Corruption was rife. They would claim in the accounts that 25000 tickets were given free out of 30,000 tickets. But they weren’t given out free. They were sold in the black market. That’s a reality of the game. Secondly, the quality of the infrastructure was poor. There was no investment in the infrastructure. So when I came in, I convinced people on two counts: they first had to give me the opportunity to demonstrate, and I would spend the association’s money, so they knew that whatever I was doing, I wasn’t taking away from the association but giving back to it. So we hosted our first game last year, and I spent two and a half crore rupees. What did I do? I built new bathrooms, new dressing rooms, a new pavilion, Air-conditioned the players rooms, the pavilion end, I renovated it fully, cleaned up te stands, but money on the ground, madea better wicket, made facilities better. Then I put out the prices. They were higher than anybody else. We got revenue close to 7 crore rupees. We made a profit of five crore. Everybody was shocked. All of a sudden, from a losing proposition, it became a winning one. That was the start. People started believing in it. It was house full. Thereafter we did the Ranji… the Ranji Trophy match in Jhalavar. We had 24,000 spectators every day, for four days in a row. People came from everywhere because we marketed it well. We told the state association to take it to smaller towns. We invested in coaches, we brought in Bobby Simpson, we brought in Derek Symmons, we had coaching camps, we had Hanumant Singh as the chief of selectors, we had guidance from Raj Singh Dungarpur, who guided us in the right direction. There are great visionaries, but nobody to implement them. Even then, we had roadblocks. People are not used to the new order and new ways of thinking. My job is to give direction, but somebody to implement it. So I said we would professionalise the RCA. We would appoint a CEO. There was a lot of difficulty but I was able to convince everybody. Now we have a CEO who joined last month. There’s brand new infrastructure now, we’re tying up with New South Wales in a joint venture partnership. We have a tribals program coming up. We’ll have an indoor academy, an outdoor academy, a school coming up in Jaipur. We’re renovating the existing SMS Stadium, the government has given us land to build the world’s largest air-conditioned stadium, we’re spending over 400 crore to build the new stadium. There’s no problem in raising all that money from corporates if you show them the right vision, the right direction. We’re building a hall of fame, a cricket theme park around it in Jaipur. The stadium will be a 70,000 seater. People have seen that we can do it.

Do you think cricket will become a career option?

It is a career option. It should be.

But so far it hasn’t been one.

Not so far. I’ve convinced the BCCI. Our working and marketing committees have approved a plan to provide a clear career path for our cricketers. SO we will guide them in terms of investments, what they can do after cricket, what career they should have, how it will develop. Over a period of time we will have guidance councellors, people to advise them, and help them with their money. The money is becoming very big now. Right now people are skeptical, but it’s not mandatory to take the advice. What I want to do is provide the tools to them. We’re implementing that in RCA, where we are for the first time putting all our players on contract. We are insuring all our players. We’re giving them life insurance and medical for their families. We’re going to give them a career path. If they’re good, we’re going to hire them ourselves. They can be trainers, coaches, administrators, they can start their own coaching camps or medicine related thing. This is not my expertise, but we are going to bring in experts to guide them. My job is to put a crackshot team in place. There are young, impressionable boys out there who don’t know what to do and neither do their parents. So we’re going to guide them, starting age 12. We’re going to take the boys and board them, and if we see potential we’re going to pay for their schooling. We’re going to build them up gradually and show them a path going forward.

When you were elected, what issues needed urgent tending to? The board had been through a pretty damaging year on the public relations front…

Yes. Yes, the biggest problem we had was transparency. And why did we go through it? It was all to do with commercial contracts. If the board wasn’t upfront in the way it dealt with the broadcasters…there were so many vested interests. Some people were making side deals. The night we came to power, I presented my thought process to our team. They liked it and asked me to implement it. My job is to make the most value for the cricket board. I knew the ins and outs of production and sponsorship deals, and I knew airtime prices, broadcasting prices, I knew the television companies’ balance sheets inside out. I knew where they made their money and lost their money. So I called everybody in and played one against the other. It was simple as that.

