As Guftagoo goes off air on Rajya Sabha TV, host Irfan weighs in on its historic run and state of film journalism today
Host Irfan looks back at his nine-year-long journey on the show, the celebrities who continue to evade him, and why a Hindi show on a public broadcast channel did not become a celebrity destination in the era of public relations and corporatisation
This interview was first published days after it was announced that Gufatgoo will go off air on Rajya Sabha TV, on 11 October. It is being republished in view of Rekhta Foundation acquiring the show.
Right when I graduated from school, a film celebrity chat show began airing on Rajya Sabha TV. Guftagoo with Irfan steered clear of any film promotion, PR plugs, and gossip at a time when entertainment journalism was charging in the opposite direction. The show became a film archive unto itself so much so that a filmmaker-friend, an engineering dropout, considers Guftagoo his 'film school.'
Earlier this week, Irfan put all speculation to rest when he confirmed that RSTV has decided to discontinue the show. While he claimed no reason was pulling the plug has been provided, he does not intend to pursue the revival the show on YouTube, as much as he is keen on keeping Guftagoo rolling.
1. जी, यह ख़बर आपने ठीक सुनी है कि RSTV को @rajyasabhatv मेरी सेवाओं की (इन पंक्तियों के लिखे जानेतक) आवश्यकता नहीं है। कारण नहीं बताये गए हैं।
2. 'गुफ़्तगू' को जारी रखकर मुझे हार्दिक सुख मिलेगा।
3. यूट्यूब पर शुरू करने का ऐलान तो क्या, इरादा भी मैंने नहीं किया है। बहुत आभार। https://t.co/VoDqzHQeb6
— Irfan (@irfaniyat) October 5, 2020
In an exclusive interview or guftagoo, Irfan looks back at his nine-year-long journey as the show host, the celebrities who continue to evade him, and why a Hindi show on a public broadcast channel did not become a celebrity destination in the era of public relations and corporatisation.
Edited excerpts below
Guftagoo has enjoyed an uninterrupted run for nine years, probably the longest for an Indian film celebrity chat show. If you look back, what kept you going?
Firstly, there was never a restriction from the organisation. I got the autonomy to bring guests of my choosing and question them unfettered. I was acutely aware that since the channel is operated by the Upper House of Parliament, I had to keep the questions within the framework of its mandate. I never abused the freedom to make the content of the show violate the ethics of journalism, and humanity in general.
In a personal capacity, how did you find the motivation to sustain the frequency and integrity of the show?
Mujhe ismei sukh milta hai, anand milta hai. Conversation, baatein, guftagoo, is an integral part of my journey. When you engage in a conversation, you build a deeper connect with time, emotions and the relations around you. Now, whether that conversation is on TV, radio or at a chai ki dukan, it bears its own relevance. The millennial generation isn't as aware of this not because they've deliberately overlooked it, but because there's no one to inform them of the core strength conversation can lend to a person.
There's increasing intolerance in society because there's dearth of conversation. There has to be a will to acknowledge that my views are different from yours, and we are allowed to disagree with each other. Matbhed hona chahiye, manbhed nahi (counter, not conflict). Otherwise, there is no need for a democracy. You may give it another word since tolerance is a tainted and loaded term today. But it has become rampant after Liberalisation, and more recently, after the emergence of fascism.
If one keeps the sukh and anand aside, what have you learnt or acquired over the course of Guftagoo?
There's always a grain of new learning in every conversation. Every success story has a guiding philosophical principle. The person may not be even aware of that strength but it serves as the lighthouse that guides them. It's fitting that Guftagoo had a home on Rajya Sabha TV because the foundation of a democracy is that every life is important. Whether you're from an affluent background or a socially and economically deprived class, there always comes a point in every person's life where they've to choose between self-destruction and persistence. And it is their choice that makes them successful. It doesn't matter then whether you were born with a silver spoon or not.
In the past few years, has it been increasingly challenging to bring guests to the show, given the presence of multiple middlemen in the industry today, like the celebrity managers and PRs?
That's an important question. You will agree that once the guest is in front of you, it's rather easy to engage in a good conversation. But to bring them to the show is the toughest task. If you can do that, you can overcome any other obstacle in the world. You must've noticed that in the playlist of over 400 episodes that we have, there is a certain homogeneity to it. If given a choice, I'd have decided to talk to say, only music composers in the next three months. Similarly, another three months for singers, and then for A-list stars. Then I wouldn't want to entertain excuses like they don't have dates. But I haven't been able to do that for many reasons.
You also have to understand that a PR professional often also has their hands tied behind the back. They say they've to operate under the prescribed guidelines that the celebrity has to travel in business class and stay in a seven-star hotel. Another issue is that the celebrity is neither allowed to promote their film on the show nor paid heftily. They're only given an honourary amount, which was Rs 2,500 and then Rs 4,000 in the last year. The PR agencies and managers used to laugh at the amount, and say, "Itna toh humara driver shaam ko chala ke le jata hai."
I'm not a marketing professional. I don't know how to 'pitch' my show.
If Spice or Red Chillies asks me what the TRPs of my show are, I don't have any method to find that out. I slogged a lot to get celebs like Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan on the show but the gherebandi (escorts) around them is difficult to penetrate, as many of them are ill-informed. A lot of people think this is a channel "as stale as Doordarshan."
I was chasing Naseeruddin Shah for seven years through his secretary Jayaraj. But his secretary kept telling me that he's either sick, travelling, resting or doesn't want to meet. When I contacted him directly after all those years, the interview happened finally. There are so many celebrities like these who don't have any work today but still are 'busy' all the time. Pyarelal is another such example. There are also the likes of Nana Patekar, who are genuinely interested in coming on the show, but we haven't been able to do it yet. I would've loved to have Ashutosh Rana and Asish Vidyarthi on the show but I wasn't able to.
