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Photo: iStock

Nine disruptors we should keep an eye on

These nine people are good at what they do, and now they want to try difficult new things. They represent the values we've tried to instil in Mint

One of the finest brand taglines ever has to be the one Swiss watch brand Audemars Piguet (AP) uses: “To break the rules you must first master them". It is a tagline that both reiterates AP’s position on the pinnacle of Swiss watchmaking, but also gives it the licence to do new things without raising too many eyebrows. It gives it legitimacy in the past and in the future.

For most of the last nine years, all of us at Mint have tried to adhere, more or less, to this “legitimacy-led" vision of how we want the newsroom to work.

There are rules—there are many, many rules—and everyone is expected to master these rules of composition, reporting, attribution and storytelling. And as we master these rules we are all constantly looking at ways of experimenting with the idea of a business newsroom.

Many of these experiments have failed, some have succeeded and others have transformed into new experiments. Yet nothing has been allowed to touch the sanctity of our rules and our corpus of legitimacy.

The nine people profiled here are all, we like to think, legitimate disrupters in their own way. They are changing, or poised to change, aspects of Indian life that need disruption.

Baichung Bhutia wants to save Indian football.

Vijay Shekhar Sharma wants to reduce the banking experience to an app on a phone, for millions of people.

Joyoti Roy and her team may finally drag the National Museum, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

All the nine people here are good at what they do. And now they want to try difficult new things. They represent the values we’ve tried to instil in Mint. And we hope they will change India for the better. As they strive, we will be on the sidelines telling you how they’re doing.

Ajay Nair, CFO, OML

Over the past decade, the Nair brothers, Ajay and Vijay, have transformed the business of live entertainment in India. Under their style of management, which combines creativity, a capacity for risk and a shrewd eye for business, the brothers have helped break the tyranny of low expectations that once held sway over concerts and comedy. “10 years ago you had four or five music festivals in India," Ajay reminisced over the phone. “They all charged some 100 each. The audio quality was shit. Everything started two hours late. You got vada pav inside and then you went home."

Today OML Entertainment Pvt. Ltd, the non-mainstream entertainment behemoth run by the brothers, is perhaps most famous for the NH7 Weekender series of music festivals, where ticket prices run to thousands of rupees. In return, audiences enjoy an international experience—great audio, good infrastructure, food and drink and safety. But above all they get to experience an eclectic mix of mainstream and indie artists. One of the secrets of OML’s success is that it doesn’t particularly seem to care about what is, or what people think is, mainstream and what is not. “When we had (musician A.R.) Rahman at NH7 last year people said we had gone too mainstream," Ajay said. “But that is not true. People don’t only come for Rahman and then leave. When people pay so much money for a ticket they want to get full value. They want to see more than Rahman."

Besides, Ajay said, there is a tendency to glorify the badly produced indie show that makes no money. Where audiences are asked to pay something to help “support the scene". “I don’t get that. Why not just execute well, charge a fair price, and make the scene sustainable?"

What the brothers have done for stand-up comedy, through the All India Bakchod (AIB) platform, is perhaps even more disruptive. Ajay explained that there were three things key to AIB’s success: quality, execution and a keen sense of how audiences consume comedy. For instance, Ajay said, they realized that so many people saw their clips on Whatsapp.

What AIB has also done is integrate elements of mainstream entertainment—production techniques, cameo appearances by film stars—into their material. It has created a heady concoction of material that is controversial, experimental and very, very popular.

The future is all about blurring edges, Ajay says. The mainstream and non-mainstream will continue to merge. And OML wants to bring (business) sense to the confusing spaces in between. “Ten years from now I want people to say that we did this for this generation what MTV did to the one before."

Ravichandran Ashwin, cricketer

As far as Ravichandran Ashwin is concerned, there are two aspects to the game of cricket. Firstly there is the game he plays on the field—full of intensity, guile, thrust and counterthrust. Then there is the game he plays in his head which is both intensely analytical and experimental to the point of recklessness. The latter is perhaps the cricket he likes to talk about most when you’re in conversation with him. It is almost as if the folderol of actually being an international cricketer is something of a distraction for a man who will perhaps become the most successful off-spinner in Indian history.

