Sunetra Choudhury: All the inside juice from Anna’s reality show

Kiran Bedi and Anna at Ramlila

Published: Saturday, Aug 27, 2011, 10:30 IST | Updated: Saturday, Aug 27, 2011, 1:44 IST
By Sunetra Choudhury | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA

As the Anna Hazare situation looks like it’s drawing to a close, it’s perhaps a good time to confess. All of us in the media have been played. We’ve been played pretty well by Team Anna and what many of you didn’tprobably know is that those orchestrating the drama surrounding the 74-year-old are from our own fraternity.

Like Shazia Ilmi, who has popped up on your TV screens as a representative of Team Anna just over the last week. A former colleague and anchor from Star News, Shazia has a masters in communication from the best film school in the country, Jamia Millia Islamia, alma mater to the likes of Shah Rukh Khan. Shazia hung up her anchoring jacket some time ago when she started working with Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan, but she was just too good a TV person to not share some of her production skills with Team Anna. After all, it takes someone from a Hindi channel that made its name with a crime show called ‘Sansani’ to really make essential TV-viewing out of an elderly gent lying on stage. Or of watching Kiran Bedi swinging the Indian flag back and forth, or of watching just crowds of people hanging around Tihar jail.

author - Sunetra Choudhury

Shazia didn’t do it herself. She is part of an entire crew of TV professionals that work to make Anna Hazare’s fast the best reality TV show in recent times.

There’s another ex-colleague called Abhinandan Sekri. Abhinandan was one of the people behind the hugely successful satiric show Gustaakhi Maaf that parodies politicians and a Fox Travel and History show ‘What’s with Indian Men?’. The irreverent streak obviously continues as Abhinandan forms part of the core group for Team Anna that also includes former TV producer Manish Sisodia and theatre director Arvind Gaur. When Anna is exhausted and away from centrestage, Gaur’s actors perform energetic street plays, which are a hit with the crowds. And the core team meets regularly to decide how to feed the daily beast of 24-hour news media.

Shazia laughs when I ask her whether she’s been building the show like she would build her news bulletin rundown, whether Anna has a hidden earpiece into which she coos ‘cue, you’re on air’.

“When we started at Jantar Mantar, of course, I’d guide them,” she explains when I push her. “The usual rules — try and wait for sundown to make a speech so that it looks nice and try and make announcements at primetime. But it’s all changed now, now Anna can speak whenever, it doesn’t matter. Channels are always cutting live.”

Yes, we are and the flak we are catching for doing that is nothing compared to some of the flak that Anna has got.

The Bharat Mata image that formed his background at the Jantar Mantar stage is now gone, replaced by an image of Gandhi.

“There were a couple of kids who were asked to prepare the stage and they put Bharat Mata’s image there because Anna said he wants to be seated in service to the nation, but it backfired.”

Shazia and company weren’t going to let that happen again. Which is why, a day before the fast, on Independence Day, as the Congress party was trying desperately to do some damage control, Hazare was driven by his team members to Rajghat. There he sat silently for a couple of hours, giving enough time for photographers to reach from the newspaper offices round the corner, by which time a crowd gathered and watched him in awe. The newspapers carrying this generously displayed photo arrived in homes just as theDelhipolice landed up to put Anna behind bars. The ‘Making of a Mahatma’ was complete.

Many would argue that simply putting the image of Gandhi on stage and such managed photo-ops were not enough spin doctoring to convince everyone. They may be right, but as someone who’s had no choice but to be a captive audience to many of Team Anna’s speeches, I have to tell you, it’s pretty entertaining too. Especially when all you have to compare it to are the words from Pranab Mukherjee and company.

While Mr Mukherjee pleads with ‘Annaji’ in the same monotonous voice, Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi are giving us what we could previously only imagine — a ringside view of government dealings.

“They totally changed their tone in one night; they started scolding us,’ said Kiran Bedi and then proceeded to read to the protestors, the SMSes she had got from senior police officers. Kejriwal then described how the government seemed indifferent to the fate of starving ‘Annaji’, reiterating the image of the cruel, heartless government. Perhaps forced to take a cue, one minister too drew from their style and in a hurt manner declared: “But the meeting went perfectly well, we all had tea-coffee!”

When I asked Abhinandan if their style was deliberate, he said, “Well, they did want all the meetings of the Lokpal Bill drafting committee videotaped so that people could see, so that there’s complete transparency.’’

And yes, they were successful. As Anna’s image grew larger than life, their opponent, the government, was facing its worst PR disaster. The worst part is, while Team Anna and their media managers are certainly learning from their mistakes, one can’t say the same for Team government.

I asked colleagues who were reporting from Ramlila Maidan what they liked the most about the place. The unanimous answer: the tea and biscuits Team Anna supplied them with. Maybe another lesson for our government there.

Sunetra Choudhury is an anchor/reporter for NDTV and is the author of the election travelogue Braking Newsl


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