|The news, according to...
RINI SIMON KHANNA
Rini Simon Khanna's journey as a newsreader began in 1982 when she joined All India Radio. From there, she moved to DD in 1984. But even though she left the government broadcaster in 2004 she continues to work with the media—freelancing as a broadcast journalist, hosting events, and voicing documentaries and films. Based in Delhi, Khanna emceed the Nasscom India Leadership Forum in Mumbai this February and has been the voice of Airtel for several years. Today, she can still be heard on Airtel, MTNL, BSNL and Air India. She also revels in her hours at home, walking her dog and spending quality time with her businessman husband Deepak Khanna and 20 year-old son Sahil.
Rewinding to a sepia-toned era, Khanna recalls, "It's been a long journey and one that gave me immense joy. I have my share of wonderful memories of hectic days and tight deadlines." So what does it take to be a good television anchor? "Primarily, news anchors need to be good communicators, with a pleasant personality, a pulse for current affairs and the ability to present events without sensationalising them. But they also need a measured urgency to inform, highlight and empathise," explains Khanna, who landed a job with DD after clearing a written exam and several rounds of auditions. 'Passion' is a relative term in the newsroom, and for Khanna it is synonymous with connecting with viewers rather than 'hunting down' news and intruding into people's lives. "You cannot pretend to be interested; you have to be convinced of what you're saying," she underlines, adding, "Intrusion in any form is repulsive."
Of course, changing times and the 'new media' have significantly altered the way journalists conduct themselves. "Today, the need to share is more than it used to be and the ease with which ordinary people can do this makes it very difficult to draw boundaries around what is private and what is public," concedes Khanna. "However, there are clear norms that journalists must follow and such intrusiveness can be curbed if people specify how much they want to share."
According to her, DD's newsreaders enjoyed pleasures and privileges money couldn't buy. "I was on holiday in Ranikhet and we ran out of petrol," she recalls. "We checked into a small hotel and went scouting around. We saw an Air Force station and adventurously walked in and asked the security guard if we could meet the commanding officer. He recognised me and informed the commanding officer, who was also a great fan! We shared a wonderful evening with them. The next morning, we found a whole tank of fuel for our onward journey to Almora. How can one ever repay such generosity?"
In Khanna's view, DD's self-censoring style was a means to discipline newsreaders, to avoid them 'interpreting' the news. "We were able to perform our duties without really being on a leash," she explains. "There was no interference, only an understanding that we adhere to the norms of decency and the need to inform relevant and important news. We were not encouraged to 'colour' news in any way; we had to keep it as objective and as close to the truth as possible." The DD veteran agrees that news anchors today need to constantly evolve and adapt to a fast-changing medium. "But the scams revealing layers of corruption and fixing between journalists, lobbyists and politicians are a huge letdown to the trust the Fourth Estate enjoys," she adds. DD began to lose its exclusivity—and viewers—with the advent of private channels in the early 1990s. But Khanna quit for personal reasons. And she has no regrets. "Today's aggressiveness and competitiveness do not appeal to me and I choose not to be a part of it," says Khanna firmly.
She continues to hold her former employer in high regard. "DD is still the biggest national public broadcaster and the government's communication arm," she asserts. "I have great respect for them and continue to work with them whenever they ask me to. The reach of Doordarshan is legendary and, in remote places, it remains the only means of information and entertainment despite the presence of satellite TV. People respect it for its non-sensational, comprehensive and reliable coverage."
When 59 year-old Sashi Kumar—founder of non-profit organisation Media Development Foundation, which runs Asian College of Journalism, the premier journalism college in India—walks through the campus in Chennai, eager students suddenly fall silent. It is not just reverence for their principal but an open admiration for this charming former DD news presenter. Most students wonder how he manages to keep his age from showing in his face, or demeanour. And when he talks passionately about the changing business of journalism, there is always pin-drop silence. With good reason. Kumar has been a newsreader, a daily reporter, launched one of the country's most successful regional channels—Asianet—and dabbled in filmmaking. And he is always willing to share all he has learned.
Kumar, who joined DD in the late 1970s, was among the first English newscasters on the network and, over the subsequent decade, became a familiar face in homes across India as a news and current affairs anchor, film critic and producer and director of topical features. Remember shows like Tana Bana, a cultural feature, Jan Manch, an interactive discussion between ministers and a cross-section of society, and Money Matters? From 1975 to 1984, Kumar was a regular fixture on DD.
Looking back, he admits he thought becoming a DD newsreader would help him get into films, his real passion. Instead, DD brought out in him a roving reporter, producer and anchor. "It was a good platform, but not a great place to get stuck in," he says with candour. "I took to DD because of the myriad opportunities the medium offered me. We got to explore the technical and aesthetic aspects of visuals and sound." Those were really the pioneering days. "We started by reading the text off typed sheets," recalls Kumar. "The teleprompters arrived only later. And we had little role in determining the content of the news itself." Looking back, he says newsreaders were like automated mannequins. "You had to look, act and speak the part—and could do it without any sense of what was going on. To prove that you were not IQ-deficient, it was important to wrest yourself away from it before you were sucked in, or lulled into it, forever."
Yet the veteran feels there was a certain romance in news presentation then. "It wasn't the high-decibel bombardment of your senses, 24×7, it is now," he says. Being an 'old-school' journalist, Kumar believes the current generation of news anchors could do without their pontificating. "I do wish they'd be less excited, more patient, less pompous, more informed, less arrogant, more considerate, less superficial, more in-depth. And I don't know why they look and act like clones." And the hungry media survives because of today's voyeuristic society. "The media's freewheeling style yanks skeletons out of cupboards and keeps them in the public eye," observes Kumar. "Their almost infantile persistence works because we like to see them pitted against equally self-obsessed politicians or custodians of morality and it doesn't matter who emerges victorious."
Iconic American newsreaders like Walter Cronkite and Barbara Walters were Kumar's inspirations. But the industry was far from lucrative back then. Kumar's monthly pay in the first few years in Madras in the late 1970s, before national network news began, was just Rs 800. But for him and his peers, DD was where they learnt the importance of the freedom of the press and the responsibilities that came with the job. "DD was this patriarchal, pedagogic presence and you were the oracle," he says. "You never got your fact and opinion mixed up."
In his view, TV journalism today is hardly inspiring. "It is over-the-top, dilettantist, sensational and vacuous," he says. "If the reporting style of the DD days was state-fixated, today it is market-centric. One has to look elsewhere for inspiration; to the BBC, for example. Grabbing eyeballs is not what television is all about. There is a larger, societal dharma. You can't pretend to be part of the Fourth Estate, enjoy the constitutional and moral high ground and go about your trade like any other player