India’s biggest Talent Manager is a ‘Khasi’ boy from Shillong

“If you look at people below the age of 40 in Bollywood, we’re working with at least half of them”. That is Anirban Das Blah; the CEO of the talent management agency KWAN, partly explaining what his company does.

We’d had a 2-hour phone interview a few months ago and I was straining my ears over a pair of tinny PC speakers trying to transcribe that conversation. We talked about a lot of things and as I went through the transcribed material I realized the legitimacy of what Anirban says when he points out, ‘…if your life is bigger than your dream, you have no right to be unhappy’. What a life it is, especially for a ‘Khasi’ boy from Shillong. But I had just pored over it through a shitty phone recording and even shittier speakers, so maybe I wasn’t as impressed as I should’ve been.

We’ve known each other from our school days and I have never really been surprised by his success – you know, as the INXS song goes Here come the man with the look in his eye/Fed on nothing but full of pride’. Even so, the scale of his success has been staggering and the company he now owns is not only the largest talent management agency in India but also ‘larger than the number 2 to the number 7 talent management companies put together’. KWAN works across all sectors of popular Indian culture, so in Bollywood some of their clients would be Ranbir Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, Hrithik Roshan, Sonam Kapoor and Tiger Shroff; in music, Sonu Nigam and Pritam; in sports, Sania Mirza and so on. I am suitably impressed by this list of names (though I’m not really a fan of any) and I ask Anirban what any normal person would, ‘What the hell do you do with them? I mean, what is talent management?’

Before he answers there is a slight pause and I play the faulty recording over and over again to decipher it. I couldn’t decide whether it was an amused sigh or an irritated ‘not again’ silence. But when he answers, it was with the assuredness of a man used to such incredulous queries. ‘You see’ he explains ‘an athlete, an actor or a director who wants to build a career doesn’t necessarily know how to. They want to get the best advice, they want access, the right money, they want their content to be good and they want the best job. But how do they do it? Also, there are entrepreneurs – people who have ideas linked with popular culture and want to create their own businesses but don’t know where to invest. So, KWAN is an ecosystem that enables people to find success in all these spheres. Think of us as ‘enablers’ – we work behind the scenes to make a lot of things happen’. It sounds like a lot of wheeling and dealing I tell him and he agrees but emphasizes that it cuts out the unscrupulous fixer. ‘If someone wants to call a Bollywood star to perform in a wedding or to open a jewellery store in Ranchi, call us. Why do they need to go through ten levels of fixers? If talent is needed and there’s a market place for it, you can get it for the right price, with the right information and transparency and it doesn’t need people at each level’.

I try to wrap my head around this – talent, marketplace, right price, transparency and immediately think of my town and his. Any talent in any market place for the right price? O, what the generations of lost, forgotten musicians and artists of Meghalaya would have given for a system like this? But Anirban stops me short. ‘The biggest challenge is the language. English language media and entertainment in India is very small and limited. At this point, whatever I do in western music will be just about a small show here or promoting a band there….you know, a one-off thing that can’t be replicated. Eventually that’s what I want to do – not just to help someone from there to make it as a musician like Papon or something but to create opportunities on an ongoing basis, something sustainable. I haven’t cracked that yet’. But he is also quick to add that things can happen, only that a certain comfort with Hindi is required and cites Ronnie Lahiri as an example. ‘Ronnie’s produced some of the most successful movies in Bollywood – Pink, Vicky Donor, Piku etc. He has a certain artistic sensibility coming from Shillong but he marries that with an understanding of what the market wants’. 

That’s the reality then. I’ve always wondered about our musicians and their dreams of the ‘bright lights’. It is moving. But the base for English based entertainment (as you’ve heard from the horse’s mouth) is miniscule and is largely dependent on patronage.

Born to a mother of mixed Bengali-Khasi ancestry and an Assamese father who were both State Bank of India employees, he has the kind of ethnic and class combination that people in Shillong believe breeds successful people.

In the 40s in Shillong, it was the patronage of the rich Bengalis, Assamese and ‘Saheps’ (whites); in the 70s, that of Marwari promoters and now that of the government’s, the NH7s and the Rock Ons. Perhaps it can’t be helped. Even Goa’s jazz musicians survived, at one time, by the patronage of the Bombay film industry but that was also because they shaped and contributed immensely to the Bollywood music of that era. Can our musicians and artists shape the sensibilities of mainland India in the same way? Not in English, for sure. It is ironic in a way that Ronnie Lahiri and even Anirban are shaped by the sensibilities of this small town but have yet managed to adapt to the demands of the mainland in ways that most Khasis have floundered. So I point to the elephant in the room and question Anirban about his ‘Khasi-ness’.

