“I DIDN’T GROW UP WANTING TO BE ANYONE, I HAD TO BE MYSELF”- THE MAYANTI LANGER INTERVIEW

INTERVIEWS
SRINIVAS SADHANAND | 31st March 2020

It’s been a decade of unrivalled dominance for Mayanti Langer. Debuting as a guest anchor for a broadcast of FIFA beach football to presenting the upper echelon of sporting competitions, whether it is the Commonwealth Games and the FIFA World Cup in 2010, ICC Cricket World Cup (2011, 2015 and 2019) or the Indian Premier League since 2018, Langer has been setting pace throughout the years in a way where there’s no disputing that she’s in a league of her own.

Presenter extraordinaire, Mayanti Langer’s peerless ability of acting as a moderator between cricketing juggernauts such as Sunil Gavaskar, Graeme Smith, Kevin Pietersen and VVS Laxman as well as dissecting the intricacies of cricket in a country where the sport is practically a way of life is one that makes viewers sit up and take notice while she runs the show seamlessly.

A seasoned vet at this point, Langer has become synonymous with Indian sports broadcasting excellence and her reign looks dead set to continue for years to come. A question that often springs to mind among viewers is what the makings of one of live sports television’s favorite faces are.

To answer this question among many, Mayanti Langer had a chat with More Than A Game on everything behind the lens.

Spending your teens in New York, you’ve talked about how the States exposed you to sport and particularly, football in a way that India could not have back then. How did you fall in love with football and what is it that made the American sporting environment one of a kind for you?

It was primarily in my pre-teen years, before I came back to India. I don’t think it’s very hard to fall in love with a game like football, that’s why they call it the beautiful game (chuckles). In terms of watching it, it was always great fun to watch but being actively involved was something that really helped. The one distinction was that both my brother and I were pushed towards weekend activities. We had a lot of those growing up because the area that we were staying in had a lot of such activities, community-wise, age-wise, group-wise and it was also co-ed. So, it really taught girls and boys to play together, working as a team and it was a very interesting experience which doesn’t necessarily happen in India. That was the great experience of being actively involved because you felt a passion for the sport, and you replicated that passion when you watched it.

It wasn’t that I wanted to be a professional footballer or anything like that. It was something I enjoyed very passionately playing and watching of course. You always hear stories about the World Cup and when my mum was pregnant, I remember how she used to tell me she used to watch it. I feel like the World Cup is something that brings everyone together. Not having India in a football World Cup, it was very exciting because you always picked your team on the basis of the players you liked. I used to watch a lot of European football. The Champions League was a tournament I really enjoyed. It was more of that than having a particular favorite like the Premiership or La Liga. For a time, I followed Real Madrid and at that time, it was before they became this ‘Galacticos’ phase. It wasn’t that a particular tournament brought me into football. I think I could watch any football and it wouldn’t really matter.

Returning from the US to India, you took this interest in sport to another level and started running the Indian Youth Soccer Association League which had around 70 students by the time you graduated. What was that entire experience like?

Those are the people I have to thank for keeping me interested in the sport because my school- the Shri Ram School in Delhi was very progressive towards women in sport. Our principal’s husband, Mr. Adams was an Englishman and he started something called the Youth Soccer Association which was co-ed. That’s something we used to do after school, so it was perfect timing, coming back from school and going straight there. So, when I went to college, it was basically almost like a part-time job. You made some money over weekends in college and it was because I was the part of the academy when I was in school that they offered me this job and by then it was a girl’s football league.

Teams with schoolgirls all over Delhi from different age-groups and it was a way for me to make pocket money in college, but it was great, and I owe them a lot.

That experience is what led to someone coming up to you for a byte from Zee Sports and 2-3 years later, you got a call from there to come in for an audition. After getting that call and walking into the Zee Sports studios for the first time, there must have been a ton of questions on your mind as you had never intended on becoming a sports presenter in the first place. Do you feel the lack of expectation and the element of just taking in the experience when you went in for the audition make you somewhat of a natural?

I didn’t really know what to expect and I think that was the best thing. I remember my brother coming with me for the audition and neither of us had any experience in something like this. I met the bosses and they were like, “Okay, let’s go to the studio and do a screen test. You read it off the teleprompter and we’ll get back to you.” They said I had a screen presence but most of all, they were aware that I had an interest and knowledge about football and sport.

