Whoever thought of Akshay Kumar as the interviewer deserves a Mandir of their own.
I have to give it to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s publicity team that they’ve finally managed a PR coup – it was well-planned, displayed great strategy, and the messaging was on point. Twitter was abuzz day before with the news that Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar was going to join the BJP – which would have been a far better choice than yesteryear’s answer to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sunny Deol joining the BJP. But then again, Sunny Deol is a vast improvement on Payal Rohatgi – so it’s all relative. But Kumar was not joining the BJP. He is far smarter than that. Going by his film career, Kumar never bets on anything which isn’t a sure-shot success.
Which is why he took the safer – but more high-impact option. Kumar was brought on board by – I’m assuming – the BJP to interview Modi at the PM’s residence at 7 LKM in Delhi. This is quite a well-thought out move and must be commended. Going by the rightful criticism that has been hurled the way of Times Now and Navika Kumar and Rahul Shivshankar following their fawning interview of Modi, it was wisest to keep away from any news channel or journalist. This can’t have pleased Arnab Goswami, but his star seems to be waning right now. The interview with Kumar was broadcast as a Facebook Live interview, tapping into BJP’s favourite constituency – people who have internet access and have social media accounts.
Of course, calling it a “Live” broadcast was more than a little twisting of the truth, since it was recorded and edited earlier – but why split hairs over here.
But as a PR job, this was applause-worthy and credit must be given where due. For all Modi’s media-savviness, he really doesn’t seem to like the media or editors. There’s a certain tautness in his mannerisms and answers, like he’s perpetually on edge trying to deliver the right message and the right image – even while speaking to friends such as Rajat Sharma or fans such as Kumar and Shivshankar. That Modi – and many other Indian politicians, including the one he referred to multiple times in his interview – loves Bollywood and stars, is common knowledge. We’ve seen him surrounded by the Bollywood brigade, beaming into the camera, attending star weddings, granting audiences to various stars on multiple occasions. Which explains how relaxed and comfortable he seemed while speaking to Kumar. There were no exhortations, frowns or lectures, just normal conversation and a dialogue.
The interview which was supposed to lighten the current mood of the nation during elections – as stated by both Kumar and Modi – was not supposed to be about politics. We were to get an insight into the man who is King. So what did we learn?
First, that instead of asking Twinkle Khanna what she’d like to ask of Modi, Kumar’s driver’s daughter had told him to ask Modi whether he eats mangoes or not. He does, by the way. My key findings from the interview were that Modi is more of a sanyasi than a Pradhan Mantri. When Modi used to get angry earlier, he would deal with his anger by writing down the incident in full detail on a sheet of paper and then tearing up the paper to get rid of his anger. This, I’ll have you know, is one of the favoured methods propagated by many psychologists and therapists. So Modi’s on to something here.
Kumar did comment on Modi’s demeanour, saying that Modi looks like a strict administrator at most times. Modi laughed and said he has a great sense of humour – but people misinterpret him. Thankfully, he desisted from giving the example of his joke on dyslexia. According to him, his Cabinet meetings are an absolute hoot.
Kumar asked him whether he doesn’t want his family including his mother, to live with him in his big house? Which Modi actually had a sensible and believable response to. According to him, he’d lived away from his family from such a young age, he doesn’t really feel the need to live with them. And his mother prefers to live by herself, nearer her friends, since Modi is hardly able to spend any time with her when he’s working.
He told us that he’s a good boss, and he teaches by example by sitting for hours in office and building the right work culture. He was asked if he has friends in the opposition parties? And it seems, he does. Mamata Banerjee sends him one or two kurtas every year. Sheikh Hasina sends him Bengali sweets 3 to 4 times a year from Dhaka. Banerjee, hearing of this, also started sending him sweets once or twice a year. Which has elevated Didi in my eyes. You refuse to meet the PM while in Delhi, but send him sweets and kurtas when you’re in Calcutta! A true example of savoir faire.
