You can make anything by writing – CS Lewis
Rajat Sharma who has interrogated so many, today he was waiting to answer us at his office in Sector-85 Noida. He slowly took us through the memory lane where it all began. “Today at this production center when people say that it is a thousand crore company, it feels like dream to me. I was a boy from the crowded lanes of old Delhi, living in 10/10 one room with six brothers, one sister and parents. There was no water supply and electricity in our house. We had to bath in open space at municipal tap and go to railway station to study at night. With no proper source of income, sometimes we had to go without food for two-three days. I had to walk to school for about one hour and in those walks, I used to think why my life is like this, will it be like this forever? And as a young boy all I could think of was to become a clerk in bank as they pay for overtime. That’s why I changed my subject from Science to Commerce.” Suddenly he stopped speaking and then, a look at his face, he was trying hard to control his emotion. With a deep sigh he continues, “My mother always wanted me to become a doctor. She passed away when I was four, just because we could not give her proper medical care.”
Undeniably, he had a bad start but as it is said, at the end of every tunnel there is light. “I passed my schooling with very good marks and that’s how I got admission in Sri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi University. There I met many people who were from good background like Arun Jaitley, Ranjan Bhattacharjee, Rohinton Nariman, Rakesh Omprakash Mehra, and after meeting them my dreams started changing. At this point I wanted to become a lecturer because you get lots of leisure time where you can do other things.” As his story gets better so is his mood, with twinkle in his eyes, “After M.Com I was waiting to apply for lectureship and was looking for some odd jobs to earn some extra bucks. That’s how I met Janardan Thakur who was looking for researchers to work under him. I used to collect details about various individuals and personalities for his column, getting paid Rs.400/month. He didn’t use all the information so I used them for my writing and that’s how I started to write for newspaper.” While saying these things, Rajat Sharma understood what question was about to follow and he added, “Though I came from Hindi background and was not that good in English, I used to write in English. I kept trying to improve with all those self help-books and god knows how many times I rewrote a story. That’s how my writing got better but still I got this accent when I speak. But meeting new people, writing about them really excited me, so I never gave up,” smiles the fifty-five years old.
Gradually his write-ups were getting published in Onlooker magazine and not just that they were impressed by it, he got a job offer! Destiny was beaming on him. “D.M. Silveira asked me whether I want to join them. In no time I dropped my plans for lectureship and grabbed this opportunity as I love writing. There was not much money in this profession no doubt, but it had prospect. That’s how I joined the Onlooker magazine as a trainee in Delhi in the early eighties. Then there was no turning back. Progress held its grip. In one year time I became the Special Correspondent; the next year the Bureau Chief and; in the third, the Editor, then shifted to Mumbai.” Finally, after getting into his grooves it was a cake walk for him. He went on to become the editor of The Sunday Observer for one year and then for The Daily.
It might be by chance but everything was falling on the track, from a fortnightly to weekly and then to a newspaper. “When I became a reporter I did not had anything else in my life but reporting and that’s all. Be it food, health or my living style, nothing mattered to me, I slept and wrote story in the office, and I must admit I worked like mad. I definitely had no background of journalism or politician in my family but I broke stories after stories. For me it is the work which has given everything and what I am today. That’s why even today work is the ultimate thing for me. I enjoy working, I only get tired if there is no work!” laughs the newsman. Then his phone rings, he tells the person on the other end, “Everything happens for good, look for the bigger picture.” Indeed the painting on his canvas of life has just begun, the best part is yet to come.
“It was twenty years ago on a flight to Mumbai from Delhi. I was travelling with Subhash Chandra and Gulshan Grover. I knew Gulshan from my college days, he pestered me to ask Subhash to feature him in Subhash’s upcoming channel, which we today know as Zee TV. But things happened the other way round, Subhash Chandra asked me to do the show for him as he was new to the business and have no one to do the interview.” Reclining back on his sofa with a hint of smile, Rajat Sharma continues, “Just for the heck of it I said who cares about talk shows? Do something where people can ask questions to your guest, make them accountable, put charges against them and what not, I went on and on. However, I forgot everything when the plane landed and went on with my life. One day out of nowhere, I got a call from Subhash Chandra that he really wants me to do that talk show. Then I thought I should give it a try.” After that, we all know what happened!
Rajat Sharma has interviewed more than seven hundred celebrities, making them sit in the dock of his court for the talk-show Aap Ki Adalat. One of the longest running shows in the Indian television history, it will be twenty years this 13th March 2013. His hard-hitting questions asked with his trademark innocent smile hits the right chord with audience. Doesn’t matter who it is, everybody has found themselves speechless in front of his wittiness. “In my wildest dream I never thought I will appear in television or a career in television but when it started it was immediately a hit and it changed my life totally. These years of Aap Ki Adalat were the best of my life. People recognized me as the anchor of this show, wherever I go people say that I ask very good questions. My Twitter and Facebook accounts are full of compliments.”