Parents: Rita Das Blah & P K Das

There is a myth here that if a Khasi person is successful, especially in business, he or she must surely have dkhar (non tribal) roots. Anirban like a lot of people finds this kind of stereotyping dangerous but myths like these, in my mind, are also at one level the powerless jibes of disenfranchised locals who have been left in the wrong side of ‘development’s’ wake. As faulty as this thinking is, in the absence of a politics that identifies the real causes of this disenfranchisement, the easiest target, I’m afraid, will always be the ‘other’.

Anirban (on the right)  & Indranil in their St. Edmund’s school uniform

Funnily enough though, in Anirban’s case, he is guilty as charged. Born to a mother of mixed Bengali-Khasi ancestry and an Assamese father who were both State Bank of India employees, he has the kind of ethnic and class combination that people in Shillong believe breeds successful people. But Anirban will cheerily point out that the reverse is also true. His Assamese relatives were worried that his father ‘has married this tribal girl and the kids will not turn out well’. He adds ‘You know they had that stereotypical notion of what tribals are supposed to be like. I think the feeling was that they were not ambitious, not that successful, they’ll end up getting someone pregnant at a very young age, they’ll get into alcohol….’ So through this kind of ethnic stereotyping, he and his siblings were already losers and winners even before they were born. This might have made for a pretty tense upbringing but for his father who ‘…told us not to worry about what other people say and to take our time. My dad’s main focus was how to be happy’. His mother was more wary because Anirban felt that ‘she had to prove people wrong, to show that her Khasi kids can be as successful as anyone coming from a Guwahati type environment’. As a result, he and his siblings had a very protected upbringing. He recalls his mom worrying about them turning into ‘locality kids’ and hence they never had many friends in the neighbourhood.

Shailabas Cottage, Malki

Anirban was born just before the riots of 1979 hit Shillong and grew up in Shailabas Cottage near the Malki Playground. The decade after the riots was a particularly tense one and young boys, especially, would be physically targeted for their perceived crime of being mixed or ‘shipiah’ (half a rupee in Khasi). So his headstrong mother’s decision (well meaning as it was) to insulate them from the community normally wouldn’t have helped. But Anirban recalls an intriguing thing.

Shailabas Cottage, Malki, Shillong

‘It wasn’t until I was about 12 years old when I got attacked by a bunch of boys. I was just about 2-3 minutes away from my house when I got jumped because I didn’t look Khasi. But people from the locality came immediately and told the boys ‘what are you doing? He’s Khasi.’ It might be pointed out here that Anirban belongs to an old Malki 1 family and generations of his uncles and cousins have been men about town who were seen to be as Khasi as the next person. In a strange way, his family’s place in the little area of Malki where he grew up survived the conflicts of the 70s through to the 90s. It also has to be remembered that the shipiah tag gained currency after the riots and a lot of mixed Khasi people who grew before that did not really have to question their non Khasi halves. When the riots broke out, Khasis of mixed parentage saw it not as an act of tribals asserting their identity but as an uprising against Bengali arrogance. My half Muslim (of U.P ancestry) brother in law, who grew up in Jaiaw2, recalls his uncles joining the Khasis in street battles against the Bengalis and the police because they saw themselves as Khasis. It was incredibly difficult if you were a Khasi who carried a bit of Bengali blood but for the rest with mixed ancestry, they grew up here, spoke the language and called Shillong home, so they considered themselves Khasis. Of course, the identity issue has worsened with community lines clearly drawn now and Khasis of mixed parentage have had a lot of introspection to do since then. Anirban grew up bang in the middle of this transition – a small, cosmopolitan (yet oppressed) town changing to one where the majority was wielding its identity, most of the time violently. The factors and histories of this transition are myriad and no community, in my opinion, is blameless but this is a topic for another story.

Siblings

The 80s, suffice to say, were the heyday of Khasi nationalism and of its many manifestations, one was that most Khasi boys saw ‘shoh dkhar’ (our version of Paki bashing) as a rite of passage. Marley’s Buffalo soldier had been bastardised into ‘Buffalo Soldier, fighting for Meghalaya/Fighting the Bengali and also the Nepali’ and groups of young Khasi boys would walk around seeking out the unfortunate dkhar in what they regarded as ethnically neutral areas – Ward’s Lake, Lady Hydari Park etc . As a half Khasi boy growing up in Malki, Anirban remembers this all too well. ‘My earliest introduction to that kind of violence was the ’87 riots when I was about 9 years old. We would watch people at Malki point being chased or pulled out of buses, people running, scooters being set on fire. You know, the centre of Shillong from about Police Bazaar to say Nongrim Hills or Nongthymmai tends to be seen as this safe, multicultural sort of a place and then in the middle of all that was Malki – which was a place more spatially aligned to Mawlai * than Dhankheti. By the time I was about 14 or so I had started to be careful, I would always like to be home before dark. Even though the walk between Malki Point and my house was just about 5 minutes but the chances of you not getting beaten up within those 5 minutes were very low’.

