THE MASTER INTERVIEWER
By Altaf Khan
The very edifice of broadcast journalism which Karan Thapar has demonstrated through his ruthlessness, unsparing attitude and ebullience, is shattered, as the reader moves towards the later chapters. Journalists may be the most influential personalities in the corridors of power, cut next and they will turn persona non grata. Somebody may enjoy political ‘ashirwad’ during one political regime but being a bête noire of the other regime may run him into obscurity; it is as true for the Advanis as it is for Thapars. Thapar of the Modi era is found too desperate to get the BJP bigwigs on board. BJP leadership, giving him a cold shoulder by not attending any of his debates, his subsequent propitiations makes for some takeaway passages.
Some of these ‘Untold stories’ have already caused a stir resulting in the issuance of rebuttal by the politician Pavan Varma. Thapar makes a startling claim in the book about Varma, the former diplomat and now Janata Dal United leader. Varma corroborated what a government functionary had impressed upon him, “Do you know what Prashant Kishore told me about the interview? He had made Modi watch it thirty times as he prepared him for the 2014 elections.” Quoting Varma, Thapar adds, “Modi said to Prashant that he will never forgive you and when he gets an opportunity he will take revenge”. His stonehearted approach during his interviews with the likes of Ram Jethmalani, Jayalalitha and Pranab Mukherjee are exceptional for his uncompromising zeal in journalism, but when pitted against ‘vengeance’ of the BJP top brass one can read that resoluteness cowing down yet finding no takers.
Homilies apart, this book is a must read for those who aspire to be anchors and want to get up close to what it takes to do interviews that create ripples. It is as much a course book for journalists running for scoops, sniffing and pouncing on every opportunity to be a newsmaker. Call it betrayal of trust or sheer opportunism but you have to give it to Thapar for his deception of using Jethmalani’s file to grill him for an award-winning interview. His intimacy with former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto, drinking together on couch and the sheer hypocrisy of the Pakistan leader not to reveal such camaraderie in public is revealing. One anecdote merits mention. “Benazir kissed Nisha’s (Thapar’s late wife) cheeks but pointedly held out her hand when it was time to bid me goodbye. This took me aback because till then, she had never hesitated to put her cheek forward. Careful, careful, she whispered. He’s from our part of the world. He mustn’t see you kissing me. Remember, I am an unmarried woman from a Muslim country.”
The interview with Jethmalani that earned Thapar the Asian Television Award emblazons and makes for as engrossing a read as stimulating it was when viewed on television screens. Asked about his relentlessness during this interview, Thapar replies: “If a question is worth asking, it’s worth ensuring it gets an answer”. It is this persistence and no-holds-barred approach that have gone into making Thapar what he is known for
It marks an eventful journey of a seasoned journalist like Thapar. His relationship with the Gandhis and the Advanis its highs and lows, his association with former PMs, behind the camera interaction with political bosses, public relations earning the most riveting stories for the audience, sometimes PR falling apart because of his adamancy to stick to his journalistic principles. This book exposes the hypocrisy of politicians, idiosyncrasies of journalists and some inconvenient truths about journalism which Thapar himself is seeking answers from shadows.
But even a reputed broadcaster may get stumped because of little knowledge on some subjects. Thapar sounds foolish and exposes his naiveté in a face-to-face interview with cricketer Rahul Dravid. When Thapar asks Dravid, “What did it feel like to miss a century in your first test by just five wickets!” Dravid roars back, “Five runs!” Thapar’s mastery at swinging the interview to earn his scoop is absorbing. Alluding to an interview with Kapil Dev which caught eyeballs and hit the next day beamers Thapar reveals some interesting facets. Catching the Kapil crying moment while sounding sympathetic yet prolonging the agony of his celebrity interviewee on match fixing allegations underlines how ruthless an interviewer such as Thapar could be. This one could be a bullet point in the guidebook of any would be interviewer, triggering confessions where tears speak more than tongues, how he holds on to his nerves while the celebrity is shedding it all.
The interview with Jethmalani that earned Thapar the Asian Television Award emblazons and makes for as engrossing a read as stimulating it was when viewed on television screens. Asked about his relentlessness during this interview, Thapar replies: “If a question is worth asking, it’s worth ensuring it gets an answer”. It is this persistence and no-holds-barred approach that have gone into making Thapar what he is known for. The second interview in the Devil’s Advocate where he borrowed Jethmalani’s file to corroborate his position in a case and used the same to undermine his arguments is amusing yet noteworthy from a newsmaker’s point of view, moral or immoral, no rectitude here.
It deconstructs the virtual image that we carry of many celebrities particularly even the most astute politicians swell with emotions at times. What Thapar writes, “Human warmth transcended the cold compulsion of politics”. A person known as a hardliner, L.K. Advani the then Deputy Prime Minister of India, could graciously bid a teary-eyed farewell to the then Pakistan High Commissioner in India Ashraf Jehangir Qazi even after the Kaluchak attack on 2002 when officially the diplomat had been given a week’s ultimatum to leave the country. It is the same Advani who is held responsible for stalling the Agra summit whose cordiality with Ashraf isn’t besmirched by the din of politics.
Narrating how a question on Amitabh Bachchan ’s extramarital affairs earned his team wrath of the cine star he takes us to the dining room of Bachchan whose fury is obvious before his spouse Jaya Bachchan and shouts at her for no reason after the interview.
Thapar being ‘gob-smacked’ to host Barack Obama and Amal Clooney at India Today Conclave, what he saw, “A heaven sent opportunity”, after being boycotted by Narendra Modi and his government. Then we are put through a disillusioned side of Karan who can’t fathom a world leader as learned as Obama asking for a questionnaire where he would have the prerogative to answer questions at his convenience. He is equally distraught at witnessing the other side of someone known for her free speech Amal Clooney making it clear at the very outset, nothing could be broadcast afterwards without her clearance.
Let me play no Devil’s Advocate, for the untold story narrated by Thapar reveals the bashful side of so many celebrities except the devil himself who waves a magic wand, casts spells on people, but hankers after them to ask, “Why they shun Karan?” or shall we take at face value what Thapar writes in the epilogue that the reason for writing the book was to occupy himself because he had time on his hands. Since the current regime has no time to play an angel to devil’s advocate many accuse Thapar of playing a devil by breaking the cardinal rule of journalism, that is, revealing his source. But then what do you call an untold story?
—Altaf Khan is a broadcast journalist. This book review appeared in December 2018 issue of Kashmir Narrator. For subscribing to hard copy of the magazine, contact: [email protected] or call at 7298102560