It always amazes me when people manage to work with not one or two but many members of the family in office. What do you do when there is a face-off with a sibling or a spouse, or when your opinions differ tangentially?
Nikhil J. Alva, chairman, Alva Brothers (set up in 2008), and executive director, Miditech, a television software production company (see box), works with four family members—three siblings, including elder brother and partner Niret Alva, and wife Pria Somiah Alva. Does he feel like he is between the devil and the deep sea most of his working life? Alva is quick to dispel that notion. Working with family is good, he says, but to make it successful, you need a system in place.
Aha! The rules of engagement. As far as Niret is concerned, Alva says both are “formal with each other at work (no, they don’t refer to each other as Mr Alva as yet but…), respect each other’s space and share all information with each other at all times so that no one can play (them) against each other. Communication has to be consistent.” His younger siblings, Manira and Nivedith, work out of the Bangalore office and Alva says his work relationship with them is professional.
Alva manages ideas development at Miditech (Illustration by: Jayachandran / Mint)
Working with his wife, who is one of Miditech’s oldest employees (Pria joined in 1993), is a different kettle of fish, however. Alva claims she is very headstrong, and unlike Niret— who, six times out of 10, will yield in a face-off—will not back down. “She refuses to treat me like a boss at work and never thinks twice about telling me that my ideas are rubbish in front of 10 people,” he adds with a laugh.
Five years ago, Alva decided to redraw communication lines in order to avoid volatile head-on collisions: “It was a conscious decision that Pria should report to someone else. That way, she maintains her independence and yet we can talk about our work like any regular couple.”
Alva and I met at the Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi, for an early evening drink. He arrives 10 minutes after I do, dressed in jeans and black shirt, with an army cadet crew cut. We are the first ones at Rick’s, the capital’s forever fashionable bar. I wonder if Alva is a regular here, but he says he chose this place because it is close to home, which is on Safdarjung Road— home to senior bureaucrats and politicians. He lives with his parents, wife and two children—eight-year-old Rian and five-year-old Laila.
As we chat over beer (a pint of Heineken for him and Kingfisher for me) and nibble at the wasabi-flavoured nuts, it is clear that Alva likes to speak his mind. And that perhaps is the reason why he never sought to follow his mother, Margaret Alva, general secretary of the All India Congress Committee, or, for that matter, his paternal grandparents, who were the only married couple in the first Parliament in 1952. “I am too independent in my thinking, and there is very little intra-party democracy in the Indian political scenario. As an individual, I will never be comfortable in that set-up. I would like to get into some sort of public service later, but I don’t see politics as the route for me.”
But growing up with a mother who was in politics had its pluses. It meant a lot of travel, which was great because that way, Alva says, he got to see most of India, even remote parts of the North-East. “Thankfully, my parents never took school seriously and neither did we. In school and college, academics were incidental. It was all about music and extra-curricular activities.”
A trained classical pianist, Alva reminisces about his St Stephen’s days, when he was part of the college band (singer KK was a former bandmate, and remains a close friend) and even toured South Korea for 30 days as part of a youth festival. This love for music led him to set up Miditech and produce music scores for television shows and advertising jingles, including one for Lay’s chips. “But in those days nothing big happened out of Delhi,” he says.
Later, the company moved into television production when Niret, who had worked as a TV journalist, joined. The two brothers got their first project—a series of films (training modules) on the girl child for Unicef. Next, a pitch to Doordarshan (DD) for an environment show, Living On The Edge, was accepted and the company, which was operating out their storeroom at home, was on a roll.
“The then DD director general, Rathikant Basu, did us a great favour by giving Living On the Edge a 9.30pm slot just before the Fifa World Cup finals in 1994. We got a phenomenal response, and from eight sanctioned episodes, we went on to make 13, and then about 200 more.”
Now, almost 15 years later, they have created content for channels such as Doordarshan, Zee, Star, Sony, Disney, Discovery—and the next six months will see Alva’s company evolving into a broadcaster. The parent company, Alva Brothers, tied up with Turner International in December and set up Real Global Broadcasting (RGB), in which each has 50% stake. RGB will launch a general entertainment channel and a few regional channels.