St. Edmund’s School

We start talking about tags – ‘other’, ‘outsider’ ‘Khasi’, ‘dkhar’ and Anirban recalls his confusion at the time and also the place that he found amidst it all. ‘Here in Shillong, most of my relatives were Khasi – my grand mom, cousin sisters – these were the people I grew up with. So I didn’t really feel like the ‘other’ here, maybe not as much as other people might have. My sense of not fitting in here really only came in times of violence during the riots. But to be honest, my Khasi world only revolved only around my relatives or in school where these things didn’t really matter. I mean, there was definitely a ‘dkhar-Bangal’ thing happening in school but again, I felt, it wasn’t so much about ethnicity as it was cultural. It so happened that most of the guys who did well in school were Bengalis but they also tended to know nothing about life outside of studies. I was never really the guy who wanted to come first in school – my interests were also in music, football and the creative stuff so I never really felt the branding that the really intelligent guys who came 1st or 2nd might have felt. I was never as academically inclined as those people so I never felt it as much as I could have, to be honest. With Khasis, I might have sometimes felt ethnically other but never culturally…’

Beer, Music & Shillong

This ethnic otherness that he felt sometimes though, was enough for him to start walking around with a bicycle chain. He never used it but recalls that it made him feel safe. Also the ‘branding’ that he talks about worked in complex ways, there were hierarchies within hierarchies and though Anirban didn’t (as he admits) face it as much, he observed it quite keenly nevertheless. ‘People who were beaten up were beaten up because they didn’t conform to the notion of what a non tribal was supposed to be like, like in A’s case because he had Khasi girlfriends and friends or B’s case because he had a bit of a temper and couldn’t control his mouth. It was very weird because it was like ‘okay you’re a non tribal, so can do well academically and in that way go below the radar’ but the moment you asserted some sort of personality or equality or whatever it is then you needed to be put in your place. So, that I found really strange. But you know ….there was this guy, Lamonte, who was Khasi…and he also got it…so I’m not sure how far this was a Khasi/non Khasi thing but I do feel it was really a brutalizing environment. If people felt that there was something about you that came across as not knowing your place, then you were put in your place violently in an ongoing basis.’ In the end, this is the sort of bullying that goes on in all ‘All Boys’ schools but at that time in Shillong it was easy to give everything a communal colour.

So, what were Anirban’s feelings towards Khasis outside his family- maybe the boys pouncing on him on his walk back home?

Despite, the boundaries that we cut across through our shared tastes in music, sports, films and lovers, no one (Khasi, non Khasi and mixed families alike) have survived this mutual distrust and antagonism in a meaningful way. The town, even today, despite its coating of development and ‘rock capital’ cosmopolitanism is still deeply divided.

So, what were Anirban’s feelings towards Khasis outside his family- maybe the boys pouncing on him on his walk back home? Did it colour his perception about Khasi society in any way? Anirban has mixed feelings about this recalling the fear that hemmed him in but also the confusion of having close relatives in organisations like the KSU (Khasi Student’s Union) and the FKGJP (Federation of Khasi Jaintia and Garo People)3. ‘They (the relatives) were quite senior in these organizations and when they came home they would sit and talk about it not in terms of an ethnic issue but as societal ills that they were trying to address. So I don’t think I had this sense that these were bad people or what they were doing was wrong. I mean, people were telling me in my own home that they didn’t have a problem with non tribals and as a 10-12 year old you’re just absorbing this and hoping not to get caught in the crossfire. Also culturally – things like food, tastes, music made me feel Khasi. Values wise – attitude towards women and the role of women that was all Khasi for me. Also in terms of morality, sexuality and the more liberal values were all Khasi.’ But on one thing he is clear – ‘I never really felt that alienation from the mainstream that many other people did here in Shillong. I didn’t feel that I was not an Indian. I did not feel that Delhi or something would be an alien land for me. I was ambitious and I wanted to do something in the world of media or advertising. For that, I felt that I needed to leave Shillong and that I needed to go and study in a bigger city’.

Generally, leaving Shillong for something better is an option that many working class non tribal or mixed Khasi boys don’t have, so they rough it out.

To be honest, I hated Delhi. I found hostel life tough, I mean just the sheer violence in the hostel and its fault lines – Bihari/non Bihari, Old Delhi versus the newcomers…it was like Lord of the Flies.

