When Ananya Birla and Sania Mirza shared a selfie from the Birla jet enroute to Dubai some time ago, it stirred up quite a storm among social media enthusiasts. You could almost hear the spirit of Robin Leach proclaiming, “Welcome to the lifestyles of the rich and the famous!”
Rich and famous, they both certainly are. Ananya, an heiress with one of the country’s most esteemed surnames, and Sania, a trailblazer of women’s tennis in India. Yet, one wonders: what could these two high-profile women possibly have in common? HELLO! pays a visit to the stately residence in Mumbai, where Ananya resides with her parents, Kumar Mangalam and Neerja Birla, to meet the besties and unveil this mystery.
From Work Ties To BFFs For Life
The tony neighborhood of Carmichael Road is home to some of the nation’s most prominent industrialists, business tycoons and South Bombay elites. The wealth here cannot be described as ‘old’ but more rightfully ‘ancient’ when examined closely.
The two women before us, however, cut a strikingly different picture. Dressed in hoodies and track pants after a gruelling photoshoot, where hair, make-up and lighting received meticulous attention, it’s almost as if they’ve conquered an immense summit. Everyone is now catching their breath, with numerous rounds of coffee and tea circulating among the crew.
Bringing Ananya and Sania together is a considerable challenge as it’s clear that the two of them are exceptionally dedicated workaholics. Their schedules are demanding, they reside in different time zones throughout the year and seem to thrive on seamlessly transitioning from one work commitment to the next.
Sania, who retired in February this year, has been on the tennis courts since the age of 12, travelling 30 weeks of the year for more than a decade. Not too far behind, Ananya is following quite diligently in the footsteps of her ‘aapi’, a term of endearment meaning big sister that she uses for Sania who is seven years her senior (36 to her 29). The heiress wears several different hats—from running one of the country’s largest micro-finance companies, shooting for a film in London for Netflix, to nurturing a career as a successful music artist.
What the two of them have in common, apart from their celebrity status, is hard to fathom. They don’t share the same age, belong to entirely different social spheres and come from very different backgrounds. When you ask them about their connection, they’re quick to explain that they’re, in fact, the same person… soul sisters, in every sense of the term. “She is truly my best friend,” says Ananya, while discussing their bond. “I’ve known her for five or six years now. All my other friends have been with me since school. I don’t open up so easily to people, so developing such a close friendship later in life has been a surprise, even for me.”
We are seated in one of the numerous lounges on the house’s ground floor, where the walls are adorned with giant M.F. Husain and S.H. Raza paintings; temple statues and Chola bronzes rest on side tables. The furniture features a modern twist, mirroring the duality that Ananya herself represents. As a member of one of the country’s most prominent industrial families, she’s been born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth, a fact she readily acknowledges. “Yes, I know I’ve been born into privilege,” she says, adding, “But Sania has never emphasised that, which sets her apart for me. She encourages me when I’m doing my best. She’s self-made and has achieved everything through her own efforts, so not being labelled by her is something else. It inspires me to be a better person and work towards something on my own.”
For Hyderabad-born Sania, life has been a roller coaster. Currently, she lives between Dubai and India, effectively spending half her time in each place. Her son, Izhaan (Izzy), attends school in the Emirate state, where Sania manages a household and keeps a central base of operations as she travels between countries. The former Women’s Doubles Number One Player has now retired, giving her a newfound luxury she’s never had the chance to enjoy all these years—more time on her hands.
Lounging with Ananya, she tells us about the first time the two met. “I have a hard time getting along with girls,” she confesses. “Ours may seem like an unlikely friendship, but I’ve come to realise that we are remarkably similar.” Sania was scheduled to shoot a music video for Ananya’s 2019 track, “Unstoppable”. “I had to travel from Jaipur, where I had an event, but my flight got cancelled, so I had to drive 12 hours to reach another airport to get to Mumbai. I finally landed there at 1 or 2am, and to my surprise, I was told Ms. Birla was there to receive me. I couldn’t quite grasp why. She simply stood there, welcomed me with a ‘hello,’ and then left.” Sania was astonished. “I found that quality incredible because she was so humble and grateful that I was doing this video for her. That really showed me the person that she was. The next day we spoke and hit it off like a house on fire.”
True Friends, No Filters
With a friendship built on mutual respect, shared interests and sincere affection, their deep connection has only strengthened by hanging out together. “Sania and I just chill at her place,” Ananya says, sharing how she loves spending time with Izzy and watching Sania be a great mom to him. Despite the myriad of options, you’ll rarely find them at the mall, shopping or eating out; for them, spending time means just chilling in their pyjamas and doing nothing. “We have our own inside jokes and are able to share everything with each other. She knows when I’m in a dark place and that I’m not ignoring anyone or anything like that, but just taking time out for myself,” Ananya reveals.
Here, Sania chimes in, mentioning their fondness for hoodies and track pants, and acting carefree as if they can’t afford to wear anything else. She even recalls a time when they stayed up until 2am and had a blast. “I had the best time in the world,” she says, happily. Their friendship exudes comfort and camaraderie. “My sister Anam is exactly Ananya’s age, and I am very close to her as well. So, now, it feels like I have two sisters in many ways,” says Sania.
