Fact before fiction: my days in journalism
January 12, 2018

In the late 1970s, Shreekumar Varma had his first job with the Indian Express, Bombay. Journalists were either hard-core, or waiting for a better opportunity, like swimmers on a springboard waiting to jump. Those days, the preferred side of the pasture was PR. He couldn’t begin to understand how a public relations job could be better than being a journalist. Their reason was simple: more money, better lifestyle

I knew of many who left for “better” jobs, snapping their fingers in sanitised offices, before finally making sheepish comebacks. Journalism was anything but sanitised. It was life, raw and right there. It hooked me, despite the meagre salary. My needs were limited, my dreams big. Journalism was the screen on which my dreams were projected. If there was anything I’d give it up for, it was the opportunity to become a full-time writer. And that was an impossibility. That was a creature like the unicorn, found only in myths. And probably in the West.

A journalist was like a water diviner, sensing news in unlikely places. The ideal journalist was blessed with a bloodhound’s nose. My very first assignment (the five-star inauguration of a bank branch, which I’d covered grandly) ended up as two lines at the back of the paper. I vowed to sniff out things worthy of prouder placement. A tussle between two corporators, each accusing the other of graft, reached me. My ears pricked up. Both were from my home state. All evidence pointed to a vintage rivalry whose pedigree surged through their family roots. I spoke their language. We understood each other. It was amusing. Each was interested in highlighting the other’s infidelity to his constituency. Their own culpability was besides the point.

I investigated, offered obeisance to my muse and composed a report.It placed the truth where it belonged, with delicate accuracy. The average reader must have skimmed through the piece. Residents of the concerned areas either shook their heads or whistled quietly to themselves. But they were three hugely satisfied readers: the two corporators and I. It was my first hit, and the mango had fallen. The taste was sweet.

I soon discovered the power of my profession. Imagining journalists were stationed on the bottom rung, I climbed the stairs to another five-star launch. The organisers recognised me and welcomed me effusively. My identity was being embellished by the day. At a political function, when the chief minister walked in, the audience stood up and so did I. I heard frantic whispers of reporters from other papers: “Sit down! You don’t have to stand. The Press has that privilege!” I felt it was too late to rectify my mistake, so the other reporters beside me reluctantly stood up, keeping me company. Another lesson.

When a public telephone at Churchgate started vomiting coins promiscuously for anyone who pressed the right buttons, there was a clamour around it. People were getting unexpectedly, happily rich. And then I played spoilsport by writing about it. The flaw was rectified, and I still don’t know how abundantly I was foul-mouthed that day.

I began an interesting project, reviewing films and interviewing their makers in the same extended piece. I began with the whimsical John Abraham (who snapped that he could “make a glass act” when I pointed out the laborious performances in his film), and included Adoor Gopalakrishnan who spoke to me in a cab on the way to the airport.

I was fascinated by cinema and theatre. Those were glorious days of parallel cinema – ‘art films’. Audiences celebrated, wondered at, and ridiculed them. I had a contact who invited me to film society screenings and informed me when elusive filmmakers were in town. I was also smitten by theatre, and interviewed a ‘guru’ of structural theatre.

If these were performing arts, then circus was one too. I did a cover for the Sunday Standard. Accompanying me to the tent was my senior sub whose cousin was a mortal victim of the circus. I met his colleagues and family, who’d remained trapeze artists despite their loss. It was one of my most fulfilling and talked-about pieces. I learnt that people will do anything to live. And when they like what they do, they’ve nothing else to fall back on. We tend to underestimate. Family, the bonds of precarious togetherness. The ever-present danger, the lure of death, has to be carefully confronted.

Bombay being Bombay, you move. Two colleagues from Screen, impressed with my cinema pieces, asked me to join a film industry paper they were refurbishing. Why would I leave the Express and join a trade paper, I asked. You’ll make sure it doesn’t stay that way, they replied. It took them a while, but I succumbed. I knew my Bombay shelf-life was short, and Madras would soon call me back.

So began Cinema Today, published by IMPPA (Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association). The decrepit office was soon transformed into a white haven, like an unbelievable Hindi movie set, probably the luxury den of a mafia don. I was reporter and sub-editor. I interviewed film folk, both big and tiny, laid out pages, corrected proofs, waited in the press, took plates to the lab in the thick of night (including one thrilling ride when cops stopped my auto five-six times to see if the driver was one of the notorious murderers, Billa and Ranga).

I met Dilip Kumar (who shared lunch sent by Saira Banu with us), Raj Kapoor (who was flirting with Aruna Irani), Dev Anand (who invited me to join the new, short-lived National Party), Manoj Kumar and Shatrughan Sinha, and interviewed G. P. Sippy, producer of Sholay; spent a day and half a night with Amjad ‘Gabbar’ Khan, watching him shoot, listening to his Urdu poetry and non-stop witticism. My nights were staid, or sizzled. I was in a film party, watching a shooting, or wearily getting the paper to bed.

I don’t think either Bombay or I had had enough of each other, but the time soon came to say goodbye. And journalism was never the same again.

(The Chennai-based writer is an author, teacher and playwright. He is the great grandson of Raja Ravi Varma and son of the matriarch of the Travancore Royal Family who died recently. He is the recipient of the R. K. Narayan Award for Excellence in Writing in English, 2015. He was awarded the Charles Wallace [India] Trust fellowship, and was Writer-in-Residence at Stirling University, UK, in 2004.)

(October – December 2017)