Magazines, the last word on Indian journalism
One of the ironies of the current decline of print media in the West is that while newspaper and newsmagazines find it difficult to survive, the up-market magazine sector flourishes. The Washington Post may lose money, (the London) Times may be bleeding and the New York Times may struggle to make a profit, but Vanity Fair, Vogue, In Style and the rest face no threat to their continued survival.
I asked Aveek Sarkar, my old boss, one of whose magazines I once edited, about this. Aveek’s view is that in India too, up-market magazines (i.e. those that cost Rs. 100 or so per copy) will find it easier to survive than those that cost less and aim for a wider circulation. He gave me the example of the Indian edition of Fortune which his company produces, which he said is not only profitable but expects to do even better in the months ahead.
My guess is that Aveek is right. The future for magazines is niche and up-market, not widely circulated and general interest. But if India does go the way of the West in the structure of its magazine sector, then I will feel a great personal sense of loss.
The journalistic revolution in India came not from newspapers, TV or the internet. It came from the magazine sector. If it wasn’t for magazines, Indian journalism would never ever have come of age.
The first breakthrough was Stardust which ended the old obsequious fan-magazine culture of film journalism and introduced bright, witty, celebrity journalism to India. The great thing about Stardust was that the bulk of its readers cared more about the stars than they did about the movies they made. It was not necessary to watch Rajesh Khanna’s movies to read about his relationship with Anju Mahendru. (Was he secretly married to her? Stardust asked in one of its early cover
The second breakthrough was India Today. It was India’s first successful attempt at quality, up-market serious journalism. It was well-produced, well-written, took no sides and covered politics and social trends with style and panache. Once India Today was firmly established, the newspapers had to take note. And eventually, editors from the magazine sector migrated to newspapers and transformed them.
(Some examples: two India Today veterans, Suman Dubey and Shekhar Gupta became editors of the Indian Express; TN Ninan invented the modern Indian financial paper when he went from India Today to the Economic Times – and there are many others.)
But while enough has been said and written about India Today and Stardust, there is another era that seems in danger of being forgotten. I started writing in 1976 and became a full-time journalist in 1979 in Bombay. And while I was around for the early days of the magazine boom, I think that the golden age of Bombay journalism came in the early 1980s. Sadly, nobody celebrates that era as much as it deserves to be celebrated.
In the early 1980s, several developments changed the face of Bombay journalism. Khalid Ansari and Behram Contractor had started Mid-Day in1979 but its impact was really felt only in the years that followed.
Bombay came out in 1979. Society, a few months later. Minhaz Merchant started Gentleman around 1980. In 1981 or so, Vinod Mehta handed over the Editor’s chair at Debonair to Anil Dharker who put his own stamp on the paper. Vinod himself went on to start a Sunday paper for Jaico Publishing called the Sunday Observer. In 1983, I was part of a team that revamped the old Imprint and turned it into a monthly features magazine.
As significant as these development were, they were dwarfed by the decision of Samir Jain, who had just begun to wake up the sleepy Times of India empire to drag his company, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century.
In those days, the Times (like most other newspapers of its era) was dull and boring. Samir knew that it would take a lot of effort to turn the paper around so he started with the moribund magazine division. He moved away from journalism and reached out to Calcutta where he found Pritish Nandy, then a poet and adman of some repute, and entrusted him with the task of reviving the Times Group’s magazines.
From the moment Nandy arrived in Bombay, the knives were out for him at the Times where he was resented because a) he was an outsider, b) because he was Samir Jain’s man and c) because he came from a non-journalistic background. But Nandy proved to be quite a skillful knife-man himself. He thrived on the hostility of the old guard and determinedly set about changing things.
He transformed Filmfare and turned the awards into an Oscar-like spectacle. He kicked ass at Femina. But most important, he revived the Illustrated Weekly.
When Nandy took over, the Weekly was a magazine on the skids. Its glory days as the Khushwant Singh-led success story (in the early 70s) were over and the magazine was, frankly, unreadable.
Nandy turned it around by introducing a contemporary new design and changing the nature of the editorial content. He hired a young, new team. He pulled in academics from Delhi’s intellectual circuit to write for it. He did a series of brilliant and revelatory interviews himself. And he tapped into a pool of emerging journalistic talent in Bombay.
In those days, Vinod Mehta had introduced many new writers to Bombay readers. Some came from advertising (Kersy Katrak, Nirmal Goswami etc.) and others (Dhiren Bhagat, for instance) had just returned from university abroad. These writers changed the face of Bombay journalism because they were outside of the traditional journalistic world.
I don’t think Pritish and Vinod were ever great pals themselves but they shared the same pool of talent. Bit by bit, the Weekly became the sort of publication that anybody of consequence in Bombay journalism contributed to (Shobhaa De, for instance). It was also the first publication to bridge the gap between Bori Bunder and rest of South Bombay and the film industry. People like Mahesh Bhatt became household names largely on the strength of their appearances in the Weekly.
Eventually alas, this Camelot-like phase in Bombay journalism came to an end. Pritish moved on to do other things (he now heads a very successful entertainment conglomerate), Vinod was poached by Vijaypat Singhania to start a newspaper for him; Shobhaa closed down Celebrity, the magazine she had founded; Dhiren Bhagat moved to Delhi, wrote for British papers and was then killed in a car accident; Anil Dharker briefly took the Weekly job and then moved to TV while Debonair was sold; Minhaz Merchant sold his Gentleman stable of publications to the Indian Express; and the rest of us either left town (I moved to Calcutta in 1986) or went on to leave journalism.
Perhaps as a consequence, that phase is hardly remembered today. But I do believe that had it not been for Bombay journalism (and by that I mean magazine journalism primarily), the Indian media would be a very different place. Had Pritish Nandy not succeeded in waking up the Times, the group would have taken much longer to become the money machine it is today. Vinod’s influence on Indian journalism is well-documented. Shobhaa remains a bigger brand than most of the publications she writes for. The variety and eclectic content of 1980s Bombay publications went on to influence all Indian journalism and gave it a new vigour and life.
So, when I hear about the impending demise of the magazine sector, I’m not unduly worried. Bombay’s magazines died out by the 1990s. But their influence transformed Indian journalism. Even if today’s magazines do not last into the end of the decade, they have served their purpose.
It is the magazine sector that revived and shaped Indian journalism.
And that achievement will always endure.