Hindi Film 101: The Basics of The Ambanis

I completely missed the coverage of the latest Ambani wedding, but I can leap in last minute to give the absolute basic bare bones information about the family for those of you who may not know about them.  They are soooooooooooooo important in India, and yet tend to stay out of focus in the rest of the world, so you may not be aware of them if you live somewhere else.

Usual Disclaimer:  I don’t know these people, I have no special knowledge, this is just how it looks to me based on publicly commonly available facts.





In 1958, Dhirubhai Ambani returned to India from the port city of Aden in Yemen with 500 rupees in his pocket.  19 years later, he opened the initial public offering of his company Reliance Textiles and initiated a new era of Indian industry.  When he died in 2002, Reliance Industries and Reliance Petroleum, the two branches of his company, were the largest companies in India.  Today, his son Mukesh is the richest man in India and 18th richest man in the world.

Image result for mukesh ambani

Dhirubhai started with a small one room office and 3 employees, fought government regulation and entrenched powers to create a textile company that made polyester at a level that met international standards.  He launched the public offering to help the common man, let people buy small shares of stock and fulfill their dreams.  He raised his sons humbly, insisting that they spend vacations traveling to Indian villages to know the people.  His oldest son, Mukesh, was pulled out of his overseas MBA program halfway so he could come back to India and learn the real business, building a factory in a rural village.  Mukesh married a nice middle-class schoolteacher who built the company up with him and uses the family money to fund charitable endeavors including a school.  They are the Perfect Indian Family.

At least, that’s one legend.  That’s the legend you see in films over and over again especially in the 90s.  The wealthy businessman who built his company from the ground up, the “industrialist” who wants to build plants and factories in remote areas.  And his sons, who have stayed grounded in Indian culture despite their wealth and overseas schooling, who are brought in and given responsibility and rise to the occasion, who marry a “nice” normal girl, not some international socialite.  It’s Maine Pyar Kiya, it’s Hum Saath Saath Hain, it’s Hum Tumhare Hain Sanam, it’s every movie with a proud industrialist father and a son educated abroad who comes home and takes over the company without ever losing his “Sanskari” values.

It’s a legend that Mukesh Ambani, the oldest son, tries to sell even today.  He is still a vegetarian, he goes to temples, he talks about his preference for simple Indian food over fancy international flavors.  He talks about caring for the people, rising up India together, helping the farmer, and of course loving Hindi films more than any other kind of entertainment.  But this idea of the “simple man just like us who worked hard and became rich” is a harder and harder sell as you turn the page from his interview to the rest of the news and begin to get a sense of just how powerful the Ambani’s are.  And just how unlike “us” they are.

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(See?  Nice sanskari simple family)

Dhirubhai started out with textile mills, manufacturing.  But his big leap forward came through stock market manipulation.  There was his initial public offering, aimed at selling small shares to small investors.  It’s a nice social idea, that the common man can afford a share and make a small profit.  Dhirubhai encouraged that, with his massive “investors meetings” held in stadiums.  But it’s also a nice profitable idea, Dhirubhai and his companies too massive leaps forward thanks to these share offerings.  And then there was the early 80s, when a conglomerate tried to sell Reliance stock short, Dhirubhai fought back and ended up making a massive profit when it was all over, and shutting down the stock market for 3 days as it tried to recover.  It was around the same time that it came out that much of Reliance stock was owned by shadowy overseas investors, with money in overseas banks.  There was some kind of shell game going on here, Dhirubhai was 5 moves ahead of the rest, moving money and stock around however he needed to in order to “win” the game.

It wasn’t just in the stock market either.  Dhirubhai rose to power during the “License Raj”.  In the early years of India, as they tried to balance socialist ideals with a capitalist society, the government regulation was backbreaking.  In order to move forward, Dhirubhai had to figure out a way to work around the rules.  There were the simple options, little scams like importing technology piecemeal and assembling it in India so he wouldn’t have to get licenses or pay customs.  But there was also the slow creation of, essentially, his own political party.  Across party lines, the opposition and the party in power, doesn’t matter, there is always the “Ambani party”, the people whose loyalty is at least partially to the Ambani family.

Image result for dhirubhai ambani rajiv gandhi

(Dhirubhai and Indira Gandhi)

No decision was made in Delhi that might affect his business without Dhirubhai knowing of it within minutes.  And if he needed that decision to change, he knew just who to lean on and how to apply the pressure.  He eventually reached the point of using the government as something of a branch of the Ambani companies.  For instance, a local Bombay paper that published a series criticizing him was rewarded with a tax raid.  His business rival, head of Bombay Dyeing Nusli Wadia, found his licenses mysteriously suspended.  When his stock market manipulation raised questions, the finance minister of India defended and explained Ambani’s behavior and protected him from investigation.

