Ayatollah Khomeini introduced me to Oriana Fallaci rather than it being the other way round. I had got deeply interested in the Iranian cleric when an uncle had looked at me with what appeared to be new eyes and said, “You look like someone from Khomeini’s family.”
So, I’d lay my hands on anything that had to do with the Ayatollah. On one such occasion someone handed me a cutting of an interview. I read it and re-read it and was completely mesmerised. It struck me then that someone had to have been persistent and a bit pushy to get this man to come across as he did.
It was the day I found Oriana Fallaci. There was not much access to her works then, but I would mention her as though I knew a lot about her.
For a reason I cannot fathom, I did not read her interviews later although I did read her essays.
I discovered that I loved conducting interviews. In my early days in journalism I was called the ‘slum specialist’ and the ‘men’s specialist’, for I invariably veered towards the not-so-happening areas of the city and the editors felt I brought out the best (and worst) in my male subjects.
This is a tribute to a woman of immense guts and range, and you will find a lot of material on her. Let me instead take you through the journey of how it isn’t always easy interviewing people. Unlike the West where publications give you ample time and other facilities, the same cannot be said of India and I reckon the rest of the subcontinent.
I remember finding an old copy of Esquire at the raddiwalla where there was a story on John Lennon. The journalist got six months to do it! How one would have liked such luxury of time.
To give just one example, I was once sent to another city to interview a politician. The interview was conducted at 7 am and he had his durbar waiting outside, so I had to use every little ruse possible to keep him in his place – he sat there for an hour, which apparently was a lot of time; the photographer handed me the film roll. I reached Mumbai, went straight to the photo lab to get the slides processed (not my job…), reached home, took a shower, called up the office, read out a short Intro that could be set for the colour page, transcribed the tape (which is the worst part), then pruned and polished it into a proper interview, reached office next morning after collecting the pictures (not my job, but well…), had the art department work on the look (heheh…I loved giving ‘suggestions’), sent the manuscript for processing and it was done.
I am not saying that we have great interviewers, but there is so much potential. Today, of course, there is the Net where you can dig out material, but I am still not comfortable with it. I prefer to read books and journals, if needed, but most times I like spontaneity and let the person get unraveled before me without too much background information.
For me interviews are mind games, and although I like to have questions ready, I rarely stick to the structure.
I do love Oriana for doing what she did. She risked her life and so many people in the media do. I have often been harsh on the profession and will continue to do so, but sometimes one has to grudgingly admit that it’s like capturing the world in a few words.
I'd love to see how Oriana Fallaci would interview god...