Some accept the town and find acceptance until the next riot breaks out while some, sustained by a powerful, non tribal business community, will rise up the ladder and continually exact revenge on the only section of Khasis whom they think they can touch without reprimand – the working class and the poor; the very same class most ripe to form a mob for the next demagogue. It’s a vicious cycle that, I suppose, plays itself out everywhere.

President of the North East Students’ Federation

It would be easy to conclude at this point that leaving Shillong was liberating for Anirban, that what he had faced was a small town issue. He’d find out different. ‘To be honest, I hated Delhi. I found hostel life tough, I mean just the sheer violence in the hostel and its fault lines – Bihari/non Bihari, Old Delhi versus the newcomers…it was like Lord of the Flies. I think I was lucky that I came from Shillong and all those survival instincts that it instilled in me, but I found Delhi really tough’. So, if he thought that he was finally rid off the parochialism of a small town, he was wrong. Far from home, the comfort of what he had rejected was the only thing he had and Anirban held on for dear life. ‘I got into a mediocre college where I couldn’t speak to anyone in my class, I couldn’t connect with them. I sort of drifted back into this very North Eastern environment – lived with these two Khasi guys, hung out only with Khasi guys. Then I got into student politics and became President of the North East Students’ Federation because I could carry three State votes – I could carry the Assam vote, the Meghalaya vote and because I could speak Assamese, so some Nagamese, I was pretty sure I could lock in either Arunachal or Nagaland. So, I got into all that but I was still really lost and in need of some identity’. He even toyed with the idea of coming back to Shillong and taking up Mass Communication in St. Anthony’s College but things didn’t work out so he was forced to go back to Delhi and finish the year there. ‘I nearly flunked out of my 12th, I literally almost flunked. I don’t know how I passed. You needed to get a minimum pass mark in Math and I got that only because I repeated a question twice, so some guy must have graded me double for that (laughs). Otherwise I would’ve flunked my 12th’.

But things were changing too and he got into a group of likeminded young people from Shillong who were trying to make it in Delhi in the 90s – among them was Nicholas Kharkongor (now a respected playwright and filmmaker who has just released his first feature film Mantra). Anirban remembers this loose knit collective that he refuses to call a group because they only had ‘….a common connection through school or something or whatever connections we had got greatly exaggerated because we needed a safety net. But I look back on them and I’m thankful because I was the youngest and I do feel that some of the people in that group really looked out for me and stopped me from making really bad decisions with my life and the reason I didn’t become too messed up was because of those guys – Nicholas, Herbert, Cliff who was a musician. Then there was Jop, who later found the army. There were 2-3 girls as well, Carol…then another one from Pine Mount School but I forget her name….then there was Calvin, who I think works for Microsoft now’. This doesn’t seem like a group of militant nationalists, so did they help him eventually adapt to Delhi? Well, there’s no easy fit. He admired some, like ‘… Nicholas was in Delhi at that same time and I looked at him….you know even Nicholas wasn’t really part of Khasi society at all…and he was also trying to break into Delhi’s creative society’.

But he was also finding out that no matter how Khasi or North Eastern he was trying to be, he would never really cut it because as he says ‘… it was what I did just to get something to hold on to’ and also the ground reality for him and his other north eastern friends was vastly different. In his own words, ‘….their notion of a North Eastern identity and my notion of it were entirely different. I didn’t feel a sense of injustice and oppression like they did because I didn’t face it’. Despite his bouts of self doubt and crisis of identity, Anirban realized that he had one thing that made it easier for him in India than any of his ‘north eastern’ friends – ‘…if you look at my face it doesn’t look North Eastern at all. I look the way some Assamese people can look – you know the way Assamese people can look Bengali or Bihari. So I’ve got a very mainstream Indian face and that helped a lot. Also the fact I have a name like Anirban helped…’

There are a lot of ‘north eastern’ people who have made it in the mainland but they’ve done so by bravely overcoming prejudice or by dreading to come back to Shillong (not seeing a life for them here anymore) they accepted and rationalized the prejudice they faced. Meanwhile, others still struggle and a Police Helpline seems of no assistance.

