Just watching the battle of nerves between Shani Prabhakaran and her interviewee in a political debate can be unnerving. She lobs a poker-faced even-voiced lethal question and politely waits. The peeved politician opposite her huffs, puffs, rants, and rails. Then she repeats her question, sotto voce, and even more impassive. This goes on till something gives across the table, and it usually does.
Arnab Goswami may have grabbed the national title for trenchant and belligerent TV newscasting, but in south India, other media stars pack an even more hefty punch. Thirty-six-year-old Prabhakaran of Manorama News is one of them, as is Venu Balakrishnan of Mathrubhumi News and Sindhu Sooryakumar of Asianet. And that is just the Malayalam news universe. In Tamil, Telugu as well as Kannada, the news hour makes for fiercely riveting viewing thanks to the men and women, who are charismatic and unflappable.
Rangaraj Pandey of the Tamil channel Thanthi TV, who hosts two programmes Ayutha Ezhuthu (Word as Weapon) and Kelvikkenna Bathil (What is your reply to the question?), describes himself as the anchor every political party loves to hate; he takes pride in being a polarising figure. Critics describe him as “soft saffron”, but few dispute the fact that 41-year-old Pandey is currently the most combative, quick-witted and sharpest anchor in Tamil television news.
“I may not be the most popular, but I am the most criticised anchor today. And I believe that is a very good thing for a journalist.”
“I may not be the most popular, but I am the most criticised anchor today. And I believe that is a very good thing for a journalist,” he says. “Also remember at the national level, the most popular TV anchor is also the most criticised one.”
There are about 15 Tamil news channels and about six of them are owned by political parties which are very clear about their allegiance. Pandey and Karthigai Chelvan of Puthiya Thalaimurai are among the two most acknowledged names in independent channels. Chelvan is currently running a highly-acclaimed series on the agrarian distress that has hit rural Tamil Nadu.
Pandey is best known for the first-ever analysis of every single constituency in Tamil Nadu that was poll-bound last year. Over a month-and-a-half, he and his team covered every single constituency, in the state, in detail. “This is the golden hour for journalism to regain its credibility. It is at its peak but it is also at its most tainted. So we have to not only do justice to our work also to be seen doing justice to it,” he says.
He has seen his share of angry encounters, walkouts and hate mail, and believes that at a time when all the other pillars of democracy are losing moral ground, journalists have no choice but to ask tough questions — not just of others but also of themselves.
The news and debates space in regional TV has a distinct character that sets it apart from what is referred to as “national”. The concerns are more local, channels have sharp political leanings (many are owned by politicians), there is a lot more spice thrown in for effect and a certain sameness between the offerings on various channels. Swapna, the lively and popular news anchor and chat host of Telugu channel TV9, says it has helped her greatly that she has managed to stand out in the melee.
“All debates look and sound alike, they are not sharply positioned and they are not savvy. This gives me an edge,” says the 40-year-old anchor who is remarkably multifaceted — she is a classical singer, mimic and a natural entertainer. She now hosts a YouTube debate series called IPL (Indian Political League), featuring hour-long discussions with leading personalities. There is a dispassionate and polite clarity to the sharpest of her questions.
Take the instance where Swapna interviews Congress leader Ganga Bhavani: The show starts by playing a few minutes of the most heated bits of the interview — while the background music is similar to dramatic scenes in television serials making people wonder what will happen next. The interview begins in Bhavani’s house, where Swapna tracks Bhavani’s life, moving on to her political career, asking the latter about why she shifted. Moments later Swapna makes Bhavani sing and it veers towards her love life. Only to steer the interview back to politics and on Bhavani’s strong woman role in it.
“News anchors now have to double up as opinion builders. The days when Salma Sultan could sit perfectly poised looking pretty and simply reading out news are long gone. Some degree of aggression is needed in steering the direction of a news programme,” she says.
Swapna says she was lucky enough to have a mentor like TV9’s Ravi Prakash, another towering figure in Telugu news anchoring, to encourage her. She covered the US elections twice, and polls in neighbouring states as well.
Swapna’s toughest phase of her career was in the days leading up to the Telangana split when she was constantly accused of being in favour of anti-separation. It meant dealing with vicious allegations on social media, which she says she simply ignored. On one debate, KCR, who was leading the agitation for Telangana, called her mid-show to harangue her.
“A lot of nasty stuff comes your way, but I’d rather be provocative and be noticed than be ‘good’ and unnoticed.”
For her, getting a call from a political leader, mid-programme, to refute her or agree with her is an indicator of how effective she is in her domain. “Most women don’t get the kind of opportunity I got in news television. You can count the number of female news anchors on your fingers. And a lot of nasty stuff comes your way, but I’d rather be provocative and be noticed than be ‘good’ and unnoticed,” she points out.
But Swapna believes that news television will soon move to a less combative, more personalised format. “I think everyone is tired of the constant screaming. It gets so bad at times that you can’t hear anyone talk. My view is that a more satirical approach would work better in these kinds of discussions,” she says.
