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Indian idols, really

By ANJANA RAJAN

Since when did Indian politicians start to love an independent media? For the Alvas, it's all in the family.



Riding high on idealism_Margaret and Niranjan Alva with Nikhil and (seated, from left) Nivedith, Manira and Niret. Photo: Sandeep Saxena.

THE SETS are organised, the cast is assembled. Camera ready, positions, smiles... no, guffaws. "Manira stop cackling!" "I can't help it. You guys think you look like movie stars."

The Alva siblings are certainly not in the midst of shooting one of the path-breaking television programmes that have made their production company Miditech famous. The makers of Sony TV's current rage, Indian Idol, are merely in the throes of a family photograph.

Niret and Nikhil, the elder brothers who founded Miditech, sister Manira and the youngest Nivedith, along with their parents Margaret and Niranjan Alva, are now only a portion of this illustrious family, since marriage and progeny have multiplied the cheerful brood. But it is quite an achievement to get even this set into a single frame, though Nivedith, who got married this week, has the distinction of having drawn the extended family to the Capital from across the globe for his wedding to Meera.

As the doors open and shut and groups of Alvas float about in combinations of generations, you can only agree with Margaret Alva as she remarks, like any hassled mother, "This house is like a hostel, they keep coming in and going out."

For the number of live wires it contains, it is certainly a quiet house. Quintessential harmony, perhaps? After all, it's not always easy to be in a high-tension, highly technical enterprise surrounded by your close family members.

It has both a good and a bad side, feels Manira, who heads the company's Bangalore operations. "It's tough. I think there are hiccups. As you grow older you learn to deal with it. But it's the only place you can yell at your boss, `I don't agree!' and get away with it."

And Niret, who is obviously held in esteem by the other three, points out he is not the technical boss. The CEO of Miditech is actually Nikhil, who remarks in true style, "Family is fine as long as they know where the buck stops." Nikhil's wife Priya also works with Miditech.

Playing with fire

As for Niret, he's "just in a weird creative space." But where would humanity have been if someone hadn't been weird enough to play with fire? Niret has done his share of playing with fire too. "Apparently I was disastrous in school. Totally a rebel." And the experimenting type! He was the one who just had to try out the parachute principle, sending his companions down from a terrace holding on to an umbrella. "I was the scientist, so somebody else had to go down," he explains. He also made a "cycle train", tying four bicycles together to see how they crashed, but here he was a participant observer. "I was the leader in that one."

And starting Miditech 17 years ago when Indian TV waves were still monopolised by Doordarshan was all about leading his pack from the front into unknown territory.

Margaret Alva, despite her stature in the Congress party, emphasises she played no role in helping the company along. "The only contribution I've made is to stand guarantee for a Rs.40000 loan to start Miditech, under the unemployed graduates scheme."

That's why her children have turned out hardworking, honest people, she feels. "They were not brilliant enough to get into the IITs, IIMs, Medical, etc.," she relates with a frankness that seems to run in the family. "And we didn't have the money to buy them seats. We had no wealth or land or industry to give them." Brilliant is a subjective word though. The brothers did all graduate from St. Stephen's, New Delhi, and Nikhil, besides completing Maths Honours there, had "five or seven colours in sports," she recalls. "We all thought he would be a nuclear scientist. But he has lots of music in him."

Independent streak

It was Nikhil whose piano teacher chided the parents for not taking interest in their son's musical career though he had the potential to be a pianist. The parents though, were only heeding their son's warning that he would quit classes if they checked up on him.

"Dada," as they endearingly refer to Dad, corroborates the independent streak. "They never allow us to interfere," he says about Miditech. But they have inherited some of the attitude from him. While the mother fondly admits it was her dream the eldest boy should join the civil services, her husband was appalled at the idea. Having a job and being dependent is something he has never appreciated, and he has covered a lot of fields in his time - law, marketing in the private and public sector, export, shipping.

So change runs in the family too. Change that made a big mark when Margaret Alva, a young mother of three - "I had the fourth child when I was in Parliament" - was handpicked by Indira Gandhi to come to Delhi from Bangalore and join her in her work.

The family bonding is visible. Niranjan Alva, in his genial and quiet way, has obviously played a towering role.

"It's been fantastic," he laughs. "But I'm too old to do it again."

Never mind, the legacy is in strong hands.

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