It is unclear how much of this power continues to today, in the next generation of Ambanis.  When Dhirubhai was starting out, the government restrictions were such that you HAD to manipulate them in order to move forward.  But the 1990s brought in massive reforms to India, making it possible for industry to flourish without breaking the law.  The Ambani power today is dulled, subtle.  It is still said that Mukesh knows what happens in Delhi minutes after it happens. And it is still whispered that the “Ambani party” is the one coalition that truly runs the country.  Part of the issue is that the company is now so diversified, with a finger in every part of life, it can be hard to follow just what ways they are using their influence and how.  Was Padmavat mysteriously held up by the censors because Reliance wanted their film to benefit from publicity and get a delayed release? Or was it finally released by the censors because Reliance wanted their film released no matter what?  Or was it such a small issue (for them) that the Ambanis didn’t care what happened and weren’t using their influence at all?  Who knows, at this point their business interests are so far reaching it is hard to grasp all the factors that might cause them to choose when to act and when not to act.

Image result for reliance padmavati

The Ambanis themselves, the people, are also a bit harder to understand in this second generation.  Dhirubhai left no clear succession plan, but his two sons had been board members and actively involved in his company since they were teenagers.  His oldest, Mukesh, was raised in the company, then sent abroad to get an MBA from Stanford, before being brought back after only a year in the program and sent out to a remote village to prove himself by building a factory.  There was never any hiding that this was a family company and the sons were treated as part owners and managers, not as entry level employees.  But without being spoiled, they spent part of their childhood in a one room apartment in the slums before slowly moving up and out.  Even after the wealth came, along with spending vacations in villages, their father insisted on them going out into the city and riding buses, eating street food, seeing how the common people lived, staying connected.

Anil was a little different than Mukesh.  He was allowed to finish his American degree from The Wharton school in Pennsylvania.  He returned to have the same challenges as his brother, being expected to leap in and lead immediately.  But while Mukesh married a middle-class school teacher and still declares himself to prefer simple “dal” and “roti” to all the fancy food in the world, Anil went a different way.

Tina Munim was a movie star with a past.  She had dated Sanjay Dutt.  And, it was commonly accepted, had gone from him to the much older and married Rajesh Khanna.  And on top of that, she was a movie star. That alone made her different from the other Ambani women, glamorous and famous, and 34 years old at the time of her marriage.  Anil and Tina are a very different sort of couple than Mukesh and Nita.

Image result for tina munim anil ambani

No one really knows exactly what happened between the brothers after their father’s death in 2002.  They had been running the company together for years, since their father’s first heart attack.  But now their father was gone, and things became strained.  It was bad for business, this feud between brothers that was becoming more and more common knowledge.  And so their mother, and major stockholder in the company, stepped in and brokered peace.  Mukesh would get the physical holdings, the “old” technology, plants and oil refineries and so on.  And Anil would get the “new” stuff, the communications and power companies.  The company would split in two, Reliance ADA (Anil Dhirubhai Ambani) Group and Reliance Industries Limited.

That wasn’t the end of the drama.  The two brothers continue to maneuver around each other, their respective company interests occasionally conflicting.  Or appearing to conflict, some people suggest that the whole split was created, merely another tool to create overall profit.  No matter what is true, it is the case that Mukesh and his Reliance Industries is far more successful and powerful than Anil’s Reliance ADA.  Most recently, Mukesh had to bail out his little brother by purchasing his telecommunications system and merging it into Mukesh’s “Jio” system.  Or was that all a lie?  Did Anil create his own system just for Mukesh to buy it, a way of hiding costs and power and creating a monopoly?  Who knows?  Reliance is so large and so powerful, looming over the whole country, that it is seemingly impossible for anybody, common citizen or government official, to fully grasp everything they do.

One of the most vivid signs of their power, despite all of the “I am a simple man with simple tastes” presentation that Mukesh does of himself, is the Antillia Building, Mukesh’s residence in Bombay, the most expensive private residence in the world.  Well, unless you count Buckingham Palace.  It is 27 stories tall with extra high ceilings (if the ceilings were regular, it might be 60 stories).  It has a staff of 600 to maintain it.  Mukesh literally tore down an orphanage to get the land to build it (he paid the orphanage, 100 million, which was probably a 10th of what the land was worth.  Although still a lot of money).  The construction was illegal in many many ways, for instance the Indian Navy wasn’t too keen on the 3 helipads on the roof near an open port, but Mukesh just kept building and fighting cases in court.  Construction was completed in 2011 at a rumored cost of 2 billion.