They were also just taking a huge chance on someone that didn’t have any television experience. I never even thought of getting into television or anything like that (laughs). Growing up and even now to some extent, I’m not someone who enjoys being in the spotlight. I was always someone in the back and away. Maybe that’s what made it work because I didn’t have preconceived notions of how it’s supposed to be. Nor did I have any fear because it wasn’t a dream of mine or anything like that, so I think the carelessness or maybe the ignorance of it made me very natural in my audition. Even now when I’m in front of the camera, it just feels very natural.

You mentioned how sharing the stage with sports presenting royalty like John Dykes during the FIFA World Cup was not just a surreal experience for you, but also for your friends who had grown up watching him host the Premier League and several other major footballing tournaments. Would you say you picked up certain presenting traits from someone like him and what have you learned from working alongside different hosts during your time in this space?

I think that’s the moment where it hit me that this is the big leagues. I had been doing Indian football till then and I absolutely loved it; I was so passionately involved in it because you wanted to see the betterment in you and you wanted to see India play a World Cup and I still do. I was actively and emotionally involved in sport at that time. It was my first job, but when I got called to the big leagues (chuckles) or have the same responsibilities as someone (John Dykes) who I grew up watching, it was a huge moment and it was very surreal. I think that is the moment that changed me and said, “after this World Cup, why not anything?”

That’s why after this, I never really said no to anything and I’m like, “Okay whatever comes, great. Whether it’s cricket, the World Cup, Olympics, just say yes. Don’t be scared, you’ve got to take chance.” That was a huge turning point in my career.

The best thing that John Dykes has taught me is ‘be yourself’. I tried very hard into getting him to give me tips and workshops that he was doing for everyone else. The best piece of advice he gave to me is, “Mayanti, I have nothing great to say to you. You know the things you need to work on as a presenter, but to develop yourself, you’re going to have to do it yourself. As far as I see, there’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing. Keep doing what you’re doing, and you’ll just get better.”

I think the best thing he did for me is treat me with so much respect. He could have thought, “Who is this young 20-something year-old girl, really unheard of, coming all the way to Singapore for ESPN?”. But he wasn’t like that, he was so respectful and that’s the kind of person I wanted to be.  I want to be able to give back to people who join this industry and do the same things he did for me which is to just put me at ease and not fill my head with ideas on what you’re supposed to do like mimicry or something like that because then you’re never going to be you. I didn’t grow up wanting to be anyone, I had to be myself.

Fast forward to 2020 and you’ve made your own lane, hosting sports’ most elite competitions, be it- the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the Cricket World Cups in 2011, 2015 and 2019, the 2010 Commonwealth Games and the list goes on. Looking back, hosting which tournament would you say was the most rewarding experience for you?

I can’t say that because every single tournament that has come my way has been very rewarding because it means the person who has decided to give me a chance has invested their faith in me in giving me these responsibilities. So, I wouldn’t want to say that either of them was the most rewarding. But if I had to and if you look back, doing the 2010 FIFA World Cup was a huge moment because that kind of changed the graph of my career and people realized, “okay, she can do big things”. So, the person who thought I could do it, I owe them for that. IPL (Indian Premier League) was of course a huge tournament for me to because I never wanted to get into cricket. I was afraid of getting into cricket (laughs) and Zee forced me into doing that. That also changed my path because people were like, “she can also do cricket” and of course, I met my husband (Stuart Binny). If I hadn’t done the IPL, I wouldn’t have Stuart in my life.

The 2019 Cricket World Cup too. It’s a privilege to keep hosting World Cups. To have done 3 consecutive World Cups is an absolute privilege so I enjoyed each moment I was there for what was possibly one of the most epic finals at the Home of Cricket (Lord’s Cricket Ground) and what could be more rewarding than that? So, these three events really stand out for me.

People may watch you presenting such incredible tournaments and think to themselves, “I wish I could do that someday. She really has the dream job.” What are the roadblocks you face behind the scenes that your viewers may not even have a hint about?

Anyone who works in television and live television will tell you that it’s a stressful job. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure and responsibility on your shoulders. There’s no real room for mistakes and it’s a balancing act, trying to balance live television and conduct a show. So many people that work behind the scenes, Srinivas and all their efforts come through you. You’ve been given that responsibility and so there’s a huge amount of pressure and expectation on your shoulders. I really like the pressure because they believe you’re good enough to carry them forward and to be the face of it; that’s the dream aspect of this job that someone believes you are just that important that you can do this job. At times, you’re on your own because that’s the nature of live- you use visuals, you use audio, you’re talking to legends and all sorts of things happen and nothing ever goes to plan.

