From the state of Hindi journalism to getting systematically targeted by a political establishment, Ravish Kumar, one of the most popular and credible faces of Indian television journalism has many issues to rage against. Namrata Joshi had a long conversation with him over tea in an NCR Mall, with steady interruptions from his innumerable fans for selfies and small talk. Excerpts from the interview in which Ravish's trademark, easygoing, lucid Hindi might have gotten a little lost in translation into our prosaic English...
How did the initiation into journalism happen?
It started when I came to Delhi to study history at Deshbandhu College. I was an average student but my teachers worked a lot on me. I got into writing and they used to take interest and encourage it a lot. I can't see myself coming this far without those teachers — Anil Sethi, Rana Behl, Prof Arup Ghosh, Pradeep Chowdhury, Suvritta Khatri, Charu Gupta. I still use them as a bank for research and information and they do leave their work aside to help me. The relationship is intact even though we don't meet each other so often physically.
Anil Sethi told me to get into journalism. The thought got into my head, that I could see things, write about them. I used to, anyhow, roam around, observe and describe things I saw. The teachers got me into reading too — in a tough academic language at that. They helped create a connect of history with the real life. I got deeper into academics. Teen Murti, ICHR—I spent a lot of time there. I used to love history, thought I would do research work in it but then turnarounds kept happening. I felt that since I was from Hindi medium I won't get a job in academics. I wondered how I will get ahead while researching and writing in Hindi. Good institutions won't be there for me. How will I apply to Oxford-Cambridge in Hindi?
I went to IIMC for a while, then left it midway to come back to history. I couldn't understand the IIMC course. From studying history from scholars like Sumit Sarkar, Sunil Kumar, Shahid Amin if you go to a place that teaches archaic journalism then depression is bound to set in. That was a crisis of sorts. It was a very restless phase of my life. I could not decide on what I wanted to do. Manglesh Dabral gave me some freelance work. I brought out a regular newsletter during the book fair in 1994-95, all for money. I still remember that Ahmed Faraz had come to attend it, saying that we don't need bombs but books.
I used to work very hard, used to bring out a very good newsletter. In English Urvashi Butalia was bringing out the same. If I got some Rs 2,500 for the 10 days then Urvashi must have got around Rs 5,000. She didn't know me but she refused to sign, refused to take the money because I wasn't being paid as much. It was through her that I became aware of the discrimination against Hindi, it was because of her that I eventually got Rs 5000 which was a lot of money for me back then.
And then I came to know of a daily job in NDTV. My job was to segregate the letters that used to come for Good Morning India show on DD. I finally entered the newsroom through that. Otherwise I wasn't getting any job—be it newspapers or television. The job made me understand a lot about the medium—how people react to a show, what they expect of it. But I went into MPhil after some five months of it. I was again conflicted between sorting letters and getting taught by famous professors. I had to give up one of them. I gave up MPhil.
Shibani Sharma got me a job as a translator in NDTV. Then NDTV India got launched and I worked on the desk for a while. I was full of ideas, kept exchanging them with people around, kept sending emails, used to get irritated at news being seen from only one perspective. Finally, Mrs (Radhika) Roy wrote a mail one fine day asking me if I wanted to do reporting. I remember I made Mahmood Farooqui write the reply on my behalf. I feared that she would cancel her decision on seeing me write back to her in my bad English. Things changed after that. Life started. Since then NDTV has given me a lot of opportunity to do my kind of work.
Is that how Ravish Ki Report began?
The big beats had been defined by the time I started reporting. Kashmir, Parliament, crime, politics—there were established people for every beat. So I used to roam around in a bus in Delhi every Saturday-Sunday and used to jot down ideas in a diary. I used to often wonder how journalists got "ideas", who tells them of a certain news. People told me read the papers. Quite often I followed up a story in the newspapers and was asked about it by the journalist who had written it. It made me feel guilty, I left it at that. I was always a restless soul, even as a student I used to roam around in the lanes and bylanes of Bhajanpura and Govindpuri. Those images and sounds I never used to find in the mainstream media space. So I began doing stories by dipping into all those experiences.
You brought a different, non Lutyen's Delhi into focus...
For me image is very important. You have to expose the reality of your city. My cameraman knows that I don't want close-ups. I have never used a tripod. The light kit has never been opened in my shoots. If there is no light then show the darkness. Why do we need to show darkness under lights? I also used to try and keep my stories for late evening slot, I knew they would get lost in the midst of high profile news. I made Delhi's outskirts, where no one used to go, as my constituency. The result is that now people come to me from there with offerings of lassi, gur, sugar, rice, vegetables. What all have they not given me?
