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The Very Picture Of Self-Reliance

The older Ambani bahu goes through an image makeover. Not only is she looking the part, she is also playing it to the hilt.

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The Very Picture Of Self-Reliance
AFP (From Outlook, May 14, 2012)
The Very Picture Of Self-Reliance

Nita Ambani was the high priestess that Saturday evening in late April. Slim, svelte and sophisticated, she mwah-mwahed and made small talk with a carefully chosen set of guests, drawn from the industry, the arts and activism, at her billion-dollar Altamont Road home, Antilla. As the night descended over the city of Mumbai, and lights lit up her 27-storey home, the 250-strong well-heeled audience watched as Nita escorted Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations secretary general, to his and his wife’s table.

If there is a high point in the Nita Ambani evolution narrative, it has to be this. The typical middle-class Gujarati girl from suburban Bombay, whose passion was Bharatnatyam and whose mother’s modest aspirations for her stopped at chartered accountancy, could not have imagined playing the perfect soiree hostess to the UN secretary general some day. It was the secretary general’s only private reception during his visit. For Nita, it was something of a coup. To host Jimmy Choo would be a Page 3 achievement; to have the UN secretary general dine in your ballroom is much more. There, the Ambanis committed themselves to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.

At 49, Nita is clearly more than Mrs Mukesh Ambani. She has helmed the big-budget enterprises started under the company (or the family) name in education, health and cricket—fields that were not necessarily her forte. She has forayed into activities more characteristic of Reliance’s CSR initiatives—girl child issues, supporting the visually challenged, pushing for a ‘Real Heroes’ campaign that saw news channel CNN-IBN, in which Reliance is a stake-holder, honour selfless social workers and personal achievers. She has also been, since November last year, a non-executive board member of EIH Ltd that manages the Oberoi and Trident hotels.

Next on her to-do list is the setting up of a private university and the Reliance group’s ventures into the arts and entertainment. Of course, for years, Nita has chaired the Reliance Foundation as well as the Dhirubhai Ambani Foundation. Nita has her own office, her core teams for various ventures, set of advisors, her agendas and, now, a well-defined role. And suddenly she seems to be everywhere. Just in April she flew (in her private jet) filmstar Shahrukh Khan to Yale University for a lecture (her 19-year-old daughter studies there). She also made the news pages for receiving the ‘Corporate Citizen of the Year’ award from the All India Management Association.

Photograph by Atul Loke

“Nita is now a brand in her own right. She’s a strong personality, extremely ambitious, capable and decisive. And, there has been a careful positioning of a planned package,” says Shobhaa De, chronicler of Mumbai’s rich and beautiful. Nita is now the soft power behind the $58-billion Reliance Industries Ltd, in that she has helped create and manage a certain fuzzy, feelgood environment about the petrochemicals conglomerate. In fact, husband Mukesh added a liberal dose of cement on Nita’s makeover by referring to her as ‘Reliance’s real programme manager” on the company website in November 2011. Nita chose not to talk to Outlook for this piece.

“Till Papa was around, she was the typical Gujju bahu. After his demise, it was as if a barrier had been broken.”

This evolution, or makeover, began about a decade ago after the patriarch passed away in July 2002; her earlier experience of helping build townships in Hazira and Jamnagar came in handy when she set up an international school for Mumbai’s elite in his name the very next year. It was an instant hit. From then on, she has led one venture after another. “Till Papa was around, she was the typical Gujju bahu attending to guests at home and Reliance AGMs,” says Jayanta Saha, family photographer for years. “After his demise, it was as if a barrier was broken. She always had a desire for the big and glamorous, and Mukeshbhai has whole-heartedly supported her in getting to where she now is.”

Nita, the then relatively gauche and unglamorous of the Ambani daughters-in-law, has walked in her father-in-law’s footsteps, say those close to the family; among Dhirubhai’s mantras was that one should never be satisfied with what one has and his daughter-in-law today exemplifies this more than anyone else, they add. The setting up of the school was followed, closely, by the famous corporate battle between the brothers, where Nita for the first time played a primary role in corporate strategy. She had become a player. After the split, it became even more important for RIL to acquire a well-rounded image; Nita stepped in.

Cultivating her set of eclectic achievers has been part of this makeover endeavour in the last few years. Her circle is not the vacuous glam brigade, but the intelligent-arty-glam A-listers in various fields, such as Aamir Khan and Sachin Tendulkar. In October 2010, she spoke at the hallowed London School of Economics, on building institutions of excellence. More recently, she hosted the dean of Harvard School at a soiree. While pursuing her own goals, Nita is clearly trying to cast Reliance in a kinder light at a time when big business has come in for some stick.

