In Conversation with Pritish Nandy

Aakanksha Tangri/Mumbai Jul. 26, 2011

Aakanksha Tangri: You founded Pritish Nandy Communications (PNC) on the belief that content will drive the future of media and entertainment. With ‘churnalism’ taking precedence over quality content, how is PNC sticking to this idea?

Pritish Nandy: It is tough. It is tough because television, and in fact all popular platforms, are being driven by the compulsions of viewership which is now easily calculated as per TRP or copies sold. This has actually created pressure on content to comply with the taste of the lowest common denominator and that creates pressures on creative people and the need to address larger audiences every time instead of addressing informed audiences. The pressure on quality begins there and unfortunately this is happening all over the world. This is not just in India but world cinema has taken a backseat. France, England and other movie-making countries are no longer producing the kind of legendary directors they once did. You can call it the ‘Hollywoodization’ of the world, which is that you end up catering to the largest number of people without necessarily meeting the standards of excellence. This is true in almost all areas of human endeavour today, except possibly the sciences.

AT: That also ties into news media and journalism.

PN: That’s why there is such hysteric outburst in television, that is why the print media has almost become tabloidized, and that’s why television news has become hysteric, high pitched and almost extremist in its positions. The time for debate, the time for building values, the time for innovation and the time for excellence is becoming limited and niche. Unfortunately, this is what we are calling niche today — what was once mainstream [is now niche]. It’s a societal change and the reason is simple. Earlier, most of these media addressed the top level of society, so it could afford to be what now is called ‘elitist’. This meant that you could pursue excellence, you could pursue quality, you could pursue higher level of intellectual discourse and you could pursue ideas that may seem too esoteric or too niche. Today, that has been driven down. As audiences grow across technologies, this is not true just for print where the readership is growing at the bottom end, it’s true for television where viewership is growing at the bottom end but also true for the internet where the readership is growing at the bottom end a lot.

AT: As someone who has often been credited for changing the face of Indian journalism, what are your thoughts on the Murdoch scandal?

PN: Murdoch finally found himself compelled to address the compulsion of populism and that’s why he went out and did the kind of indiscretions he did. That’s why he allowed the kind of indiscretions his company did. I think if the pressure was not so hard on Murdoch, maybe he wouldn’t have done it. After all, he is the owner of the company that owns London Times and Sunday Times, two of the world’s most respected and prestigious newspapers. Yet, to meet the [demands of the] tabloid audience, he kept News of the World.

AT: Can you see Indian journalists and politicians being publically held accountable in the same way?

PN: Certainly Indian media owners will be under pressure to do so, now that someone like Murdoch was under pressure to do so in front of the British parliament. This will set a landmark and there will be pressures on media owners in India as well.

AT: P. Sainath of The Hindu talks about the phenomenon of paid news in India sent out by PR firms and politicians. Do you think paywalls are the answer to this and to ensure accurate and quality reportage?

PN: I think ethics is the answer to everything. You can define norms, you can set the rules and as you are aware, all rules are said or meant to be broken. If you follow the principle of controlling media by setting rules, you will get nowhere. Rules and regulations head nowhere beyond a point. You have to depend on the ethics of those who run the business and that is very important.

AT: In a blog post titled the ‘BJP is Irrelevant’ in May 2010, you say that the BJP has nothing to offer to India. A little more than a year later, with the UPA engulfed in scams and Manmohan Singh’s leadership in question, would you still say the BJP is irrelevant and has nothing to offer?

PN: I still believe that the BJP is irrelevant. I believe that the Congress and what it represents could still offer India half-decent governance if there was a serious cleansing process within the party. It has ruled India for many decades – six decades now – and it has many faults. It is disgustingly corrupt, it is filthily self-seeking and it would stoop to any level to achieve its political goals. Having said that, Congress still has a certain degree of competence in terms of governance. But again the same question arises: if you can inject a bit of ethics into that party and add it to their experience in governance, maybe they will be a safer bet. We have seen the BJP try to run India and I have been part of the government myself and I must say I had been extremely disappointed.

AT: Do you think the Congress has a chance in 2014 with the way things are going?

PN: Ultimately, in India, that is a question I can answer in 2013. What happens is everything changes in the run-up to the elections. In the last six months, if you play your game well, you can always win but you have to be ready to play the game in the last six to eight months. Winners and losers are no longer defined in India by how many votes you get and how many people you get into parliament. It is defined after the elections by who gets together with whom to form a coalition. So you have always the most unpredictable outcome of results because you never know who will team up with whom to even topple the number than the hustles.

AT: Do we see you heading back to Parliament in the 2014 elections?

