Vinod Dua. Photo: Raj K. Raj
Vinod Dua. Photo: Raj K. Raj

The art and whimsy of being a TV anchor

Old school Rajdeep Sardesai to self-deprecating Vinod DuaAakar Patel on what he has seen in TV studios

On the evening of 18 December 2012, I was in the CNN-IBN office in Noida. The TV station was doing a special on counting for Gujarat’s assembly election. The immediate story in Delhi, however, was something else, a crime that went on to be known as the Nirbhaya rape case. Sitting with Rajdeep Sardesai, who was agitated over the manner in which the story was being covered by his team (less aggressively than he wanted), I asked if it was not excessive coverage for a single criminal episode. Sardesai said it was, and he had a problem with this sort of tabloid coverage (my words, not his), but the story was important and the other channels wouldn’t let it go and he couldn’t either.

He was right in pursuing it aggressively, of course, as events were later to show, and I was mistaken in not immediately recognizing the news potential of such a story.

Sardesai, who is now with Headlines Today, is an editor of the old school, endlessly involved in detail, and foul-mouthed in office, rushing out of his cabin to spew abuse at the newsroom when he spots errors or slovenliness. His heart is in reporting and he has that one priceless asset television reporters need: a thick skin and relentless focus on the subject.

Interviewing Narendra Modi during that 2012 campaign on the chief minister’s bus, Sardesai was made to sit on the floor, which he did quite unselfconsciously, sending direct questions Modi’s way. Many of these Modi ignored or responded to with silence. Sardesai did not attempt to fill up these long and awkward silences with reconciliation or pleasantries, which is what made it special. It was brutal, terrific journalism, and as good an interview as one can ever hope to see.

His wife Sagarika Ghose also had the “always-on" journalist’s instinct, including when the show was on a break. Counting day is hard work and the hosts were at it from 7am to late in the afternoon, so it was difficult to fake enthusiasm, particularly when the camera was off, but Ghose got real pleasure in the thrill of news. When the Gujarat results had come in and Modi was about to speak, she asked me what to look for in Modi’s victory speech at the Bharatiya Janata Party office in Ahmedabad. I said if he made it in Hindi rather than Gujarati, he was speaking to a national audience and revealing his ambition. This he did, triggering off much excitement in the studio.

One thing that the IBN studios had was a lot of food. Endless plates of pizza, sandwiches, coffee and, to my surprise (given the sensitive microphones we wear), potato chips were brought around. This was not apparent to viewers but Sardesai was almost constantly eating and had a magical ability to chew and swallow without any crumbs in the few seconds that the camera was off him.

Karan Thapar is the only host I know who does the audio check of studio guests himself, to ensure that everyone is properly audible to him and the viewer. He is energetic when he comes into the studio (about 10 minutes or so before his show), and brings in a sheet of paper, with questions and perhaps also some research data. He is quite proper and though he may be familiar with the guest, once the camera is on he refers to them as Ms or Mr even though they may be friends. He has the best language of any anchor and also in my opinion the best manner of questioning, which is to say brief and without rambling.

Thapar has been doing interviews for longer than anyone else in India (there’s a piece on him by the late Dhiren Bhagat called “The Subtle Thrashing Of Karan Thapar", about an interview he did with the late Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s) and has also been writing a column in the Hindustan Times for a long time. This shows he enjoys his work and has found a space which is both comfortable and rewarding.

Arnab Goswami is a phenomenon. In Pakistan earlier this year, I met with many who were fascinated with him, including a young former armyman who asked me, “Yaar, yeh Arnab kya cheez hai (What is Arnab all about)?"

In an interview a few years ago, Network18 founder Raghav Bahl was asked what he thought of Goswami. He responded with words to the effect that Goswami had brought new energy into a segment (i.e., English news TV) which was becoming moribund. I think that is quite true. It could be argued, and argued effectively, that his Newshour show is entertainment rather than journalism. But this is deliberate. It is easy to observe and appreciate the craft and the trade that Goswami has introduced. I have it on good authority that his proprietors are pleased with him. On his show once, during the break, I could overhear his questions to his team (“What’s happening on Rajdeep’s show?", “Who is Barkha’s guest?" etc.). It indicated high levels of engagement and a powerful competitive streak. It will take a lot to dislodge him from the top.

Barkha Dutt has had a few controversies (her reporting of Kargil, Gujarat, the Radia tapes thing), but it speaks of her credibility and competence that she retains her image as one of India’s most famous and most competent TV journalists. It has always been the case that media in India is relatively less sexist than other trades and professions, but even so, Dutt’s early success likely brought many more women into TV. One is as likely today to have a female anchoring a top evening show (Nidhi Razdan, Palki Sharma, Sunetra Choudhury) as a male.

In my opinion, Hindi shows have a wider range of coverage, or at least they used to have. The sort of high-culture material that NDTV had in the time of Mrinal Pande and Pankaj Pachauri had no parallel in English. The other aspect of Hindi is that the language is more direct and emotional. I enjoy doing Hindi shows because one can say things like “Ghutnein tek diye" and “hathyar phenk diye" when one wants to say merely that “they gave in".

The anchors I like watching most are Ravish Kumar of NDTV and the old warrior Sanjay Pugalia of CNBC Awaaz (who has probably worked in more of the top stations than any other journalist), who is precise and staccato in his questioning.

Ravish Kumar is self-deprecating and hugely entertaining. An absolute pleasure to be on the show with and to watch.

Being self-deprecating is a rare trait among journalists and particularly among those on TV. I saw it at its best in Vinod Dua, who is very funny in the studio, and it is difficult for me not to giggle when I am on a panel with him because he is constantly up to mischief. He concludes his shows with a short monologue summarizing the debate and offering his conclusion.

He referred to this segment, off-camera, as his Rashtra ke naam sandesh (address to the nation), making the rest of us on the panel laugh so hard that viewers probably wondered what was going on in the studio.

Read Aakar Patel’s previous Lounge columns here.

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