I think satirist’s responsibility is to push the limits of what is acceptable: Abhinandan Sekhri8 min read
Dressed in a white kurta and accessorized with a cryptic, sanguine smile, Abhinandan Sekhri is a blunt and precise man who is unafraid to truly voice what is running through his mind. Previously having worked for mainstream news organizations such as Aaj Tak and NDTV, Sekhri now runs Newslaundry, an independent media critic website he co-founded.
With an exclusive interview with TMJ, ‘Naxalite’ Sekhri (as nicknamed by Subramanian Swamy) opens up about various issues and opinions related to the obstacles TV critics face in the field of journalism along while adding why it is important to have a sense of humour and let out a giggle now and then. Here are some excerpts from the interview.
What makes Newslaundry special and as a co-founder of the firm, what inspired you to come up with something like this?
I don’t know what makes it special, we will come to know if it’s special or not depending on how much of an impact we create and how true we remain to our philosophy of independence, public interest and irreverence.
What inspired us to come up with this was that the status quo in the news space was very dissatisfying, since it appeared that no one was critiquing the news. They were on top of the pyramid passing judgment on everything. So we figured that we should have a program that would critique the news. First we thought we would have it on a channel, but then no channel wouldn’t want something that edgy. The online world seemed promising; it was shaping up and growing fast. From one show we decided to do lot of shows and we had lot of ideas.
It wasn’t a eureka moment. We realized that the online space offers an alternative revenue model which can to an extent fix the news space that is completely broken because of the ad funding model. We started it to make it fun, irreverent and an alternate model.
Do you think that news anchors these days have become dramatic and over-dominating which probably, at times, compromises the ethics of journalism?
Well, I wouldn’t draw a relation between the ethics of journalism and drama. You can be dramatic and yet not compromise the ethics and you can compromise on ethics and yet not be dramatic. But yes news anchors have become very dramatic and there is all sort of thamasha in newsrooms. In fact when India TV did that whole 21 years of ‘Aap Ki Adalat’ with Shah Rukh Khan, I didn’t understand what the news worthiness of it was and why it was repeated again and again. I don’t think that is news; that’s just rubbish.
What led you to change from broadcast media to new media?
The economics of it (new media) and the democracy of the medium. You can actually democratize news like never before and in that sense it is extremely exiting. The online space is going to change the revenue model and consumer behavior. It will change the whole concept of censorship and what you can and you cannot say. The online space is an extremely exiting space and in my lifetime the internet is the biggest thing happened to the world.
How different do you see yourself from the mainstream journalists in India?
I can’t answer that question without sounding vain or overly humble. I can’t critique myself it is not something I would like to do I would like others decide if I am different or the same. I don’t look at myself as a journalist anymore and I don’t know how good or bad or different I am. I do what I do.
With the recent havoc caused by the AIB knockout, what is your take on the freedom of expression?
I think freedom of expression is an absolute. I think what the boys did was extremely brave. I think many of these Aamir Khan types criticizing them are full of shit. I think in an environment like India, where freedom of speech and press freedom and freedom of films is so compromised and to be talking about aesthetics when things are being pulled down, taken down and banned, just shows that you are really dim and live in an alternate universe and you have no idea what is going around you.
What is the responsibility of a satirist?
I think satirist’s responsibility is to push the limits of what is acceptable. With every new joke a satirist makes, he must either push the limits of what is allowed or he must be able to communicate an idea or a thought which makes one think, or he must put forth his politics or political view in a way that is clever and incisive. As a satirist that is his responsibility.
In reference to Jaya Bachan’s comment against radio jockeys you said: ‘Humor is the acknowledgement of equality and equality is something our Netas are very unused to.’ Please elaborate?
If you make a joke at someone much younger and much weaker, it’s like bullying them. If you do it to an elderly person then it will be impertinence because when you are obsessed with hierarchies that’s all you see. But humor is something that is only done among equals which is why it is considered dangerous by those who cling to hierarchies which is why if we joke at someone in a position of power, they wouldn’t know how to react but if you do a morcha, then they say hum dekhenge and the hierarchies still exist. But if you make a joke then there is no hierarchy.
Do you think our leaders have a chronic deficiency of humor?
I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I don’t know if it’s a chronic deficiency. I do think we are quite humorous but not completely. It depends on who is making the joke. I do think it’s a problem but I don’t think its altogether absent, I think there are many Netas who have a sense of humor, I think there are many politicians who take a dig at themselves . Atal Bihari Vajpayee was very good at that but there are others who aren’t.
According to you what are the difficulties that TV critics and satirists face in India? How hard is it to convey a humor creating a balance between a diverse crowd and ‘their’ leaders?
The most difficult thing about satire or humor is that it’s very difficult to do. Comedy is the hardest thing to do. It’s very difficult to write comedy. Because either it will be funny or it will be shit. There is no midway point.
The difficulties specifically in India is that it’s a space still not much explored. Irreverence for something that wasn’t encouraged from a very early stage in people’s careers and lives and therefore the entire environment wasn’t encouraging, and for humor irreverence is important. Hierarchies do not create a good environment for humor. Hierarchies are ever present in our society. So those problems exist but even so there have been some fantastic humorists and satirists including the AIB, Qutiyapa and The Viral Fever. I think this generation is shaking the gates of what is appropriate and what is not.
Your interview with Subramanian Swami was quite interesting. How satisfied were you with the answers given by him during your interview while you questioned about his article about Indian Muslims having Hindu ancestry.
I think it’s very funny but I don’t think he intends to be. I think most of his humor is unintended. I think he is ridiculous but he is also very bright in many ways. I think he is one of those people like a mad genius. When he takes on a legal case, he can really do a thorough job of it but his views on lot of other things are just so bizarre that it is impossible to take him seriously.
What did you feel when he called you a Naxalite?
Actually the tragic thing is that the poor chap hasn’t made a joke. He actually believes that and that’s really tragic.
In reference to Charlie Hebdo issue, you wrote “Satire and humour does not need restrictions and boundaries like national security and defamation, and there are enough laws to tackle those areas” and many people like Kiran Bedi had a very different opinion in this matter. If certain people don’t have a broad outlook towards humor and satires, Do you think it’s necessary to convey this to them when excruciating consequences are predicted?
Yes it is very important. No matter what the consequence, it is very important. I don’t believe one should think shit about there would be consequences. If you are misrepresenting something there are courts to take it up. If I say something about Amitabh Bachchan there are enough people who worship him like a God. I am hurting their sentiments so I shouldn’t say that? I think that is the problem in India, that because of ‘this may happen let’s not do this’. I am not talking about the aesthetics of Charlie Hebdo, they lost 12 people, 12 people died because of that cartoon and the next week they made the cartoon again. That is what a satirist’s job is and if you can’t do that you have a long way to cover.
Edited by Nadia Lewis