That’s the beauty of it and maybe people watching don’t know the nature of it because it’s very hard to but I think that’s the same with everyone, we don’t really know the nature of everyone’s jobs until we’ve tried it.

You’ve mentioned the pressure situations and how it’s not as easy as it looks. What are the elements about what you that truly make it a dream job for you?

I find it a real privilege to be trusted with that responsibility of being the face of a network or being the face of cricket. You are responsible for spearheading the everyone’s hard work and I think it’s great to be that valued. It makes you feel really good about yourself and of course, the gratitude for the kind of fan appreciation moments that you get. There’s a tremendous amount of gratitude when someone thinks you’re worth something and they say, “you’re a role model or you’re an inspiration”. Those elements of the job are very rewarding.

The privilege of going to the best stadiums in the world, talking to some of the legends of the game and you’re just about as close as the players to the action. I think that’s very rewarding.

Working alongside legends of the game like Brian Lara, Sunil Gavaskar and VVS Laxman to name a few, do you ever still pinch yourself when you realize that you share the same stage as such cricketing stalwarts?

Of course. I mean, that’s pretty much all the time. I think the difference is, over time you have to cultivate a relationship with the people you work with because you’re both kind of doing the same job and you understand their share of the responsibilities and they understand yours. You know, every time Sunil Gavaskar sits next to me, I’m in awe. But he and I also have a great working relationship and I think that’s one more privilege; you get a chance to have a relationship with these legends and see their very human bones and very normal moments which as fans, you don’t get to see. So yes, you’re right, in a sense, you do pinch yourself but then if I continued to be overawed, I would never have been able to do my job.

It’s very important to be able to ground yourself and realize that you’re there for a reason. Whether that’s anticipation or feeling overwhelmed, there’s no place for that in this industry. You can’t have that starstruck, fanboy or fangirl moment (laughs) even if you really want to. You can’t, this is your vehicle, it’s your show, it’s your studio- control it.


Does having Stuart Binny as a partner, someone who must know everything there is to know about the high highs and low lows, dealing with massive pressure and being judged without even being known by the public help in dealing with this process? I understand what you’re trying to say from that point of view, but you must understand that we’ve known each other for over ten years. When we met each other, we both weren’t really doing anything. I had just left my network and he had been banned because of ICL (Indian Cricket League), he hadn’t yet got amnesty. So everything extraordinary that has happened in Stuart’s career, the way he has worked so hard for coming back into Karnataka club cricket to IPL to playing for the country, his ODI debut, his Test debut, his T20 debut, I have seen that journey. I have seen him grow and as you rightly said, no one even knows him as a person. So, it’s something where we’ve kind of grown together in all of this. We’ve handled that aspect of our careers together and our roles have been very parallel in a sense. When we met, we never knew our careers would turn out the way they did. Everything good that has happened in our careers is after we got together. It’s been a journey together.

You mentioned in an interview that when you had to host the ICL, your cricketing knowledge was pretty much null and your boss gave you a crash course saying, “batsmen are the kings, no one cares about the bowlers.” From that point to becoming the bridge of communication between legendary cricketers and the audience, would you say presenting is one of those skills where you learn a lot of it on-the-job? Which is obviously not true by the way (laughs). You do learn the game on the job, but more than that, you learn skills and the experiences teach you certain skills or help you understand your temperament. There’s a lot of work behind the scenes to learn the sport. That doesn’t necessarily have to be on the job and that’s where Stuart’s been so integral to my journey because he would always come home and tell his stories. Him playing Ranji Trophy, his experiences of playing 4-day cricket or him just talking about his matches in general. He knew I had an interest in cricket and we watch cricket together. So, all those things have been very helpful in my career because you do need to do a lot of research. I don’t think you can have a fear when you’re working with such extraordinary people to ask them questions, to ask them about their lives, their careers, the big moments in their careers to help you to understand certain situations.

So, I don’t think the learning the sport part happens as much on the job as learning the skills of being a broadcaster happen on the job.

You’ve touched upon how the IPL called you in for meetings four times in a row and ended up saying no to you every single year. What was it like to get over that period of rejection and do you think you used that energy as your fuel moving forward, which ultimately led to you hosting it in 2018?

Well, I mean, that’ll be a great story, right? (laughs). No, I tried for four years like you said, and it wasn’t going to happen so I kind of made my peace with it and thought that if it it’s not meant to, there’s really nothing I can do and you have to respect the people for whatever reasons they have so just let it go. Look, I was very privileged that I was able to see a different side of the IPL, which was as a family member and those have been some of the greatest years and moments I have enjoyed as Stuart’s partner.