PN: I would love to, yes. Why not? I would love to come back into politics in an environment in which it is possible for independents to stand for what they believe in and get elected. Unfortunately, like in many parts of the world, the political system in India is such that unless you team up with the party and spend vast sums of money, which you then have to pay back by being corrupt, it is difficult to win an election and more important, even more difficult to get into office.

AT: Is the Shiv Sena relevant in mainstream politics and with the common man in India today?

PN: I think the Shiv Sena is extremely relevant in Maharashtra just as I believe the Trinamool Congress is extremely relevant in West Bengal. I believe the future lies with regional parties because the issues that India has to confront and cope with are essential in regional or federal structure at large.
A very good example is Bihar. Bihar, today under Nitish Kumar, has completely transformed. I suspect Bengal under Mamata Banerjee will be very different. I would like to believe that if the Shiv Sena ran this state, it would be different because the moment you are in power, you learn responsibility. You can say whatever you want to when you are not in power. When you are in power, you become responsible, you become accountable and you are forced to deliver.

AT: I want to talk about your childhood. You dropped out of school at the age of 16. Do you regret it?

PN: No. I think even the years that I spent in school were largely a waste because formal education never excited me. I do not think it added any value to who I am. I think all that I learned, I learned on the streets. I came from a very poor family and all that I learned, I just picked up. Years ago, I think a famous British philosopher patronizingly asked Krishna Menon, who was then India’s defense minister, ‘Wow you speak good English.’ So he said ‘Yes, but I learned it. I didn’t pick it up like you did.’ Those who learn something on their own, learn out of the importance of what they are learning because they choose to learn it. It’s a matter of love. The same difference lies/exists between an arranged marriage and a love marriage. In a relationship, you make the efforts to build the relationship, understand the other person and love the person despite he is or his frame is. In an arranged marriage, you are just thrown into it and asked to fend for yourself. School is a bit like that and college is a bit like that. I don’t think I had ever used in my life even 10 per cent of what I learned in school and if I had gone to college I would imagine that I would’ve used even less.

AT: How did your mother, a school principal, react when you told her you were dropping out?

PN: She was a bit concerned, but my father was also a school teacher, so they were both very concerned. My father had only three dreams of me:
1) He wanted me to be a writer and publish books. I have by now published 60 and I published my first one when I was 16.
2) He wanted me to be the editor of what was then the biggest magazine. That was his biggest dream that his son would one day become editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India; that was the magazine we grew up reading as children. I became the editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India and I was there for a decade.
3) He wanted me to be in public life and his wildest dream was that I would go to parliament one day; alas he wasn’t around to see me achieve that. The fourth dream was that he wanted me to win a Padma award, which I won when he was around. I actually took him to a simple press interview and allowed him to be a guest of honor. So, four things he wanted, not three and all four I achieved in my life. In a sense, I kind of lived to fulfill my father’s dreams though he never knew it.

AT: You’ve paved your career on his dreams.

PN: We do that sometime in our life willy-nilly, not because you want to do it, not because you chose to follow your father’s dream but because it influenced you. You suddenly discover that the four things your father wanted you to do actually were all the four things that you did in your damn life.

p_1aAT: What is one reform you think the Indian education system needs?

PN: The most fundamental reform it needs is that it must cut out all the fluff and address itself to two tasks. One is making education available to everybody at an affordable price. If you want to learn and educate yourself, you should be able to do so. Two, get away from that soul-killing syllabuses that we always have which don’t teach you anything but try and force you to learn everything by heart and go and read and write in exams.

There should be a way of teaching and India should know that better than anyone else. We have the great guru-sishya parampara, we have the great universities of Nalanda and we have great past educational systems which some how I feel got perverted by colonization. The British came in with completely different set of educational values and systems which they imposed upon India in the name of development and in educating the natives and not realizing that the natives had a fabulous educational system of their own. In the process, we lost what we had and we gained what never worked.

AT: What are your thoughts on Kapil Sibal bringing in the grading system and making board exams optional?

PN: I think that’s the important step forward in the right direction.

AT: Do you think India should adopt the education model of North America, of providing free schooling, and thus ensuring everyone gets a quality education?