People come all the way with lassi from Sonepat. It scares me. Every day people from various parts of the country come to see me. It is a strange phenomenon, very humbling to see that people have huge expectations from a journalist. They get files, someone came with a complaint filed against some corrupt village head in Bihar. They want me to do a story. I wonder if there would be any interest in it...Instead we are more focused on a Asaduddin Owaisi who hasn't even fought an election in Bihar yet. He is getting as much coverage as Narendra Modi. No one is checking in Hyderabad as to what Owaisi has done for the Muslim representation or for development.
Was news any different when you started off? Have things changed over the years?
I remember there was a lot of coverage of the Panchayat. We used to go to so many villages. Working in NDTV meant going to the villages. And all those stories used to be second or third headlines of the bulletins. In Gautam Buddh Nagar a woman had won the zila panchayat elections. A graduate, she used to roam around in buses and campaign against the Samajwadi Party. Dr Roy had turned that story of mine into the fourth headline. We even called her "India's new face". We used to react to issues as stories, not wonder if they were too downmarket for our viewers. We still do such stories.
The other day Alok Pande was doing a story on a dispensary in Jharkhand which can't carry out tests for cerebral malaria. But these are few, marginalised ones. Earlier there were others, now we are the only ones doing such work. The space has shrunk. TV has become a space for middle class celebration. Print is still better. Indian Express did a series on Orissa's Navrangpura, on why it is the most backward district of India.
We also used to get a lot more time to do stories. A week, sometimes even three weeks. I don't think anyone spends ten days to do a story on TV any more. In fact our competitors make fun of us that we take five days to do a story while they should be happy that at least one channel allows that. If the story turns out bad after that I can still understand. That's a fair criticism. But to be a news professional and complain about time being given to a story is not done. Earlier there was a much bigger team so we got all the time. Now even I spend just 3-4 hours on a story because I have to be on primetime the same day. I have to give 2-3 hours to the edit and then the show is there at 9pm.
We used to fight over every word of the copy. Ayesha Kagal used to check and edit the copy. And we knew it might not get cleared even in four days. After copy check we used to spend another two days getting more information. Our training was tough.
Hindi news seems to have fallen prey to speed news...
Hindi journalism is too dogmatic. I often wonder how it can be modernised. There is so much ghettoization that it can't seem to come out of the UP-Bihar syndrome. Even when it travels out. One good thing that has happened because of Narendra Modi's foreign trips is that many Hindi journalists got to travel with resources in hand. Expensive technology like downlink etc was available to them. But what did the reporters do? Even in China they did stories like "Cheen mein bhi milti hai dhaniye ki chutney", "Cheen mein bhi hai ek bhartiya ki dukaan". It's a 30 year old model they are still following, to do a story on some professor in China teaching Hindi. So we never got the big picture about China. It was an opportunity lost.
I watch very little TV but I watched TV then in the hope that I will get to see China. I am genuinely interested in China, I wanted to see it visually. I thought people would compare China with India. Some did try but most people just sat on the bullet train. They showed how clean it was, what its speed was. But they didn't talk about the cost, how long it took to make it, who travels in that train and who all don't. In trying to be loyal to Modi the channels did send their teams but they demeaned the whole tour. There wasn't much of a long-lasting image that could be created in the public consciousness. Instead of an atmosphere of seriousness they turned it into a Diwali mela.
What it showed was that Hindi journalism needs to modernise itself—in its idiom, language, thinking. If it shows a programme on Cuba's medical success, it will call it Ram Rajya. It defeats the very purpose of the programme. A modern nation state gets reduced to the idiom of Ram Rajya. The locality of a Hindi journalist doesn't change even when he is in Cuba. Hindi journalism travels maximum to Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh. They will do stories on how coriander is available in California when we all know that even Chhatt pooja stuff is now available there. They won't show how traffic is managed in California. There is no attempt to empower the viewer as a voter.
The aspiration for change and development, the demand from politicians is missing. If you look at the coverage of Bihar elections it is dominated by the idiom of caste and Laloo. He has been interviewed in 300 different ways and 600 kinds of stories have been done on him. As though the whole of Bihar has only been looking at Laloo. At least show your state, both good and bad aspects, so that your discourse can get diversified.
Is it that TRPs also don't quite support Hindi journalism?
We pay a price for TRPs and happily so. We are not in the race so we do our own thing. What we have in terms of resources in Hindi journalism is sufficient but we can't quite fly. There are no extra hands.
