Suku, you’ve grown so fat.”
Geetanjali Kirloskar’s voice cuts through the moderately crowded 1911 bar at New Delhi’s Imperial Hotel; and everyone turns to look at the fat man (the saving grace is that he is wearing a Batman T-shirt which makes him look like a cool fat man)
Fact is, the years have had their effect on me, while they have been kind to Geetanjali.
Full disclosure: The lady was one of this writer’s two bosses at Pratibha Advertising in the mid- 1990s, before he decided that he was better off on the other side (in media), and on the other side of the other side (writing).
Geetanjali looks pretty much the way she did when I was a trainee at Pratibha. She is dressed in a simple white salwar-kameez, and maybe it is the cut of the dress, but she looks as slim as a reed.
We order our drinks—a Virgin Mary for her (that’s essentially tomato juice with some embellishments) and a Corona for me.
She frowns slightly at my choice.
“We have to watch what we eat and drink,” she says. “It’s important.”
I assume she must be used to speaking in the royal plural and decide that “we” will not let her have any of the nuts on the table.
The drinks come and we start to talk about Geetanjali’s many interests.
The lady wears many hats.
Her current favourite is one as chairperson of the Indo-Japan Initiative (IJI), a non-profit venture she founded to better industrial and cultural relations between India and Japan by helping Indian companies understand Japan, and vice versa. She’s adequately qualified to do that. Her husband Vikram Kirloskar is deputy chairman of Toyota Kirloskar Motor. And the Kirloskar Group has several joint ventures with Toyota, including the one that makes and sells Toyota cars in the country—the Japanese company has a dominant stake in this venture.
Konnichiwa: IJI has become the first port of call for Indian companies wishing to do business in Japan
The idea of IJI came to Geetanjali around the time she decided to leave advertising.
That was in the early 2000s.
The Kirloskars, who owned Pratibha Advertising, sold a majority stake in the company to Lintas, which renamed the agency Quadrant and made Geetanjali its chief executive (she still remains a director of the company).
“The family never thought I should be CEO (all the time it owned the agency),” she says.
Geetanjali ran the agency for some time, and it did well, but she wanted to move on—“use some of what I had picked up in advertising for a larger cause.”
Around the same time, the Kirloskar Group started receiving requests from other companies that wanted to learn how to do business with the Japanese. And so, Geetanjali decided to start IJI with some funding from the group and contributions from a few companies she identified as charter members (Infosys, Bharat Forge, Canon, Mitsui, and Citizen are the charter members).
Since then, IJI has organized several seminars and events. Some of these, such as sessions on understanding the Japanese style of manufacturing, are fairly involved and complex. Others, such as teaching the Japanese about Indian cuisine or apparel, are more “fun”, according to Geetanjali. In three years, she adds, IJI has done enough work to “inspire a lot of interest from the Japanese.”
“In the beginning, they (the Japanese) did not take us very seriously,” she says.
But Geetanjali has a certain in-your-face perseverance that works. The Japanese, she says, are now very involved with the project. They participate in workshops organized by IJI, and even conduct them.
“My emphasis is not on doing two events a year,” Geetanjali adds. “It’s on doing a lot of small activities—high frequency, high intensity…”
As a result, IJI has become the first stop for most companies wishing to do business with, or in, Japan. She is content to focus on the “intangible” aspects of the relationship between the two countries, and tap the resources of trade bodies such as Nasscom (National Association of Software and Services Companies), the Confederation of Indian Industry, and the pharma export body, Pharmexcil (Pharmaceutical Export Promotion Council), where needed.
Our talk is interrupted by a senior Congress politician from Maharashtra who obviously does not mind being seen in a bar—he is with his wife and daughter, and 1911, come to think of it, is a family kind of place. Geetanjali introduces me and the two of them chat in Marathi for some time. The Kirloskars are among Pune’s business royalty, and the politician is from the city.
Meanwhile, I order another Corona.
When the politician is gone, I ask Geetanjali whether she misses advertising.
She reminds me that she is still on the board of Quadrant, but admits that she was beginning to feel a little tired running an agency.
“I joined Pratibha when I was 23-24,” she says. And at that time, no one took her seriously. “If I had been fat and ugly, maybe they would have considered me an intellectual,” she adds.
But she wasn’t (and isn’t that).
“So, I made sure I delivered on every count—to prove my seriousness.”
She is still serious about IJI and travels around the country meeting charter members and organizing events, but in-between, Geetanjali finds the time to do the things she likes: such as rafting, mountaineering, driving and writing. She also collects art, and has done so for the past 20 years (Paritosh Sen is a favourite, and her 18-year-old daughter, Manasi, is also a painter).
She doesn’t like cooking, unlike husband Vikram Kirloskar who is, some people say, one of the best cooks in Bangalore. “I am not a foodie, and I cannot sit in one place and do things; I am more an outdoors kind of person,” she says.
Geetanjali has also acted in two movies. A recent one called Samay (about a serial killer), where she had a cameo as a victim’s wife, and a decade-old Hindi movie called Cheluvi, directed by Girish Karnad, where she had a meatier role. “I don’t live in Mumbai,” she says when asked whether she wants to do more movies. “But it isn’t something I am giving up.”
She has also been the host of a talk show titled Life’s Like That on Times Now. Over 38 episodes, she tried to do in India what Oprah Winfrey does so well in the US. “It gave me an opportunity to understand human nature,” says Geetanjali. But she found television hectic, sometimes canning two episodes a day.
IJI gives her the option to do these things, even if she eventually chooses not to.
“I am not business oriented 24/7,” she tells me as we leave 1911. And then, as a parting shot when we are getting into our respective cars: “Take care of your health.”
Born: 14 October 1965 (Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh)
Education: Lawrence School, Sanawar; Bachelor of Commerce, University of Pune
Work Profile: Started working at Pratibha Advertising and later Quadrant in various roles, including CEO; chairperson of Indo-Japan Initiative; occasional actor; former TV talk show host
Likes: Being outdoors, and art
Social Stance: “I am not a large gatherings person.”