Komineni Srinivasa Rao, former news editor at NTV and now a consultant with Sakshi TV, is an ideal figure for modern day Telugu news presenters. Now 60, he is known for his persistence and aggression in countering political chicanery. For Rao, there is no bigger or sharper weapon in the trade than information and fact checking. “I tell youngsters that they must read every single day. History is also very important, not just current affairs. Politicians tend to bluff, and as a news anchor, you need to be able to call them out for it,” he says.
This is something Prabhakaran vehemently agrees with. “Journalists, their behaviour and ethics, are under tremendous scrutiny in Kerala, not just the news. We have to change that and the only way to do that is to be absolutely clear about your information so that no one can point a finger at you,” she says.
When she started out, Prabhakaran candidly admits that she had little understanding of politics, especially in an ideologically-charged state like Kerala. She was a science graduate who simply wandered into television news with no idea of what she was getting into. A bureau head, she recalls with a laugh, had told her bluntly that she had no future in television. “Honestly, I used to get confused between SFI and KSU and the many abbreviations,” she says.
Fortunately, she walked into IndiaVision when it was breaking into the field as the very first 24x7 news channel in Malayalam. She landed a tough terrain to report from — Wayanad, with a substantial and marginalised tribal population — playing both reporter and cameraperson.
“My big break came with the story ‘Mannum Tinnum (Also eat mud)’. I went to Pulpalli, a forested village where acute poverty had driven people into eating mud. The programme was telecast at 8 am and by 9 am, the then chief minister AK Anthony had got the district collector to personally supervise truckloads of food to the village,” she recalls.
That was 15 years ago. Since then, Prabhakaran has moved behind the desk as an anchor, joined Manorama News and mastered the political scene in Kerala — “entirely on the job” as she admits. Her recent programmes on demonetisation have been drawing fire with allegations of personal corruption on social media. The most insidious of these was a post alleging that she had stashed away Rs 7 lakh of black money at home. “It got so bad that even people in my parents’ small village, where few are on social media, asked my father if it was true,” she says.
Prabhakaran found an innovative way to deal with the muck, she put it right up on prime time television. “I began my weekly programme Parrayathe Vaiyya (Can’t help saying it) with a screen shot of the post with the question: Iddaano marupadi?”(‘Is this your reply’, implying that this was the government’s response to her questions on demonetisation).”
Like many women on television, Asianet’s Sindhu Sooryakumar too has taken a lot of abuse online. It may be recalled that she had been viciously trolled for hosting a debate on the Mahishasur Jayanthi fracas at JNU in 2016. Prabahakar took similar flak for her critique of the recent Mohanlal starrer, Pulimurugan, and its sexist overtones. “They kept at it for two weeks and I ignored them. That was the end of it,” she says.
Loud aggression does not come easily to her, says Prabhakaran. “I don’t like it when people are rude to me, so I refuse to adopt the body language of the angry anchor with my interviewees. I am very sharp when I wield information as a weapon but I never insult,” she says.
Among the most interestingly offbeat news TV establishments today is Public TV set up by HR Ranganath. Built on, according to him, minimal investments and thus, free of any bias that comes with financial backing (often political), Public TV has deliberately positioned itself as an outlier, the fiercely independent, angry young channel of Kannada television news. Ranganath himself is an interesting personality, deceptively mild-mannered and self-effacing. Interestingly, he is one of the most widely interviewed anchors.
Ranganath has often been referred to as the Arnab Goswami of Kannada TV news — but there are perhaps just a few conversations in which he is yelling —in one with the well-known actor Yash, we see a fight that plays out, which seems more personal than anything else. Ranganath constantly asks Yash to speak but interrupts him every time he does.
Apart from that one interview, Ranganath is actually unlike the latter — there is little yelling and gesticulating in his shows; he prefers the passive aggressive stance instead. In a well-known interview with Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah, for instance, we see him sitting back in his chair and playing with his pen, teasing the chief minister with his questions: The interview comes across as conversational.
Unlike most other anchors who dress smart — western suits or Indian formals — Ranganath sticks to a stern sombre look. That means everyday shirts, which combined with his lanky appearance, work perfectly for his aam aadmi image. Still, critics say his approach resonates that of Goswami’s.
Ranganath famously declared his assets on air because he didn’t want conspiracy theories and allegations coming his way. Last year, Karnataka education minister K Ratnakar picked an argument with the anchor for suggesting that the leader was not available for comments on his programme because he was ‘hiding’. (Perhaps, this is where the Goswami reference comes from.)
“He [Ranganath] positions himself as the representative of the nation; of the common man. When he confronts a politician he does so as a common man imagines himself doing. The body language and the words reflect that. Politicians themselves address him as Ranganna (elder brother) on TV. That is the sort of image he projects and is credited with,” says Gouri Lankesh, veteran journalist.
While Arnab Goswami is preparing to appear in a new avatar, television anchors from south India would like to throw the shouting baby out with the bathwater. Pandey, for instance, says we need to remember that the remote is in the hands of the viewer, not the editor or the producer so too much of the raucous debating that channels encourage could put people off.
“You will see changes very soon in how these programmes are conducted,” he predicts.
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)