In an exclusive interview with The Quint, Karan Thapar shares the pains and gains of being a veteran TV interviewer. 

Not Modi, AR Rahman Was Karan Thapar’s Most Difficult Interviewee 

Karan Thapar got his first job as a journalist purely by luck. Or so he claims. Looking back at close to three decades of grilling his interviewees, including Prime Ministers, politicians and celebrities, Thapar swears by the power of luck that can make or break an interview. These interviews, in turn, have the power to make or break personal and professional relationships.

Thapar’s latest book ‘Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story’ is a peep into his life as a TV professional, popular for his persistence with the high and mighty after the camera begins to roll. His most interesting encounters with the same people, however, are behind the stage and the screens.

In this exclusive interview with The Quint, Thapar recalls the dovetailing of the personal and the professional, the challenges of his job, and what makes a good interview great.

Below is a select transcript of this interview with editorial additions:

Modi Interview and Its Unfortunate Aftermath

This 2007 interview with Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been in circulation for more than a decade. Responding to whether interviews can lead to a breakdown of relationships, Thapar recounts what happened that day:

‘Mr Modi is a classic example. I interviewed the prime minister 11 years ago. The interview lasted for about three minutes. He then ended it. After it ended, he was polite enough to offer me tea, sweets and dhokla while I persisted for the whole hour to try and convince him to do the interview. Anyway, I failed. I left. His last words were, if I recall correctly, “Karan brother, I love you. Let’s grab a meal when I come to Delhi.”But 11 years have passed, he’s been to Delhi; he now lives in Delhi. There’s no question of having a meal together. And we haven’t even met in these 11 years. So yes, relationships can be very badly affected.’

Benazir Bhutto: Difficulty of Interviewing a College Buddy

Modi moments, however, are not Thapar’s toughest. Interviewing his friend Benazir Bhutto came with a set of challenges. Bhutto was a student in Oxford during Thapar’s student years in Cambridge. They were both actively engaged in student politics of their respective universities. Thapar recalls how their friendship survived despite tough interviews:

‘Benazir Bhutto was a very close friend. And I’ve had to interview her many times. Not just when she was the leader of the Opposition, but also when she was the Prime Minister of Pakistan. And there was always an assumption on her part, or any friend’s part, when they agree to an interview that you will be friendly.

There must have been several questions that I asked her – not just asked her, but also pushed and persisted with –that would have, in a sense, taken her by surprise occasionally upset her, maybe even on odd occasions annoyed her.

Because that is the nature of interviewing a politician. They have things they don’t want to have to address. They don’t want to be pushed beyond a certain point. On the other hand, you are a journalist. You know you’ve got a job a to do in persistence and ensure you get a credible answer. Exposing answers that are not credible until you get a better answer is part of your job.

Therefore, there were many occasions when my persistence would have upset her, riled her, annoyed her but it never became a breaking point in the relationship. She’d always say at the end of every interview, “Listen, let’s have some ice-cream together.” Because she adored ice-cream. She particularly loved Ben and Jerry’s. “It’ll cool you down and it’s more important that we get this interview over with because otherwise it’s gonna affect the relationship.’

Advani & Jayalalitha: The Price of Saying ‘No’

Not all relationships can be salvaged through ice-creams. One such casualty is Thapar’s friendship with L K Advani that an interview managed to wreck. He recalls:

‘I had interviewed Advani, I think in 2006 when he had ceased to be the BJP president. And that was an interview that Mr Advani did not like. Perhaps, he was unprepared for it, perhaps he didn’t think that would be my line of questioning. He asked me to redo it and I, in the end, said “No.”  The interview then was broadcast exactly as it was shot and not as Mr Advani would have wanted redone. And that did affect the relationship, did damage it.

Jayalalitha is another example. How she wanted the interview, which was for the BBC, to be redone. I didn’t agree. That did affect the relationship. Although in her instance, when she met me the next time she was extremely charming. In fact, she clearly swept me off my feet by her charm and took me completely by surprise.’

Amitabh Bachchan: Misunderstood Hints & Volcanic Wrath

Walkouts and break-ups may suggest that Thapar’s guests find his line of questioning offensive. He, however, does not think so:

‘Let me begin by saying that I don’t think that I’ve ever crossed a line that I should not have crossed. I’ve pushed, no doubt, to a point it would have often offended interviewees or even annoyed them. But that’s because I thought I had the right to do so. Someone else judging what I’ve done might come to the conclusion that “You have pushed the line”. But yes, I’ve always said that I’m aware that some of my questions may have upset you And I apologise for that. It was not my intention to upset you but I was simply – I hope you will accept that – doing my job.

Thapar recalls a 1992 interview with Amitabh Bachchan when the latter lost his cool right after the pack-up. Jaya Bachchan became an unfortunate victim of his anger directed at Thapar and his crew. This, however, was an outcome of a possible misunderstanding.

