What really happened during Karan Thapar's interview with Jayalalithaa

I’m sorry I agreed to do this, she told him in 2004.

 |  4-minute read |   06-12-2016
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In 2004, I was series producer of BBC World's programme HARDtalk India and Karan Thapar was the host. After trying for months, Tamil Nadu's chief minister J Jayalalithaa agreed to give an interview. It was late September.

Two days before the interview I got a call from her office and was asked what all we needed for it. I requested them for two paintings to keep behind both the CM and Karan and a bouquet to keep on the table. 

The venue for the interview was Fort St George, the Chief Secretariat, of the Government of Tamil Nadu in Chennai. I reached there with the crew around 10 am. The hall, where the interview was to be recorded, was flooded with several paintings and numerous bouquets. The room was unbearably cold.

When the CM entered the room, the entire top brass of the bureaucracy and the CM's office were either prostrating or bowing in front of Jayalalithaa. Karan shook hands with her and introduced me to the CM. I too shook hands with her as her staff stared at me. It was as if I had committed an offence. It was probably because she was a sort of divine human being for them, who couldn't be touched.

Halfway through the interview, I realised it was becoming bitter and apprehended an impending crisis. As soon as the interview was over, the first thing I did was to take out the tapes from both cameras. I asked my colleague, who was the director and doing the camera work, to go back to the hotel with them. I also whispered to him that at the slightest hint of any trouble, he should fly straight back to Delhi with the tapes.

After the interview, Jayalalithaa literally banged the microphone on the table and walked out in a huff. Both Karan and I were surrounded by top officials of the government and CM's office. They were requesting us to record the interview again.

I was of the view that we should record again and telecast the version that is better. But Karan rejected my Idea. To convince Karan, I told him if she could get M Karunanidhi arrested at "midnight", then she could do anything to us as well. Karan's response was: "Don't be stupid. She will never do it. And if she does, we will become heroes." To be honest, I wasn't very keen to become a hero!

Karan was saying to them that the recorded interview was BBC's property and only they could decide if they wanted to discard it or not. He spoke to the London-based producer of BBC World programme Pervaiz Alam and its commissioning editor, Narendra Morar. They asked 'is there any threat to us?' Karan said no. So, don't do another recording, he was told. 

We were asked to give the concerned BBC officials' numbers so they could communicate directly with the CM. Karan firmly said no. After spending a few hours in Fort St George, we left for our hotel with the promise to come back to them if BBC permitted another recording. 

We kept getting calls from the CM's office throughout the night. Next day, early morning, we flew back to Delhi. Even in Delhi, there were messages from Jayalalithaa's office saying she was willing to fly down to Delhi for another interview. But Karan was in no mood for another interview. 

After it was aired, we were flooded with requests from her rivals, particularly the DMK, to give them a cassette of the interview. They were thrilled. They thought Karan had demolished the iconic Jayalalithaa in the interview and it may help them electorally. 

Though she didn’t like the interview, she came out as a fighter at the end of it. There was no sign of surrender. She fought like a tigress and didn't give up till the end.  

She was a fighter in real life too. In a patriarchal society, she came from an obscure family and become an iconic leader. Her fighting instinct helped her in getting this status. But, she lost her last fight against illness.

RIP chief minister.

Also read: The cult of Amma: Why Jayalalithaa is so beloved


Ashok Upadhyay Ashok Upadhyay @ashoupadhyay

Editor, India Today Television.

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