Like many other great sportspeople, Ravichandran Ashwin’s career will probably depend on how these two cricketing universes—the theoretical and the practical, if you will—collide within his being.

As Suresh Menon wonderfully summarized in a profile for Sportstar: “At his worst, he over-analyses to a standstill; at his best, he lets muscle memory take over, bowling with clockwork rhythm and asking questions of the batsman with a smile on his face."

Menon reckons that Ashwin has now entered into a new phase of his career where the spinner-batsman is “less prone to experimentation, less gimmicky, more confident, more focused on laying traps than taking unthinking potshots".

This can only bode well for a man who, at the time of going to press, is the No. 1 all-rounder in Test cricket.

But can he become the No. 1 man in Indian cricket? Can Ravichandran Ashwin captain the Indian cricket team?

Ashwin certainly seems capable of the detachment that is required to do the job. (And not just because he was once seen reading a copy of an Amish Tripathi bestseller in the pavilion.) Many months ago, this writer asked Ashwin if jokes about his running between the wickets—or lack thereof—bothered him. “Oh I can laugh at myself and other people all the time," he said. He seemed to suggest that this wasn’t all that common a trait in the dressing room.

Can he lead? Harsha Bhogle, analysing his role in the South African tour of India, suggests that Ashwin now sees himself as the spearhead. Menon sees close parallels with Anil Kumble: “There is the same awareness of the craft in the two men, the same intelligence, the same manner of seeing the big picture. It is a combination that suggests Ashwin might captain India".

It might, and probably will, come down to that tussle between the theorist and practitioner that rolls and boils within Ashwin. Does he want a job that is burdened with so many non-cricketing requirements? Or will he find a way to laugh through it all?

Baichung Bhutia, football administrator

Bhaichung Bhutia. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
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Bhaichung Bhutia. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

At the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, Baichung Bhutia, undoubtedly the most popular Indian footballer of the past 30 years, made a startling revelation. He isn’t really sure how many times he has played for India. “Maybe 104. That is the situation with football in India", he said, “we don’t even keep proper records of number of caps or number of goals scored."

It is this sorry state of affairs that Bhutia wants to tackle next. And it will almost certainly prove to be the hardest job he has taken on in his life. Bhutia, mind you, is not a stranger to formidable tasks. This is a man who has played for both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. And in 2008 he refused to run with the Beijing Olympics Torch in India in solidarity with the Free Tibet movement.

The famously calm and composed demeanour, then, is something of a bluff. Bhutia has ambitions for Indian football. And it all starts with improving administration. In March 2013 Bhutia was appointed chair of the All India Football Federation (AIFF)’s technical committee. Then in October last year he was appointed an adviser to the AIFF on “overall issues of the game and the Federation".

Even for such a seasoned veteran—ignore the baby face—Bhutia was taken aback at the state of affairs. In Jaipur he told a packed audience how the state associations actually had to be convinced to host tournaments. Because they were all afraid to lose money on a sport that attracts very little public interest. Bhutia disagrees though. “The clubs have huge following. You go to Kerala or to Kolkata. And the ISL (Indian Super League). People want to come and watch. The problem is with the national team."

And what a problem it is. In the book ‘Soccernomics’, authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski noted that adjusted for population, GDP and footballing experience, India had the worst team in the world. As of January 2016 India is ranked 163rd globally. (It has dropped 43 places in the last 20 years.) There are problems with everything from talent identification to local leagues, management, training and financial incentives. “Countless Messis have been lost in India. We have to change that!" Bhutia said in Jaipur to thunderous applause.

Bhutia wants to change that. And he wants to start with that den of vipers, the associations. If things work out, Bhutia’s success as a football administrator may make his exploits as a player pale into insignificance. For the sake of those countless Messis, let us hope he does.

