Diesel prices had gone up, and the input desk at NDTV in New Delhi had dispatched me to get reactions from customers at a gas station. Vox pop, they call it in the business, the voice of the people. I was interning in reporting that very hot month of June, so off I went. I picked up a memory chip for the camera from the video tape library, I arranged for a cameraperson, and I arranged for a car. We stopped outside a gas station at Nehru Place, and we decided to get reactions from the folks that would drive up to the diesel pump there. The red-and-gold OB van with NDTV written in huge letters on its sides that had accompanied us was parked right outside the gas station, and we'd uplink the footage back to the newsroom from there. Sounded simple enough.
Except that it was Saturday morning. Except this was diesel. Only a handful of people passed through the gas station for diesel that whole couple of hours, but I did speak to them and uplink their reactions back to the newsroom. The quiet cameraperson - a dark-skinned man with weather-beaten skin - and I had thought that we were done, but I received a call from the edit bay telling me that the reactions I had got were not good enough and that I'd have to get more. I can't remember exactly what I was told was lacking in the footage, but I remember the gist of it: the people didn't look good/educated enough for TV. They spoke Hindi too. There's a word for that in India: ghhaati. Low class.
But it was a story about diesel. The only people who bought diesel at gas stations were truck drivers, autorickshaw drivers...and other people's drivers in general. Weren't these the people whose reactions you'd want in a story about diesel? They were the ones who'd be affected by the price rise, right? I didn't understand the issue with the Hindi either. Sure, we were an English channel, but we subtitled non-English footage all the time. It was not a big deal, so what was so different this time? I'd tried explaining that to the person who'd called me from the newsroom, but I was very silkily asked to just get some English bites from better-looking people who weren't uneducated drivers.
I got it. They wanted freshly-scrubbed white-collar reactions for the white-collar-catering Inglis channel. Didn't matter if white-collar India didn't care about diesel prices.
I hung up and looked at the quiet cameraman. Camerapeople remind me of Rambo sometimes with those huge machine-gun-like cameras resting on their shoulders. They also remind me of the boombox-carrying kids from the ghettoes of America. My cameraman looked bored, emotionally disconnected. Cynical even. He wore what camerapeople, who are mostly men, wear around India - loose trousers, a loose button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled-up, and heavy shoes. All of it eventually a strange shade of don't-care. The colour of Delhi. "Kya karein (what do we do)?" I asked him. The newsroom wanted reactions from mall-going Indians. But that still didn't change things on the ground. It was still Saturday morning, hardly anyone was coming through the gas station, and almost nobody was passing through for diesel. Nobody that was English-TV-worthy, that is.
The cameraman shrugged as much as he could shrug with Rambo's machine gun on his shoulder, not completely unlike Jesus wincing under the weight of the crucifix on his back. He looked a bit cross. He suggested I go pull a customer from the petrol pump where all the nice sedans were rolling in with their upper-middle-class-and-higher clientele. The English-speakers of India. I felt a little ridiculous. My intelligence and integrity felt vaguely insulted, but I still went. I put my Hindi aside and put on my best American accent because I was representing an English news channel to the English-speaking persons of India. "Oh, NDTV!" they'd say with an appreciative smile, "of course, what do you need to know?" I got reactions in English from an elderly ex-army Sardar gentleman, a bearded intellectual type, and an outspoken clean-shaven polo-shirt-wearing man with a sharp haircut. I felt a bit empty standing there with my mic with the red NDTV muff on it, smiling and encouraging the people along on their performance. "Thankyousomuch," I'd say before trotting off. I'm sure they were nice people, but that wasn't what was bothering me. Only the previous month, when I was interning in the edit bay, had I been asked to edit vox pop footage that had come in from Kashmir about another price rise. I'd put the bites together, all of them in Hindi, and was then told by a young employee that they couldn't put that footage on air. But why, I had asked, the bites had good content. The girl had laughed. "Have you seen their faces?" she had said, screwing up her pretty light-skinned nose at me, the poor newbie. "We can't put such visuals on air."
Such people? Dark-skinned people from lower-income families? But what about the content? That footage never made it on the air on our English channel, but our Hindi channel ran it all day long. So the English channel only showed the good-looking people of India? But what about content? What about what we had initially been told at NDTV about journalistic ethics and the real issues and how journalism was supposed to be a pillar of democracy, the voice of the people? Or was it the voice of certain sections of the people depending on the segment of India you were catering to? The unattractive sweaty Indian is also a part of India. In fact, he is about 90% of India. Doesn't what he say also matter, even if he is not soothing enough to the eye of the English channel's global audience? NDTV's English channel is watched all over the world. At various points in my life, I have watched it in America, Canada, and Oman. The Indian diaspora feels proud to see India looking so dynamic and good on NDTV. "India is developing so fast," they always say so proudly, "everyone speaks English so well now. It is not the India we left." And then they proceed to daydream about a return to the homeland that never happens.
So what was this happening here??
That's what was running through my mind at the gas station at Nehru Place that Saturday morning. Much later, after the footage had been uplinked to the newsroom (and happily approved), after we'd all returned, I was asked to isolate a short 10-second clip from the English reactions they'd decided to use. I'd been transcribing the footage, and the news editor asked me if there was anything with 'punch' that was said that could be used when the headlines rolled for the news bulletin. Something expressive, something emotionally-charged.
I did have something. "But does the guy look clean-cut and suave?" I was asked. I said yes. The bite was from the agitated man in the polo shirt and the short grey hair. An Indian Anderson Cooper. That's suave, I guess. It was perfect, and his angry 10-second rant ran with the headlines all day.
Photo credit: Nishanth Anil