Modi was also asked how much money he has in his bank account now. Which was an interesting, although sentimental, anecdote. After Modi became CM and an MLA, he started receiving a salary. He never saw the money or used it. When he became PM and wanted to donate the money, he was advised to keep the money as he had so many court cases against him, and his senior officers said that he might need the money later in life. He corrected Kumar and said that he hasn’t donated all his money, but he did donate Rs 21 lakh to his staff’s children for their education.
There were jokes about the Gujarati love for lucre. Praise for Pramod Mahajan. Modi told us that people criticise his love for clothes. But people don’t realise that he didn’t even have shoes to wear as a child and that he had to wash his own clothes, which is why he wears short sleeves because that would mean he had to wash less cloth and clothes with shorter sleeves take up less space. He did say that his poverty made him develop an inferiority complex.
When he was asked what he would wish for, if he was granted three wishes, he said that his wish would be that children should not be taught that you can have a magic lamp which can give you whatever you want. Which is actually quite a wise wish.
He did rightly say that unlike other PMs, he had an advantage. He was a Chief Minister for years, Gujarat’s longest serving CM, and his experience as CM has helped him govern the country. Deve Gowda was the only other former CM, but he was CM for a far shorter period than Modi.
Kumar told him that he should sleep more. And Modi informed us about his good friend, Obama, and how both he and Obama refer to each other as “tu”. Which didn’t make sense, because in English you would only say “you”. But then, what do I know. But even Obama has expressed concern over Modi’s sleep habits. Like all good friends should.
Just when I thought I wouldn’t see any tea on this interview, a tray of tea was laid out. Sugarfree was given free publicity by Kumar, who doesn’t eat sugar it seems. Modi once again poured some tea, told us how much he loves tea, Didi should really send him some Darjeeling tea along with the kurtas and Sandesh. We learnt Modi’s home remedy for the common cold – it’s hot mustard oil and hot water, in case you’re interested.
And just when I – and I’m assuming Kumar as well – thought that Modi would be the bigger person, Modi informed Kumar on being asked whether he reads tweets and social media posts, that he definitely reads Kumar’s wife, Twinkle Khanna’s tweets about Modi. And that Kumar must be having a happy married life, because all of Khanna’s angst and anger is taken out on Modi on Twitter! This is like Obama saying he always reads Kim Kardashian’s tweets, and doesn’t think much of them. He also gave an example of Khanna’s grandfather’s association with Modi, and how she should be told of that.
By the end of the 1 hour 9 minutes of the interview (has anyone else noticed that all Modi interviews are just over an hour long?), I have to give full points to Kumar. Modi is not the most interesting raconteur at the best of times. When he’s minding his Ps and Qs, he comes across as plain avuncular. But Kumar’s charm and easy conversation style didn’t flag for a minute. Did the interview humanise Modi? I have to say, it was the best interview of Modi I’ve ever seen. Other than the one where he walked out on Karan Thapar.
The choice of Kumar as interviewer was very clever – and whoever thought of it gets a big round of applause. You deserve a Mandir of your own for this genius move. Kumar is Hindu, known for making films on social issues which are connected to the BJP (such as Toilet – Ek Prem Katha) while not shunning commercial films – so you can’t really slot him. He doesn’t make political statements, never takes a political stance and is not known for any really cerebral public utterance. It is sad for Viveik Oberoi though, that after all his homework on Modi, he still wasn’t asked to interview Modi. Unlike the other Bollywood stars who are aligned to BJP, Kumar didn’t fawn over Modi, seemed polite and deferential – and had an ease to him. It’s obviously a far wiser decision to have a seemingly unstructured conversation with a superstar and list out your favourite anecdotes, than have a forgotten actor known to be a BJP sycophant act out your life in a clear hagiographic film. BJP and its supporters could have saved all their money on producing films and web series, by simply hitting on this idea in the first place.