How did you break up the rights into fragments?

Because I knew the value. With ESPN, I was buying consolidated rights. We would basically get everything for free and we knew the value was there. Everybody in the board thought we didn’t have the expertise to do it, that we needed a middle man. I said, dammit, it’s not rocket science; all we need to do is put out a global tender, call who is ther, lay down the guidelines, decide there will be no hanky-panky. See, what happens is, sometimes you put out a tender, and what you don’t give away in the tender, you give away in the contract. So if we’re negotiating and I like your face, I may give you something extra in the contract.

If you understand rights, because rights are changing so dramatically, and the digital world is changing so dramatically, then you have value. But if you give it away, it’s gone. So what we did was, we gave out very specific rights. A lot of people were very upset with me. In fact everybody in the broadcasting industry was very upset with me for carving it too fine. So I said, “I’m not asking you to pay me for what you don’t think has value. If you think the value is ten, pay me ten. I’m not asking you to pay me hundred. I’ll get the ninety from somebody else. I say, assume in an ideal world that we will have internet simulcast, mobile simulcast, TV simulcast, and new new technology that comes in simulcast. They said “can you then block off those technologies and have a one-hour delay?” I said no. They said they’d give me a higher price. I said I’m not asking for a higher price. I knew the game. The game is very simple. Block out everything else, they have their rights, so everything else is worth zero. It’s not even worth the paper that it is written on. So I said, no, that’s not how we would do it. Of course, I had my fingers crossed. But the objective was simple: here are the rights, buy them the way you want to, and put a number on the table. We got a fantastic number on the table, and we still have a large number of rights which we will sell.

And then I did another thing. I found out while I was in broadcasting – we’d broadcast a match for a day, repeat them the next day, and then they’d be shoved into a closet. Once in a while we’d take them out when there was nothing else to run. That was it. So I said that the rights we sold would only be valid for 72 hours.

The broadcasters had no further value for them.

No, there is a huge value for broadcasts in the digital domain. Now there is becoming a huge use for it. Now you have pay-per-view, internet. So when the rights revert to us, we are free to do what we want. They become something called archival rights. We could launch an archival channel.

In the years to come, the BCCI’s portal will be the number one portal in the world, by the sheer number of people who are interested in the game.

Okay. Now about yourself. Did you watch and play cricket before all this?

Living in India, you’re always interested in the game.

Where were you born?

In Delhi.

When?

1963. I’ve always been interested in cricket. The Modi family has always been involved in cricket. For a long time my uncle was treasurer of the Delhi cricket association, and we always had a box right in front in Delhi. I played cricket in school but was never very good at it.

Batsman or bowler?

I was a batsman but not very good at it. I was at a boarding school in Shimla (Bishop’s cotton?!) and then I went to St. Joseph’s in Nainital. My main interest in cricket began in business when I launched ESPN. You were so involved with cricket at that time that the game just grew and grew and grew on you. I used to watch every match. I was glued to the tv.

You were in the states for a while. What were you doing there?

I was at Dukes University in North Carolina. I was studying marketing.

Did you pick up American sports there?

I was never very interested in American sports. The only sport I was interested in was tennis. I used to watch a lot of basketball because Duke was number one at basketball in the us, and we used to win the NCAA finals every year. I had no choice but to watch all the sports because Americans are into sports. I understood the economic model of the sports. The more I got involved with the tv side of the business, the more I understood the model of the sport.

[With ESPN] we hired the ex-baseball commissioner to teach us how the league system works, how the buying and selling of players works, contracts. We learn a lot along the way as you grow up in life.

Recently at a match in Chandigarh, the press received a sheet with tables comparing what Dalmiya had done and what this regime had done, in figures. How much do you think Dalmiya lost the board over the last four years?

