Right at the Centre: Anuradha SenGuptaby Aparajita Krishna February 2 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 18 mins, 24 secs
Anuradha SenGupta’s introduction of herself as a professional, best summarizes her writes Aparajita Krishna
“I am essentially an editor - a broadcast journalist who specializes in creating long form, feature and current affairs programs on news television. I am a showrunner/producer at heart. But my interview shows have stolen the spotlight and over the years my role on-camera as the anchor-interviewer has overshadowed the rest.”
The role on-camera has given her a fan-following and viewership over the years that sits well and assured. A very reputed television personality, she has created an archive of interviews with people across streams and on issues of relevance. It is everybody’s business to know the business.
On a personal note we have been colleagues of a distant past, but I’m an audience-in-admiration at present. Anuradha’s role on-camera, persona, including the dimple, has an attractiveness that is arresting and blends a pleasantness of demeanor with hard, analytical questions smilingly served.
What is your work profile in the present?
These days I am consulting with NW18. You can catch my show The Media Dialogues on CNBC-TV18 where business leaders drop in and offer a topline view of business.
In the present you are a Delhiite, so to speak? Does Mumbai beckon?
I had moved to Delhi in February 2016, the first time I have lived in any other city but Mumbai. The interesting thing is through my years in Mumbai as a professional, I would keep getting asked if I was a Delhiite!
I took to the capital city or rather the NCR like the proverbial fish takes to water. I love how seriously Dilliwallas take their greenery. The massive parks and open-air concerts were a heady delight. The city exudes a vibe, part ‘historic’, part ‘powerful’, part ‘intellectual’, that’s a rush even if you are just a bystander on the fringes. I belong to a generation for whom to be part of the Khan Market Gang and Lutyens Delhi was seriously aspirational! Despite the campaign to convert these into expedient labels to discredit the old elite, they are still aspirational. Except that the people have changed, the places and privileges are the same.
But, I am back in Mumbai now. I shifted back last September. You could call it the COVID-19 effect on my life. The assignment that took me to Delhi didn’t exist and being closer to my roots, my parents felt both reassuring and prudent.
Can you recall your very first interview subject?
I can’t recall my first interview but I do remember the interview my bosses at TV18 noticed that eventually led them to offer me an interview show. It was 2002 and I had just interviewed filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali after his Devdas released to big box office success. The guest was eloquent and emotive, the tone was politely combative (I hadn’t liked the film, its pitch and I had said so) and the conversation was nuanced, cerebral and fun.
Your Facebook page carries your beautiful profile photo with Off Centre, your program logo. ‘Mapping the heart and mind of India’. So are you politically off-centre in India 2020?
An unequivocal ‘Yes’. I believe I am agnostic, liberal with an open mind who prioritizes individual rights. I hope I occupy a middle-ground where I can engage with people and ideas across the spectrum. But the political environment since the run-up to 2014 general elections, makes positions like this one tenuous. You need to pick sides in what’s become a zero-sum game.
As an Indian what is your political view in the present? Does your channel give you complete editorial freedom? Of course technically you aren’t into hardcore-news, but no view can be bereft of a political slant. How do you maneuver your space to stay liberal, progressive? Trust you have the editorial independence.
I have had complete editorial independence in all the shows I have done to date. But having an editorial outlook that is not in tune with the overall editorial position of the news outfit you work for can be a problem. Shows may be cancelled.
Has the Coronavirus impacted your work? I guess we have been acclimatized to the new work modules of virtual driven interactions. Zoom calls. Streaming platforms.
Yes, it has. I record my current show The Media Dialogues on CNBC-TV18 with guests who join via Zoom or MS Teams. They would come to the studio earlier. I don’t enjoy the distance that this awfully unpredictable pandemic has created in our everyday lives. But getting routine work done hasn’t been a challenge at all, as so much of my life is already online. Also, the NW18 group has been exemplary in the way it has gone about offering safety and support to employees and associates through this time.