(Also, it’s kind of ugly)

The Ambanis and the film industry are a special circumstance of their power.  To me, it feels similar to a royal patronage of an artist.  They respect them as artists, they invite them to parties not just pay them to perform, they sincerely enjoy their work (Mukesh claims to watch 3 movies a week in his private screening room, finding it soothing and enjoying the escapism).  Nita Ambani’s school, the Dhirubhai Ambani International School, claims as it’s students the children of most of the film industry.  When Mukesh and Nita’s daughter was at Yale, she was in attendance as Shahrukh received his Chubb fellowship, applauding.  And of course Tina was once one of them.  And yet, a film star would never turn down an Ambani invitation, never fail to appear at an event.  They are friends, but not quite.  They are still, ever so slightly, beneath them.

The most interesting example of this, to me, is when the Ambanis arranged for Spielberg to come to India.  Spielberg was trying to finish Lincoln and running out of money when Mukesh swooped in and bought Dreamworks and helped him finish the film.  And in return, Spielberg flew to India and attended a party Nita hosted, where he was interviewed by Amitabh as the guests watched.

On the one hand, this is a reasonable thing, Mukesh and Spielberg were working together, why not invite him to India?  And why not throw him a party and introduce him to friends?  But on the other hand, having Spielberg interviewed by Amitabh, it feels a bit like they are the hired entertainment for the evening.  Like this is how Mukesh and Nita see them, all their film friends, people who are ultimately their employees, there to entertain them.

The Bombay film industry has a lot of power brokers and a lot of power.  But in the end, like much of the country, they are only making choices so long as the Ambanis look the other way, so long as the Ambanis allow them their freedom to make those choices.

Image result for mukesh ambani shahrukh khan

(Shahrukh, sandwiched between Nita and Mukesh)


Footnote: The Ratnam movie Guru also helped to build the Ambani legend, loosely based on Dhirubhai’s life.  It’s not really a reliable source, but it is a painless one with one really pretty song.


38 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: The Basics of The Ambanis

  1. I think Mukesh Ambani knew about the demonetization which happened in November 2016, and hence was selling Jio Sim Cards free of cost. Every one of my friends had a Jio Sim, with free internet and free calls. I highly doubt that all the money pumped in was in black.


    • That matches the impression I got from the minimal research I did for this. They don’t necessarily have a grand scheme for the country or want to use their power to control the future. But they will keep an eye out for the profit possibility and always take advantage of it.

      On Tue, Jul 3, 2018 at 8:56 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • They do have one- to systematically erode the base for currently competitive government agencies and public systems and establish Reliance companies in it’s place.

        Proof- in the case of Jio, the company forced all other companies both private and public, to let their infrastructure be used for Jio data and call traffic. Initially, Jio services were free but quality was astonishingly poor. Two years later, everyone else’s service quality is BAD and Jio is the only network you find working anywhere without them putting up any towers. Unofficially, the government is backing Jio instead of the state run telecom company BSNL.

        The railway privatisation bid is to sell it ultimately to Reliance.

        Reliance petroleum gas venture is going to be fed via government -backed refineries and bottling plants. So they’re going to be able to piggyback off existing infrastructure and just rake in the profits.

        Politicians and parties need constant touching of bases for Reliance to make a profit. So, they made sure Modi came to power after reliance funded media outlets forgot the 2002 Gujarat riots entirely and ever since the government had been working furiously trying to make sure Reliance’s hold on major sectors is solidified. And there are no competitors left.

        Also, Reliance has a defence unit now so all future Indian wars are also going to profit the Ambani’s directly.

        Also, the noteban plan was already in place in mid-2014 when the zero deposit Jan dhan bank accounts were (re)announced and then the government made it mandatory for LPG consumers to link their bank accounts to their LPG connection to get subsidy. The same newly opened Jan dhan accounts were used to deposit banned notes and move money around.

        It was then that Jio sims were used to make online payments the most.

        Liked by 1 person

          • Since there’s no way you would have read or heard the speeches of commie leaders or read their press releases(for one-they are all in Malayalam), I’m declaring you noble of intentions & agree you on all points except about Jio sucking out the towers of other providers.Reliance has a 15000crore costly network of their own which is far superior to others & can handle any volume of voice & data users. Others are struggling with the increasing subscriber base which is choking their networks. Give the Ambanis a break & spare some thought for the Adanis too.


