More Truths Than One
Last night, I watched Sach Ka Saamna, the new reality show on Star Plus, and felt sick.
If you haven’t heard of it, it’s the Hindi take on the American show, Moment of Truth, in which contestants are asked all sorts of personal questions about their lives and relationships which they must answer with a yes or a no. Four of the people they have relationships with (parents, spouse / partner, friends, relatives) are also on the set with them and many of the questions relate to these people. If a contestant lies about anything, she or he loses.
The host knows when they lie because, before the show is filmed, all the contestants are hooked to a polygraph machine (a lie detector) and asked 50 questions, which the machine registers. The questions that are asked during the filming of the show are drawn at random from this bank of 50 questions. Answer all of them truthfully, and you get a crore. Lie and you stand to lose everything.
And the questions are very, very personal. I once watched with fascinated horror, some 10 minutes of Moment of Truth and saw a woman contestant aiming to win a million dollars say yes to several things that would effectively have destroyed her relationships with her family, husband and friends. In just 10 minutes. She agreed to go on to tougher questions in her quest for the million bucks – “I’ve already ruined everything with my husband, so I may as well have the money” – at which point I changed channels. I could not bear it.
I watched the Indian version last night because I couldn’t believe that a show like that would work here. In our collective psyche, we’re very concerned about ‘face’ and a show like this would definitely cause people to lose ‘face’. Also, I’m a journalist. I have to keep up with what’s happening. Entertainment may not be my beat, but it is an indicator of popular culture and I need to know what people think and choose to do. Also, I was very curious about the kind of questions that would be asked.
I could watch only 20 minutes of the show – the easy questions. When the contestant was about to be asked ‘Are you afraid your husband will become an alcoholic again?’ and ‘Did you ever consider having an affair?’ I switched off the TV and fled back to my book (a nice, juicy murder story).
I don’t know why I was so shaken. It wasn’t my life up there for grabs. Besides, the contestant had heard these questions before, and her family on the set were also fully aware of what they’d be getting into, so how could it matter what I felt about the questions? There really was no reason why I couldn’t have watched the programme to its end as some of my colleagues did. But I couldn’t.
I think it’s because this show throws the worst of my profession into my face – the requirement to ask personal, sometimes hurtful questions of people for the sake of a story or a good quote. The need to dig out dirt on people whether they like it or not. And having done that, display all that in public, for everyone to read.
Sometimes it’s necessary, often it’s not, and Indian papers, thank heavens, are not yet like the British papers. Even our tabloids are not as bad as those and as for paparazzi, we really don’t have them. Journalists here can be crudely intrusive – think of the Arushi case – but so far it’s only up to a point. In fact, I remember giggling over the media coverage when Anjelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were in Bombay to shoot for A Mighty Heart. Our reporters were hopelessly outclassed by the foreign paparazzi. Our Branjelina stories were always based on interviews with the firang journos. None (or none that I recall) were ‘broken’ by us.
I giggled, yes, but at heart I was pleased. Because it showed that we don’t have a paparazzi culture, no matter how obsessed we are with our celebs. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing. Because as journalists, we don’t only have a responsibility to our country (in the sense of keeping track of the various ‘authorities’ that rule our lives) and our readers, we also have a responsibility to the people we interview or feature in our stories. Because these stories – meaning the interviewees’ stories – are going out into the public domain, and once out, they can have an effect that no one can reasonably gauge. For instance, when I did the families on Facebook story in Brunch a few weeks ago, most of the people I featured suddenly found themselves besieged with friendship requests from strangers all over the country. Nothing bad I think, but it showed me – again – the effect a story in print can have on the lives of the people I interview.
Many of the people I’ve interviewed in my career, for instance, had never been interviewed and photographed before. Many were shy, worried or excited about having their names and faces in the paper. I’m a reasonably good interviewer, I think. I can get people to relax, loosen up, talk, trust me with, sometimes, deep secrets, things they’ve done that they’re now ashamed of as well as things they’ve done that they’re proud of.
I never want to do a fluff story, so there are usually some tough, often personal questions among the ones I prepare. But in spite of that, I have to keep in mind that I have got them to trust me. I have to live up to that trust – and I have also to live up to the expectations of my readers.
Often, it’s a tough call, and often I hate my job (interviewing a family of destitute illegal Bangladeshi migrants for instance. A ‘human interest’ story – and also one that guaranteed that the family that trusted me enough to admit that they were here illegally would immediately be picked up by the police.) But it’s my job and mostly, I can’t think of any other job I’d rather do.
But some things, I think, should remain private.