Saturday, April 9, 2005

Amita MalikSIGHT & SOUND
Say it like Sebastian

Amita Malik

ALL these weeks I have been wanting to pay a tribute to the one and only Tim Sebastian, who is seen to give up his long and fine innings on the BBC with his programme Hard Talk. Sebastian has done this programme exclusively for the BBC, which has given the programme a status which can never be attained by his counterparts in India, who think changing a tie or keeping or not keeping an audience makes their multiple programmes different from each other. Actually, I think it cheapens them because viewers feel they are doing it for the money, which I think is quite true. I also think the channels show a startling lack of originality, falling over each other to get the same man to interview the same people on different channels.

It is not only Sebastian’s exclusivity which makes him stand out. It is his style of interviewing. I believe he has a team of around 200 people to do research for his programme. This might be an exaggeration, but I have never known him to go wrong with facts. Also, no matter how hard-hitting his questions, he is never discourteous or frivolous. He has a tremendous style as well as authority which none of his many imitators in India, including Karan Thapar, has been able to equal, although Karan has done better than most.

I can only think of David Frost who also was a role model for other anchors and did difficult interviews with great panache. But really no one, at least in English, has been able to equal Sebastian in my view. I suggest that some of our channels persuade him to come to India to coach our younger performers in the art of interviewing. Because most of what passes for interviewing in India is not only a hit-and-miss affair but is also positively amateurish and marked by arrogance and a big ego.

A warm send-off

I had the great experience of visiting Poland frequently during the late 1970s and early ’80s, notably the university town of Krakow. It was from a nearby small village that Karol Wojtyla, later to become Pope John Paul II, came to Krakow, first to study at the university, then to take religious orders and then finally when he became an archbishop.

I used to go to the famous Krakow international short film festival and it was sheer luck that it coincided with the future Pope’s tenure in the lovely university town. And that is when I discovered that this was no ordinary archbishop. Then in his fifties, the archbishop was an expert mountain climber and skier and used to pursue both sports with zest. He also wrote and acted in plays. The people, especially the young students of the university — one of the oldest in Europe — worshipped their unconventional archbishop. And when he came to Warsaw as the new Pope, I sat with the students on the pavements until his popemobile, a vehicle with the glass roof which allowed him to be seen by the crowds, came into view. The ecstasy of the crowds knew no bounds. I am happy to say that the coverage of the Pope’s death was in great depth and detail on most Indian and foreign channels, but the earlier charming aspect of the Pope’s life did not get the detailed coverage it deserved. There were, however, wonderful worldwide tributes to him shown on TV, from people of all religions.

On these occasions some Indian channels follow the sequence of what the American and other channels observe in the way of tributes. Why should Indian channels show the tributes by George Bush and Tony Blair before they show those by President Abdul Kalam or Prime Minister Manmohan Singh? They however had the good sense to show the Pope kneeling at Mahatma Gandhi’s samadhi on one of his two visits to India. And there was also good coverage of the reactions of Indian Catholics to the Pope’s passing. This column is being written before the funeral on Friday, but I am confident it will be sensitively covered by our channels.

Meanwhile, cricket carries on (alas with the odious Fourth Umpire). Then there is the bus from Srinagar to PoK with all its uncertainties and sad targeting by fundamentalists. There is no lack of drama and melodrama from real life on our screens.