Karan Thapar, the 'devil' on Devil’s Advocate, found the tables turned on him this weekend. Thapar was the interviewee and interviewing him was filmmaker Karan Johar. Thapar, in this year-end special of Devil’s Advocate, reveals what Narendra Modi told him after walking out of an interview, why Amitabh Bachchan won’t speak to him and how Ram Jethmalani placated him after threatening to throw him out. Excerpts from the conversation:
Karan Johar: I made a career making friends and Karan Thapar made his by making enemies. But you can’t take away from the fact that he is intelligent, articulate and intuitive. In the year-end special of Devil’s Advocate, I am in conversation with Karan Thapar.
Karan, does it feel strange to be at the other end of the spectrum?
Karan Thapar: It feels nerve-wracking. I never have had to answer questions. I am sweating over here—I promise you.
Karan Johar: I remember you interviewing me some seven-eight years ago and contrary to your reputation I actually had a good time.
Karan Thapar: I hope we will have a good time as well.
Karan Johar: Do you always know what are you talking about?
Karan Thapar: Now that is the interesting bit. You have to convince the person you are talking to that you know what you are talking about. You have to convince them that the question you are asking makes sense. And if you ask it pretty quickly chances are they don’t bother to think about what they are being asked and they answer. And then suddenly they say to themselves afterward: hang on, that doesn’t make much sense. Why did I answer it?
Karan Johar: Does it come with a territory—that this is your USP and you are meant to push them against the wall. Be nasty, rude and stop them occasionally and never allow them to speak. Does it come with the territory?
Karan Thapar: My philosophy is that the way I treat politicians is markedly different to the way I would treat non-politicians. So if I were to interview an actor, director or an author—people who are not necessarily accountable to the public—I would be very different. Intelligent, I hope, but very different in handling them.
With the politicians it is our duty that if we ask them a question you ought to get an answer. If you don’t get an answer you must persist until you do, or until it’s clear why you are not getting an answer. But to ask a question, get an evasive reply and give up is actually an insult to the audience. Why are they bothering to listen to your interview if you are not going to persist with a question to the point which a sensible answer has been got.
Karan Johar: A politician is meant to have a way with words and dodges a situation or scenario. That is what they are meant to do because they are politicians.
Karan Thapar: Absolutely, and that is why an interview with an artful politician becomes very entertaining as opposed to just substantive because you are playing with each other, you are persisting with the questions he doesn’t want to answer and he is trying to ways to evading and avoiding answering. It is an intelligent meeting of talent and mind, and it makes for great entertainment. Sometimes that entertainment doesn’t become anything more than a spectacle…
Karan Johar: Like what happened with Narendra Modi, who refused to give the interview beyond the first five minutes.
Karan Thapar: It didn’t even generate heat in his case. I was actually well aware of the fact that there was a danger that he is going to walk out. I asked my questions in a fairly sober fashion.
Karan Johar: That was sober?
Karan Thapar: I wasn’t tense, I wasn’t rude; I wasn’t aggressive. There was almost, if you look at that interview, a tone of hesitation, because I was worried he might get up and go and he did.
Karan Johar: He walks out—the awkwardness when the cameras go off, does that happen to you a lot?
Karan Thapar: It is the only time that someone has walked out of an interview, and in fact on that occasion I spent close to three hours pleading with him to continue. I said to him that this didn’t make sense; I explained to him that I was not attempting to embarrass him and was simply asking a question about an image that he was a prisoner of at election time.
The Chief Minister’s image is an important issue for him, after all that is what he is contending with and in a sense in his case contending against. But I failed at the end of one hour of persuading him. He actually said to me that he is very sorry. He said, “Mera dil toot gaya”.
He said to me that he would ring me next day and apologise. He did ring the next day and in the course of an apology, he said to me that he loved me very much, but I think that was his way of being nice.
Karan Johar: Is there anyone else who doesn’t want to be interviewed by you?
Karan Thapar: There is a lady I have persisted with, trying to get hold of her many, many times but for the last six years she has avoided me.
Karan Johar: Sushma Swaraj?
Karan Thapar: That is right, you are intuitive. There were years previously when she would give interviews and I have had several from the past.
Karan Johar: What did you do?
Karan Thapar: I will tell you what I did wrong. She once walked up to me and mistook me for Aroon Purie (owner and editor-in-chief of India Today). She did this repeatedly over a period of eight-nine months and then we met at Sanjeev Goenka’s home—it was a dinner for Benazir Bhutto—and I was standing with Aroon Purie. She walked straight up to Aroon Purie and said: “Karan Thapar, I have got it right this time.” Aroon Purie looked at me and said: “no, no, that is Karan.” After that she has never given me an interview.
Karan Johar: Any one from my industry that hasn’t spoken to you?
Karan Thapar: There is a gentleman who hasn’t spoken to me for 10 years but he used to give me several interviews before that. In fact, we did a wonderful interview with him on his 50th birthday. In those days I used to do a video magazine called Eyewitness.