In The Media Dialogues link dated July 2020 your statement says, “COVID-19 has sent all businesses back to the drawing board. Ad agencies already under super pressure, are no different. They have gone from being ‘creative’ mavericks and ‘mad men’ to being clones of their clients. What’s the reset going to be? The main men at the MullenLowe Lintas group, that has 300 brands including mega FMCG ones like Glow&Lovely in its kitty, share what they believe the agency is today. Must watch if you have any interest in this world.” Tell me as you would to a lay audience not business - a sensex-nifty etc driven one, how will the future trajectory of business be post COVID?
Businesses across industry sectors have experienced a ‘once in a lifetime’ disruption thanks to COVID-19. There will be a before and after COVID-19 era, in the way they are organized and the way they function. Everything has been reassessed, from the need for offices, to the levels of supply inventories to maintain for production lines, to the accelerated shift to digital systems and remotely operated processes; the experience of the pandemic and the lockdown has affected everything. Even when the economy recovers, organizations will have changed fundamentally. And the most affected by all this will be the individual professional/worker.
What are your views on the Farmers agitation?
Despite the awful criminal vandalism that some farmers and people wreaked on January 26th, 2021 and for which they must be booked, I remain enthused by the essentially peaceful and resolute manner that farmers, farm unions, the political parties and civil society groups that support them, have protested since November. The timing and manner in which the laws were brought in were wrong. I think the agrarian sector needs reforms but you just need to listen to experts to understand that these laws don’t prioritize what’s really important. And clauses like the one that said disputes couldn’t be taken to the courts, was downright scary. In the current charged situation, I don’t know what will happen next. But if the anti-CAA stir offers any lessons, I doubt there’s a positive outcome for the protestors.
Your October 27, 2020 post carries the link of Arundhati Roy in conversation for Karwan-e-Mohabat against hate crimes. Arundhati Roy is not just a writer, an intellectual, but also a fearless critique of the current political dispensation in India. “We would not be under a fascist regime if it was not for the mainstream media. They are spine-less pets, on a saffron leash, drawing massive corporate salaries and destroying the lives of people” said Arundhati Roy in a powerful statement at the Press Club of India, New Delhi. Arundhati’s words we need to hear today - #WeStandWithJustice #WeStandWithDemocracy. As a cultural journalist with political view-points, how do you assess your own job profile with a mainstream media? I know these are times when most news channels are in a space that is fiercely market-driven and owned by powerful capitalists who just believe in profit at the expense of all else. Why am I asking? Because you as a liberal Indian may in your work space have to blend the practical with the idealism. As a journalist does it all sit very comfortable within you?
I think I have addressed the points you have raised here in some of the previous answers. But let me add that it’s a terrible time to be a journalist – in the sense of making a living from it and still doing what a journalist is supposed to do. There are awful pressures and for the most part journalists are a seriously depressed lot today. Many have lost jobs and the options are scarce. And then there are many ‘journalists’ who practice anything but journalism!
The business model that’s so dependent on advertising revenue is broken and has been corrupted. And we have devalued and discredited journalism so much, by offering it free and by doing such a bad job, that people who need to pay for it see no value. News TV is free entertainment and even newspapers that have finally gone beyond digital paywalls are struggling.
Some independent digital media outlets are putting on a valiant show and we owe them a lot. Big tech company owned social media are an option for the intrepid reporter and doughty anchor, but for the most, these operations are shoestring and the output lacks real breadth or depth. But we must be grateful for what little there is.
Whether as independent journalists or embedded mainstream journalists trying to subvert the status quo or even as lone tweeters, we have all got to keep doggedly on. Woh subah kabhi toh aayegi! Paradoxically this is the best time to be a journalist - we are experiencing such tectonic shifts, there are stories everywhere! Electorally and politically, the country is shifting to a religious right and that opens so many conflicts to be reported. The COVID-19 pandemic has been an existential challenge to humanity, and science, medicine and human endeavor have been brought to center-stage; there’s a crying need for journalism.
Another of your article-posts was a valid critique of the brand Fair & Lovely’s cosmetic renaming: ‘Beyond Unilever’s cosmetic renaming of Fair & Lovely, brand must redress years of profiting off India’s dark skin stigma. Let’s seize the opportunity to get Fair & Lovely to repair the damage it has caused.’ As someone who is beautiful with a non-white skin did this fixation for fairness disturb you at any point?