It’s very very difficult to quantify precisely. In a ballpark, easily between 400-500 crores a year. Easily. Because if you look at the year 2000, that year Nimbus had made a bid for 500 crores for Indian TV rights, and we gave it for 160 crores to Doordarshan. Now, why would we do something so stupid? Because we don’t like Nimbus? That is only one aspect of it. Then at one point we were earning 7 crores a match and everybody said, “that’s great money!” Now you get nine million dollars a match. It can’t be possible that two months down the line you’re getting nine million. I kept screaming and shouting that it was wrong, that we were underselling, but nobody believed us because they sad seven was great, so what was I screaming about?

When I did the Nimbus deal, everybody said Nimbus would go out of business. I can guarantee you Nimbus will not go out of business. Nimbus will make 200 million dollars on that deal. If they paid us 600 million they’re going to make 200 million on that deal. There is a margin of 200 million on that deal. Without doubt. Zee came in and paid higher than what Nimbus was paying for the offshore matches. Now these people are not foolish people. They are businessmen. They’re running conglomerates.

If you take even the smallest bid, it was ten times more than last year. How come? Simple. The BCCI is not in for dealmaking. The buck stops here. There are no deals. I’ve got offers for many deals but would not hear of it. Right where you’re sitting I’ve had people come in and tell me to make the tender in a certain manner. But there are no deals. The deal is very simple: you come into the room, hand in your bid, and if you win it you take it.

Same thing for team sponsorship. When I did the Nike deal, they were hungry. You have to build that hunger. When you do marketing, you can be a laid-back marketer and put out a tender and you’ll get a laid-back number. I guarantee you that. Or you can go out there and be an aggressive marketer and show the value to them. How do you show the value? You show them the number of times they’ll be on tv, how the logo will be presented, the ratings of it, the viewership of it.

People said my numbers were mad. They tried to form cartels. My job is the break cartels. I didn’t want a cartel because they would undervalue my business.

When they say oh, such and such channel doesn’t have marketing experience, what, is the color of your money better than his? If he puts in 600 million dollars, isn’t he going to put in a marketing team? Are his bankers and investors foolish to let him put that money on the table? I think not. We have a country full of entrepreneurs doing many many things, and we have to give them the opportunity to go out there and implement their plan.

Are you, by any chance, libertarian?

Wha... wha…?

Umm… someone who believes in letting the free markets decide.

Absolutely. I believe in free markets deciding everything. If there is no value, there is no value. Let people decide. In certain cases you might lose, in certain you might win. You have to be risk-prone too.

What do you make of the government’s directive about the signal-sharing thing with Doordarshan?

I think it’s a little unfair. But on the other hand, from the BCCI’s point of view, I think it’s a win-win situation, and I’ll tell you why. Nowhere in the world would anybody give up its network for 25% of the revenue. This is a sweetheart deal for anybody who owns the rights. You only pay 25% to get the entire country’s viewership, live, on national broadcasting. The costs of the transmission, the transmitters, the station, are all on Doordarshan. For that they’re getting 25. 75% of the revenue you’re keeping. This is a no-brainer. Even for broadcasters. For 100% of the country’s eyeballs they’re paying 25%. It’s the best deal in the market today. I, being a broadcaster, would snap it up in a minute. [snaps his fingers] In fact, even if there was no legislation in place I’d be begging doordarshan to take me on. The government has interfered but it’s a raw deal for the government. 25% for doordarshan is a losing proposition for doordarshan. However, they make money. But then they’re not a marketing company. If I was Doordarshan, I’d look back to see my balance sheet, because if I own a network like Doordarshan, I would program it in a way that I’d take all the satellite channels out. But theyr’e not a broadcaster in that cointext. If I had that airtime, I’d sincerely wipe out every other channel. Why can’t I counterprogram star or espn? If I was in charge, I’d wipe out every other channel and get an ad rate five times that of a satellite channel. If Star makes a thousand crores, we’d make five thousand. It would be a dream to run a terrestrial network.

Back to the sheet with tables at Chandigarh. It seems like the BCCI is saying regularly, “look, we’ve got transparency.” Is it about image?

Image is one part of it. See, what’s been happening is, you’ve been hearing a lot of numbers. My job is marketing, so the numbers are probably coming more from me than anywhere else. When we do something, it is important to give the numbers out. Earlier they used to hide the contracts and everything. We disclose everything. The marketing game is over, pretty much. There are a few more tenders that will come out.

