New Delhi: 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 am being kind to myself. The first ever, oddly, was live, and in the service of Prannoy Roy, the anchor, in the Doordarshan studio in New Delhi. 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 Lok Sabha and was fighting for re-election against the Congress. This was the fight of the decade, and ultimately set the stage for Rajiv Gandhi’s defeat and V.P. Singh’s ascent as an unlikely prime minister, though his coalition was eventually short-lived. I was in Allahabad covering that election for India Today magazine, for which I then worked.
Incidentally, it was in this election that Kanshi Ram made his debut, surprised everybody by the number of votes a rank outsider like him polled and gave the first indication of the force BS was going to grow into. Prannoy was anchoring the election results coverage for DD and asked if I would be willing to 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 would be.’ Only to learn my first, and most essential, lesson on TV news. That things will go wrong, particularly when you are live, and you are entirely on your own then, nobody to hold your hand, edit your copy, rewrite, even erase a really bad mistake. You have to think on your feet. Or, act like the proverbial tubelight. 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 as the burning heat wave still swept 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. Auto-cue, 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?
The next couple of P2Cs came in equally testing situations even if they were not live. There was the odd call to substitute whenever Raghav Bahl, then Madhu Trehan’s video newsmagazine Newstrack’s co-anchor, missed a day. Madhu struggled to fix my hopelessly desi, non-convent accent and delivery but continued to be optimistic. So optimistic, in fact, that she sent a stellar crew — Ajmal Jami and Bharat Raj — with me to Afghanistan in 1993 as the Najibullah regime entered the end-game in the first Afghan jihad.
All of Afghanistan was under snow, sub-zero, and TV equipment those days weighed 120 kg, which the three of us had to haul. The fourth, photographer Prashant Panjiar, had his own stuff to carry.
And the fifth, Rashid, the official minder and interpreter, always turned up in jacket and tie and would share no such burdens.
We were all much younger but continued searching for a porter.
None was to be found. Probably anybody half-way fit or young had been conscripted by one side or the other, or was fighting as a mercenary. At one point, we thought we did find a murga.
As we started trudging, with all the equipment, the expanse of the Mazar-i-Sharif airbase, where we had just been brought by an Afghan plane, we saw a young, fit and idling Afghan in tattered khaki overalls. Eyes lit up, I pulled out a fistful of Afghanis (local currency) which, I think, were then 700 to a dollar, and grandly offered them to him if he would give us a hand with the load.
He smiled, in pride as well as pity (on us), patted the Afghan Air Force wings on the left breast of his ragged overall, and said, ‘Me peelaut, sorry.’ The one we thought a likely porter turned out to be a joyful MiG-27 pilot and he regaled us with stories of rocket and front-gun raids on the Mujahideen, dodging Stinger missiles.
But we carried the equipment. It wasn’t a bad half-hour story by the standards of those days, particularly as no Indian cameras had gone to Afghanistan yet. But I’d rather that you did not find it in any archive today. It would look awful, particularly with most of my pieces to camera delivered through teeth crackling with cold.
It was no surprise then that when I returned to Prannoy and Radhika Roy to ask if I could do something on TV — by this time NDTV was running Star News — they said, Look, we do not think you are 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 reached a little bit ahead of my hosts and had Logo and Graphic, the friendliest dogs ever, for company. The dining table was set with six napkins, as probably dinner guests were expected after I left. Then the Roys arrived and the hounds ran straight to the dining table, stealing one napkin after the other and piling them neatly at their feet. The meticulously set dining table had been devastated. See, which dog lover will not cherish such a brilliant dog-moment, even if it was on an evening when you were told you were not good enough for something you wanted to do.
Prannoy called a couple of years later, and I later figured out why he then thought I was ready for TV. Just a few months earlier I had started writing my weekly column, ‘National Interest’, and he thought I had now become sufficiently serious to hold forth once a week on a new show called Nationwide, where the anchor read the news and asked a pundit to pronounce judgement on each one. It was sort of formal, I was told, and so I bought a bunch of new ties. I didn’t have any and learnt, from a DIY pamphlet, to tie the single knot. But I felt suffocated and distracted, and the camera misses nothing. So I got a rare, and short, sermon from Prannoy. Remember, he said, ‘You may be feeling awful about something, you may be sick, uncomfortable, irritated by the anchor’s questions the viewer does not know or care. So do not display any of this on your face. Never.’