Prashant Kishor, political strategist

Prashant Kishor (right) with Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. Photo: PTI
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Prashant Kishor (right) with Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. Photo: PTI

One of the most powerful people in Indian politics right now is not a politician, but a health activist-turned-UN aid worker-turned-policy wonk-turned-political strategist named Prashant Kishor, who appears to have mastered the art of Indian electioneering. Kishor was already well known before the 2014 elections. Reporters spoke of the master strategist who worked closely with Narendra Modi, micromanaging every aspect of the victorious Lok Sabha campaign. Journalist Sankarshan Thakur credits Kishor with rebranding Narendra Modi as “Vikas Purush" or the man of development.

But it was the state polls in Bihar, and the setbacks suffered by his previous masters, that made Kishor a superstar. Under Kishor’s obsessive management, Nitish Kumar pulled off an unlikely alliance and then an unlikely victory. In analysing Kishor’s role, Thakur paints the picture of an analytical juggernaut: “He knows each of Bihar’s 243 constituencies like the lines of his palm, down to details of which independent candidate could potentially help or hurt who. Name a seat and Kishor would tell you which way it was going and why. The result has probably followed his script more closely than anybody else’s."

Prashant Kishor’s terms of engagement have been written about widely. He demands complete control and untrammelled access to his employer-leader. It is widely believed that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah’s curtailing of the Modi-Kishor equation drove the strategist into Bihar chief minister Kumar’s arms.

The question now is: Where will Prashant Kishor go next? Kumar has helped quell the speculation somewhat by appointing Kishor as a special advisor to the Bihar government with a cabinet rank. He will monitor programme implementation. But Indian elections are an intoxicating drug. Surely Kishor will not be able to resist for too long? If and when his resolve breaks where will he go next? With Amit Shah re-elected as BJP president, Modi is not an option. He has been approached by several others including Mamata Banerjee and Rahul Gandhi. The choice he makes could have remarkable repercussions for Indian politics and policymaking. Kishor is believed to be policy-agnostic when it comes to the leaders he chooses to work with. Who is to say that this situation will not change?

Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder, Paytm

Vijay Shekhar Sharma. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
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Vijay Shekhar Sharma. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

A country that does not carry cash. That is the legacy Vijay Shekhar Sharma says he wants to leave behind. “India used to be seen as this laggard when it comes to technology. I want to change that," says Sharma. “I want Indians to tell other people: ‘Oh you still use cash? We left that far behind us.’"

Sharma’s audacious goal for the popular mobile wallet app Paytm—short for Pay Through Mobile—is well known: Half a billion Indian users by 2020. “But that is the public goal. Internally we want to achieve that by 2018," he said on the phone.

But it would be a mistake to think Sharma’s focus is on the number of users he has. It is not. Instead, what Sharma really cares about is financial services. He wants to reduce the complexity of consumer banking in India to a single app. Want a loan? Transfer cash? Buy insurance? Sharma wants to make all that a matter of one app and a few clicks.

“It is ridiculous that a savings bank account is considered some sort of privilege in India. In a country with so many people who don’t have access to financial services and need the support." Sharma recalls how he had trouble getting loans himself. Banking in India is still much too hard. And Sharma wants to change that.

And he wants to do it in two ways. Firstly he wants to reduce friction. Through Paytm and partnerships he wants to make it easy to pay for goods and services. Eventually he wants to eliminate cards and cash completely. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, he wants to increase trust. “Today if you have a problem recharging your Paytm account you can just tweet us. And we’ll sort it out immediately. No questions asked. This creates trust for both the concept of the wallet and the Paytm brand," he said.

But Sharma wants to take it one step further. He is working on developing innovative insurance products that radically improve trust in the mobile commerce ecosystem. “So I know that many people don’t like booking hotels online because they are scared of cancellation costs and things like that. So what if I sold you insurance for a hundred rupees? Then if you don’t show up for some reason, I send the booking costs back to your wallet," Sharma explained. With such insurance products in place trust will increase and so will the comfort with mobile wallets. Eventually weaning people off cash and cards.

The first word in Sharma’s Twitter bio is the word ‘capitalist’. “In our country we are afraid of people making money. We should be celebrating it. We should be helping people make money!" And when you do, Sharma will be there to help you spend it seamlessly.

