A House Called Antilla

Page 1 of 1
How the richest Indian has kept his city palace completely opaque to the prying eyes of media

About two months ago, Sudhir Suryawanshi, who then reported for Mumbai Mirror, saw Mukesh Ambani at a private party. He says Ambani had intrigued him for a while, but wondered if introducing himself was wise. In his retelling, he hesitated momentarily, and then figured there was nothing to lose. Hearing the name, Ambani recognised him instantly. “He said, ‘You wrote the story about my electricity bill! I like your stories!’” He hugged Suryawanshi and posed for a photograph, and reportedly told him, “I understand your job.”

The story about Ambani’s approximately Rs 70 lakh electricity bill for his first month at Antilla was a coup of sorts for Suryawanshi. Backed by a supportive editor, Meenal Baghel, he pulled journalistic strings to get a copy of Ambani’s bill. He also wrote a story about the tall wall that bordered Antilla. Both stories, he says, came after Ambani had sent a letter to the paper, asking them not to write about his home. “She was bindaas about it,” Suryawanshi said of Baghel. “She was like ‘go for it;  don’t worry if it’s Ambani.’”

Ambani’s home has been a subject of discussion for nearly five years. Every aspect of it has been scrutinised. The land deal. The helipads. The green status. The parking lots. The effect the building has on people around it. Much of the talk has been opinionated, and based on the few facts that are available. Reports on the building cover the same points, as if every reporter had referred to a common press release, and so stories tend to follow a loose pattern: Building-related facts– Ambani’s business prowess –a quote by Hamish Macdonald (author of The Polyester Prince)–a design-oriented/socially connected conclusion. The stories attest what every reporter writing on the brothers Ambani  knows—writing about them can be a daunting experience.

“Nobody seemed to want to talk about it,” Jason Burke, a correspondent for The Guardian, said about the reporting on Antilla. “I tried to talk to people from the Ambani side.” There was silence, an experience mirrored and reported by Shee- lah Kolhatkar in a 2007 story about Ambani, titled ‘Rich Man, Poor Country’ in Portfolio magazine. ‘Securing face time with India’s richest resident requires patience, as Ambani’s world is padded with layers of minions to shield him from public scrutiny. Scheduled appointments never take place, and phone calls are rarely returned; Ambani is big enough to make people wait,’ Kolhatkar wrote.

This extended to comments about any facet of his life. Unwilling to displease Ambani, sources were reluctant to speak about him or his home on record. Bar a few outspoken celebs. In a story by The New York Times, Alyque Padamsee and Prahlad Kakkar expressed bafflement at Antilla’s scale. Kakkar, a showman with a quiver of lines, said, “Either it is a landmark, or a symbol, or it is Mammon”. (The NYT correspondent who wrote the article did not wish to be interviewed for this story.) If not the outspoken, journalists recorded the view from below: college students, authors, designers. In one instance, a source who had spoken freely with a journalist called him after the story was published and fumed.  “It’s very sensitive,” the journalist explained.

The absence of information resulted in stories parroting one another. The ballroom, the six-tiered parking space for over 100 cars, the hanging garden, the building’s green status, the helipad—and troubles with helipad clearance—were reported in practically every story. Curiously, a $1 billion price was attached to the building; the detail spread like a meme. In his report for  The Guardian, Burke, who spoke with one of the building’s architects, reported that it had cost $71 million to construct, but ‘because of Mumbai’s astronomic land and property prices, will be worth about 15 times that amount’, giving it a billion-dollar tag.

“I was surprised that the architect had agreed to talk at all. I was surprised at the detail there was.” Looking at it from a Western perspective, “they would be sued for breach of contract.”

The absence of any kind of detail, or even an acknowledgement that Amba- ni’s home was a subject of interest left the field open for critics who took aim at the architecture, the motives for the construction, and the effect the structure had on people around it.

“I thought it odd that there was no real effort in putting across the other side of the story,” Burke says. “There was just no comment.”

“Whatever news I managed to get was from the lower ranks,” Suryawanshi says, “The very high profile don’t talk. You only need them to confirm the news you get from the lower ranks.” He says that for over a year, he made five attempts to enter the site. “I tried it from two or three angles.” He spoke to a public relations officer, but help was unavailable. He considered entering as a labourer, but saw that they had been issued identity cards. More than that, “if a person is working on the site, his background is checked”. Had he managed to fudge his background and gain access (“a breach of trust,” he clarifies), his tools would have been barred. “Anyone entering the site had his pockets checked. They would check diaries, wallets...”

The security detail was regularly changed. Suryawanshi would often start making headway with guards outside the gate on the first day, and return the next to find them gone. When someone from a London-based newspaper called, asking if he could provide inside details and pictures, he said entering the premises was out of the question. Besides, if there were extra details, they would surely go into his own report. When I asked if there was anything he saw that he didn’t write about, he laughed. “Everything I saw went in. That’s what reporters do!”

The details he did receive came from others who had been inside. Officials of the local municipal authority, the BMC, plied him with their observations: the Ganesha idol at the entrance, how the elevators worked. “It helped while writing my stories.” One of his biggest stories came from a kind source within the BMC: the plans for Antilla. Since then, the plans have been used in their original form or re-illustrated for publications in India and elsewhere. “It was available under Right to Information, but a source helped me get it earlier.”

All the same, one reporter chuckled when asked if there should have been more details out. For what it’s worth, he said, “It is his home. He’s a private guy. I understand that. I don’t see why there should be any details coming out.”