‘Eventually I grew to really like the city…’

Anirban’s dislike for Delhi slowly evolved into a kind of love-hate relationship. Beyond the conversations and attitudes he couldn’t connect to, he was also beginning to see other things, ‘…there were aspects of that society that I did like. I liked their intellectual culture, the exposure, the ambition, the arts scene. So there were many things that I did like. It’s just that I didn’t know how to break into it, to fit in to those sorts of milieus’. He would learn soon enough though. Putting one foot in front of the other he started writing, doing odd jobs at NDTV and slowly got exposed to the arts and cultural scene in Delhi. He ran with the ‘liberal, progressive’ crowd for a while and then entered an organisation that changed his life – AISEC. Anirban recalls that it was ‘…. a student run organisation for people who wanted to build careers, businesses. It was a very international, very high achieving kind of crowd. You don’t get into that organisation without a process of group discussions, interviews and the people who tend to make it there are sort of stars in their schools and who want to go out and do something’. This was, of course, a much richer world that the one he came from and Anirban would often joke, ‘…I couldn’t afford to go out with them because I couldn’t afford beer in those kind of places’.

But what he got a chance to do was to organize internships for foreign students, meet business people, leading NGOs and to build strong friendships with the foreign students. He began to see the futility of trying to follow the, as he says, ‘…study science – 2 years training for the IITs – I’ll become an engineer for life or a management graduate at 21-22’ route and decided that he wasn’t going to be defined by the choices that he makes at 21 years of age. His Dad was always there too, telling him to not to feel pressured or he might end up doing something that he didn’t like. He continued his work at AISEC and remembers ‘…things started coming together- financial freedom, being exposed to people who were really articulate and who liked and respected you purely because of what you brought to the table intellectually’. He pauses here for a minute to remember his old friends Herbert, Jop and Calvin for being kind and considerate. ‘I was 18 and they were 23-24, it was not like they were much older so it was very kind of them to do what they did’. At about this time he was also getting rid of some old illusions and gaining some new insights. ‘I saw myself as a creative guy, more like a writer than anything else. But I also realized that I was a decent writer not a spectacular writer. I wrote for the Delhi Times and did some music reviews but didn’t enjoy myself at all. So in AISEC I got exposed to a lot to companies, selling and marketing and I found that I enjoyed marketing a lot’.

Sweden

Anirban got himself to Sweden, worked for a while and landed an internship in Ericsson Telecom for about one and a half years. It was the kind of place where ‘….they chose only the really interesting people and also had a kind of fast track mode where they’d expose us to different things really quickly like sales strategies, marketing etc’. He bonded well with his bosses there and one of them, Tom Walsh, played a pivotal role in helping Anirban take his next step. It was 2002, the big global crash in IT and Telecom had happened but India was booming. All Anirban wanted to do was come back to India, do his GMAT and get into investment banking. But Tom Walsh shocked him by saying that these plans would be a complete waste of his ability. A shaken Anirban replied ‘what are you talking about? It’s everybody’s dream to get into Goldman Sachs. You can’t have more power and money than that at such a young age’. Tom, in return, cited the example of Kofi Annan and asked Anirban what if the Secretary General of the United Nations (at the time) had decided to become an investment banker? This really struck him and Anirban remembers that ‘…for someone to question the idea of getting into a good B-School and getting into Goldman Sachs or something really made me think. I had also met people in business that had philosophy backgrounds and all that so I started wondering about this fixation with a business degree’.

Anyway, he reasoned that he had broken many notions of what a guy from Shillong could do – he didn’t become an engineer, he studied literature and didn’t get into a post graduate course. Instead he travelled, got a job abroad and was just experimenting with many possibilities. ‘There I was at 24– a literature graduate from a mid level college with no consistent pattern in his CV or Work-experience, no clear cut plans and no qualifications. So from a conventional perspective, it was not really not the best place for me to have been in but that was when I was most comfortable with myself and my own sense of possibility’.

Jerry Maguire

Back in India and now comfortable with the ‘big city, Indian environment’, he began to see his life and where he’d fit in. Anirban remembers ‘…the rest of the world was slowing down and sort of going through a recession, India was booming, right? It was just 6-7 years after liberalization, Infosys and Wipro had just emerged. There was just a sense of real possibility; there were new kinds of things that people were doing. The media was expanding – whether it was TV, films, internet companies and suddenly there were new kinds of jobs and new kinds of possibilities. There was this feeling that if you found your space, there were many exciting things that you could do’.

even Cruise himself wouldn’t have imagined that his portrayal of a ‘sports agent who grew a conscience’ in Jerry Maguire would inspire the founding of India’s largest talent management agency.

It was in the confluence of events and the possibilities of that time indeed that Anirban would finally ‘find his space’. He had been a fan of the Cameron Crowe film Jerry Maguire since college and would often think ‘…it would be cool to have a job like that’.