Anirban Lahiri, golfer

Anirban Lahiri. Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Anirban Lahiri. Photo: Getty Images/AFP

Anirban Lahiri’s breakout moment on the world golfing scene came in 2012 at the Open Championship. Lahiri’s qualification for the major tournament had been a huge breakthrough in itself. And then, during the third round, Lahiri hit a hole-in-one on the par-3 ninth hole, thus reserving for himself a spot on the tournament highlights package. He finished the Open Championship tied for 31st place. It wasn’t a bad debut major performance at all by the army kid from Bengaluru.

There would be no major appearances over the next two years, but Lahiri won several titles on the Asian Tour and the Professional Golf Tour of India. Lahiri then went on to have a spectacular 2015. The highlight of the season was his fifth place finish in the final major of the year—the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, near Kohler, Wisconsin, in the US. It was the finest performance by an Indian golfer in history and Lahiri set several records. He became the first Indian to shoot below par in all four rounds of a major; his total score of -13 was the best by an Indian in a major, and his second round score of five below par was the best round in a major by an Indian ever.

Lahiri ended the year ranked 40th in the world and qualified for the 2015 President’s Cup. His performance in the US versus Rest of the World tournament was unexceptional, but he leveraged the chance to gain entry into the PGA Tour, the highest-profile circuit in golf. Thus, in 2016, Anirban Lahiri is set to play one of the most momentous seasons for Indian golf. He is ranked 45 at the time of writing and in his first PGA Tour tournament, the CareerBuilder Challenge, Lahiri finished tied in 28th place. (Though he was in the lead after the first two rounds.) The young man has what it takes to compete at the highest levels. The question is whether he can live up to his obvious potential.

Lahiri, who has more than a passing resemblance to tennis player Leander Paes, comes across assured and grounded in his interviews. He approaches his golf with a certain military efficiency. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal last year Lahiri talked of being a low-profile sportsperson who is never recognized by the public. If things go according to plan, 2016 could be the year when that changes forever.

Prasanna Viswanathan, CEO, Swarajya

Of all the right-of-centre media publications to have been launched in the recent past, ‘Swarajya’ is perhaps the one to achieve the most scale and greatest sustained impact. Indeed Prasanna Viswanathan, an “IT guy" before he joined the magazine as CEO, was somewhat astonished to find it had sold 300 subscriptions even before printing a single issue. That was in January 2015. Since then, Viswanathan said on the phone, it has grown into a bona fide media firm with all the challenges that come with it. “Finances are always a challenge if you are in media these days. But the thing we are constantly working (on) is getting the editorial process in place," Viswanathan said. Ultimately, he said, the idea is to create an intellectual platform for the liberal right. So the magazine, he explained, must be driven by “ideas and not individuals".

It is somewhat erroneous to call ‘Swarajya’ a new product. As the masthead indicates, it is a resuscitated avatar of C. Rajagopalachari’s ‘Swarajya’ publication, established in 1956. And the new ‘Swarajya’s stated goal is to become a “a big tent for liberal right of centre discourse that reaches out, engages and caters to the new India". And it does this through smart use of digital technologies, social media and an editorial bent of mind that straddles the twin priorities of ideological focus and daily relevance. “We are learning constantly. In the beginning some readers said we focused too much on history and cultural issues," he recalled; they broadened coverage in response. What has also helped is the involvement of two very senior journalists: Sandipan Deb and R. Jagannathan.

In an ecosystem where almost every mainstream title is nominally “neutral" and “bias-free", ones like ‘Swarajya’ help articulate non-neutral viewpoints irrespective of where they fall on the political spectrum. The magazine’s specific focus, of course, is on the right-of-centre viewpoint. Viswanathan hopes it will replicate the flowering of American conservative intellectualism that took place during and after the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign in 1964. It’s a tough goal but Viswanathan is geared up for the fight. The title has raised a second round of funding and is well-equipped, he reckons, for the long-term vision of building the intellectual framework that the right has often been charged with lacking. This lack, he said, is overplayed. Intellectuals exist, but they need platforms—‘Swarajya’ is one. In a media environment that even insiders admit is resistant to serious change, unapologetically ideological upstarts like 'Swarajya’ bring disruption. Disagree with them? Feel free to publish an opposing view.