Over the last few weeks you’ve been hearing more about development, about infrastructure, about the world cup. See, when we didn’t have the money, we didn’t have anything to talk about. So how were we going to change those things? A campaign went out in the Times of India, saying how bad the infrastructure was, and asking what the BCCI was doing with all this money. You’ve got to understand, the money is just signed on a piece of paper now. The money hasn’t even come into our bank. The rest of the money is going to come over the next few years. Infrastructure doesn’t happen overnight. It needs thought. We need to bring the architects in. We need to have municipal corporation permission. We are getting all that into place. Once the marketing deals are done, they are done. We needed to project those numbers. It also helps me get more numbers in.

From our point of view, we do an honorary job. We don’t make anything of it. I spend more money on cricket than I do in anything else. I spend crores on cricket out of my own pocket because I love the game more than anything else. If I did not project these numbers out, tomorrow we leave and a new regime comes in, and these things are not known, then they can be subject to mismanagement. So we put out the figures in the public domain and harp about them a lot.

Will the board move forward until it has paid professionals who are held accountable?

I agree with you 100%. Right now we are accountable. That is why, when I decided to take on the job, I had to give it time, otherwise I wouldn’t do it justice. I give 14 hours a day to cricket. I’ve decided that for a year, a year and a half, my life is cricket. In the meantime we’re hiring people to take the game forward. Once the basic infrastructure is in place, thereafter the game will ride on its own. It won’t happen overnight. Change is on the one hand good, on the other hand painful, and on the third, it takes a lot to implement it. We need to change our constitution, put all that in place, and we’re doing all that. Until then, we need to be involved. If we leave it half-way, it’ll all return to where it was.

But do you agree that to move forward you need those paid professionals?

We have professionals under interview right now. They will be the implementers. So we will be like the board of directors. We will give them guidelines and they will go out and implement them on a day-to-day basis. And that will have to filter down to the state level and then the district level going forward. And that will happen.

Now to cricket. Do you see it eventually moving away from its nation-based structure to something like football, where the real interest lies in club rivalries?

Oh yes. It’s gonna happen. The intercity cricket league is going to happen. My next big project which I’m going to announce. I’m still not ready for it because the game has evolved since the last time I developed it. It will be a home-and away concept. We hope to launch that by the end of the year.

Market demands could also mean the end of Test cricket?

No. Test cricket is important for us. In the last year or two the revival of test cricket has begun with the Ashes, with the south African series. The problem was that people were not filling up the stadiums.

Why is the BCCI averse to Twenty20?

Why not 25-25? Why not 30-30. The issue right now is that the countries advocating it are only England and Australia. They have a drop in stadium levels so they are advocating it. We fill our stadiums. We have enough crowds coming in. We’re just getting into the game now. First they want to play a world cup of 20-20. They’re not even talking about going and promoting twenty-20 in countries first, play it for five-ten years, build the basis of 20-20.They’re saying lets go straight to the world cup!

But if the ICC says that, would you be interested in playing Twenty20?

They are saying that. We’re not interested in playing Twenty20. If the ICC mandates us to do it, and we’re the only people left, I think we’ll have no choice. But in my view, I think we must have a domestic calendar for it first. It’s a totally new game. It’s a batsman’s game…

And that’s why the Indian public will warm to it…

That may be so but we need to do it at the domestic level first! I’m not saying no. I’m saying we have to do it at the domestic level first.

Will playing Twenty20 hurt the board commercially?

I don’t think so. It could be a different team altogether. We have to understand it. It’s totally new. Where you might lose a little bit, you could also game a little bit somewhere else.

Do you think of failure?

Failure is at the back of my mind but I don’t think of it because I look at the positive side of things. I think you have to go out and doyour best. I know I come off strong and heavy-handed at times. But I believe that you should keep doing. You can talk as much as you want and say what you want, but it all comes down to just doing the job.