In the current maelstrom of new channels, it is hard to imagine that there is space for one more. But RGB’s channel comes with a positive rider. It has Alva in the forefront, armed with his vast experience in Indian television, especially in adapting and creating reality show formats.
Alva thinks running his own channel will help overcome one giant hurdle for local production houses. “Currently when a production house signs up with a broadcaster for a show, they sign away all intellectual property rights (IPR). Maybe, not wanting to lose any more IPR of show formats we developed drove us to look out for channel space,” he explains.
With phenomenal expertise in reality-based programming (Miditech has done three seasons of Indian Idol, Fame Gurukul, Roadies, Naya Roop Nayi Zindagi, Hospital), the buzz is that the RGB channel is likely to have a lot of reality-based content—something that Alva neither confirms nor vehemently denies. He is tight-lipped and tells me upfront that he has come well-prepared to dodge any questions about RGB. “At present, a huge number of shows and formats are being discussed. In fact, for every slot we have three options. Apart from buying international formats, I am keen also to develop in-house ideas,” is all he is willing to say.
I voice amazement at the way music- and dance-based reality shows have caught on suddenly, and wonder if, going forward, this is all television will offer. Alva has a theory: “Traditional soaps are attracting less people because reality-based shows give the audience a chance to relate with the characters, in whose success they can buy into through SMS votes. Also, today the confident younger lot, hungry for a little fame, not only watch but are also willing to participate.” He feels that the genre is here to stay and will only grow in different areas, such as adventure sports (Fear Factor), and observational drama (Big Boss).
Surprisingly, for someone who pioneered the path-breaking Indian Idol show on Sony TV, Alva says he himself is not too keen on music- and dance-based shows. “Reality shows here have got stuck in a rut of talent hunts and celebrity judges. That needs to change.” And don’t bother to contact him when the Indian Idol winner for the fourth season is about to be announced. “It’s amazing the number of politicians and bureaucrats who want to know which contestant will win. Out of choice, Niret and I don’t know the results till about 30 minutes before they are declared on TV because the pressure of turning away requests is too much.” One area of reality TV that upsets and shocks him are telecasts of “bizarre musical talent hunt shows with howling kids” (though his company produces Sa-Re-Ga-Ma-Pa L’il Champs on Zee Kannada). “There is complete exploitation when you have children in the age group of 6 to 8 up there. Children have to be handled sensitively, especially the eliminations, but that’s not happening right now. In our show on Zee, we don’t pick under-12 kids and don’t play up eliminations. There is no negative feedback given to the kids at all.”
While Miditech and Alva Brothers ready themselves for a big year ahead, Alva has his agenda chalked out. He is concentrating on getting back to the things he loves—running, trekking, adventure sports and pistol shooting—“after almost 10 years of drought in these areas due to work pressure”. In August 2007, he travelled to Ladakh for a six-day rafting expedition down the Zanskar river (read all about his adventure at www.livemint.com/alvaholiday .htm).
He has gone back to shooting thrice a week (he was a junior national-level champion) under the tutelage of former teammate Jaspal Rana, and debunks any chances of an Indian winning a medal in Beijing. “Rajyavardhan Rathore, our best bet, is not in form; and Abhinav Bindra does well everywhere else but freezes at the Asiad or Olympics,” he says when I quiz him about our shooters. He has also taken up “fuddy-duddy” golf, a sport he previously avoided. “I guess waking up at 5am, walking for 3 hours, talking rubbish with close friends, is not so bad after all.”
Nikhil J Alva
Born: 9 November 1969 (Bangalore)
Current Designation: Chairman, Alva Brothers Pvt. Ltd, and executive director, Miditech Pvt. Ltd
Education: BA (Honours), math, St Stephen’s College, New Delhi
Work Profile: Alva is the founder and now executive director of Miditech, set up in 1992 as a music studio; in 1993, this company become a production house when elder brother Niret Alva joined. Alva is the chairman of Alva Brothers Pvt. Ltd, set up in 2008 (Alva Brothers holds a 71% stake in Miditech and Turner International, 29%). The company also has a 50-50 partnership with Turner International in Real Global Broadcasting
Favourite Activities: Hiking and river rafting