Of course. I grew up believing that fair skin was a much admired asset. The fact that I didn’t have it created a slight sense of falling short in some critical way. It doesn’t matter anymore but it took me some time to feel comfortable in my skin. When you watch international shows and movies on the streamers these days that frequently cast black men and women in lead roles, you realize how much mass media representation sets your eye in a certain way. How seeing real diversity, in this case racial diversity, can change long held notions of everything that’s valued by society.
Your conversation with Devdutt Patnaik, writer, business consultant, mythologist, done in 2018 after the historic Supreme Court judgement to review its previous judgement decriminalizing homosexuality by striking down parts of IPC Section 377, had Devdutt speak of his own lived experience as a person of alternative sexuality in the larger context of the issue. This episode was one of the five shortlisted shows for the Best Talk Show at the Asian TV Awards last year. Lost to Koffee with Karan. Obviously the LGBTQ issue is of concern with you.
Yes, it is. Imagine being in a shortlist that also has Koffee with Karan!
Anyway, it is unbelievable and unacceptable that we have tortured human beings for their sexual orientation for so many centuries. I am always looking to do conversations that help recover some ground, perhaps offer some sort of recompense for the injustice we have wreaked on people in the LGBTQ community. I also believe that the easy exchange of experiences and information about homosexuality will lead to easier, more meaningful conversation on sexuality as a whole. Given how shrouded in secrecy, so taboo talking about sex still is, it can only be a good thing. That Off Centre conversation with Devdutt is one of my favourites. He’s always eloquent and insightful but in this instance he opened up about his personal, lived experience and elevated a TV interview into a life lesson that could change the way people saw things. Why are you a journalist if you can’t catalyze change, if you can’t get people to reassess hardened, erroneous beliefs.
You have interviewed diverse citizens: from Aruna Roy to Devdutt Patnaik to Karan Johar to Zoya Akhtar to Wendell Rodericks, to Atishi Marlena. How do you address the preparation? Does your inherent point of view and belief guide you or at times you have to let go?
And sportspeople, politicians, policy makers! I am a generalist and also sort of an egotist, in the sense that I want my conversation with the guest to be more meaningful in some way than anyone else’s! I prepare really hard, tons of research, which is easier now in the age of Google! From poring over a person’s work, previous interviews, first person accounts and reactions, to the contextual stuff, news events, policies and politics - all of it interlacing into a springboard to jump off from.
Can a conversation give you a glimpse of a person’s soul? Will a question or two offer my guest pause for thought? Will people watching it find something fresh, if not unique? These are the things that are on my mind. But that doesn’t stop me from listening very, very closely to the answers. I find that I always find something to fall a little bit in love with, when a person starts talking. Even when the person may be a crook! I guess I find it easy to see the humanity in everyone.
Out of all your interview-subjects who all resonate the best till today in your mind’s archive?
Is Indian cinema of recent years truly evolving in new attempts? Will digital platforms/OTT be the future in perpetuity or just an interim?
I would hazard that cinema in terms of movies made for theatres and multiplexes will survive despite the awful wash out of 2020. It will be a struggle and it may be a while but as theatre owners remind me, the outing to the movies is still the easiest and cheapest way to find some pleasure.
I think they will have to think very hard about what to make though. The streamers/OTT platforms are here to stay and have us spoilt for choice. On a personal note I LOVE them. From basic, simplistic mainstream stuff to varied, complex, gorgeously produced content from around the world and India, the entertainment and deep learning has never been better. I am worried that government mandated content regulation will put the brakes on here. I wish streamers had worked harder at evolving some form of collective self-regulation. Personally I find the age categories, content labels as well as child lock and other technology very satisfactory.
Give me a summary of your familial side. Of parents, their profession, siblings and what kind of a family you were born to and grew up in? Also the place of your birth and growing up.
I was born in Bombay, that’s what it was then to a Bengali family that had been here for two generations. My parents, paternal aunt and grandparents were key influences growing up. We were a modest, middle class family that owed its good fortune to the benefit of an English language education, growing up in a big cosmopolitan city and deeply ingrained liberal values. I was brought up to believe that my identity was my own to make and that it would be my single most prized possession as well as achievement. I have a younger sister and a younger brother. My siblings and their spouses are very supportive and we are quite thick.
