I have no doubt it was meant as an inconsequential question, the sort of polite inquiry one casually makes when there is nothing more substantial to talk about, but it sparked off a fascinating discussion.
"You must know a lot of politicians and ministers quite well but you always address them in your interviews as Mr This or Mr That. Why don't you call them by their first names instead?" My interlocutor was a beautiful bejewelled lady at my niece Lara's wedding. While the pheras were proceeding in the front lawn we had sneaked off to the back for a quick drink.
"Because that would be too familiar. If an interview is conducted on first name terms it suggests chumminess or a relationship beyond the confines of the interview and, worse, one that excludes the audience."
"Is that all?" The lady clearly wasn't convinced. "That doesn't seem like a very substantial reason." She looked at me intently as she awaited my response.
"No, there is another reason too. Calling your guest by his or her first name undermines the ability of the interviewer to get to the real answers. The more informal or friendly the atmosphere created by the interviewer the more collusive it will seem to the audience. It becomes needlessly clubby or matey. As a result, you can't push too far and you can't be sceptical or disbelieving of what you're told."
"But Karan Johar calls everyone by their first name and that hasn't stopped his guests spilling the beans." I could tell I wasn't going to be let off lightly.
"But that's a very different sort of interview. Those are chat shows. Mine are current affairs interviews. Chat shows revel in the celebrity of the guest and all you want to hear is anecdotes and stories. Current affairs interviews question the guest about problems or controversies where, often, his judgement or his actions are in dispute."
The lady took a long sip of her drink. I couldn't help but notice that its pink colour matched her lips. Was it just a coincidence or had she chosen carefully? Then, lighting a cigarette, she continued. "In which case, why don't you call them sir? That would create the stiff and formal atmosphere you think is so necessary."
I couldn't help but laugh. It was a neat and clever twist to the conversation. She merely smiled expectantly.
"For the opposite reason to why I don't use first names." I was being deliberately elliptical but it failed to impress. "Oh" she replied, her voice sounding decidedly skeptical. "What's that?"
"Calling someone sir is deferential. It places the guest on a pedestal. It suggests that in some way he is of a higher status."
"But isn't that the case? And, surely, the audience knows that too."
"No doubt in real life the guests I interview are more important than me. And outside the confines of an interview I would call them sir. But once the cameras roll you have to believe you are their equal. After all, you can't be tough or rigorous with someone you keep calling sir!"
"Hmmm. So the objective is to keep your guests a little on edge. No wonder it's called Devil's Advocate. All that's missing are the horns!"
And with that riposte, delivered with the finality of a court verdict, she stubbed out her cigarette, rose to her feet and in a whoosh of swirling silk returned to the front lawn to witness the wedding.
The views expressed by the author are personal