Karan Johar: Amitabh Bachchan?
Karan Thapar: He is now 60-plus but in those days he was 50 and we did this amazing interview with him for Eyewitness. It was a one-hour long interview, and during one of the tape changes, he told me about a story about a Warren Beatty interview he had seen a couple of years ago where Warren Beatty had been questioned very aggressively about the women in his life. And Amitabh said that he really thought this was the right way to do things.
I said to myself: am I being given a message? When the tape was put back on I said you just told me the story about Warren Beatty, so can I take a leaf out of your book and ask you about the women in your life. I asked him about Rekha, he said no; then I asked him about Parveen Babi and he said no.
Then sitting beside him in the shot was his wife and I turned to Jaya (Bachchan) and asked: do you believe that? She said she did and he immediately said you are saying that because you are on camera.
I thought that is exactly what he wanted and intended, but he was unfortunately very upset and since then, despite my attempts to apologise, to make up for it, and atone for it he has never forgiven me.
Karan Johar: Well I don’t blame him.
Karan Thapar: Except that I was taking a leaf out of his book. He was telling me a story.
Karan Johar: After that there has been no interview with Amitabh Bachchan?
Karan Thapar: Not since then—no communication, no interview, nothing whatsoever. I have had couple of conversations with his wife and she has always been very sweet and charming. I would like this occasion to say to him that I didn’t intend anything mean and nasty. Perhaps I was too clever by half. If he was 50 then I was 36 at that time, so you can perhaps pit it at my immature age.
Karan Johar: Tell me, do you think at times you are compelled to do this ‘Karan Thapar thing’: pin down a politician or eminent personality, because otherwise people won’t text you or call you and say that you did a great job, great pinning down. Do you think at times you are forced to do this?
Karan Thapar: People don’t text me very often. Occasionally, I do get texts from people who say that they liked it (interview) or sometimes they say they didn’t like it but really not very many at all.
No, I don’t feel any great compulsion to have to be a Karan Thapar or do a Devil on people. Two things lead to that happening. One, you have to, in the course of that interview, make a person accountable or get him to address a particular subject or get him to address an issue or series of questions. If she or he won’t, then your persistence sometimes leads to aggressiveness and certainly gives a feeling that you are being firm and tough.
That in a sense is simply because I believe if you have a question to ask, then you have to ensure that it gets answered. Otherwise don’t bother to ask the question.
There is another factor that comes into play. Some interviewees allow you to push a lot more.
Karan Johar: Are you trying to say that many times there are people who want to be questioned in that fashion. They do this because they want controversy and sensation, which they believe will help them.
Karan Thapar: I don’t think they want to be questioned in that way, because they come determined to resist questions and they are defensive. It is their defensiveness which leads to the other party becoming firm and aggressive. In a sense, in their desire not to get cornered means they give short answers—they refuse to answer; they start interrupting you before you have finished asking the question. As a result of which even if you didn’t want to, you become devilish yourself because you want to counter that manner.
I am not saying that it always happens—sometimes it’s me who does it because I believe if there is a question to ask and the person is not answering, I am determined to ensure that I get an answer, or at least I indicate to the audience that that person is evading.
Karan Johar: So what happened with good old Ram Jethmalani? Why did you fluster him the way you did?
Karan Thapar: I may have flustered Ram Jethmalani on camera but I must tell the audience that in fact after that was over he was a complete gentleman and he said to me, let’s have a drink. I said you really want me to stay for drinks and he said: “of course, we will have a bloody whisky.”
That was just an act. He is a naturally tempestuous, sometimes irascible individual; he gets worked up but that is not anger—it is a sort of short-temperedness and volubility but nothing more. He didn’t mean any of the anger, nor did he mean it when he was saying get out of my house.
Karan Johar: You didn’t take it seriously either.
Karan Thapar: Not at all. I knew he didn’t mean it. In fact I kept saying please say it a couple of times more because this is the sort thing that thrills audiences.
Karan Johar: What is your favourite interview and with who?
Karan Thapar: I think it would have to be an interview with Kapil Dev when he broke down and started crying. Not because it was such a great achievement on my part, because I didn’t make him cry, but because it attracted so much attention and has been talked about. Obviously, as an interviewer, you want what you do to be talked about.
Karan Johar: You found him breaking down a success?
Karan Thapar: There are three things which make for great TV: children, who are adorable no matter what they are doing, anger, which is riveting and which is why Ram Jethmalani worked well, and people crying—it’s mesmerising, you can’t take your eyes off someone crying.
When Kapil was crying in front of me the one thought in my head was: I have got to make sure this continues, I can’t let it stop. The worst thing would be for the man, who had broken down five minutes ago, to be suddenly cheerful. So without appearing to be vicious and nasty I kept on a line of questioning that I knew would keep him emotionally soft.
Karan Johar: Who is a nightmare to interview?
Karan Thapar: A R Rehman, because in those days he was exceedingly shy; his long answer was ‘umm’ and his short answer was ‘um’. Most of his answers were ‘umm’.