          • Reliance has that infrastructure where?? They’ve poured in close to 2 lakh crore in supposedly state of the art 4g network that claims to be able to handle 5g too but it is in fact slower than existing 3g speeds on 3g infrastructure offered by airtel despite the latter having put that in ages ago.

            Reliance bid for the spectrum via a shell company and bought them out in a fixed bid. Their complaint to TRAI wouldn’t have been necessary as they would have had interconnectivity agreements with other service providers already had they actually had their own infrastructure in place.

            Airtel may have taken a hit but not a lot of people have given up their airtel numbers have they? their connectivity and speed is way ahead of Jio. So is call quality and customer care service.

            The Ambanis have had all the breaks in the world and maybe India should get a break from them. As for Adani, well he seems to have had taken a serious misstep with the aussie coal deal. The Ambanis were careful not to get caught in the international spotlight but Adani just got cocky. It won’t end well for them.


        • Yeah, this sounds familiar to me. There was a thing in Chicago about selling our parking meters to a private company. The city got a big immediate pay out, but then lost a long term source of income while the private company is raking in the money thanks to the infrastructure the city built, plus has a monopoly and can raise the rates as high as they want. Many people angry and rumors of shady dealings in the decision to make the deal. I mean, that’s on a much much much smaller scale, but the same idea, sell the idea of privatizing government services for a big immediate pay out, the private companies benefit from infrastructure built by tax payer money and end up with a monopoly.

          On Wed, Jul 4, 2018 at 4:14 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



          • And then they wonder why they never have any money to fund schools!!

            India, more than any other country, relies so much on the public sector. Because that’s the most secure and stable job provider. Most of the times, the job comes with a flat or at least allowance for a rental.

            You start privatising major sectors in this field and suddenly you’re left with a whole lot service industry jobs. It looks like growth in the numbers but really what’s happening is that there are more jobseekers because a single income isn’t enough.

            I really don’t think capitalism can work without a highly functional monarchy to bear the burden of bad decisions personally. I actually don’t think democracy can work for any place that cannot hold every voter in a single room. Representatives representing representatives is a multi level marketing scheme not a system of government.


  2. `

    The one thing about the Antillia Building, it’s tall enough and distinctive enough so that when out-of-towners visit Mumbai, it can easily be pointed out and commented, “That’s where the Ambanis live. Isn’t it ugly!”


  3. The Ambanis are extremely tacky people. They built an ugly ostentatious monstrosity in a city where millions live in slums. The middle-class schoolteacher created a hifi school for rich kids instead of using the money to make schools for the underprivileged. They’ve had like 4-5 parties now for one engagement just to blow money since they have more than they know what to do with. They also seem very starstruck and invite every random B, C, and Z-lister to their events and of course everyone has to go in order to keep up good relations with such powerful people.


    • I found a quote in one of the articles I read from Ratan Tata, a similarly wealthy and powerful old family, decrying Antillia and saying it is what revolutions are made of. He is their equal, in terms of wealth, but he still judges them for how they are using their wealth.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Tata is synonymous with building cities for the workers in their plants. Like I said before, if you’re rich in India, you’re expected to lift others out of poverty too. If you use your wealth just for yourself, you’re not respected.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I love this informative write up. Since a lot of media portals are also owned by them, we don’t get to read in such great detail.


  5. 1. Yes, that’s an ugly building.
    2. Yes, that’s a beautiful song.
    3. The uber-wealthy are their own country, only intersecting with nation-states and societies as and when they want to. Such a weird time to be alive…
    4. Eat the rich! 😉


    • Having just toured Newport, I can attest that this is not the first time the uber-wealthy have had this status. Or this ugly a taste in buildings.

      To your point 3, I guess that’s why the Ambanis have stayed in India. Because they don’t experience India the way anyone else does, to them it is just as pleasant and easy and comfortable a place to live as anywhere else would be. Why worry about traffic when you have a helicopter?

      On Tue, Jul 3, 2018 at 3:02 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes. I was thinking of rich families in the gilded age. I think in the modern age it’s just a broader fellowship of the uber-rich, across more countries, and not as siloed within geographic regions. Hyper rich Europeans mingle with hyper rich South Americans mingle with hyper rich South Asians mingle with hyper rich, etc etc. Yuk.


      • I’m not thinking about globalism generally–lots of folks who believe in a supra-national community of humanity who are neither uber rich nor communists. Me being one of them 😉

        I’m talking about that class of folks whose lives much more resemble each others than most of their national citizens. I’m thinking of things like the Bushes or the English royals hanging out with the Saudi royals on a regular basis.