Getting years with Rajasthan Royals, we were family basically and reaching the finals with RCB (Royal Challengers Bangalore), his first year with Mumbai Indians when Sachin Tendulkar was there, they were some incredible moments. That familiarity has been there for 10 years of IPL to be honest where Stuart has played, where I have been his partner and I’ve seen that journey so I wouldn’t say I missed out on anything. When I got the chance to host it, it wasn’t like I had any sort of revenge or an ‘I’ll show you’ attitude on my mind. It was just that opportunity and I was like, “Okay, let’s enjoy every moment.”

Faffing around: Mayanti Langer interviewing South African talisman Du Plessis during the IPL

Moving on from what happens on screen to when the curtains close, in this era of social media, trolling and online abuse towards women in the public eye reach the point of misogyny, body shaming and personal insults. What kind of stick have you had to face and how did you come out of the other side of it?

Pretty much everything that you’ve mentioned. I think you’re right that women on screen face that quite a bit. Sometimes it seems like it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing this or what kind of show you just had or the kind of people that appeared on your show because you invariably always get a comment about either the way you look or the way you dress and that’s just some people’s perceptions. If I believed it was reality and that’s the way, let’s say the network believed that then they wouldn’t have given me those responsibilities, so it’s not something that I really take to heart nor do I actively try and change it. I’m changing those perceptions by continuing to do what I’m doing, despite how you think I should be dressing or how I should be looking. One thing I learned very early on in my career and I’m grateful for the people who I worked with Zee Sports who hired me said that, “Your looks can only open the door. You have to keep that door open by building on your content. Your content is king and the type of persona you have is what is going to set you apart.”

A lot of the people I’ve worked with have never made a big deal about my gender, the way that I look or the way that I dress because I was always expected to carry out the same responsibilities that my male colleagues had to with the same level of expectation. That kind of takes it out of the window very early on. What I would say to women coming into the industry is of course, you’re subjected to it but a girl on the road is also subjected to it. It’s a mentality that’s been there for many years and instead of eveteasing you on the roads, they kind of evetease you, using social media. I don’t think it’s acceptable, but you have to survive in this industry. So, each girl or each woman has to figure out her own personal battle with it.

You mentioned in an interview about how people made memes about this ‘lungi-skirt’ you wore. You made a joke about it, but don’t you find that absurd?

See, I understand the root of it was extremely sexist. My personal choice was to laugh about it. You’re right that it became a meme and that’s an achievement in this day of social media (laughs). I do understand that with those sorts of comments, the root of it is based in misogyny and sexism. Let me just say, it’s not just men. There are quite a few comments I get from women on my appearance and my age. So, it’s not just restricted to the voyeurism by men, let me just tell you that. On the flipside, some of the most positive comments I’ve received is from men, saying “it’s not just about her looks and it’s not about the way she dresses”.

There are some pretty nasty comments I’ve received from women which I find quite strange because maybe, they are somewhere subjected to that which is why they use that as a defence mechanism or a way of lashing out. It’s just a vicious circle that way so I don’t want to engage in it unless I find something, I can find humor in, otherwise it’s just nice to ignore it.

Finally, what kind of a legacy would you like to leave behind when you finally hang up your boots? Microphone in this case, of course.

It’s a very interest question, Srinivas. I really don’t think of it. I guess, I don’t think I’m as accomplished as so many people out there to call it a legacy, I’ll be very honest with you. If there’s any parting thought that I would want to leave behind if people remember me was that they don’t remember me for my gender and they don’t say something like, “She was a good female presenter”. Just a ‘good presenter’ would work. That’s the only thing that I would want to generate a conversation about is that I always entered this industry, not worrying about my gender and I was always therefore treated by my employers as just a person, as a presenter, irrespective of their gender.

I think that’s the one thing that needs to change because there are a lot of women who have presented cricket in India and you will see we’re always pitted against each other, mostly for the way we look. It’s something that just hasn’t changed over the years. A lot of men who have presented cricket in India and I don’t see that happening with them. I don’t think it’s a competition among the women who have presented because we’ve all carved our own niches and actually, some of us are in touch with each other and are very supportive of each other’s careers in the space that has been created. I would wish that this changed, and I would wish people don’t think of me as just a “female presenter”. That would make more girls and boys want to get into this.