Signed poster for Anirban

It is said that Tom Cruise helped double the recruitment of the US Air Force due to the romanticisation of fighter pilots in his film Top Gun. But even Cruise himself wouldn’t have imagined that his portrayal of a ‘sports agent who grew a conscience’ in Jerry Maguire would inspire the founding of India’s largest talent management agency. It so happened that the tennis player Mahesh Bhupathi was also starting a sports firm called Globosport at about the same time that India was testing its waters with the ‘Jerry Maguires’ of the world and Anirban saw an opportunity, ‘…I liked the idea of a sports agency and as someone who loved sports, I just saw an opportunity and grabbed it’. But what did Anirban know about sports management beyond absorbing the celluloid wisdom of Tom Cruise? Well ‘…we knew that we were going to handle tennis players but no one knew what that meant. I’d heard of Mark Mascarenhas and Sachin Tendulkar but I would’ve have known how to get into it’.

As it turned out, part of the job played to his strength – handling people. So when tennis events were organized and international stars like Mary Pierce, Martina Hingis and Martina Navratilova came down, Anirban would handle them and pretty soon he was given the responsibility of signing talent for the agency – Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna were among his first. Things moved rapidly from there and by the time he was 26, he was given the chance to run and build that company up. Anirban realized quickly that the field of sports in itself was too limiting and if Globosport had to grow it had to expand to other sectors of popular culture – entertainment, movies and music. He was making a name for himself and could easily have been tempted by the offers coming his way. As he remembers ‘…when the IPL started, the Rajasthan Royals offered me a salary of about one crore a year and 5% of the team’s earnings. At that time I was earning about a lakh a month and here I was being offered co-ownership of an IPL Team. But I knew the IPL was very limited compared to what I was doing. I mean, I was trying to expand to all of popular culture and entertainment…’ He was also always clear that about his approach to money, ‘…the one thing I had to my advantage, even today, is that it’s never just about the money for me. I don’t think money motivates me beyond a point’, and he wanted to build a company not work for one, ‘…I wanted to learn as much as possible, build as large a network as possible and build my skills in a business that I wanted to be in. Globosport allowed me to do that…’

Telling stories

So what was the expansion like? The leap from sports to movies wouldn’t have been easy- Bollywood with its fraternal bonds forged over centuries wouldn’t have take kindly to upstarts, right? But Anirban tells me that beyond the initial hiccup, he was actually playing in an open field. ‘I mean people had managers but never agents who created opportunities for them…I landed in Bombay, I went to Saif Ali Khan’s house… so I told Saif, ‘why don’t you let me do this for you? I will go there and tell brands why they should sign you’. He said ‘well, I’ve never really thought about this. It doesn’t make sense’. My question to him was, and it’s a question I’ve asked a lot of people, ‘What have you got to lose?’ It wasn’t an easy sell at first because a brand endorsement, like everything else, comforts itself with the familiar and the usual suspects at the time were Hrithik Roshan, Abhishek Bachchan and the Khans (Saif Ali excluded). Anirban explains how he went about getting his first movie celebrity endorsement, ‘So then I went and met Lays and a few other brands and said to them ‘I know you think that he’s too anglicized, westernized and the janta doesn’t get him. But if you want to sell to the housewife in, say, Bareilly ok, get Shah Rukh Khan. But if you want to sell to urban India, then Saif is the man who guys want to be like and who girls want to date – he’s cool, westernized with a sense of humour and someone who embodies their aspirations. He’s the one they relate to not SRK and he’s available at a fraction of the cost. Why don’t you sign him?’ He signed two endorsements and became bigger and bigger’. A lot of work goes into a brand endorsement and Anirban explains that things like a star’s attitude, image and iconography had to be built well around them but more importantly they seemed to have struck something by ‘…telling brands about the kind of things that people connect with emotionally when all they (brands) were doing was looking at data. We were telling stories. So that’s how we grew’.

But growth can cut both ways and Anirban found that that even as a co-owner of Globosport he was getting held back in what was essentially a family owned business. He explains ‘…when Globosport started getting bigger, the family got more and more involved – be it the father, the sister…you know, I want my father’s friend to do this, my sister’s friend to do that. As a result the people who had built the company with me and who were responsible for its success were not getting just rewards. So I thought ‘you know if I want to build something really large, I’d be the owner, promoter whatever but eventually it would have to outlast me’. I needed to be able to give people the opportunity to grow, to get the reward of entrepreneurship – money, recognition, freedom and all those things without giving them the risk. I couldn’t do that with Globosport because they had an older mentality rather than an organisation building mentality. So I left because I had a different management philosophy’.  

‘Some people have the coin but they don’t have the Kwan’

It’s no surprise that when Anirban decided to set up his own company he would turn to Jerry Maguire again for inspiration. So, a part of Cuba Gooding Jr’s line from the movie ‘…some people have the coin but they don’t have the Kwan’ became Anirban’s new company.

