Founding partner of Small Screen and newslaundry, Abhinandan Sekhri was a researcher at Newstrack and went on to become a reporter, always managing to do the story that was dropped. He scripted the political satire shows The Great Indian Tamasha and Gustakhi Maaf on NDTV’s news channels between 2004 and 2009. So he thinks he’s funny. Thinks!
How to Turn Tricks On TV
Invited on a panel? Going for a TV debate? No time to prepare? Don’t have much to say because you’re not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree (or brightest colour this Holi)? No matter. Read this on your way to the studio and you’ll be fine. Here are six easy-to-use tricks for TV debates.
1. The – Let’s State The Obvious And Pretend That’s What the Debate Is About
This is the most often used device. Its brilliance is its simplicity. This you have to master or you don’t deserve to be on any panel – TV or otherwise. Here’s how it works. If the debate is about a specific policy, action or law in a broader context (which everything always is), just start debating the broader context and stating the obvious as if that’s what the debate is about. Don’t debate the specific matter, policy, law or detail at hand. Most anchors won’t catch on and since they pretty much paraphrase one panelist’s point and ask another to react (except Arnab whose panelists are an audience to fill the screen in little boxes who he can scold from time to time). Often, the audience too will see you as reasonable and wise. Because, after all, how can you argue against someone saying, “We should all be good people and work towards a corruption-free India and inclusive society” or something equally obvious?
Example: If the debate is about enacting a law that makes it mandatory for journalists to have a minimum qualification to raise the quality of journalism, pretend the debate is about how educated journalists are better than illiterate ones. More-informed people add more value to news than less-informed people. People who can read the alphabet are better-equipped to write an essay etc.
Below the King of Stating The Obvious (and sometimes the bizarre), Justice Katju, demonstrates the ploy. Also demonstrated by Derek O’Brien who lately is the most frequent user of it, thanks to the kind of positions he has to defend, courtesy Didi. When asked on a specific aspect of the anti-rape law he says that “rape is abhorrent and must be punished…” etc. Wow! Imagine that.
2. The – Could You Repeat the Question Please?
Actually, don’t bother. I’ll just say what I have to whether it has anything to do with the question you asked or not. This one is a classic. It doesn’t look quite as elegant as the other tricks. The viewer usually can see that the panelist is “obfuscating the issue” in panelist jargon or “talking shit” in regular speak. But hell, it’s better than sitting there saying “Duh!” Or “Damn! How do I defend this crap?” like Nirmala Sitharaman trying to explain the BJP’s position on the anti-rape law. Always helps if you start with – “Before I answer your question I would like to make some points …” and then go on to say anything. Anything. No matter whether it has anything to do with the issue at hand. Look earnest and convinced and keep talking, pretending you’re going to get to the point eventually – like that uncle we all have who tells you a story that begins with the promise that it has a valuable life lesson but doesn’t ever get to any point. He’s just lonely and wants to talk. This is like that. Your speaking time will be over as you meander through subjects and issues. Other panelists will get impatient and cut in. Pretend to be outraged that you haven’t been allowed to say what you wanted, but inwardly you’re smiling your inner smile and saying, “Hah! Suckers! I never had anything to say anyway”.
Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Narvekar demonstrate this trick by going on and on and not answering the question while pretending they might get to the point at some time in the distant future if they are allowed to speak forever.
3. The – Tautology Trick or Paryayvachi Prakriya
Say the same thing in many ways. Use thesaurus-like options. Give alternatives of past/present/future, past participle etc. Basically take 25,000 words to say something that can be said in 8, like – “You really think I can defend that position” but that sounds defensive and guilty. Also there is at least 20 minutes of airtime to fill so go on to say something like, “While I suspect, expect, imagine, infer, deduce, have a hunch (in the sense of suspect, not that there is anything wrong with my posture) but I conjecture and construe that it may be wrong, incorrect, erroneous, inaccurate, objectionable or even libelous as the case may be or may not be or can be depending on how the situation develops, may develop, has already developed or may not at all develop in the stated direction”. BEEP! Time’s up. Chill.
Congratulations. You’ve used the most words ever to say nothing.
Watch the trick demonstrated by the master of the manoeuvre, Abhishek Manu Singhvi to who I dedicate the song – You say it best when you say nothing at all. - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xrxrEEGVdM
4. The “List”
This is a really smart one. The best. It works more often than not. Its effectiveness is entirely to do with the conviction of delivery. Also, you have to be perceived to be a smart person with informed opinions. If you’re already perceived to be a bit of an ass or a dullard, then don’t try this. It will backfire, big time. We take no responsibility for the feedback that may follow. When used well, the audience doesn’t realise they’ve been had and your opposition gets on the back-foot, intimidated.