PN: I think it should and I think India can do it effortlessly. I think what is wrong with India is what is the problem with China too now or has been the problem with China. We have become too busy chasing the models of economic growth, chasing GDPs and we are chasing industrial growth as defined by the obsolete notion of industrial growth that Britain had during the Industrial Revolution. We are chasing actually obsolete, outdated notions of development and growth. We have forgotten that the power of the nation does not lie in its GDP. The power of the nation does not lie in how many cement or steel factories it has. The power of the nation does not lie in how many highways it built or how many tall skyscrapers it has built. The power of the nation lies in the imagination of its people, in the dreams and aspirations of its people.
The power of the nation lies in its knowledge, its ability to communicate. The one great thing that the British gave us would be the English language and that is why today we write it, speak it, use it better than they ever did in whatever way. One day, I hope we will make movies better than they can in English. If you look at the ten great English novelists of our century, at least 30 to 40% of them are Indians — Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Aravind Adiga, Kiran Desai — you name it. The question is whatever we have done with English language, we have kind of extended its frontiers and made it much larger than it ever was. We have the largest English newspaper in the world, more people read books in India than they read anywhere else.

We have the English Language, take the great imagination, the great talents of this nation globally. Our roots must be Indian, our roots must not only be Indian but our roots must also be Bengali, Guajarati, Marathi, Tamilian, Punjabi because that is what makes India. There is no India except what each one of us is. I want to be a great Indian but I need to be first a good Bengali. The idea is for each one of us to make India in the light for own wisdom. The challenge for India is to create the India of imagination in our dreams. The stupidest example of this is when people say ‘We want to make Mumbai into Shanghai, Kolkata into London’ and I don’t think we need to follow anyone. We are mature enough and old enough and it’s time we change the world.

AT: Do you think politicians are letting Indians down?

PN: We’re a first-rate nation with fourth-rated politicians.

AT: You’re an avid Twitter user, but some might say, you’re just being an armchair critic on Twitter, your thoughts?

PN: Possibly; it’s easy to say that. The point is I have been doing many things in my life. I began my life as a poet because I wanted to be a poet. I found that it was being too solipsistic and self-indulgent and I wanted to make an impact in an environment around me so I went into journalism. I began investigative journalism. I began the genre of journalism, the type of journalism you see today — aggressive journalism. I lived my entire journalistic years under police protection. I went into television because it was the medium of the future and started the signature show on it. I innovated with television. I did some of the biggest election shows and some of the most innovative shows. Then, when I saw it hitting the most lowest common denominator, I moved on to making movies. We made about 25 movies in the last ten years; at least eight of them [were] cult movies. The idea has been constantly to actually go out and do things. I went to Parliament, I took a chance and went to Parliament in the hope that I could make a difference. I spent six years of my life trying to make a difference. I made a difference in many ways, small ways.

I achieved many other things. I have done very interesting things for the city but that does not make [me] an armchair critic. That makes me an activist. As a journalist, I brought environment centre stage; I brought animal rights centre stage. I founded the first Animal NGO in India, People for Animals. Everybody in the environment movement will tell you that I first brought environment centre stage into the mass media. It’s not that I haven’t done things. Twitter allows me the liberty and privilege of interacting with people who like to talk to me. When they ask me for my opinions, I often end up giving opinions, which are sharp, critical and blunt, but that is not my job. That is my interaction with people because I believe that is my responsibility as a citizen of this nation to share my ideas with people, respond to their queries, and see if I can help them come to better grips with the realities around. That’s what I do on Twitter. I am not sitting there criticizing things or passing comments vilely. I am there usually responding to everybody. I do make comments sometimes. I make those comments because it allows me to tell people who follow me what is my stand on certain issues and they expect me to say so.

AT: How do you deal with criticism?

PN: I am very comfortable with it as long as it is civilized.

AT: Do you think journalists should enter politics?

PN: I think journalists are like any other citizens. They have the right to be where they want to be.
AT: Does that affect their objectivity and reporting?
PN: It has never changed mine. I have been sitting in the Government benches, treasury benches and have written the most angry pieces, vicious pieces about the government in power because I believe that the journalist’s job is to pursue truth. I was fortunate to go to Parliament backed by two parties, the BJP and the Shiv Sena.

AT: What comes to your mind when I say the following names?

PN: Raj Thackerey: Someone who wants to do things for his people and his city but often does it the wrong way.
Anurag Kashyap: A fine filmmaker who has stayed with his passions and not compromised.
Jayalalitha: One of the toughest women I have seen in politics and a great Samaritan.

AT: Finally, this one is from your son, Kushan — how have you been able to live with so many horrible children? Which one do you wish you never had?

PN: I actually like my children! Surprise, surprise! I think it’s very brave of them to suffer a father like me. I give them all the freedom in the world; that itself is the toughest burden I leave on them. Freedom is a burden and I have always burdened my children with extreme freedom because I always loved and lived for freedom. I believed in freedom and I give them all the freedom in the world but that itself is the toughest burden I leave on them. I believe that is the true destiny of a man — the freedom to make the right choices.