Out of the Box Part 6: In Journalism, the Devil is in the Details!
The author with her street theatre troupe in college.
The author with her street theatre troupe in college.(Photo Courtesy: Nutan Manmohan)

Out of the Box Part 6: In Journalism, the Devil is in the Details!

Preface: At a time when there was only one government broadcaster Doordarshan- in a quest to bring real pictures to people, the Living Media created Newstrack which eventually became Aaj Tak TV channel that we see today. Writer Nutan Manmohan was part of Newstrack’s first batch of tv journalists who experimented with ways to do independent television reporting at a time when no precedents existed. This series celebrates that journey.

Read the first five blogs in her series here:

Out of the Box Part 1: Of Reporting and Romance
Out of the Box Journalism Part 2: Be Alsatians, Not Pomeranians!
Out of the Box Part 3: Entering the ‘Neverland’ of Journalism!
Out of the Box 4: How Crime Coverage Becomes Lottery for the Press
Out of the Box Part 5: Looking for a ‘Barsati, Boyfriend & Beetle’

With tight deadlines, there was really no time now to loll about – the video magazine beast had to be fed fresh content. All reporters were told to move it, and everyone did it their own way.

The most common mistake most reporters made was over enthusiasm, leading to overshooting by a mile.

For instance, many reporters came back with mountains of tape for stories like Zandra Rhodes’ fashion show, a music concert by Sting and the royal wedding between the families of Madhavrao Scindia and Karan Singh. Soon, a pile up of un-edited stories clogged the supply chain. This is when the then production head Vinod Dua and our brilliant editor Himanshu Joshi rolled up their sleeves and decided to sit and slash the backlog.

In those days, when edit machines did not show tape counters, after one quick preview, Vinod Dua edited each story from the intuitive memory of which shot lay at what minute in which tape. It was sheer wizardry!

After the first story, I treated them both to a tiffin full of my mom’s awesome methi aloo parathas as a salute. Never the one to miss out on a chance to make a party out of any occasion, Vinod Dua treated us by singing amazing Sufi songs. Himanshu joined in as chorus and I provided percussion on the wooden surface of the edit table. We had spotted Himanshu’s singing talent long before he became a singer in the popular band Indian Ocean. It is my prediction that Vinod Dua will be on Coke Studio soon.

The term ‘start-up’ may not have existed then, but that is what Newstrack was. If you had a bright idea, you could ‘test drive’ it here.

Soon, we had Prabha Tonk and Jyoti Sabarwal doing stories on Bollywood, Tavleen Singh, Vineet Narain, Sanjay Pugalia and Aditi Phadnis doing amazing political vignettes, Vikram Dutt did sports stories, Ruchira Gupta and Venky filed human interest stories. Shantanu Seth covered health and spirituality – and also showed us some mean head stands on the bare office floor.

I still remember Shantanu Seth’s illuminating session on ‘laghu shank prakshchalan’, a series of yoga postures to speed up your ‘number two’ on a hurried journalistic morning. If launched today, it would surely be an award winning mobile app for red eye flight days!

High stress deadlines were being met, difficult shoots were being undertaken, reporters, camera persons and editors would squabble over tech troubles and whenever a script or an edit was trashed – there were tears and heart break. But like a good Indian adaptation of the village in Asterix, there would be a merry party of shared tiffins and rounds of coffee.

At Newstrack, anyone could be the bakra on any given day. Mohit Satyanand – the celebrity theatre talent from Tag group had auditioned, and cameraperson Ajmal Jami told me that Mohit was a bit stiff – perhaps because he was shy.

Next morning, as Mohit dropped in to record his bit, he asked us for directions to the washroom. We quickly showed him the way to the women’s loo. By the time he’d stepped out, there was a crowd to cheer him as he emerged, dazed. “Who would step into a pink tiled loo and presume that it was for men? What were you thinking?” we joked. Mohit laughed his guts out at our juvenile prank. He wasn’t working in a room full of strangers anymore. Before we knew it, he’d belted out a series of one take OKs!

The Death of Safdar Hashmi

The New Year of 1989 began with a brutal public lynching of celebrated writer and director Safdar Hashmi. Though I had never worked with Safdar, I had done a few street plays based on his screenplays. Safdar was a towering figure in the Delhi theatre circle due to his prolific talent and I was keen to figure out who would be perverse enough to brutally murder a fine artist like him.

The facts of the case were that, in the run up to the local councillor elections in the Ghaziabad City Board, Safdar and his troupe Jan Natya Manch were performing their rousing street play ‘Halla Bol’ before a huge crowd in the labour colony as a part of their efforts to drum up support for the local CPM candidate. Right in the middle of the street play performance, the opposing candidate Mukesh Sharma’s rally of about a hundred workers started asking for right of way.

A war of words between supporters of opposing parties soon became a fist fight. In a matter of minutes, an enraged Mukesh Sharma and his party members assaulted the street theatre troupe with hockey sticks and iron rods. A heavily bleeding Safdar Hashmi died the next morning.