Joyoti Roy, outreach consultant, National Museum

Over the past two years, a group of six women, led by Joyoti Roy, have slowly changed the National Museum in New Delhi from an interesting but intimidating institution into one that is bursting with exciting, engaging and accessible ideas. Along the way, and with plenty of help from museum staff and state institutions, they are writing a blueprint that can radically improve the way museums are run in the country.

Roy’s team has brought up changes both big and small. From a social media policy to engaging with potential visitors to changes in rules. (For instance, visitors can take pictures all over the gallery for free as long as they don’t use a tripod.)

“It all began with the creation of the Outreach Cell in 2014 under then director Venu Vasudevan," Roy explained over the phone. The physics graduate-turned-curator, along with her team, slowly put in place a plan. One of the first things they did was to create a corps of trained volunteers to show visitors around the galleries. The National Museum now organizes two tours each weekday and four each weekend. Each tour lasts for 90 minutes and comprises 30 objects. And the tours are free. (As mentioned in all capitals on the website. They really, really want you to go.)

Then came a National Museum Lecture series, a new annual calendar of children’s events, new seasonal exhibitions and, perhaps best of all, the reopening of a gallery full of bronzes that had remained shut for eight years. Along the way, the team is also working on building better networks globally and nationally.

“That was one of the odd things. Indian museums are much happier to loan objects to foreign museums than to each other. That is also now changing," Roy said.

Perhaps, nothing symbolizes the modernization and internationalization of the museum more than the new gift shop full of new merchandise featuring museum motifs. (An online store is in the works.)

It is a tremendous amount of work for a team of six to be involved in. But it is also a tremendous lesson in how to transform Indian institutions, so to speak, without changing them. “There was a period in the beginning when we had to build relationships with government officials and curators and gain trust," Roy explained. Once everyone realized that they were on the same page, the projects started flying. The National Museum today is a hive of tremendous activity and more open to the public than it has ever been in its history. All it now needs is more visitors and more museums to follow suit.

In New Delhi? Free this weekend? Go to the National Museum.

Sunny Leone, actor

Many years ago, an Indian news magazine published an amusing, even uplifting, ‘Delhi insider anecdote’ that is perhaps apocryphal. One day, a group of Congressmen barged into Shankar Dayal Sharma’s office and demanded some favour of the wizened old man. Sharma, apparently, listened to them for some time before slowly getting offended by their complete lack of decorum and dignity. He sharply asked them to leave.

The partymen were taken aback. “But sir, you used to be a Congressman yourself..." they grumbled.

“This is not the office of Shankar Dayal Sharma," the old man snapped. “This is the office of the President of India. Get out!"

India, it appears, is a country where no one, not even the president, is allowed to exist in isolation from their personal or professional pasts. You are, as it were, not only who you are and what you are doing, but also who you were, where you came from and what you did then. You are your context.

And perhaps no one is as acutely aware of the role of context in our society as Sunny Leone. After her recent run-in with an Indian television journalist, Leone must be left in no doubt about the fact that her work as a pornographic actor of great acclaim in the US will be held over her like a leering moralistic spectre for some time to come.

Sunny Leone will do well to not give a damn and keep making whatever films she wants. If that means she does not get a place upon the many pedestals of moral virtue on which dubious businessmen, vicious politicians and insufferable thespians have been worshipped forever... then so be it.

Her career, if it grows and establishes and makes her a household name in India, may well prove to be empowering to women, and liberating for Indian sex. The strength of free women and the social inconsequentiality of consenting adults having wild, animal sex terrify parts of our society.

But more than that, Leone’s success will indicate that we are developing the social courage to openly accept a woman who freely does whatever she wants to make a living for herself. Oh, what a radical idea!

Sunny Leone, you go, girl!

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