I haven't been able to navigate this celebrity jungle and the power game it entails. I don't subscribe to the practice of networking, to attend parties in Mumbai evenings. I don't even stay in Mumbai, I stay in Delhi.
You mentioned some names you would have wanted on the show. Was there a wish list?
Of course. There were some A-listers I'd have loved to host on the show. Even if their work is shallow and utterly commercial, it doesn't matter. Every person has a story. Even those who aren't very articulate, like Katrina Kaif, I'd have loved to have them on the show too. When it comes to niche or off-the-road cinema, I really wanted to have Vishal Bhardwaj on the show. Whenever I met him, he kept procrastinating it. Some people are shy and don't want to disclose too much about themselves, so I respect their choice.
There are some on the verge of retirement who I wanted to have on the show, like Saroj Khan and Kadar Khan, but they passed away before it could materialise. I'm still chasing Asha Parekh, Mala Sinha, and Shakeela, but they keep procrastinating. I'd have also loved to explore regional cinema but the language was a major constraint there. If I had a point of contact in Tamil Nadu who'd have lined up guests for me, I'd have taken the show there as well, even if it was with the help of a translator, like I've done with multiple international celebrities.
Entertainment journalism on TV is responsible to a wide extent in making many of them steer clear of appearing on any show.
But not every show is interested in gossip and superficiality. Some shows want to go deeper, and talk about substance. I'm as interested in inviting film technicians. Now, there's a diction coach in so many films. It'd have been very interesting to talk about their journey and process.
I am sure there would have been many success stories too? The ones you tried relentlessly to get onboard, and they eventually gave in.
The name that comes to my mind first is that of Gulzar sahab. Jo phone naam ki cheez hai, he doesn't engage with that frequently. So you keep guessing whether your message has reached him or not. And Gufatgoo wasn't a popular show then that he'd have agreed readily. After almost a year, he invited me. As we reached there, he asked me, "Aap poochhenge kya?" So I responded, "Main aapse bade atpate sawaal poochhunga." And that broke the ice.
But I have had to pursue so many celebrities persistently. In the case of Manoj Kumar, when he finally came for the recording, he said, "Bahut der kar di meherban aate aate." Ranjeet had asked me, "Paisa kitna milega?" When I said, "Rs 2,500," he abused me, like he characteristically does. But he had great stories to share once we chatted.
I'd like to mention Boman Irani, who agreed promptly when I called him. He even made arrangements for us to stay in his restaurant-bar in Mumbai. That was very encouraging for me. It touched me a lot, like it did when so many literally cried when they learnt this week on social media that Gufatgoo is going off air. Achha laga jaan ke ki logo ko sukh milta hai. Khair mujhe toh milta hi hai.
There is so much to touch upon in a person's life story. So how did you filter the topics you would throw light on in the show? And how what is your approach to research?
Firstly, you need to convince yourself that you can't possibly talk about everything under the sun. In the case of Dr Mohan Agashe, he's a very senior practicing psychiatrist, a theatre doyenne, and a film actor. It's evident that I was conflicted of what all to talk about such a multi-faceted man. And even if I choose a focus, then will it fit into the flow of the language? How can you fit 40 years of his working life into two hours of airtime?
Secondly, as far as research is concerned, there is some amount of it that I've already done through my experience. For example, if I have to interview Anupam Kher, I don't start with a blank slate. Because as a working professional, I come with a bank of my own. A corner of your eye keeps noticing how the social and work life of Anupam Kher is shaping up.
Since there is so much you said you wish to venture into in the future, what is your plan of action now? And why is YouTube not a prospect for you?
One cannot have a profitable venture from YouTube immediately. At this age and stage of my life, I'm not inclined towards experimenting with myself. Content there has its own set of pressures.
I'm not invested in number of views or marketing right now. That's not me. It'd just mean ki apne aap ko peechhe chhod dia aapne.
I'm open to other channels. There's a brand I'm negotiating with. But the infrastructure and logistics involved with the show bring its own limitations. Like in the case of Anupam Kher's Kucch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai, there's a live studio audience involved. But then I'd lose the freedom that came with Guftagoo, and the simplicity involved in its format. There's a different appeal to two people sitting in front of each other and chatting, with no third person prying on their conversation, at least in real time.
What is your lens on film journalism, and the film industry in general, as it exists today?
Some independent bloggers and websites are doing very well. But whenever they become mainstream, they get reduced to a promotional activity. The viewer becomes the consumer. Their intellect gets underestimated.
As is the norm at the end of several episodes of Guftagoo, I would also like to invite you to dwell on something I may have missed touching upon, if you wish to...
Haha! The only thing I'd like to say is that TV has turned entertainment into a halka, sasta, pakau saaman. If a viewer subscribes to say Tata Sky, they should get a good return for the hard-earned money they spend on the same. If an Amazon Prime Video feels after Mirzapur that 'behench*d' and 'madarch*d' can make them successful, I don't mind it. But then there are so many stories in a vast democracy like India, which will exhaust with time. There are so many celebs who I'm chasing, who may soon not be there to share their story. I'd have loved to know more on celebs like Raaj Kumar, Jeevan, Ajit, Iftekhar and Om Prakash. But we know so much little about them as there's little documentation of their lives. So many new actors can get inspired from their stories. I'd be happy to be a harbinger of these stories. Agar inn kahaniyon ko aage badha paayein toh mujhe mazza aayega.