Her many personas today are a reflection, as well as a peaking, of carefully considered strategy. De, and others like her, observe that Nita has been on a mission “to establish herself as more than a corporate wife...she has had a plan in place and gone about realising the plan in a systematic manner”. She is unafraid to ask questions, diligent in her reading and studies topics alien to her. “For the first two years of IPL, she was quite clueless, but then she read up a lot, consulted regularly with seniors like Shaun Pollock and Sachin Tendulkar, and herself did the number-crunching for the player auctions next time around,” says a former consultant to the franchise. “Cricket is her baby, ask her,” remarked Mukesh at a gathering in February when asked about his team’s prospects this season.

Nita’s evolution has clear professional and personal strands, though one neatly segues into the other. As she set about accomplishing strategic tasks, she gained in confidence and, coupled with the discreet backchannel coaching in wellness and grooming, it helped evolve a distinctly new personality. Family watchers say she has been through grooming and finishing sessions by the best in the business, from European/ French finishing schools, weight-reduction programmes, and numerous photo-shoots during which she picked up the “best angles” to show the camera.

“Nita bhabhi was always conscious of her looks and appearance,” recalls Saha. “She would have photo-shoots done regularly to check herself out, she would ask if she’s looking too fat and so on. Now, she looks very smart and sophisticated.” The image matters; no one knows how deeply it matters to the Ambanis more than the former public relations dynamo Niira Radia, who in taped conversations let on that Nita was being more touchy about her profile in Society than she should be. In fact, Niira’s image-management brief for Reliance included Nita as well.

Mumbai A-lister and Upper Crust editor Farzana Contractor remarks, “After the Ambani School, it was as if the new, improved, confident Nita wanted to break free. She has become a lot bolder, acts on impulse, is spontaneous and shows her emotions in public, but she is still intrinsically the same caring person. A new look was the logical thing to do.” The salwars and churidars have been replaced with coordinated chiffons, smart casuals, saris worn the Gujarati style and even the occasional knee-length black dress. And a Nita Ambani portfolio today is incomplete without her IPL franchise Mumbai Indians tee, of course, specially tailored for her. Through it all, the five-carat diamond ring and four-carat earrings have been steady. Nisha JamVwal, well-known stylist and luxury brands consultant, says: “She is not just a stylist’s job and this isn’t about a Birkin bag. She could have been like other corporate or star wives, idle or busy with a boutique, but she’s gone beyond, which lends her the grace to carry off any wardrobe.”

The Nita narrative, of course, has loyal fans; hardly anyone talks about it without a percentage of gush-gush sentiment. In fact, some of her friends and associates refused to be interviewed saying “they would have to seek her permission before talking”, displaying their anxiety about not upsetting her. There are but a few measured reactions to her metamorphosis. As a corporate-watcher put it, corporate wives, say in the Birla or Bajaj families, have typically dabbled in education and health; the only reason Nita stands out is because of the scale of an Ambani project. As for her philanthropy, given the sheer size of the family fortunes, it’s not exactly legendary, yet.

All said, Nita’s evolution is a mix of a well-crafted image-building process and her meticulous efforts to be an achiever. As De says, “Mukesh is the driver in this plan. It is a joint mission. This is not only about her; it’s about them.” She is Mukesh’s partner and, personally and professionally, his equal. It’s a telling sign that the name-plate on her office door simply says: Nita Ambani.

The World According To Nita Ambani

The elder Ambani bahu has taken charge of all of RIL’s extra-curricular activities, including image-building

  • Health: Crafting the Hurkisondas Hospital makeover; plans to replicate the model for existing crumbling hospitals

  • Education: Has set up close to six primary schools at various locations; working with a close-knit team to set up a Reliance private university

Photograph by Getty Images, From Outlook, May 14, 2012

  • Sports: Owns and manages the Mumbai Indians IPL team; is hands-on during player auctions and IPL seasons

Photograph by Fotocorp, From Outlook, May 14, 2012

  • Outreach: Through hand-picked NGOs and friends' groups, lends her considerable clout to girl child issues, working with the blind
  • Employees: Kickstarted and guides various RIL staff welfare facilities and activities at company plants like Jamnagar

Photograph by Fotocorp, From Outlook, May 14, 2012

  • The family: Rebrand the oft controversial Gujarati bania family as one with deep Indian values and high achievers; bring out the softer side of Mukesh Ambani
  • The company: Rebrand RIL via soft power; portray it as a modern, networked, philanthropic, respectable, intellectual and glamorous conglomerate

  • The self: Studied casting of a multi-faceted personality: loyal wife, devoted DIL, committed mother, soiree hostess, educationist, ‘corporate citizen of the year’.
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