Opening lives

What do you hold back? How much do you reveal?

In my early days in journalism I remember I had done this interview and after it had gone to press, sitting with some colleagues, I started talking about that individual. The editor happened to pass by and almost shrieked: “What? You have not put all this in the piece…”

“How could I? It was personal…”

“Personal? For your diary?”

I realised later that when someone agrees to speak to you for public consumption then the person ought to be aware that anything said will be public.

There are times, though, when you realise that the person is talking and suddenly the defences are down. There is an element of vulnerability. The ones who are seasoned tell you some things are off-record; I wonder what the game is here. If it is off-record why are you telling a stranger? I do not encourage that at all, unless I need some information which can be used without direct attribution.

Another rule I follow is not to befriend the subject (unless I already know the person or am working on a major enterprise where you do spend considerable time with the person, as biographers do); one particular lady in the arts got very friendly; we really hit it off. I never wrote about her after that. Simple. She had become a friend and I am no groupie; there is also the trepidation that one may become privy to information that could perhaps inadvertently get into print.

What happens to information one has? I can only say it is tempting to reveal, but even my closest friends do not know the names of people, though they may know about incidents I have mentioned. It could be fun, even ego-boosting to say “Hey you know X, that one said to me…blah, blah”.

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These thoughts have come to me following the current controversy over poet Nida Fazli who is facing a defamation case for penning an article about film-maker Kamal Amrohi.

He has written as quoted by newspaper reports:

• Dharmendra was made to don black grease-paint in Razia Sultan because Amrohi could never stomach that Dharmendra had had an affair with his wife, actress Meena Kumari.

• Amrohi was fond of women and pretty faces and insisted on seeing a pretty face every time he woke up after taking a nap in his office.

• Amrohi called for a mirror when he was on his death bed and seeing himself, said, "Yeh kaun hain? Yeh kaun kehta hain Kamal Amrohi hain? (Who is this? Who says this is Kamal Amrohi?) He then called for a barber and after getting himself a shave and a haircut, said, "Haan ab nazar aatein hain Kamal Amrohi" (Yes, now you can see Kamal Amrohi).

Amrohi’s daughter Rukhsar is livid:

“Who has given Mr Fazli the right to use his pen to tarnish the image of my father, that too by saying things that are just a figment of his imagination? I am shocked that a man who owes everything to my Baba is doing this to him. It was Baba who gave him his first break in a big film.”

I tend to agree with Fazli that all this is “common Bollywood folklore”. And I am a bit surprised that Rukhsar is using Meena Kumari, who was married to her father. As she said:

“He refers to Chhoti Ammi (Meena Kumari) as someone who had become promiscuous after Baba’s death. He talks about her relationship with other actors. I want to know how he takes this liberty to write such things about people who are no longer around to defend themselves or to even correct him.”

We don't seem to have a genre of writing about celebrities that is non-hagiographic. A lot of what Fazli has written might appear to be gossipy and trivial, which is what most readers have got accustomed to. This was in an Urdu newspaper and one wonders how those readers have reacted.

Amrohi's eldest son is supporting Fazli, and these things were already written when the filmmaker was alive as well. I am not sure whether we must spare the dead only because they are not there to defend themselves. We would then not have much material to go by.

- - -

The questions to ask at the end of it are:

Is the information given relevant? (Fazli writes regularly on a personality.) I used to do a profile column every week in which I pretty much took on a famous person, preferably someone in the news; most of them were alive. I do not know if there was any pressure, but, yes, I made the 'mistake' of writing about Satya Sai Baba. It wasn’t the Baba who would have had a problem but the publisher was a devotee!

What about the defence of celebrities? Most newspapers will happily publish their version. If they are dead, they have their supporters. And if they are alive but don’t wish to come to the forefront then we have their coteries. I had several Rajnikant fan clubs spamming my inbox; the most ridiculous accusation was that I had criticised him because he was dark-skinned and I was fair! The Sachin fans said I had a problem because he had got a Ferrari…

How harsh is harsh? I cannot speak about others, but trust me when I say that unless it is a person being discussed because of an issue and her/his role, I do follow a good deal of self-censorship. Besides, information without perspective does not work. How do you buffer the information, why is it there, do you have an analysis for it?

People, especially those in the public eye, are like archaeological sites. It is only after digging that you find that precious piece of historical evidence. While getting there you will have to deal with lots of mud – do you just brush it off or do you wipe it to get a clear picture and learn to value it for what it is? Or do you soil what you have found?


  1. FV:

    Guess you are not a cutthroat journo. Being humane doesn't go with the territory.

  2. Most say I am not a journo, and it suits me fine.

    I would think being humane is an asset in any profession...I admit,. though, that I do get too involved...


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