Thursday, December 12, 2019
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Aatish Taseer’s metamorphosis

The modern man finally has something to really look forward to on Indian television. The issues concerning men, which hitherto were not been given much prominence, have found a way through entertainment channel Star World’s “Gentleman’s Code”. A six-episode series, being hosted by author-journalist Aatish Taseer every Sunday at 8pm, is an attempt to underline what it takes to be a modern Indian man of the 21st century and the target viewers of the show are the English speakers.

The 33-year-old quintessential gentleman Taseer acknowledged that it was not easy after years of concentrating on his interior life, to suddenly be forced to project his own personality, to find some kind of balance between how one is and how one comes across.

The New Delhi-based British-born writer has authored the highly acclaimed translation Manto: Selected Stories (2008), the memoir-travelogue “Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands” (2009), “The Temple Goers” (2010), which was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, and Noon (2011).

Why is the show called “Gentleman’s Code”?

I’m not entirely sure why we settled on “Gentleman’s Code” — these things are not always in one’s hands! But the concept was very appealing when I first heard it. The idea was to do a show on Indian masculinity in the urban context, set against what seemed to us like a time of crisis. But also, notable, one of opportunity and flux, of reinvention. The modern Indian male, as never before, is under a kind of scrutiny and we felt it would be interesting to do a show on his anxieties, his fears and ambitions and his restlessness.

Though it is not the first time that you are facing the camera, how different is the feeling of becoming an interviewer from being an interviewee?

I like the interviewing. Once I eased into it and began to think of it as a conversation — akin to so many I’ve had as a writer and journalist — my nerves fell away. I began to enjoy myself. I was, of course, learning on the job and the first two interviews, I fear, were a little stilted. But I’m very proud of my interview with Anoushka Shankar. She’s an old pal from school, but still there’s something quite special about that conversation. I should say, though, that the bits I still find hard are the anchor links. It’s very difficult for me to be completely myself before the camera, to really make my words my own. What is that Proust says about words that are chosen by the lips instead of the mind? Well, something like that seems to happen to me …

Having been an author, were you consciously looking to a TV debut or did the opportunity strike suddenly?

No, it landed in my lap. I’d just finished a big novel, the biggest of my career. In fact, I was recovering from the labour and strain of almost three years of total seclusion, when my producer — a lady who had once interviewed me — got in touch. She said she had this idea for a show on Indian men and wanted to know if I would host it. And I can’t tell you: there just seemed to be something so relaxing about being in the world again. About feeling a little crowded and uncomfortable, intruded upon, you know … I almost wanted to put myself in harm’s way, to do something which I knew would grate on my nerves. And boy, did I get more than I bargained for! So, yes: I went in blind.

Will the episodes be all about “being the perfect gentleman” with prim and propah etiquettes or will there be some element to it that can be considered “very normal”?

No, not at all prim. The word gentleman is confined to the title alone. The show is sexy and bold and full of provocations. The aim is to upset certain settled notions about the modern Indian man. And we’re certainly not interested in anything prescriptive. If at the end of the show, we’ve drawn a convincing portrait of the modern Indian man, something multi-faced, and sufficiently complex, I would consider our work complete.

Will the studio guests’ list be restricted only to high-profile men and women? Could you provide the names of some?

Yes, there’s no getting away from the tyranny of having famous and beautiful people on the show. The list includes a range of people — Priyanka Chopra, John Abraham, Karan Johar, Leander Paes and Chetan Bhagat. I’m particularly pleased with our three iconic women: Priyanka Chopra, Barkha Dutt and Anoushka Shankar.

Has it been easy to strike a balance between the demands of the channel/show and your own ideas? Could you cite a particular example when things went out of control?

It’s never easy. No one is going to like everything. And there are the demands of the sponsor, the channel, the producer, my own sense of what the show is meant to be … so yes, it’s an experience of learning to live in an area of compromise. I don’t, for diplomatic reasons, want to dredge up particular examples, but it hasn’t been too unpleasant an experience at all. I truly believe the show has retained its character. And many times I’m grateful for the interventions from the channel. They have a tremendous amount of experience with what their viewers like and don’t like, and I think it’s nice to be cognizant of that. The exciting thing about television is its reach and one needs to find a way to be bold and provocative without alienating the viewership.

What kind of programmes do you watch on TV?

Almost nothing save the news. But I’ve been distantly interested in this incredible moment that television seems to be going through. A golden age of sorts, with shows like “Breaking Bad”, “The Wire”, “The Killing”, “Downton Abbey”, Mad Men … it seems as if some incredible energy, which once resided in the novel and later in the feature film, has shifted to television. And though I don’t see nearly as much as I want to, I’m pretty fascinated by what’s going on.

You mentioned in an interview, ‘Give time to reading if you wish to take up writing.’ So, how much TV do you watch now and has your own programme changed your TV-viewing preferences?

Ha, no! Not at all. I still spend — especially as I’m not writing at the moment — most of my day reading. It’s a wonderful period of reading for me. It’s cold in Delhi; I have no book going on; I feel pretty relaxed and receptive. So I’ve been reading all kinds of things — Thomas Mann, Rabindranath Tagore, Franz Kafka; an amazing two-volume biography on Kafka by Reiner Stach.

When is your “just finished” novel ‘The Way Things Were’, which you refer to as the biggest you have written so far, being published?

It feels a little early to talk about it. It’s not out until the end of the year and sometimes one needs a little time before one can learn to talk about one’s book. What I can say is that it has a great deal to do with classical India, with my ever deeper passion for Sanskrit … there’s strong political element too, especially related to a time in Delhi between 1975 and the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It’s both in scale and form, the most ambitious thing I’ve ever written and I’m pretty pleased with it. It’s one of those books that came to me as a gift. I felt completely possessed during the writing of it. And I realise, now that normal life has returned in full force, how happy I was during that time.

Nilima Pathak is a journalist based in New Delhi.

Fact Box

• Aatish Taseer was born on November 27, 1980, in London to mother Tavleen Singh, an Indian journalist and writer, and father Salman Taseer, the assassinated former governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province.

• Early education at The British School, New Delhi, until 1994 and later at Kodaikanal International School, Tamil Nadu, until 1999.

• Graduated in French and Political Science from Amherst College, Massachusetts, in 2003.

• Worked for Time magazine as a reporter in New York and London, 2003-2005.