Two tough, experienced television journalists tell us what it takes to bring the elections to viewers (not from the studios).
Ravish Kumar: 'I travel 200 to 250 km a day"
When NDTV India's Ravish Kumar hits the road early morning to cover the elections, this is how it goes. He arrives at his destination, shoots from 8am to 1pm (so that his show can be on air by evening), and then leaves for another town.
It's a bit like a commando operation. He sets off with his cameraman Mohammed Mursalin, two assistants and the driver.
Between 8am and 1pm, there is no time to eat or drink - not even a chai or biscuit. "Working with me is very difficult," says Kumar. "When my cameraman gets out of the car, he has to be ready to shoot. If he says 'Mujhe white balance dekhna hai' I yell and say, 'Do you think you're Satyajit Ray?' But Mohammed has worked with me for a long time now, and he's always ready. We are perfectly in sync."
Kumar believes in zero preparation. He doesn't Google anything, or line up any 'characters.' "If people know they're going to be interviewed beforehand, you get 'designed responses'," he says.
So Kumar lands up in a city and then goes seeking his story and characters. He's not always lucky. "I went to Amrtisar recently and till 11am, I had nothing," he recalls. "I was close to collapse. I called up my Delhi office and told them I had nothing. They said you still have two hours. Time hai."
And then suddenly, everything fell into place. At Guru Nanak Dev University, he met a PhD scholar who had worked on MNREGA, a 23-year-old boy who turned out to be a sarpanch and a professor who pointed out that it was a crying shame that there was no Chair in the University named after Bhagat Singh (they were all named after religious leaders). Kumar got his story and his characters.
It's hard to imagine the rangy, seemingly mild Kumar as a relentless TV journalist. Like Bhupendra Chaubey (they are friends and worked together in the early years of their careers in NDTV), Kumar was also an outsider. He grew up in Patna, studied History in Delhi University and joined NDTV in 1986 "jab naukri ki zaroorat pad gayi" (he was the guy who sorted viewers' letters).
Being a Hindi-speaking journalist, Kumar is exasperated at the flight of English channel reporters to UP in this election. "I don't go to south India to report, because I am Hindi-speaking," he points out. "But why don't the English reporters go there? Everyone is reporting from UP, everyone has become an expert on UP!"
But Kumar himself faces a backlash when he goes out reporting. The one complaint he hears constantly is this: TV journalists don't bring the stories of the poor to their viewers. There's no one to hear their point of view. "Even worse, what we come back with are predominantly male opinions," says Kumar. "Wherever you go, it's the men who surround you." To break this loop, Kumar recently took off to a remote village with a poor Muslim population near Saharanpur. He interviewed a girl who walked 1.5 km every day to reach the bus stop, from where she travelled 15 km by bus to get to her school.
"Our job as TV journalists in this election is not to worry about who will win, but to look at the issues. This is a third-class election, with no discussion on the manifestos. It's a tamasha!" he fumes. Kumar's angst, coupled with his punishing schedule, takes its toll. Often he comes back home so tired than all he can do is just collapse on his bed. "Itna tension hota hai ki kabhi kabhi lagta hai sar phat jayega," he says. And yet… "Kya karen, it is a junoon."
Bhupendra Chaubey: "You just run on adrenaline"
Driving over 2,000 km to get a five-minute interview may seem crazy, but for a television journalist, it's all in a day's work - or rather, days' work. This is what Bhupendra Chaubey, national affairs editor at CNN-IBN, did during the UP Legislative Assembly elections in 2012, to get the only interview Bahujan Samaj Party boss Mayawati gave that year. He drove from Lucknow to Gonda to Pratapgarh to Kanpur and finally caught her in Aligarh. "In our profession, it's all about proving a point," laughs Chaubey. "Subjects open up if you're desperate. You call it persistence, I call it desperation."
Chaubey, who comes across as genial and easygoing (though he's known for his tough interviews), is once again in the thick of an election. But this one is far bigger, more crucial, and, as he says, extraordinarily difficult to cover, because everyone believes the result is a foregone conclusion.
Far away from the six-guest-screaming-match in air-conditioned studios that defines primetime news, is the real election reporting - in dusty towns and villages, on the road, in mohallas and chowks. And here's where Chaubey is at a serious advantage. He grew up in Varanasi, studied in Delhi and Mumbai, and so, unlike most journalists in English news channels, is fluent in both English and Hindi.
For this Lok Sabha election, he has already zigzagged over the north, hopping from Chandigarh to Varanasi to Mathura. At the end of the month, he will set off on a ten-day Election Yatra to eastern UP. "I don't go through local political representatives because they always take you to sympathisers," he says. "Instead I try and speak to people involved in some way or the other in the local economy - whether it's a ganne ka ras walla or a construction worker. These are the people who will give you the best indication of what's happening. The idea is to listen, because these days TV is constantly talking, not listening."
It isn't easy. It's physically gruelling, mentally exhausting - but it's a high. Chaubey travels light - usually with only his cameraman for company. He has to hunt for the location, find his story, locate people, work out the logistics (where should the OB van be parked, for instance?). "You have to be the manager, scriptwriter, anchor, everything," he says.
In order to sell his story to viewers, Chaubey looks for that one line or image or metaphor that will capture their imagination. When he went to Varanasi, this is how he pitched his story: Arvind Kejriwal is like Hanuman, trying to enter Lanka to burn it down. But there are too many Ravanas and Varanasi is no Lanka, though there is a place there called Lanka.
Chaubey has also been doing the mandatory star candidate interviews (he found that Hema Malini was traumatised by Mathura's 'makhhis' and 'machchars'). But getting really big-ticket interviews has never been more difficult than it is in this election. Chaubey points out that today most top leaders only choose to deal with sympathetic media. They leave the party spokespersons to handle the hard questions.
Chaubey himself has been trying for an interview with Narendra Modi's close aide Amit Shah for at least three months. "I call him ten times every day," he says with a cheerful grin. "But so far, I haven't got anywhere." (Chaubey had interviewed Shah in September last year, when he had asked the Gujarat leader some uncomfortable, newsy questions. "Amit Shah asked me then why the media asked only negative questions," recalls Chaubey. "I told him I was just doing my job.")
Top leaders are willing to attend big media events - such as a Town Hall sort of event - because at such places, there are no follow-up questions, there is no grilling. Politicians can get away with the kind of answers journalists would not be satisfied with in a one-on-one.
But in the end, there's no option for a TV journalist except, as Chaubey says, "to pad up every day in the morning, perform and get back to work the next morning!"
Full election coverage:
My India My Vote
From HT Brunch, April 20
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