Though Sohail Hashmi, Safdar’s brother, gave us a blow by blow account of the crime, we were not able to get any eyewitnesses at the site to tell us anything on record. Slowly, with our daily patrol to Ghaziabad, we managed to persuade people of both parties to tell us their side of the story.

Meanwhile, the incredibly courageous Maloyshree Hashmi, Safdar’s wife, held another performance of ‘Halla Bol’ at the exact spot where Safdar was assaulted. To see her waving the mammoth red flag during the closing scene of the play was a cinematic moment difficult to forget.

Midway through our coverage, we hit a windfall. We had befriended the local beat constables and requested them to give us a call in case there was any new development. Sure enough, ours was perhaps the only crew that got to meet the prime accused on the very day he was put in police custody. Sitting on a stool right next to the iron bars of his cell, I held out a cup of tea towards him and over a shared packet of Parle G glucose biscuits, we recorded his interview.

There were many small contradictions in his statements which were not apparent to me then, but looking through the interview later, it gave me a peep into the mind of the prime accused. It eventually helped in building a water tight case. I realised how helpful it is to be the early bird – you get unfiltered and unrehearsed soundbites.

Looking at Mukesh’s interview multiple times afterwards, it made me realise that the thrust of his argument was, that it was a scuffle that had gone out of hand. With small variations in his statement, he kept plugging that Safdar’s murder had happened in the heat of the moment – that he had had no intentions of inflicting bodily harm. But the victim’s family insisted it was a pre-planned assassination.

This soon became the crux of our story.

While growing up in Hauz Khas, I had a neighbour – a special friend – Dr Ayesha Duggal, wife of celebrated Punjabi author Kartar Singh Duggal. Though 25 years my senior, she would take me along to watch award-winning films at the American Centre and the Max Muellar Bhavan. I could remember a German film I had seen that had multiple witnesses who gave differing versions of the same crime – each from their own perspective. We decided to do just this.

We retraced the crime on the basis of two opposing versions to understand: was this an ‘accidental’ murder as per the accused Mukesh Sharma’s version or a ‘pre-determined’ murder as per victim Hashmi’s family?

We built up visuals to show that if Safdar had died on the spot where he was first assaulted, it could well have been defended as a case of accidental murder. But after the first assault , Safdar had been taken two kilometres away to the CPM office by his supporters. The assailants had searched for him and buttonholed him there. Singling Safdar out, they had pulled him out of the office compound on to the road. They had again assaulted him with iron rods and wooden lathis.

He had bled so profusely that he could not be revived in the hospital.

Although I wasn’t well-versed in legalese, this key difference between ‘Culpable Homicide’ and ‘Culpable Homicide Amounting to Murder’ was highlighted and underlined in our visual buildup. It seems, the devil is always in the details. Putting a spotlight on the devil was our key contribution to the investigation.

A ‘Hanikarak Bapu’

Back in the edit studio with my editor and trench mate Himanshu Joshi, I was working on the closing montage when I saw our boss Madhu Trehan enter the edit suite and softly close the door as if she had something confidential to discuss.

Nutan – there is a gentleman in my room who says he is your father. He is requesting that I fire you.

I froze in my chair. I had caused my worried father to climb to the second floor of an unknown building and seek redressal from a stranger. I had put my boss in an embarrassing spot too. These were two people I cared for. What was I doing to them!

From the corner of my eye, I could see Madhu’s slender frame leaning against the door. She stood with her arms crossed, as though wondering how to sort out this most unusual mess. She seemed to stand there for an eternity, after which she left.

Himanshu was equally ruffled by this awkward scene. For a perfectionist who would shoo anyone out of the edit room if tapes were not numbered or a detailed edit plan had not been put on paper, he patted me lightly on the head and offered to complete the edit on his own. I could feel my eyes stinging as I crawled into my sleeping bag behind the edit table and drifted off to sleep.

After an hour or so, I was jolted awake by the phone ringing on the edit table. Himanshu had finished the edit and politely left the room, keeping the lights and AC on. Sleep had cleared my head. I had made up my mind to quietly slip out of the office and quit without a formal goodbye to my teammates to avoid further drama.

I’d decided never to come back to this place I so loved.

I picked up the phone and heard my boss say – “Can you meet me tomorrow morning at 11 am?”

Post Script: After a14-year-long trial, on 3 November 2003, a Ghaziabad court found Mukesh Sharma and 12 others guilty of ‘culpable homicide amounting to murder’ of Safdar Hashmi. To young reporters, I would say, keep recording and amplifying the discordant notes. Rest will be done by posterity.

(Nutan Manmohan has held assignments as Vice President Star TV, India Bureau Chief Focus Asia, Honk Kong & Contributing Producer National Geographic Channel, USA. Her film ‘The Last Flightgot the ‘Wild Wing OBEaward in UK. Her film ‘A Second Hand Lifegot special mention at ‘Green Wave’ Bulgaria. She is now a freelance film maker. Her 26part Children’s Jasoosi series V3 will release on Facebook this year.)

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