The biggest news media story of the year gone by is Prannoy and Radhika Roy walking away from NDTV as the new owner, the Adani Group, walked in. Their dignified parting note is a fine insight into how they’ve approached their journalism. In the highly-strung world of news television, their calm is a rarity.
As this epoch in Indian journalism ends, it nudges me to look at my own interactions with the Roys over more than three decades — from the day Prannoy came to India Today with his idea of an opinion poll for the 1984 general election. Radhika then worked with us as India Today’s news coordinator, the pivot of the newsroom. TV happened with the Roys in the following five years, as it did with the India Today Group.
In my previous job, when I was the northeast correspondent for the Indian Express, Radhika worked on the news desk. We knew each other, though only remotely. And she was the only one on the Express news desk willing to take down my late-breaking stories from the insurgency-hit region. Usually about ambushes and encounters.
My camera time grew entirely with NDTV over three decades. That story is the best way for me to give you an insight into the phenomenon of the Roys and NDTV.
Here is how it began.
For a dyed-in-newsprint hack like me, television was always a matter of exotic curiosity. My first few experiences with the medium were patchy, and I’m being kind to myself. The first ever, oddly, was live for Prannoy Roy.
In the summer of 1988, national politics could scald you faster than Allahabad’s 49-degree temperature. V.P. Singh had led a post-Bofors rebellion against Rajiv Gandhi, resigned from the cabinet, and was fighting for re-election against the Congress. This set the stage for Gandhi’s defeat and Singh’s ascent as an unlikely prime minister. I was in Allahabad covering that election for India Today.
Prannoy was anchoring the election results coverage for DD and asked if I would do a couple of pieces to camera (P2Cs) for him, live from Allahabad, as counting progressed.
He said it would be a breeze.
I said, “Yes, it sure will be.”
Only to learn my first, and most essential, lesson about TV news: That things will go wrong, particularly when you’re live. And you’re entirely on your own. With nobody to hold your hand, edit your copy, rewrite, or even erase a really bad mistake. You must think on your feet. Or, act like the proverbial tube light — blink, glow, stutter, glow. Which is how I responded to my first crisis, live. Remember, this was 1988 technology, there was no talk-back in my ear, no production control live with the OB van in Allahabad.
On that night, with the burning heatwave still sweeping the plains, I stood holding a mike with the OB behind me, staring at a tiny black-and-white TV placed on a stool in front. The Autocue, I was told, had failed. So I had to keep my eyes on the TV, which showed live coverage, and start speaking the moment my figure appeared on the screen. Now you know what I mean by tubelight effect?
Prannoy never reminded me of this disaster. Even when I recounted it self-deprecatingly, he’d say, “That’s how old times were. This happened to everybody.”
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For me, TV was almost forgotten after this, except occasionally when Madhu Trehan asked me to substitute for her co-anchor at Newstrack, Raghav Bahl, if he was on leave. Madhu struggled to fix my hopelessly desi Hindi-medium accent but continued to be optimistic. She even sent a TV crew with me and photographer Prashant Panjiar when we went to cover the first Afghan jihad in 1993. More details of this adventure, you can read here.
I thought Afghanistan had taught me to do TV news. So I went back to Prannoy and Radhika to ask if I could do something with them. By this time, NDTV was running Star News.
They said, “Look, we think you aren’t ready for TV yet.”
“So what do I do to get ready,” I asked.
“Nothing,” Prannoy said, “we will know when you are ready and let you know.”
Much as I would have preferred to forget that evening in their Greater Kailash apartment, I really can’t. And for very good reason.
I had arrived a little bit early and had Logo and Graphic, the friendliest dogs ever, for company. The dining table was set with six napkins, as they were expecting dinner guests afterwards. As the Roys arrived, the dogs ran to the table, stealing one napkin after the other and piling them neatly at their feet. The meticulously set dining table had been devastated. See, who wouldn’t cherish such a brilliant dog moment, even on an evening when you’re told you’re not good enough for something you really want to do. It was done calmly, clinically and with dignity.
In the course of time, one thing I learnt from the Roys — with limited success — was how to say no without ambiguity, and ‘nicely’.
Prannoy called a couple of years later, and I later figured out why he now thought I was ready for TV. I had started writing my weekly column, ‘National Interest’, and he thought I had now become a sufficiently serious voice to opinionate once a week on a new show called Nationwide, where the anchor read the headlines and a pundit pronounced judgement on each.
It was sort of formal, I was told, and so I bought some ties. I learnt to do the single knot from a DIY pamphlet. But I felt suffocated, distracted — and the camera misses nothing.
I got a rare, short sermon from Prannoy. “Remember,” he said, “You may be feeling awful about something, you may be sick, aching, irritated by the anchor’s questions — the viewer doesn’t know or care. Do not display this on your face. Never.”
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The idea of Walk The Talk grew from that admonition. My excuse for my constipated, when-will-this-be-over gaze at the camera was the tie, the lights, the makeup. When the Roys launched NDTV in 2003 and asked if I’d do a weekly show, my one suggestion was, “Outdoors and without a tie, probably with my sleeves rolled up.” Thus evolved the idea of an informal, but well-informed, conversation between grown-ups.
It lasted more than 15 years, featured almost 600 guests, and ended only once ThePrint developed its own video properties, Cut The Clutter and Off The Cuff among them.
Through 15 years of Walk The Talk, I was never told to interview somebody, or not to, or what to ask and what not to. Most importantly, I wasn’t ever confronted with that dreaded thing named analytics, or TRPs. It was a show by appointment that carried on uninterrupted. So thank you, Radhika and Prannoy. You turned this TV disaster into a long-surviving anchor. You are very patient.
NDTV under the Roys weathered many storms. None harder than to avoid trivialisation, to respect facts, and to discuss, not shout. The NDTV record book is deservedly filled with awards and accomplishments.
None of these is as gratifying as the success in maintaining dignity in the newsroom and the studio, having respect for facts and the sense not to pitch a story higher than its intrinsic value. It isn’t easy. But as the Roys have shown, it’s the best equity in this messed up news bazaar. It’s with this satisfaction that the Roys must walk away, leaving NDTV in new hands.
You may also want to read this introduction from the book Walk The Talk: Decoding Politicians, written by me and published by Rupa for NDTV. Some passages in this column have been drawn from it.
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