Ananya’s family now has a home in Dubai’s Emirates Hills, so for the two of them, catching up typically involves spending time with a few common friends. Ananya has met Sania’s family and developed a close bond with them. She recently spent a day with them during her visit to Hyderabad. “I was telling her [Sania] recently that I’m not acquainted with people’s lives in general. Like, I knew she was a tennis legend, but nothing more. So when I was getting to know her, I didn’t have any preconceived notions, I didn’t know about her achievements, I got to know her as a person, and that’s all that mattered to me. That clean slate worked in our favour; the mind tends to be judgmental otherwise,” Ananya says, adding, “Now, I’m discovering that she was a world number one... I had no clue. She also never said anything about her achievements.”
Empowering Each Other’s Journeys
While they may be at different stages in their careers, their schedules are equally packed. Ananya is occupied with overseeing the Chaitanya India Fin Credit acquisition by Svatantra Microfin, a company she established in 2012 when she was just 19. With this takeover, the latter is set to become the second-largest microfinance institution in the country. “We are a for-profit financial company that primarily offers financing to women in rural areas. We employ a system known as ‘social collateral’ to secure our loans. We group women together and provide loans collectively rather than individually,” says Ananya, sharing that they hope to go public with an initial IPO within the next two to three years.
Her music career, which caused quite a buzz with several notable singles and celebrity collaborations, is another focus for her. “I’m working on another single in collaboration with a very famous Nigerian artist, and I’m really looking forward to it. Moreover, my work and innovation efforts are ongoing. I’ve also partnered with a good music label in Los Angeles, which is a great help. This is an exciting time for the music scene, and I’m busy writing and looking forward to the release of more singles in the coming months.”
Then there’s her soon-to-be-launched luxe streetwear brand, a topic Ananya is quite reserved about. “An Indian company making luxury streetwear was missing. I knew that I had to get into that space and create products for people here in India. For a long time, the West has been giving us cues about where to shop; why not have our own homegrown brand for the same thing? Perhaps we can even make it popular enough to be sold in America and Europe one day,” is all she’ll reveal.
Sania, on the other hand, is equally busy with her burgeoning TV career and a fast-growing motivational speaking tour that takes her all over the country. She’s grateful for her busy schedule after her retirement from pro tennis in March 2023. “I’ve been practicing [tennis] since I was a child. So, suddenly finding myself not having to wake up to an alarm in the morning is a great relief,” she remarks. She’s looking forward to a break, both for the sake of her body and to spend more time with her son. “But, having said that, I know that deep down, I am a workaholic. I need to keep doing something,” she says, mentioning her roles as an ambassador for Sony, her mentorship of the women’s cricket team at Royal Challengers Bangalore and her advisory role at Reliance Jio, all of which keep her quite busy.
After retirement, life for a tennis star can be a period of reflection and recuperation. Playing at that level for decades can take a toll on the body, leading many to burn out from sheer exhaustion. However, the retired Sania doesn’t seem to exhibit any signs of such sports-related maladies. “I’ve never thought about the next chapter in my life,” she says, candidly. “I’ve pretty much lived without any long-term goals. It’s always been winning for the next two weeks and that’s it.” She holds the belief that you can’t truly control your future; all you can do is work at your own pace and go with the flow.
Tennis will always hold a special place in her heart. “I’d love to do something to support tennis in India, to use my experience and what I’ve achieved in aiding the next generation of young girls who aspire to enter the game,” she says.
Where Masks Are Unnecessary
As celebrities, Ananya and Sania live a life where they are constantly looking over their shoulders for those who might attempt to pull the wool over their eyes. Such is the nature of fame and having a well-known surname. Their friendship has indeed been a blessing. When the two get together, they manage to create their own microcosm of comfort. A space where there’s a mutual exchange of motivation and support, where they can freely share the mundane aspects of life without any reservations. “I think we’ve felt secure being vulnerable with each other,” says Sania. “The masks come off and that’s very rare for us… we’re just similar personalities that support one another and I never imagined I’d find another support system like her at this stage of my life.”
Sania, being the older of the two, serves as a silent mentor to Ananya in the form of a friend. A high achieving, self-made woman who has battled to reach the pinnacle of her career, only to live to tell the tale. Agreeing to this in her own way, Ananya signs off our interview by saying, “I look up to her [Sania]and share all my work with her to get her thoughts on it. But, to me, she’s much more than just an advisor… she’s aapito me, the one I can be myself with and just chill.”
Text: Vishwaveer Singh; Photos: Sheldon Santos; Creative Direction: Avantikka Kilachand; Creative Direction: Nayare Ali; Styling: Anushree Sardesai; Assisted by: Ila Parakh; Make-Up: Loveleen Ramchandani; Hair for Ananya: Misheeta Sanghvi; Hair for Sania: Seema Phadtare
This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in Hello! India’s November 2023 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!