It would be pointless to chart the successful trajectory of Kwan’s path here as it is well documented and we’ve pointed out that it is bigger than its next six competitors put together. But it would be intriguing though to find out what the company does on a day to day basis and Anirban gives us a little peek. ‘Let’s talk about this from the perspective of what 4-6 people would do on any given day. One who is working for a Ranbir Kapoor will speak with his secretary, explain why he has to do this, sign that, go there. Another will be with him on shoots and see that everything goes smoothly.

How would’ve Dylan, Tom Waitts, Nina Simone and other fiercely independent artists reacted to this kind of regimentation?

Someone else will be sourcing and reading scripts to Deepika Padukone to act in, produce or be a part of. Others will be sitting with directors, writers and creators analyzing what kind of films she should be a part of. Someone is out there to make sure that Pritam is doing 3 or 4 of the best movies out there in the industry. Someone else will be trying to get musicians the best gigs, like singing for Vishal Shekhar or something. Someone else will be sitting with Sania Mirza and trying to create a clothing line for 4 Square, someone else will be sitting with writers and directors trying to get the best content possible. Someone will be trying to rope in new actors, say Tiger Shroff, and get people to make the necessary introductions. This is what we do – join the dots, introduce things, put content together and connect people’.

At this point I begin to wonder about the nature of celebrity, art and independence. How would’ve Dylan, Tom Waitts, Nina Simone and other fiercely independent artists reacted to this kind of regimentation? Or are these artists of a different time? Beyonce, Kanye West, Taylor Swift, Sonam Kapoor, Tiger Shroff – what came first the chicken or the egg? The art or the art of celebrity? Are these two so intertwined that one can’t come without the other? It is naïve to think that artists no matter how great become what they are without help and grooming. But does brand endorsement now jostle for the same space as content? Are artists now more malleable or more willing to be shaped than any other era? Anirban thinks that the answer lies somewhere in the middle, ‘…agents have existed from the earliest days of popular music. Their job was to book gigs. Agencies like MCA would sit and ensure that artists like Howling Wolf would find places to play and perform. There is this feeling in society that money impacts artistic integrity. I don’t think that’s necessarily true though of course it does happen and it comes down to the individual’. He adds, ‘What has changed though is the idea of a celebrity as a brand. Where the art is no longer the primary means of income but just a marketing platform that is leveraged across multiple platforms. This commoditizing is something I can’t ever imagine a Dylan subscribing to. But I have realised that it’s not for me to judge, art and culture don’t exist in a vacuum but reflect and shape and are shape by society. Today’s society is one that worships at the altar of celebrity and commerce’.

Anirban also explains that companies like Kwan are being seen as an integral part of the global entertainment industry and they play a part in everything from the creation of a celebrity clothing line to the commissioning of the next Amazon or a Netflix series. In India, Kwan is the only company straddling these areas but also much more. They handle big movie events, ‘…the Filmfare awards – chances are that we have programmed all of the talent in it and make sure that they perform’ and they also run a football team in the ISL – Mumbai City FC, ‘….we do everything from logistics, players, coaches, training…everything. We’re given a budget and our job is to deliver a great experience, on the field and off it, for everyone’. Kwan also plays a role in putting together movies, as Anirban explains’ ‘…Let’s take Yash Raj, they have about 6 directors under contract and they put together 4 or 5 movies a year with about 3-5 heroes. What Kwan does is that we have 38 directors that we represent. So what we do is, if you want to buy rights you come to us, if you want someone to compose music you come to us, you want an actor, an actress you come to us. Because we have 4 times more directors and 4 times more actors than say Yash Raj or Dharma, we end up putting together more films than they do combined. So we are a platform that enables creative talent to get work out …..’

To sum it up in Anirban’s words, ‘…that’s our role – marrying the worlds of brands, finance and creative talent….’

But he is also mindful of the future, especially the way that technology can disrupt it. He says, ‘…we don’t know if in the next 10-15 years there will be any movie theaters left. What I do know is that there will be content and creators of content and if we are the people who have the closest relationship with creators of content and allow content to come out, I know we’ll be relevant’. Kwan has also invested in other entertainment based companies, ‘…8-9 companies where I’ve invested in ranging from 3-9% and I want that to grow to 30-35 companies that we are meaningfully invested in…’ This makes it a very powerful company indeed but Anirban insists that he can only concentrate on what he can control and Kwan’s contribution to entertainment can also be seen in other ways.

You would think that for a successful businessman, Anirban’s politics would be conservative or at least he wouldn’t be so vocal about the government of the day’s policies.