Do you see any hope in the new, young Hindi journalists?
I find the young Hindi journalists are far better and more committed than their English counterparts. They are not bothered about the low salaries, only thing that keeps them going is journalism. I find it weird. The field in which there is very little opportunity is the one where people come to dig out the truth, expose the system. That's why I wrote on my blog: never become Ravish Kumar. These kids need to be told the truth. I have been an exception, someone gave me a chance. But does everyone get that chance? I was given an uninterrupted platform. No one questions me on what I will do on my show. But I am an exception than a rule.
In Hindi they come with a drive, but that drive has not been modernised. They also get trapped in the UP-Bihar syndrome. I tell them to try and wipe out UP Bihar from their memory. I ask them to think Kerala, Tamil Nadu. In your imagination and outlook there should be a TN village as well. I want to explore Orissa. I would want to see Vishakhapatnam. That hunger is not there.
The drive is misplaced in other ways. There are political loyalties, caste loyalties, regional, lingual loyalties that survive within that drive. I wasn't free of them either. It is a painful process and there are many people who helped me liberate myself from them. It's a difficult, long process. In this the people around you have a bigger role to play than you yourself.
Earlier S.P. Singh started a whole school of Hindi journalism. Now kids look up to you. Can you provide them the right direction?
They know I am not in the power structure, I can't offer them jobs so they go to those who can. Some stay in touch. They send their stories and I spend time on them. I give them my opinion. I keep a constant engagement.
Do I see you at the cusp? Where would you place yourself within Hindi journalism?
I feel restless. The public views me as a Hindi journalist and I can't adjust myself to it. I can't adjust to English either. It's because I haven't seen the world. The UP Bihar I criticise I haven't gone beyond the 19-20 districts there. I have travelled a bit in Gujarat and Maharashtra. But primarily I have just roamed in and around Delhi. If you make a pie chart then 75% would be this area. I have made Meerut my Manhattan, regard Faridabad as my Oxford, Sonepat is New York, Panipat Toronto.
You have openly been telling people not to see TV...
I have stopped reading newspapers. I just see the broad issues and coverage. Even before turning cynical I have been telling people to watch little or no TV. To every young TV journalist my sincere advice is not to watch TV. Watch things in the original with your own eyes by going into the society. The possibility of seeing first hand will always remain even if there are a lakh channels in this country. You use your legs to find the story, let TV be watched by the viewers. You can't become aware by watching four channels.
This advice, of reading 10 newspapers every day, it's the editor's attempt to colonise the mind of a young reporter. You don't know Zambia's president? No need to know it unless you are giving some entrance exam. If you are a film journalist you should be watching films, something new in any language. Only then will there be freshness and new perspective in your writing. What others are saying might be needed to be informed about things but it should not be a major part of your life, not something you spend three hours of your life on. Google is another thing that has finished journalism. A laziness has developed. The feet of journalists have become weak.
So you are a reporter more than an anchor?
A new journalist should never immediately start anchoring. Being well known has its own limitations. If I go to a new place and stand around for 5 minutes people come by. I don't like it. I have gone somewhere to observe, to let its reality be known to others. But with people other perspectives come in, they show me things. Anonymity is the best badge for a journalist. But you can't escape the spotlight in TV, there is always a flipside to popularity.
Your name is associated with immense credibility? How did you build it up?
The place and milieu I come from I never saw any honest person around me. Even if I were to become a thief there would have been no issue. If I were to steal NDTV's OB van and take it to my village nobody there would have questioned me. They would have called me prudent and wise. But I met people in my life who influenced me. My childhood friend's father. When I told him how electricity meter can be tampered with he shouted at me. He made me realise that there is something called honesty in this world. My father-in-law has had a huge impact on me. Despite being a former joint secretary in defence ministry he still travels by bus.
Not taking dowry in my marriage was big personal milepost. I wanted to do this one good deed. When I did it, crossed it I also found strength within. You may end up working in a very corrupt environment but not taking dowry is a decision you can take personally. You may not be able to fight the world but this is the one decision within your life that you can take charge of.
Also, intrinsically I don't have the audacity or boldness to do anything wrong. It's good to be scared and weak. I have often felt awkward with people calling for posting, appointments. People think I am a communist, I am mad. Yesterday someone I know told me about his relative suffering from cancer, if I could check with a doctor. Now if someone's life gets saved what's the harm? I get so many letters from people with genuine problems. They say that if I don't raise my voice who else will. Every day I come back home with so much guilt. I have lived a part of my life my way without justifying it to anyone, in the right, honest way, with a lot of integrity. But I can't change this world, I can't even change people in my own home.