Sections of the English and Indian press call you the new Dalmiya. What do you make of it.

I get very offended. (Rest of the answer cut off when the recorder shut down. Hand-written notes take over.)

-Ends-

Friday, May 12, 2006

The money is on Modi


The full interview can be found here.

On November 29 last year, Jagmohan Dalmiya’s world turned upside down. He had lost the Board for Control of Cricket in India’s (BCCI) elections and had to relinquish power. As with the end of all eras, old tales, true or not, were brought out for an airing. Among them was that Dalmiya had once said, “What will I do if I don’t control the board?”

Even before the elections, Lalit Modi was expected to replace Dalmiya as moneymaker-in-chief. When he won, and was made vice-president of the BCCI, he was popularly and lazily described as the new Dalmiya. I ask Lalit Modi what he thinks of the description. We are at his home, a large sea-facing bungalow, sunk in couches too comfortable for business. He slides back, almost vertical, and is buried between cushions. White linen and khaki hang loosely off his round shoulders. And he smiles a lot. Perhaps because it is a Saturday afternoon and he’s clearly lounging. But he doesn’t smile now, as I ask him about the moniker. He starts, pauses – a surprise because he is rarely short of words – and says brusquely, “I am very offended when they call me the new Dalmiya.” People who know him say he’d rather Dalmiya be recalled as the old Modi. “I’m all for people doing the jobs they are supposed to. I do mine. Mr. Dalmiya wore many hats, he did many things. I’m not like him.” It is not just this aspect, but nearly the entire comparison Modi objects to. This feeling does not figure during financial evaluations of this regime’s successes. During a match at Chandigarh – of whose association Modi is vice-president – earlier this year, cricket writers were given sheets of tabled numbers in the style of a competitive advertisement. On one side was the money Dalmiya had raised in years, on the other was what Pawar’s group had done in months. There was no comparison.

The present value of the board’s properties contrasts starkly with those during the previous administration. Matches that brought in 7 crores now bring in, on average, over 72 crores. In the next five years, the BCCI will earn over a billion dollars, of which $830 million will come from television rights. Modi says he knew the value of these rights a decade ago when his company, Modi Entertainment Network, helped ESPN buy television rights for cricket across the world in the mid-1990s. “Cricket in India was a religion,” he says, abandoning his reclining position for one more alert. “Everybody wanted to watch it, but nobody was marketing it in the right direction. So we then, at ESPN, under Rupert Murdoch’s nose, went in and bought the rights of the English Cricket Board, the Indian Cricket Board, Australia, New Zealand, West Indies, Sri Lanka, and by the time Murdoch got wind of it, he bought South Africa and I think Zimbabwe. But we had pretty much wrapped up the whole world. People, including Jagmohan Dalmiya, told me at the time, ‘You’re foolish. You’re paying us so much money.’ We signed a contract for US$12 million. Indian cricket had never seen that kind of money in those days.”

But money intended for Indian cricket often diverted from its proper course. Modi says of that time that while television companies were professional, board members were spurred by other factors. “When we dealt with the boards – which we had to on a regular basis – we always came across barriers. People, for some reason or the other, were not ready to listen or adapt or let the game go forward. There were vested interests, and within them even more vested interests. There were roadblocks after roadblocks. Once they realized the value of the rights, people wanted a cut out of those rights. They would want an X-Y-Z – I won’t name names – to be made the agents for giving the rights. In other words the money would flow through those agents. The broadcaster had no choice but to buy the rights from that agent. One particular board, say board A, would appoint an agent to market its rights. The agent would buy the rights for a million dollars, say. Then he would sell those rights for $10 million to the broadcaster. The broadcaster would make $50 million on those rights. So the value was never coming to the cricket board, only to the agent and the broadcaster. If you start to analyze the last ten years’ contracts of each and every board, if you look at the middle men in each and every board, you’ll find a revealing story.”

