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‘The Devil’s Advocate’: He changed the face of interviewing…

Karan Thapar spins a lovely yarn. You may not like the way he harangues guests in his talk shows. He is known to raise his voice and be acrimonious in his arguments.

You might even hate him because he takes your favorite politician to the cleaners. But whichever way you look at, you cannot ignore the original angry man of Indian television. That said, the Devil’s Advocate, aka Karan Thapar, can write with ease. I loved his auto-biography, which makes for riveting reading.
The description of Karan’s early schooling at Doon School, his college days at Oxford and Cambridge, his pathetic disdain for anything related to sports and his love for debating have been captured with élan. Born to a father 50 years senior, Karan was the doted son. So much so that when he was sent to boarding school, each term it would be the father, India’s ambassador to Afghanistan, who would hide his tears.

Thapar graduated in England: studied both at Oxford and at Cambridge, and never got down to completing his doctorate as he lands in a dream job at the Times. Along the way, he falls in love with Nisha, a young lady who he first meets as a roomie in a paying guest accommodation position, then proposes to her and finally marries. The marriage lasts no more than six years not because they divorced but because God has his way of calling back people who are immensely talented and too young to die.
Karan never remarried.

Friendships all around

In England, he becomes friends with the woman who would later become Pakistan’s prime minister the dashing Benazir Bhutto. Each invites the other to their alma mater for speaking engagements and the friendship blossoms. In fact, Karan and Nisha attend Benazir’s wedding in what was billed in Pakistan as the marriage of the century. The story of the queen of Pakistan visiting Karan’s home with remarkable frequency is well told.

Thapar is related to Karan Singh, is friends with the Gandhi family, and is on first name terms with Aung San Suu Kyi. The story of his interviewing Narasimha Rao on the day after he became prime minister carries a pack of surprises. Invited to film the premises before Rao could come in, the crew is stumped by the super simple bedroom which has a bed with bamboo rods tied to them and sporting a mosquito net on the top, reminiscent of the boarding school. Hanging from the top of the net were a few undergarments of India’s most powerful man.

With prime ministers and prime ministers to be In later years Karan would interview V P Singh only to discover that the Mandal messiah was an ace photographer. The intrepid journalist questioned Chandra Shekhar about his clothes and general appearance and the former prime minister did not like it one bit. His interactions with Vajpayee were interesting. In an interview after Rajiv’s death, Vajpayee told how the young prime minister was instrumental in sending the future prime minister abroad for treatment. Vajpayee comes off as a tall leader. Despite a critical column that Karan had written about Vajpayee when the latter was head of government, the prime minister noticing him in a gathering’ loudly calls him to his side and says his article was fantastic!

Thapar was great friends with Advani. Once the thespian wanted a reshoot of a controversial interview. Karan refused, and the friendship was lost forever. Almost ditto with J Jayalalithaa. The acrimonious conversation where Amma told Thapar that their discussion was unpleasant was to be reshot at the behest of Jaya, but again Karan refused to budge. Yet with the mercurial Ram Jethmalani, Karan reshot a full episode. Incidentally, when Jayalalithaa later met the Devil’s Advocate occasion, she wondered if he would like to interview her! Thapar feels that Barack Obama had feet of clay. His argument: the Afro-American comfortably ducked loads of questions that our man directed at him. And finally, Thapar provides the background to the iconic story of Modi taking a glass of water and walking away from an interview that went on air sometime in 2007. Ten years on, apparently Modi still holds a grudge.

For all his bluster and bravado Karan Thapar, in hindsight, regrets many of his actions. Yet I would think he changed the face of interviewing and his book is an exciting read.

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