The Art of the Interview

12 Mar,2021


By Shailesh Kapoor


Shailesh KapoorThe interview that has been the talk of the week was well worth a watch, especially since I have recently binge-watched The Crown across the four seasons, and British royalty has been a topic of interest since then. We have known Oprah Winfrey as a fine interviewer for years now, and this one was no different. She didn’t seem even a bit over-awed by her ‘royal’ guests. There was no oh-this-is-so-huge vibe to her demeanor, or to the show itself.

Oprah started off with a clarification to the viewers, when she told Meghan Markle: “There has not been an agreement (between us). You don’t know what I’m going to ask. And there’s no subject that’s off limits. And you are not getting paid for this interview”. Meghan replied: “All of that is correct”. That, to me, set the tone for what would be a candid and unscripted conversation that will not always go on predicted lines.

Hours after watching the show, I was left thinking why we have so few good TV interviewers in India. If we keep aside Kapil Sharma, who does a fine job of his comic interviews, and some good film interviewers in Hindi and South cinema, we will struggle to come up with great ‘general interviewers’, i.e., those who can interview people from any domain. In any case, no one will even come close to Oprah’s caliber, forget stature.

News interviewers like Rajat Sharma and Prabhu Chawla started off well, but have become routine and predictable over time. Some other names spring up when you think more, like the old NDTV line-up, including Dr. Prannoy Roy himself. But none of them have been consistent at it, either in terms of regularity or quality. And the one from that lot who has been consistent doesn’t ‘interview’. He runs his own little show with a guest as supporting cast. Now on three channels.

Simi Garewal, then, is the only name that comes to my mind. I often revisit her shows, and they have aged quite well with time. But that’s pretty much the only name on my list.

My view is that interviewing is not in sync with our culture and social fabric, and that’s why, it’s a genre of content that has never taken off in this country in its truest form, except in niche media. The first issue is to do with listening. A good interviewer needs to listen well. Though I didn’t come across any data to validate it, I have a strong hypothesis that if there was a ranking of nations on the average listening skills of its population, we will rank quite low.

The second factor has to do with low curiosity levels itself. Societies facing existential challenges generally do not value knowledge and learning as much as developed societies, that are in the upper half of the Maslow needs pyramid for an average citizen. Hence, watching an interview is not interesting per se for many Indians. About a decade ago, in a consumer focus group, when we asked a young Delhi boy why he didn’t watch Bollywood interview shows on TV, he quipped at lightning speed: “Kisi aur ka interview hum kyon dekhein?”

That almost-oxymoron-ish reply has stayed with me. Unless the interviewer makes the conversation entertaining, voyeuristic and juicy, there isn’t any direct consumer benefit of watching an interview, at a mass, pan-India level at least. Because knowledge is not in high demand, and certainly not in this format. So, most cricket fans in India would rather watch MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, than watch Dhoni tell the same story himself, even though the latter is more authentic.

With liberalization and opening up of the world, one would have expected a stronger interviewing culture to develop in India over the last three decades. But if at all, it seems to have gone south. And Oprah’s latest show is a reminder of how wide the gap is!

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