This regime, disenchanted with Dalmiya’s autocratic functioning, has begun initiating cases against the former BCCI chief. He was interrogated by the Economic Offences Wing in March and April after the board accused him of misappropriating $49,000, a charge he denied. Either way, Modi believes that Dalmiya lost the game significant money. I asked him how much he thought Dalmiya had lost the board. “It’s very difficult to quantify precisely. In a ballpark, easily between 400-500 crores a year. Easily. Because if you look at the year 2000, that year Nimbus had made a bid for 500 crores for Indian TV rights, and we gave it for 160 crores to Doordarshan. Now, why would we do something so stupid? Because we don’t like Nimbus?” In February this year, Nimbus won the rights for $612 million, a figure that industry analysts said would ruin the company. Modi says, “I can guarantee you Nimbus will not go out of business. Nimbus will make $200 million on that deal. If they paid us $600 million they’re going to make $200 million on that deal. There is a margin of $200 million on that deal. Without doubt. These people are not foolish people. They are businessmen. They’re running conglomerates.”

Having a monopoly helps. Modi understands this, and says it his duty to use his leverage. His job, he says, is to make the most value for the cricket board. “I knew the ins and outs of production and sponsorship deals, and I knew airtime prices, broadcasting prices, I knew the television companies’ balance sheets inside out. I knew where they made their money and lost their money. So I called everybody in and played one against the other. It was simple as that.”

Modi rises from his seat, points to me, and says with a rising voice, “Right where you’re sitting I’ve had people come in and tell me to make the tender in a certain manner. But there are no deals. The deal is very simple: you come into the room, hand in your bid, and if you win it you take it. Same thing for team sponsorship. When I made the Nike deal, they were hungry. You have to build that hunger. When you do marketing, you can be a laid-back marketer and put out a tender and you’ll get a laid-back number. I guarantee you that. Or you can go out there and be an aggressive marketer and show the value to them. How do you show the value? You show them the number of times they’ll be on TV, how the logo will be presented, the ratings, the viewership.

“People said my numbers were mad. They tried to form cartels. My job is the break cartels. I didn’t want a cartel because they would undervalue my business.”

I ask if he’s a libertarian. “Wha…?” Letting free markets decide. “Absolutely. I believe in free markets deciding everything. If there is no value, there is no value. Let people decide. In certain cases you might lose, in certain you might win. You have to be risk-prone too.”

Lalit Modi could not play cricket. “I was a batsman but not very good at it.” Born in New Delhi in 1963, he went to school in Shimla and Nainital, and then studied at Duke’s University in North Carolina. By various accounts, it was an interesting time. Last year, the previous board appointed a committee to investigate allegations that Modi was charged in a drug trafficking case, and suggested that he be barred from office. Modi, raring to hit the courts for a fight, was advised not to by IS Bindra, his mentor within the BCCI.

In the US, he says, he had no choice but to watch American sports. And through television he began to understand the model on which sports were based. Later, only when he was a television executive did cricket truly appeal to him.

Modi is a driven man. “He wants to be the great cricket tycoon of India,” a senior journalist says, before taking a curious turn: “He wants to prove things to his family.” (Modi belongs to the family that runs Modi Enterprises, which counts Godfrey Phillips, the tobacco company, among its ventures.) This was repeated by a reputed television producer who worked for ESPN, who also added, “Because his business ventures were failures.” True or not, a search on Google brings up a news report that states, “Fashion TV president Michel Adam has said that the channel is considering options to press criminal and civil charges against Modi Entertainment Network president Lalit Modi for fraud, extortion, harassment, copyright and trademark infringement in the next few days in Europe.”

Sources close to Modi speak of his blinkered devotion to making things work. One says, “His ideas are novel. Not everything he says is applicable, though. But he wants people who can get the job done. He doesn’t have patience with people who dither.” Another, who works for Modi, said, “He’s an insomniac. I get calls from him at 2am and then at 6am. He just doesn’t sleep. He wants things done.”

