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Under the covers

One of his books got the  He has done about 60 sting operations for various television channels, the most infamous of these was Operation West End. His latest book, The Emissary, will be out next weekend. Anirudhha Bahal tells Aditi Phadnis that he revels in bloodless cuts

For Aniruddha Bahal, writer, film-maker and investigative journalist, the moment of truth came in Lucknow when he was in his early 20s. He had just joined a financial newspaper and his proud parents had cut out all his reports and made a scrap book. Bahal used to anchor a page called ‘Corporate Royalty’ — a full-page 3,000-word weekly profile of one or other corporate baron. Over tea with a friend from Canada, his mother brought out the scrap-book and showed it to her friend. “My son has written this,” she said.

“Our Canadian guest read it right to the end but didn’t say a word about the writing, style… nothing. All she said was: ‘It’s good for the person in question.’ I was in the other room, in Lucknow on vacation and I heard her comment. At that time, I comprehended only dimly, what she’d meant. Later, I realised how full of s**t that kind of journalism is,” Bahal says.

Bahal turned tack with a veangence. All his work after this —whether as a journalist or film-maker — has been an attack on pretension, lies and hypocrisy. His enemies are the self-righteous and the corrupt. They are objects of savage satire and ridicule, mounted by Bahal with a straight face.

He’s done a series of interviews with icons of society in a 21-series show called the Tony B Show on Channel [V]. Among the victims of Tony B was Shahnaz Husain, she of the flowing, artfully touched up auburn tresses, the czarina of the beauty business which has benefited from her aggressive personality and connections; designers Manish Arora and Rohit Bal, hairdresser Javed Habib and musician Kailash Kher. “Many of the show’s funny situations grow out of the interviewees’ desperate urge to appear to be ‘in’. So, if I asked them what they thought of the Dalai Lama being detained in Singur (which, sigh, never happened), they’d react to it. It’s surreal. People find it difficult to admit they don’t know about something. They’d rather say: ‘Of course we know’, even if they are confronted with something that doesn’t exist,” he says. The Tony B persona, in his own words, is: “B is for the Bhasand. And Tony B the best interviewer of the India who use the word like the Napolean use the sword to bring the truths to the mans and the womans. When the truths jumping on the TV the skeletons falling to the ground from cupboards.””

But farce is not the only thing that fascinates Bahal. He’s done a set of about 60 sting operations for various television channels, the best known among them being Operation West End that shows politicians taking a bribe from undercover reporters for defence contracts. “A lot of colleagues are a little shocked by sting operations. They feel this somehow violates the tenets of journalism. But what we’re doing now, the Western media did 60 or more years ago. There is a wealth of case-law on this: that giving money is not entrapment if there is prior intimation that the person is ready to take money,” he says.

In the cash-for query scam, that was broken by him (where reporters did a sting operation by recording MPs who accepted money for asking questions in Parliament), he says he did not single out MPs from any pre-decided set of political groups. “We were asked to depose before the Rajya Sabha committee. (Former RBI Governor) Bimal Jalan asked us how we chose the MPs we recorded. I had to tell him: we didn’t choose them. They were suggested to us by middlemen (‘dalal’ is the word he used) who acted as the go-between. It was all very organised, and that suggests what a huge business it was. We didn’t go to them. They came to us”.

All of 43, Bahal has written several books. His first was a campus love story, The Cracked Mirror. Bunker 13 got the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, for which he was invited to London and given the award by musician Sting. The extract which won the award goes thus: “She is topping up your engine oil for the cross-country coming up. Your RPM is hitting a new high. To wait any longer would be to lose prime time…

“She picks up a Bugatti’s momentum. You want her more at a Volkswagen’s steady trot. Squeeze the maximum mileage out of your gallon of gas. But she’s eating up the road with all cylinders blazing.”

But it is his current book — to be released on September 22 —that has consumed him totally. He wrote this one after V S Naipaul asked him in the manner of posing a challenge, if he’d been reading history. Bahal hadn’t but resolved to do so and got so enthusiastic about it that he wrote a book about Alexander the Great. The Emissary, published by HarperCollins, is reminiscent of I Claudius written by Robert Graves in the1930s.

Bahal’s eyes light up when talking about the book but bad habits take time to die. “Have you read I Claudius?” he asks me. I say I haven’t. If I’d said I had, he would no doubt have asked me if I liked the scene when Cladius, the ‘hollywood tycoon’ has sex with his wife Messalina “in the stateroom of his yacht, anchored off the Aegean Sea” (or some such). “You’re a naughty boy,” I tell him. He hangs his head but grins. “Yes, that I am,” he says with considerable pride.



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