Despite his piercing gaze and discomfiting style of questioning, I quite like Karan Thapar as an interviewer. Many consider him overbearing and even obnoxious as he doesn’t often allow the man in the hot seat even the liberty of getting a word in edgeways. Known as Karan Interruptus Thapar, his worst habit is to cut the guest off in mid-sentence. But Thapar is extremely professional in everything that he does. I guess he can’t do much about a style which has been carefully cultivated over time. Rarely have I seen Thapar squirming as he did the other night when put on the dock by Mani Shankar Aiyar. The only other time, if my memory serves me right, was when Pranab babu lost his shirt at him - let me complete what I want to say - he shouted practically foaming at the mouth. But Thapar being interviewed by Mani was a novel experience. I am sure it was novel for Thapar as well, for Mani was in splendid form and seemed to be enjoying himself thoroughly.
To be honest, most of the interview was up and down stuff till Mani decided to pin Thapar down on who was the stupidest person he had ever interviewed. Boy did that get Thapar’s goat. This is when Aiyar had Thapar under the cosh. Now, Mani has the gift of the gab. Moreover, he is extremely well read and erudite. He can be accused of talking too much at times, putting his shoes and socks into his mouth, but then that is Mani. That has also got him into trouble with his own party satraps. But he carries on regardless, sallying forth, giving vent to his displeasure at just about everything and anything. His most recent fulminations were against Suresh Kalmadi over the time and cost overruns for the Commonwealth Games. And rightly so, for no one was asking questions of Mr Super Organiser Kalmadi. Not one to shy away from a verbal joust, only the more gregarious Amar Singh got the better of him in the physical version.
When he was India’s Oil Minister, his bytes were legendary. Once when asked whether oil would touch $100 during the super spike, Mani calmly responded that he was an Aiyar and not an astrologer. On another occasion, when he was being constantly harassed on the price hike issue, he answered cryptically – I am neither ruling it in, nor ruling it out. Quotable quotes were the order of the day if Mani was holding a presser or a briefing. On still another occasion when the Cairn’s oil find in Barmer was being dedicated to the nation, witty as ever, Mani quipped that the Cairn Energy guys had asked him his mother’s name in order to name one of the fields and since it wasn’t a national secret, he had decided to give it to them. There were many such gems from Mani when he was Oil Minister. He brought a certain pizzazz to the dank corridors of Shastri Bhawan and, most importantly, kept a lot of journos in good humour. In fact, the Oil Ministry those days was gushing with stories. There was the minister Mani, his secretary Sushil Tripathi, DGH VK Sibal and, of course, ONGC Chairman Subir Raha. They were the dramatis personae who kept our keyboards clicking. Oil and gas stories abounded, politicking between these players helped and then Mani and his foot in mouth ensured that there was never any dearth of good stories to recount back in office. But Mani using the instrument of oil diplomacy was extremely successful, unfortunately he got tripped due to a business-politics nexus and was turfed out to become the Sports Minister, where he was never at ease. As he told me recently, he loathed being the Sports Minister and was in a way thankful when the job was taken away from him.
Now, Mani as an interviewer was splendid the other day. I was reminded of the barrel full of laughs that Hindustan Times’ then oil correspondent Deepak Joshi would induce from the bureau, every time he returned from Shastri Bhawan. Anyway, Mani was in form going for Karan’s jugular repeatedly. The fact that both of them went to the same alma maters twice over – Doon School and Cambridge – provided the conversation with an extra edge. Of course, as Mani reminded Karan and the viewers ceaselessly with the fact that Mani was much senior to him in both institutions and by the time Mani left them, they weren’t the same. But that was good banter. Karan Thapar was sporting enough to do the interview on the occasion of the release of his new book – ‘Salt & Pepper’.
This helped me press the rewind switch and reminded me of the time when Khalid Mohommed the then resident film critic of The Times of India debuted with his first directorial venture. Now my old friend Khalid was caustic and even stinging in his film reviews. So, the apocryphal story told is that when ‘Fiza’ starring Hrithik Roshan, Karishma Kapoor and Jaya Bachchan was to be released, Bennett-owner Samir Jain got Subhash Ghai to review the film in ToI. Now that was a moment frozen in time for Ghai’s review was given prominence and space in ToI. It was also a scathing indictment of Khalid’s work and a case of tit for tat. All the hapless film producers, directors and actors who make up the film frat applauded the hit job. They saw Samir Jain as a fair and honourable man. Similarly, Thapar allowed himself to be cross-examined by Mani Shankar Aiyar. But by his own volition, I guess, and not at the behest of any promoter, I dare say.
Thapar’s in-your-face style has very few admirers. Sadly, seldom has he allowed his guest to speak freely. And this can be extremely annoying. Not just to the guest, but to the viewers as well. Mani claimed that this obnoxious style was his stock in trade. He wanted the programme ‘Devil’s Advocate’ rechristened ‘Screw The Other Guy Show’. Now that was funny, because it summed up the plight of the person being interviewed. If I remember right, Narender Modi got so uptight that he got up and walked out from a Thapar interview because he didn’t like the tack of questioning. Yet Thapar has survived all these years. And he has done well for himself, the son of a former Army chief, as Mani Aiyar reminded him, “you are nothing but a dishonest questioner”. Over the years he has remained one of the most prominent talk show hosts despite his abrasive and stylised style. There were other moments that made the programme. Mani reminded Thapar of how he was once brought to the studio under the guise of a programme and then cheated as something totally different was discussed. At the end of it, Mani screamed, “I felt I had been raped”. Thapar has survived Home TV, Eyewitness to become a name to reckon with in news telly journalism. In the past, he has allowed himself to be interviewed by Karan Johar and Arun Jaitley, but neither programme was as engaging as the one with Mani. Finally, Thapar had met an intellectual equal.
Aiyar used a simple technique to get under Thapar’s skin. Like an unceasing wave, he kept coming at him. He wanted a simple answer to a simple question – who is the worst interviewee that Thapar has been faced with? Thapar was flummoxed for some reason and refused to play ball. Suddenly he got all coy and self effacing, which was unlike him. And Aiyar waded in. Sample this – ‘you are nothing but a guttersnipe from Jaipur House, who got lucky to become the Cambridge Union president’. Wow. No counter punch from Thapar as the cat had got his tongue. After much persuasion, because Aiyar by now was punching above his weight and enjoying every blow that he was landing, Thapar opened up to give some clues about an entertainer. Thapar gave a long winded and convoluted explanation about his guest without actually naming him. Aiyar, smart as always, quickly caught on and answered that Thapar was referring to AR Rahman. Somewhere, Aiyar was upset at being clubbed with Advani, it was all very good fun. Done in zest surely, but a bit cumbersome for Thapar towards the end.
Comeuppance, just desserts, call it what you will. A sporting Thapar had by the end of the programme become a snorting Thapar for he must have been fuming at the damage that the astrologer, sorry Aiyar, had ended up doing. Verdict 1-0 to Aiyar. The man famed for conducting verbal assaults on his guests had been finally found tongue tied, diffident and hapless. Aiyar had all the questions this time and Thapar was clueless with his pedestrian answers.
(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist, who started his career as a stringer with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi. In late 2008, he joined three old friends to launch a start-up – Sportzpower Network – which combines his two passions of business and sport. Familiar with all four media – print, television, Internet and radio, Bamzai is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir.
The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)