Was journalism a decided future right from your college days?
No. I had thought I would do an MBA and then perhaps become an IAS officer but the former was a half-hearted thought that had half-baked results and the latter, I forgot pretty quickly after I discovered journalism. The fact that I started out as a journalist in the mid-90s when private production houses and channels were being set up meant that I was at the right place at the right time.
What was your first job? Where?
My first job was where I met you first Appy! Plus Channel started by Amit Khanna was a Mumbai based production company that was moving from making news magazines to producing shows for the state broadcaster Doordarshan. I was there for the internship after the S.C.M PG Diploma course offered by Sophia Polytechnic and I stayed on. I recently found the appointment letter, and posted it on Instagram. I was hired for a monthly salary of Rs.2500/-
Plus Channel went on to become a TV producer, film producer, music producer and there were many firsts to its credit. It was a diversified media company that was just a little bit before its time.
You have had a very long stint with TV18 and then CNBC-TV18. Do summarize the learning and the unlearning.
When I joined TV18 it was a startup, and the founders Raghav Bahl, Sanjay Ray C and the founding team, Vandana Malik, Senthil Chengalavarayan, Ritu Kapur, Rohit Khanna were among the brightest, most talented and large-hearted people I have ever met. The place was buzzing with entrepreneurial energy and freedom and we believed that we owned the place as much as the guys with the capital did!
Is the media in India by and large gender-neutral, agnostic or sexist?
In my experience, the media is largely gender neutral but I know that TV18 in the early days was an exceptional place. Not everyone’s experience in the media is the same. Also, the media employs a lot of women especially in the junior to middle levels but that thins out towards the top and in leadership roles. But there are and have been some very notable exceptions, like at CNBC-TV18, NDTV and Bloomberg Quint.
Your program Storyboard was very liked. Pick your favourite.
Storyboard was a signature show I created many years ago on the specific subject of advertising and marketing and media. It became iconic. I worked very hard on it with a very bright team of young colleagues, for a very long time. I guess that’s why people still connect me with Storyboard. It’s a brand today and has outlived my association with it and that’s what I take most pride in.
Out of all the many shows I have created my particular favourites are Off Centre, a weekly conversation with people whose lived experience allow us to explore vital, contemporary socio-political-economic issues, Reporters Project, a show that featured in-depth ground reportage on the impact of politics and policies on the common man and Being Legends, that was an intimate interview with legends from different walks of life. And then there was LIME, a business case study challenge that went far beyond business.
Do apprise me of the chosen awards and felicitations you have received and value.
Some odds and ends. Nothing I am excited by.
Who are the writers, film-makers you hold dear?
I am including some artists from the top of my head. But there are so many, many more! Satyajit Ray, Gulzar, SD Burman, Alice Munro, Amitav Ghosh, PG Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Hans Christian Andersen, J M Coetzee, George Orwell, Christopher Isherwood, Jane Austen, Julian Barnes, Sunil Gangopadhay, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Leo Tolstoy, Gillian Flynn, AR Rahman, Hemant Kumar, Girija Devi…
What are your passions apart from the work regimen? As in any good old hobby?
You know I never made time for one. Everything I like for pleasure somehow seems to get linked to work. I did enjoy puttering around the garden when I was in Delhi though and I am thinking of signing up for a 4-day workshop on appreciating Hindustani classical music. Not really a hobby though.
Where do you see India in particular going in the future? Left Right Centre or Off Centre or muddled?
Always Off Centre. Hopefully more left than right. It’s one life we have got to try and make it decent for our fellow travelers at least.
You have been a single woman, as in unmarried (I guess). Did it make work easier but personal life a bit challenging?
There was so much work and I was enjoying it so much that it took precedence over everything. I thought that everything else, a marriage and family, would happen organically and would be a happy bonus. Didn’t realize it would need to be worked towards as well! I can sincerely say I have no regrets on this count, no pangs of longing. But I am still open to a grand passion. So spread the word ☺