“A hell of research goes in before an interview, I don’t do it instantly. I do my homework and even today it’s the same,” Rajat Sharma stressing on how much hard work goes in to make things look easy on television while grilling people from all walks of life. And interestingly the first guest in his show was Laloo Prasad Yadav who was the then Chief Minister of Bihar. “I don’t find people difficult but interesting and less interesting. People who are good in answering back, they are the people who really excites me. Recently I have interviewed Salman Khan and everybody knows that he is hardly bothered by anything. It was a big challenge to make him talk on camera but surprisingly he spoke out freely. Hardly will you get to see him talking candidly about Katrina Kaif, Black Buck case or the car accident. Later he was so much involved that he got up from the dock and made me dance as I was asking too many questions and said this is how I will know how difficult his job is as an actor. Then we did push-ups to cool the pressure from my questions.” Remembering another incident, “There was Harbhajan Singh, when I asked him that his friends told me that he was a real bully, he quickly asked me to reveal the names. Then only he will answer to the question.” He giggles. “Then former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who answered so well that I was found dumbstruck.” After all he is also human being, looking at the show we thought those things were not in his dictionary. “But I never edit those portions where somebody scored a point over me and if somebody requests me not to ask a specific topic then I respect them. However it is really difficult when people start ducking question and try to get over it. Like Sheila Dikshit and Sushil Kumar Shinde, when they came to my show. They were just trying to run away instead of answering as they were cornered on Delhi gang rape case.” But what made his show so successful and why are his guests happy to answer to all his tricky questions? “I have tried to follow two main principles all these time. Firstly, l asked questions as a common man would, not as an editor of a news channel and only those questions which a common man would like to know. Secondly, question with lots of respect and dignity not to insult anyone. Though the program takes place somewhere which looks like a courtroom but respect is something that I always maintain.”
This story would have been a fairy tale if it ended here but it is about reality, story of a man. “For five years I was with Zee TV doing Aap Ki Adaalat. Then I shifted to Star TV and then I set up my own production house and doing different programs for various channel. Finally in 2004, I launched India TV and the challenge in front of me was how to make my channel interesting and pass through the seven-eight channels that were already doing good. Firstly, I studied what was missing in these channels and tried to create an idealistic one, no gory pictures, no crime stories, but animal welfare, rural development, public welfare stories, that was the soul and the tenor of the channel. We had Tarun Tejpal for investigative reporting, Maneka Gandhi for animal welfare, and Madhu Kishwar for women welfare.” Though he was talking about the bad patches of his life, excitement can be seen in his eyes to reveal what he did to overcome it. “Those initial two years, I was really appreciated but nobody was watching it. We were ranked seventh among the eight channels and I was running out of money and had to sell my properties to give salaries.”
Here he was at the point where one can make it or break it, a situation where one can get to know its real mettle. “Before taking a call, I thought of those four hundred odd people who were working for me. My action was going to affect them and their families. How am I going to face them? So I decided to change the track completely. We decided to do rating-drivers, the double of what the other channels were doing and forget the idealism for the time being. We did survey and found that programs like Kal Kapal Mahakal in Zee, Khauf and Sansani in Aaj Tak were doing well. We even invited Rakhi Sawant in Aap Ki Adaalat and it was huge hit. We changed the track to make an idealistic channel to a popular channel. It did work, we became number one in two years time.”
Knowing that while doing so he has crossed that line, he quickly did the damage control, “I don’t deny that some adjustments were made, we changed the way news was presented in this country. We realized that it is going too much, so again we changed our track. Today there is no black magic, ghost and all, they are gone completely. I am happy that even after doing so, for last two years we are still the number one Hindi news channel.” Then why do we still see ‘Breaking News’ written on his channel for 24/7, no matter what news it is? “Yes it is just a way to grab the attention of the viewers, that’s it! We are dropping things and this will also go away with time. After all, at the end of the day, news is not going to change anybody but the people. The only thing media can do is to educate people about the situation, about their rights and what they can do in togetherness. So as an editor it is my responsibility that we don’t cross the laxman rekha, it’s within the limit. We don’t become the activist, not the participant in the agitation but just a reporter.”
Rajat Sharma is so much into his job that it’s almost a year he didn’t had a vacation. “Last time my family went to Sardinia in Europe, all the Hollywood stars were there and it is a beautiful place to see. But I was dying to get back to work, as I said I get tired if I don’t work.” But where does he get all these energy to go on, even today for so many years? “My father has been my greatest inspiration. He taught me how to fight with a smile in adversity. From him I learnt to dream big when you have nothing but determination. After I lost him, my wife has been a great source of inspiration. She is my biggest critic and supporter as well, inspiring me to achieve my dreams with deadlines.” Fortunately his life partner Ritu Dhawan is also the business partner. They have two daughters, “Elder one is twenty three after doing B.A (Economics) pursuing a course in Theatre and the younger one is twenty, doing Law. I make sure to spend some time before and after work with them and at least two-three hours on Sundays,” says the father of two.
“Other than that I love cricket and Bollywood movies. I have watched almost all the matches in stadium in India where Kapil Dev has scored a century.” And in one breathe he adds, “By the way, Kapil is a good friend of mine and he was the one who introduced me to my wife.” Talking about the cricket he shares a suggestion for the current team. “We have many good players in our current team and in every team there are ups and downs, just that they have to come together as a unit not as individuals.” With a smile and deep sigh he continues, “When I had a lot of time I didn’t have the means and today I have money but no time. The irony of life, I have home theater but where is the time? I really used to like Madhubala and Dilip Kumar who is an institution in itself. These days, I enjoy watching Amir Khan’s movies, they got message for the public, especially 3 Idiots. Kareena Kapoor in Jab We Met, Vidya Balan in Kahaani, to name some. Last movie I watched was Pakistani movie Bol which really moved me from within, showing the plight of women in modern Pakistan.”
One thing for sure after achieving so much, he is not hanging up his boots, rather coming out younger and stronger by hitting gym regularly. “I will not say that I am health freak but I have a responsibility towards my profession, they require fitness. I strongly believe that if you are appearing on camera then you should look good and fresh. And about the competition, I don’t think that there is any in our business. There is space for all of us to survive and prosper. I compete with myself all the time. I try to do better than my last performance. That is the challenge I face every day.”
Finally before we say adieu, his final words to all youngsters who want to take up journalism as a career. “There is no short cut to success. A good journalist has to believe in being free, fair and fearless. And my message to my team in India TV is also the same, I want the rating but with respect. To that I have added another line, rating with respect and responsibility.”
(Published in Mandate March ’13, Page No. 96)