        • None of the people you mentioned are middle income folks 😁

          The Bush Family, the BRF and the Saudi RF are actually very representative of their national identities. If we’re considering the older generation that is. Even the younger lot live pretty much like what the rich in their respective countries live like. It’s a very American assumption that cultural identities of the rich of every country and culture would be alike or even similar. The Bush Family and the Saudis don’t do public engagements like the BRF, I highly doubt the BRF and the BF can make decisions about their country like the House of Saud (or have perks like undeclared harems, gold plated cars, orgies for Princes and princesses which the Saudi royal kids are known for) and none of the two royal families can actually be on talk shows like the BF.

          These seem like minute differences but they really aren’t.

          I do get your point about that class of people though. You’re thinking about people in business and finance, again like the Ambanis. The ugly home mukesh built is a testament to it. It has all the luxuries and amenities you’d find in the house of any other big global business family. Name one really rich person, second gen, whose kids aren’t prepped for this same life and who doesn’t use their money to fuck up public policy for their own benefit. And that’s exactly what globalism is. It was never created by or run by politicians, it was always by and for business houses.


          • My point is that those families are super rich, I know they’re not middle income?

            I’m not talking about their respective roles in their home countries. It’s a fact that the super rich from many countries choose to hang out with each other for leisure time and have invitation only meetings to discuss what would most benefit the super-rich. That’s what I’m talking about.
            My other point is that you can’t lump all international ties into “globalism”. Super-rich elites, who do have more in common with each other than with any of us in terms of their goals and day to day life, getting together is not the same as the type of global cooperation that brings about things like the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Human Rights Declaration, and international treaties against human trafficking or violence against women and children.

            I don’t think you can separate business families from political families. They are mutually dependent creatures in every country, though the relationships and mechanisms of power might look different.


          • universal human rights declaration is a farce. As is the UN. The middle east, is a living proof of it. Come to think of it, so is the Indian naxal prone area, Kashmir, indian north east, actually most of India. And that’s just my own country. Actually name one country where these so called human rights are extended to everyone living there equally. And not just to a specific portion of the population.

            Super elite rich are super elite and super rich specifically as a result of their “interests” spread across the globe. No current billionaire has made their billions from their work in a single country. That’s how globalism works.

            The exception to that might be the Russian oligarchs and really all those product shading agreements that made them rich weren’t with the Russian government so technically their billions too came from global ties.

            I guess what you’re saying is that SRK’s life must be close to how whoever his western equivalent would be and my point is that despite the riches, it really won’t be. Because he isn’t white and he doesn’t live in the white world.

            I guess when you say super elite, you’re provably thinking more of super elite white people. Because really at the end of the day they only have Europe and a very small part of the US to hang out in. They can’t help but bump into one another. Plus, they loot the same third world countries so that’s a common ground. 😁


          • I think you’re oversimplifying what I’m saying. Nowhere did I say that all elites from all countries are just the same–I’m saying they have much in common with each other. I’m also not just thinking of white elites. I’ve worked in about 19 countries all over the world, and I’m telling you that the super-rich have as much in common with each other than they do with their fellow non-super rich citizens. Including how they loot their own and other countries. If you disagree with me that’s fine, but don’t misrepresent my argument, please.

            I don’t deny that white elites have really been trailblazers as far as colonizing and looting goes, and countries from the global north have not acknowledged that and how it contributes still to global poverty and environmental degredation. No argument from me there.

            Also–I happen to think one doesn’t give up on things like universal human (economic, political, and social) rights because it’s hard to establish and maintain them. Again, your mileage may vary.


          • It isn’t about giving up on them but more like seeing them never really being implemented in spirit across a large part of the world where the social structure is already too rigid and too secured in place. Again, I’m talking about a majority of the world and not the tiny part of it where it might be successfully working.


          • I hope you can see how in this interview the author presents no knowledge of the ultra rich that existed as a class before the rise of them in the west and how that’s again a very skewed way to look at the world.

            For once, globalism came into place with the colonization projects and the ultra rich of places all over the world basically fell prey to the lure of more money and more power and sold their countries to western companies. The dollar-backed money minting financial revolutions that made previously non-rich into the super rich pales in comparison to what the legacy rich have been doing with the globalist framework all this time. I’m not somebody that takes printed history as a fact. I know it is just one side of the story. there are other sides that make you wonder though. Like the Reds’ ties to Wall Street and their haste to eliminate the Tsar and basically hijacking the soviets. Also, capital flight from the third world and the McDonaldisation of the world and the incredibly patient landgrab across the planet by China are all a result of local super rich collaborating with the other local super rich under the blanket of globalism. At the end of the day, the new money rich are really too few and too varied in where they came from to form a class proper.


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