‘For example, most actresses in Bollywood in the last 10 years who have made it in the last 10 years have mostly been Kwan discoveries. They’ve been able to concentrate on their talent and not go through shit like before and made it on pure merit. That I like. If entertainment can be made more transparent then it’s fantastic. But apart from that, I really don’t know where it’s all going – to say for certain that this is who we are and this is what we’ll achieve is all shit because the world changes faster than you’.

‘I’ve always been a left-liberal my entire life’

You would think that for a successful businessman, Anirban’s politics would be conservative or at least he wouldn’t be so vocal about the government of the day’s policies. But one glance at his Facebook posts and you can immediately see that he holds some values dear and wishes that ‘….the world believed in those same values, then the world would be a kinder happier place. We’d have a left polity, left everything. There’s enough historical data to prove that – look at Sweden, Canada, Denmark. These are countries with the least inequality, a greater safety net, everything…..If you name the top 5 countries in the world, they’re all left liberal. They all have socialist values of some kind’.

He admits there has been pressure on him to shut up but it’s not as if business and politics are two different hats that he puts on and anyway he has squared it with himself this way, ‘…. it’s not like it’s a public company I run, it’s a privately owned company. So I’m not answerable to public shareholders, I’m answerable to myself. This is what I believe in and stand for and if as a result the company grows at less than 10% than it should, I’d have no problems with that’.

He delves back to his memories of Shillong, remembers his fears then and doesn’t want his kids to grow up in the atmosphere that the present government is trying to create in the country. ‘All those years in Shillong, the economy suffered, tourism suffered, people suffered – it was a dead end and no one won. Having grown up with that, I can’t stand by and let people think what is happening now is okay. I have children and I’d like them to grow up in a better world. I can’t make it a better world but why should I be quiet about people who are fucking up the world. I feel the need to speak out…. I mean, I look at right wing discourse and all that the violent state is doing and I think, yeah, there’s a price to pay for speaking up but there’s also a price to pay for not speaking up. I’d rather pay the price for standing by my values’.

‘Eventually, I’ve come to embrace my mixed background’

Anirban’s career seems to be one of achievement and fulfilment but standing outside the ring one can’t really tell the jabs from the blows, so I ask him. He thinks that Kwan is still nowhere where it should be but it doesn’t concern him too much. Personally though, he is really proud of a foundation that he started last year with Deepika Padukone called ‘Live, Love, Laugh’. It deals with anxiety, depression, and mental health issues which in India are made fun of and looked down upon. Anirban saw these issues all around him but there were no means to tackle them. He says, ‘people are just branded ‘mad, crazy’ when these are really serious issues. We’ve manage to create a national consciousness about these issues and people are having serious conversations in companies, schools, offices. We’re also working with the WHO and helping it be treated for the epidemic that it is. To achieve that in a year and a half is very satisfying. You know popular culture is great but it has much more influence than people realize’.

Brother Indranil is the CEO of KWAN, heads its sports initiatives and is also CEO of Mumbai City FC. Priyanka is a chef, singer, stylist and yoga instructor among other things. She has also consulted for a number of brands including Puma on digital marketing and social media

Also on the personal front, the entire Das Blah family is now with him in Mumbai and he and his wife Akhila are the is the proud parents of three boys. So, almost all his ties with Shillong now are purely emotional, if any.

I think the levels of corruption in the North East, including Meghalaya, is shocking

He still visits the place sometimes and is saddened by what he sees as its descent into a culture of nepotism. ‘Take someone like myself – I don’t think someone with my family background could make a career for himself in Shillong. I hear there are some opportunities now…but on the whole the old money still controls everything and if it’s not the old money then it’s people with political connections…The government has got some basic things done but I think the levels of corruption in the North East, including Meghalaya, is shocking’.

This is a sad indictment but one that we who live in this town face the consequences of every day. But if the talent of this town will get wasted by nepotism (and also its own hubris), might its youth try managing someone else’s talent instead? Anirban laughs and is quick to point out ‘…don’t go and get any sort of degree in this field. You can only learn through experience. Reach out to me and intern with us’. I was about to leave it at that but couldn’t resist one last query. Did his mixed parentage –Khasi, Assamese, a little Bengali – set him apart from people? Did it help in anyway? He ends it emphatically.

‘My mixed parentage helped me have a questioning nature. In that environment, I started questioning things at a very early age. I didn’t have a sense of victimhood but I was always looking for answers. I wouldn’t have that if I came from a more comfortable environment. Eventually, I’ve come to embrace my mixed background’.

As expected, the surname Blah is still a curiosity and sometimes hilariously so.

 

 

 

 

 

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K Mark Swer Written by:

K Mark Swer is a filmmaker, writer and a radio artist. He is a resident rock critic for raiot.

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