How these things are done count for something too. After a failed attempt in Himachal – “The chief minister asked me to leave and, you know, we don’t fight with political powers” – Modi’s entry into the BCCI through Rajasthan, a decrepit association led by the Rungta family for over three decades, is legendary, but the senior journalist says, “Yes, the Rungtas did nothing, but that doesn’t justify the tactics he used there.” However, Modi maintains that everything was done in the courts. “57 members of the Rajasthan Cricket Association were members and peons of the Rungta household. We found that there were 32 district associations and 57 individual members. The individual members were Rungta’s family members. So I became a member. I didn’t give my full name in those days because my name would crop up and all of a sudden – pssch! – people would want to cut off my entry. So I gave my name as Lalit Kumar and not my full name as Modi.” His application was passed and he became a member of the association. After convincing everyone that they were rubber stamps for the Rungtas, Modi says, they changed sides and he took charge. Now he’s planning a cricket theme park, a hall of fame, and is set to introduce financial advisors and career councellors to players. Also, he says, “The government has given us land to build the world’s largest air-conditioned stadium, we’re spending over 400 crore to build the new stadium. There’s no problem in raising all that money from corporates if you show them the right vision, the right direction.” It is said that corporates were certainly shown the right direction when they coughed up close to $2800 for a single seat for a Jaipur game last year.

In any event, Modi is keen to professionalise the board. Until the paid professionals arrive – and they are being sorted out as you read this – he says he has dedicated 14 hours a day to cricket. For a year and a half, his life will be cricket. I ask him if progress can be made without paid professionals. “Once the basic infrastructure is in place, thereafter the game will ride on its own. It won’t happen overnight. Change is on the one hand good, on the other hand painful, and on the third, it takes a lot to implement it. We need to change our constitution, put all that in place, and we’re doing all that. Until then, we need to be involved. If we leave it half-way, it’ll all return to where it was.”

These days, Modi is viewed in circles with some apprehension. Officials at sports channels refused to speak about him, and so did Dalmiya’s faction. Those who did, spoke in whispers. It is testament to the clout he wields. “Doston ka dost hai, aur dushmano ka dushman,” a close source said. “If he likes you, that’s great. But if he hates you, he’s going to screw you until the last nail is in your coffin.”

Modi is called the most important administrator in world cricket today. This is because India contributes over half of international cricket’s revenue, and Modi is keen to right an imbalance that tilts towards Australia and England. The brashness with which he forced a change in the International Cricket Council’s calendar, to give India more games at home, won him recognition as well as infamy. “People don’t understand that when I do things like that, it’s for cricket in India,” he says. But this, the journalist Ashok Malik reckons, is connected to Modi’s aggressive marketing strategy for the BCCI’s products. This includes a pet project – a board-run television channel based on similar lines as the setup at Manchester United.

Later this year he will announce plans for an inter-city cricket league which will involve foreign players. I ask him if that is where he sees cricket moving to eventually. His eyes light up. “Oh yes. It’s gonna happen.”

Since January, when the London-based Observer broke the news that Modi wanted the calendar changed, fears have been expressed over whether naked commercial interests would lead to exploitation and Test cricket suffering. He insists that the BCCI will abide by the ICC’s recommended number, and Tests will not suffer.

I ask Modi about failure. He says the thought is always there, but he does not think about it. “I believe that you should keep doing. You can talk as much as you want and say what you want, but it all comes down to just doing the job.” Interestingly, it is the talk and its possible implementation that has rattled people. Is he trying to take over cricket entirely? Media organizations fear that they will be forced to adhere to the BCCI’s conditions – in effect a censorship of sorts – for continued access. Already Mike Atherton, the former England opener, has said that during the recent India-England series, commentators were asked not to criticize the BCCI or mention sensitive subjects. Most commentators, employed by the BCCI, are former cricketers with few skills otherwise, and so they toe the line.

In January, at a press conference, when Modi was asked about the inevitable censorship, he denied it would happen. Why would we do that, he seemed to ask. But there are compulsions, and with Modi building the BCCI’s brand, he will, like any CEO, seek to avoid criticism of his product.