The fact is, the idea of Walk The Talk probably grew from that admonition. My excuse for my constipated, when-will-this-be-over gaze at the camera was the tie. So when the Roys launched NDTV on their own in 2003 and asked if I’d do a weekly show, the first thing I said was, ‘Outdoors and without a tie, probably even with my sleeves rolled up. Thus evolved the idea of an informal, but well-informed, conversation between grown-ups. It’s now well into its twelfth year, uninterrupted, and has featured more than five hundred stellar guests, including heads of states, top politicians, film and sport stars, scientists and beauty queens, and fourteen Nobel laureates in different fields. This is not only the longest running interview-based show on Indian TV, it is also by far the most eclectic in its choice of guests.
A question I am often asked is who has been my favourite guest so far. It isn’t easy to answer. For just easy articulation, camera-friendliness, ability to field all questions and news value, L.K. Advani should be any interviewer’s favourite. I have some others too. Sonia Gandhi, because she has not given an interview so detailed and candid before or after. Sachin Tendulkar, for his honesty and enthusiasm over two hours at Shivaji Park, after he had been cross with me for years because somebody had whispered in his ear that I disliked him and got my reporters to do stories attacking him. But we made up, and how. Then Henry Kissinger, M.
Karunanidhi (with Kanimozhi as interpreter), Balasaheb Thackeray, and more recently, Steven Spielberg and David Cameron. Not to overlook Narendra Modi. He recorded more than a decade ago one early morning along the Narmada Canal and it was the closest he came to expressing remorse for the 2002 riots. It was a friendly, mature, intelligent and honest conversation between two grown-ups, exactly what Walk The Talk was designed to be.
If I have to name just one guest, however, it will have to be Ustad Bismillah Khan. So creative, so articulate, so salt-of-the-Banaras-earth, so evergreen. If you want to know what is the spirit of Banaras and liberal India, watch it again. It is one of the most repeated episodes. A secret: it is the only episode I ‘paid for’, or sort of. ‘Baba se baat karne aye ho bina nazarane ke?’ [You have come to interview Baba without a tribute?] he chided me. The next morning I returned with the camera and Rs 25,000 in an envelope, the amount indicated by one of his many, many grandchildren. The old maestro was still being milked by his humongous joint family.
In so many years, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of recorded interviews we decided to drop, and each was for a very good reason. Ram Gopal Varma, the filmmaker, was dropped because he expressed views on women so sexist they would have made for brilliant shock TV. But a correct, non-TRP friendly editorial call was taken. One I really felt bad about was the one with athlete Ashwini Akkunji. We recorded in Bangalore just after her Commonwealth Games and Asiad golds. She was inspirational in her champion’s simplicity, but was reported for doping (a spiked-up supplement, ultimately) and the interview had to be dropped.
Some people also ask me to name the most boring guest of all.
Not many, I would honestly say. But some were unusual in their irritation, impatience or idiosyncrasies. CNN-owner Ted Turner had put a ban on any question on Jane Fonda. But as we concluded I innocently asked him how many interviews had he done without a question on Jane Fonda. ‘You asked it, you just asked it,’ he said and the interview was over. It was a tense one anyway. On a frigid, overcast January evening in New Delhi, I was warned that if the temperature dropped below 13 degrees Celsius, Turner would end the interview and return indoors. Sure enough, an aide followed him with a digital thermometer the size of a pocket book so we could all keep an eye on the temperature. We hovered between 13.1 and 13.2, and my fate hung by a micro-Celsius. But really, if you insist on asking me who was the most challenging, it has to be UK Business Minister Vince Cable. And he was such a contrast to his Labour predecessor Peter Mandelson.
A most important note before I leave you to turn the pages of an edited selection of the conversations so far. Through twelve years of Walk The Talk, I have never been told to interview somebody, or not to, or what to ask and what not to. Most importantly, I have not even been confronted with that dreaded thing called analytics, which we commonly call ratings. It is a show by appointment that carries on uninterrupted. So thank you Radhika and Prannoy. Thank you Gunjan Mehrish and Suparna Singh, who first designed it, and Varadarajan, the big man with the steadicam who developed the single-frame, single-camera shooting style. Thanks also to the many other wonderful producers and cameramen, including Shashangka, Anurag, and Jasmine in Mumbai. All of you, together, turned this TV disaster into a long-serving and surviving anchor. You are all brilliant, and very patient.
New Delhi, October 2016