How it works is that you’re in a sticky situation with questions and attacks coming at you, which you don’t have a covincing response to. Start your answer with unusual enthusiasm and a “On this there are 2 or 3 main points I’d like to make”. Or alternatively, “Ye dekhiye is mein do baatein hain”. This gives the impression that the speaker has thought through his or her position on this, and a very organised mind is going to demolish the opposition point-by-point. Whereas, in reality you’re just making it up as you go along. Allow me to demonstrate.
Question: Do you think the Lokpal bill should have an investigating agency that reports to it rather than the government?
Answer (sit up, shuffle in your seat and lean forward as if you’ve been waiting to say this all your life): That’s a great question and I’m glad you asked me this. There are three aspects to this.
- Is there corruption in India and to what extent has it spread in the system?
- Have present laws and legislations been able to tackle this effectively?
- Is there any evidence to suggest that tougher laws of say attaching properties or fast track courts deter one from being corrupt?
So you see, you could go on and on. But you haven’t said whether you think the investigating agency should report to the Lokpal or the government. You’ve merely stated general corruption-related stuff which one hears every day, but wait! You’ve done it as a list. Neat, huh? Way cooler than essay-form.
Watch the trick demonstrated by masters of it – Suhel Seth and my good friend Arvind Kejriwal (although the latter does it for a good cause).
5. The – Pick the Loony as Prime Adversary
This is easily the laziest and least ingenious trick. What you have to do is to ignore any good, intelligent argument made by co-panelists in the studio (or via satellite) and pick a weak argument made by a loony fringe element (or mainstream element) anytime anywhere on the planet (in a studio or elsewhere). Then proceed to demolish that loony argument, not the good one being made in the studio just then. It’s a foolish way to debate, but anchors and audiences love it. So, for example, if you are on a debate with a Shashi Tharoor or Chidambaram who’ve made a fairly decent argument, ignore that and pick what Sanjay Jha, Digvijay Singh or Justice Katju may have said somewhere else. Similarly, if you’re arguing with Nirmala Sitharaman or Rajnath Singh on a panel and they’ve put forth a levelheaded point, ignore it and pull in a Praveen Togadia or Nitin Gadkari quote and start demolishing that argument. You will notice I have taken an example from both big players so I appear balanced and fair, which one has to bend over backwards to do these days. I have not taken an example from the Commies because lately they don’t participate in debates with opposition parties. Only with each other, which I’m assuming they do at their Politburo meetings.
For this trick if you can’t think of a bad or foolish argument made by a real spokesperson or party member, you can even pick a tweet by the lunatic online brigade to set up as the prime adversary. It’s like picking the weakling water-boy from a lineup of wrestlers and saying “Yup Him! I’ll fight him”, even though he wasn’t on the roster.
Not just panelists, even journalists do this. Re-tweet some fool’s abuse and show how you’re making more compelling arguments, which brings me to the next trick.
6. The – I Got an Ouch
This is an extension of Trick Number 4 (Pick the Loony Fringe as Prime Adversary). This is when you take the above trick to an extreme and play victim. I’ll explain. Any of you who have kids or have friends who have kids, know that between the ages of 2 and 3 years, toddlers use the “I got an ouch” device to get attention. They’ll interrupt a conversation pointing to a non-existent scratch saying, “Mommy/Daddy I got an ouch”. You’re supposed to say “AWWW!”, make a big deal of nothing, offer sympathy, kiss the “Ouch” better and get on with the conversation of who’s sleeping with whom. The toddler is satisfied. It was never a big deal anyway. It was childish self-indulgence.
The danger of using this trick is that it can make you look terrible if you belong to any one or all of the following groups – socially privileged, politically empowered or more importantly, adult. Used well, this can make you look pretty victim-like, evoking the “Awww! Poor baby. Bo-hoo for you”. But it can also make you look like a bully who when confronted with another ill-mannered bully becomes a whiner and people are more likely to react with a “Sheesh! Boo fuckin Hoo. Stop whining”. Earlier, this was restricted to Twitter, now it’s used in panel discussions.
Used most often by “Young turks” in Parliament who whine each time they address the public. Poor babies. Be gentle on them in future, you hear? Demonstrated below by RPN Singh, Harsimrat Badal, Manish Tewari and Aditya Thackeray at the India Today Conclave, and at The Big Tent India by Omar Abdullah who may be the biggest crybaby Indian politics has ever seen.
7. The AHAHAHA
Can’t really describe it. You have to see it. No matter who says what, just shake your head and say “AHAHAHA”, laugh, giggle, be cute and cheeky. Don’t try this unless you are the maven herself. Watch the manoeuvre demonstrated by the only one who can pull it off.
Videos By: Damini Ralleigh, Satyen Rao & Rahul Awasthi
Image By: Swarnabha Banerjee