As he takes deal-making to new levels in cricket, there are more questions asked of him, of his motives and ambitions. The pursuit of power and money is now more naked, and this has led to fears of exploitation, a split in international cricket, and even an implosion. These are aside from those of cricket enthusiasts who view new things with suspicion. It is for this reason that the Dalmiya tag fails to leave him. It is a double-edged thing. On the one hand the name stands for financial wizardry, and on the other it is less charitable.

This article was published in Tehelka on May 12, 2006.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Travel, spend

Sometime last week I received a mail from Nidhi, who works for an interactive company called Webchutney, that pointed me to an online reality show conceptualised by her company. To be on it, you have to win a contest. It's live on oktatabyebye.com. If you win, you travel to seven destinations in India in 15 days, and are given Rs50,000 to spend. It's pretty interesting, and I know I'd have signed up for it if I wasn't working fulltime. Do check it out.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Black and blue (and hurting all over) panther

In the editing studio

Steve Martin: Heh. Right in the sucker! Pow! Good one. But couldja speed it up a bit?
Editors: They're gonna love this. Wham, old lady, wham! They're gonna sooo lurve this.
Dissenting voice: Umm, Mr. Martin? Hasn't this violent-act-on-old-lady thing been done before?
Steve Martin: Doesn't matter. It's still funny. I think it's a great idea. Don't you think a flying object smashing into an old lady a fun idea? No? Too bad. It's my screenplay.

My first doubts about The Pink Panther arose a day earlier when, in a television preview, a granny was upended. As Inspector Jacques Clouseau's car turned sharply at the end of a Paris street, a loose beacon above it broke free and flew into a disabled grandmother's face. Now the Pink Panther, for me, is an animated pink panther who forever outsmarts Inspector Jacques Clouseau (a picture of gravity with his trenchcoat and magnifying glass). The unwelcome realisation that a cartoon is just a cartoon is one reason why I had every intention of letting this winner go by. Reality spoils the fun. That and the errant beacon.

I ended up watching it for family reasons - an explanation everyone surely understands - and drifted into a numb state a few minutes into the movie. A few hours later, it was all over. A series of improbable events had culminated in just desserts spread all around. The world was okay again. But those hours were mortifying. I thought of my beloved cartoons, where the humour was smooth and polished, where slapstick came naturally. And then there was this monster, with Mr. Martin playing a boof. Who can forgive this? It wasn't comedy, it wasn't even parody. It was, however, proof of what happens when tired minds press too hard.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Manual labour

I approached our new car with some trepidation last Saturday, never having driven a manual one before. There it stood, complete without scrape or dirt, in an underground parking lot, glinting beneath fluorescent tubes and a damp ceiling. It had not yet changed shape, as cars in Bombay inevitably do to fit in with their surroundings. While I walked about this red beauty, enchanted and fearful, it also struck me that, like a box of pencils, every new day would take away from its perfect state. In due course I overcame the sadness and when I took the driver's seat, fear took its rightful place on my lap.

Regardless of the speed, the first drive is terrifying. In the mind's eye there are squashed children along a trail of havoc wrought when the wrong pedal is pressed. In reality, children, like animals, sense fear and duly sneer. On my third hesitant practice round past a group of them, one exclaimed loudly to his exasperated friends, "Oh, here he comes again." For the desperate and philosophical, learning to drive a manual car quickly becomes a metaphor for life in this city - there is no space for beginners.

Having handled the building with some confidence, I ventured out to the roads of Andheri. There I recognised fellow learners with whom understanding smiles were exchanged. Seasoned drivers sped by, oblivious to simple needs of the inexperienced - chiefly that everyone drive as slowly as him. But the anxiety soon made room for fragile confidence. It had been good so far, perhaps the ante could be upped a little? The practice rounds lengthened, the gear shifts were braver, and nothing unfortunate happened. Soon we were home, still complete and on edge. Not for a moment should you imagine that I believe handling a manual car is an accomplishment. That is not where the sense of success lies. It lies instead in returning unscathed from an encounter with Bombay's most ruthless crowd.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Psst! Wanna see my hidden camera?

I've joined the features department at Tehelka. Things get more interesting from here.