Thapar recalls a 1992 interview with Amitabh Bachchan when the latter lost his cool right after the pack-up. Jaya Bachchan became an unfortunate victim of his anger directed at Thapar and his crew.

During one of the tape changes, Amitabh Bachchan told me a story about a Warren Beatty interview that he’d seen where the interviewer asked Warren Beatty about the women in his life. He said, “We’ve all heard the stories about the women in Beatty’s life but to have him questioned about this was a different experience altogether.” And I said to myself, “This is a bizarre thing to say to someone who’s interviewing you during a tape change. Is he giving me a hint?”

And I asked him about Rekha; I asked him about Parveen Babi, the two ladies that I was aware of. And beyond that I didn’t know more. I then switched to his wife who was sitting on the sofa beside him. And I said, “Do you believe your husband?” She looked at him and said “Yes, I do. Why on earth shouldn’t I?” I said, “Are you saying that because you genuinely believe him or only because he’s sitting beside you?” She laughed and said, “No, no , no, I always believe my husband.” And then we reverted to the rest of the prepared interview and carried on for another 40 minutes.

When it ended Amitabh absolutely insisted that the crew and I stayed for lunch. Even though we demurred and said, “No, no, we ought to get back.” He said, “No, no, no, you must, you must.” And, so we did.

It was when we were sitting down to lunch that Amitabh began to show irritation and irritability. That then quickly developed into annoyance and anger. And it exploded almost like a volcano on his wife.

He was extremely, publicly, irritably rude to her in his manner. He didn’t say anything that was rude but he was very rude in his manner, tone and behaviour.

And we realised at once that actually this was intended for us. For me, in particular, and not for poor Jaya Bachchan. But she was the victim on whom this anger was exploding pouring out like lava of a volcano. We very quickly excused ourselves.’

A R Rahman: The Most Difficult Interviewee

Temperamental celebrities can be tricky but the silent and shy ones are trickier. Thapar shares that his most challenging interview was with A R Rahman after the latter was awarded Padma Shri in 2000. A visibly tongue-tied Rahman responded in monosyllables.

‘I can certainly tell you who is the most difficult person I have ever interviewed. AR Rahman. I’ve never come across a person who is so shy, so positively tongue-tied. His answers were “Ummmm”. When I asked him the second question, he answered, “Hmmmm.” When I asked him a third, it was “Ummmmmmmmmmm.” Absolutely flummoxed, I said, “Tell me what’s the difference between 'Ummmm', 'Hmmmm' and 'Ummmmmmmm'?" And he said, “Hunh!” And, you know, we had to do the interview three times.’

Amal Clooney & Barack Obama: Disillusioned by the Reality

The carefully crafted facade around celebrities can be rarely breached. Once breached, however, there is little scope for redepmtion. Thapar recalls being disillusioned by the hypocritical behaviour of Obama and Amal Clooney:

‘When you meet people who are considered celebrities the high and mighty, it’s a disappointing experience because reality turns out to be very different from what you had in mind.

There is a certain reputation of Amal Clooney as a human rights lawyer who defends freedom of speech.

The fact that she was censoring a particular channel from broadcasting the interview and the question and answer session, to me, seemed like a contradiction.

It felt as if she was not living up to the image and impression we had of a stalwart defender of human rights. When it applied to her, the standards that she was applying to herself were very different.

And that, in a sense, was also true of Barack Obama who is a great hero for the world. And, in a sense, a great hero for me as well. And yet he was so defensive and self-protective so unwilling to answer the questions that he considered awkward or difficult even though they pertained to things he had done as the president. These were the sort of questions he should have expected particularly from an Indian audience. He was actually getting his team to censor them to have them struck out. He wanted the list of questions in advance then deleted the five he didn’t like. He was upset that one or two were brought back and still asked. And that I thought was disillusioning.’

Devil’s Advocate’s Choice

Like most of us, Thapar has his favourite moments and bucket-lists. On being asked about his favourite interview so far, he doesn’t think twice before mentioning the award-winning interview he did with the Kuchipudi dancer Raja Reddy and his two dancer wives, Radha and Kaushalya.

‘There was an interview with Raja and Radha Reddy. The two wives of the same husband – they are sisters as well. And they are great dancers! It worked brilliantly because of the relationship between the three of them. And, I think, also because of the fun nature of the questioning. They were quite happily talking about the fact that he was married to both women. And both women were sisters. And therefore, their children were first cousins as well as half-brothers. We had a good rollicking time just laughing and joking about it.’

On top of Thapar’s interview bucket-list is Donald Trump. The HardTalk-ing interviewer is ready with his questions for whenever luck favours him.

‘If I were interviewing Donald Trump, I’d ask him about his attitude to the media. Also, about the nature of his supporters and what it is that he offers them. And why he has this core support of 30 percent been so loyal? But I’d also like to talk to him about his manner and language and behaviour. His tweets, the strange things he says in his tweets about his manner and belligerence which includes his hairstyle.’

Cameraperson: Abhay Sharma

Video Editor: Rahul Sanpui