Social media, the communication you have established with your viewers through Facebook, Twitter and blogging has been your biggest strength as a journalist but has also got you undeserved abuse...
I have removed the Twitter icon from the mobile. I have closed the FB account. But I continue to blog. I can't live without writing. Prabhash Joshi used to say that if you have live then write 2000 words a day. I wake up at 6am to write.
Even after leading an honest life I have been called a tout. Even if it rains a lot or too little they abuse me. No one ever abused me in my entire life. I was regarded too straight and simple a person. But now I get abused so much by way of one political establishment. The same BJP guys used to SMS me during the MMS era that I am the only true journalist. During the UPA reign I exposed the bogus claim of prosperity. Now I have become a tout. Well then get me the payment.
It has reached beyond social media now. If someone from Bihar calls me up and tells me that my political inclinations have to do with my father being a Congress loyalist then it is an insult. My father is not alive but you use him to abuse me. The one you have voted for how good is that person? When the citizens of this nation have voted touts, rioters and bahubalis to power then what right do they have to point a finger at me? I won't offer you any explanation. People say that I am getting unduly affected. How can I not get affected? If I don't then I am not the same person any more. I will die that day.
Those who have made money are they not anchoring? Are they not the editors? Are they not being given Rajya Sabha seats, are they not becoming spokespersons? They are not being isolated so why should I be singled out? I have asked my viewers to take away the love and popularity. I really want to become like the defamed journalists so that I can lead a more relaxed life. Their health never gets affected. Now I want to turn like these people. I can't live being different. I want to live in peace the rest of my life. There is far too much emotional burden on me now. I have become too fragile. In the fraud Indian society touts live very happily, honest people don't. People think I am being dramatic. You can call me immature, sensitive. I am sensitive that's why I have lived the way I have. Or else I could have run away with someone's briefcase, bought four flats in Noida, have five cars.
Away from all this cynicism how did the romance of Laprek (Laghu Prem Katha) happen?
It was a way of venting the frustrations. None of those love stories is a straight one. You are harassed by inflation, in the light of that there is talk of love. You are disgusted by the speech of a politician, there is love in its reflection. Or because of traffic jams or TV channels. Love emerges in the light of problems.
What about your own love story?
It had its painful processes and good times too. I became a good student in love. They say behind every successful man etc etc... But she has never been behind me. There has been a lot more. Many times I feel I am speaking her thoughts. I get my vision from her. She is a harsh critic. She showed me how to read, how to see. Society, city, its structures--she helped me build the connect.
So do I assume that you have as much romanticism in you as cynicism?
I have as much hope. I speak like the way I do because that's the reality but deep within I am very positive. If I wasn't I wouldn't be able to write every day. You can't think new and fresh things if you are not positive. But if I am vulnerable at a moment I want you to see me like that. I want you to see my emotional outburst. If I get angry it's genuinely so. Someone recently told me that since I am a big brand I should only talk of hope. I got very angry. There is no national, constitutional duty of a brand. They should also learn to bear with a few people like us otherwise life will get too diabetic.
What of the road ahead?
I want to get away from people's attention so that I can reinvent myself. I don't want to remain who I am. I often say that I want to get off prime time. I want to step back, become anonymous, do something new and come back in a different, new way. It will bring in some dynamism. Television excites me but the popularity has begun to irk me. I wish there was a way to return it.
But it has brought you love and affection of the viewers?
I did the shows with the intention to provoke the society but it came back to me as love. What do I do with this love? I have no intention of contesting in an election. I feel good, get overwhelmed. I have known many of my viewers for years. They have grown old, older and now some of them are bed-ridden. One wants me to wish her on her knee-replacement. And I haven't even met them. It's a strange family of innumerable people. One day I casually mentioned on TV that I wasn't feeling well and many phone calls followed. At the time of the communal upsurge someone called from Agra, wept and asked me if Muslims didn't belong to India? A gentleman in Rishikesh has been calling for 13 years, a principal in Satna. Wish I could meet them all.
One thing I can't figure. Why doesn't this amazing popularity, sense of intimacy with the viewers reflect in the TRPs?
I have never understood it but thankfully NDTV has never told me to not do things my way.
Ever thought of owning/running your own channel? To do your kind of journalism in a bigger way?
I have always given my all to the show. I don't know for how long a show will last. I see every show of mine as the last show.