While shooting the first season of MissMalini’s World on TLC, I had the opportunity to interview Karan Johar for the very first time. It was awesome and since he is the best at goading out celebrity secrets, I thought I’d ask him for a tip. He said the key is to have a conversation with your interviewee. You may go prepared with twenty questions, but it’s quite alright if you don’t ask even one of them. Unless you have a real conversation with someone, the interview will always feel forced. You should listen and then ask the next question, so it makes sense in the flow of things. You must make a genuine connection while speaking to people. I thought this was brilliant – and yes, quite simple now that you think about it – and since then, I have always tried to apply that to all my celebrity interactions.
I was petrified to interview Amitabh Bachchan, for the movie Pink in a Facebook Live. I started off with a nervous, ‘Alright guys, I have the one and only Mr Bachchan live with us...’ He interrupted, ‘Why did you say guys? You should say girls.’ And there ensued one of my most awkward interviews ever. Until I pulled out my ace in the hole. See, as it turns our Mr Bachchan’s father, Shri Harivansh Rai Bachchan, had been a professor at Allahabad University while my father was a student there (I’m talking 1960s). In fact, my father was his best student and thus had earned a hand-written letter of commendation from Senior Senior Bachchan, of which I had a copy. When I told him this story, he warmed considerably and asked if he could keep the print out (which I had initially hoped he would sign as a memento, but hey, if Big B wants a copy, you give the man the copy!) He then said, ‘Thank you for this. I think I will ask everyone who has letters from my father to send me copies and maybe I’ll compile them into a book.’ Bam. Go Allahabad! you came to my rescue when I needed it most.
But that aside I’m going to go ahead and add an addendum to Karan Johar’s advice; something I think should probably be solved by having a conversation instead of an interrogation. Always ask yourself the questions you plan to ask during the actual interview before you go rogue in excitement. Very often you might think you’ve come up with this clever Q&A and can’t wait to blurt it out like, ‘Hi Mr Khan! If I gave you a penguin and a typewriter, what would you do with them?!’ (Chetan Kapoor and I know that the only answer to this question is ‘pass the soap’, but that’s a whole other story.) You need to think about the fact that if you were asked this very same question, what would you say? Especially in the 5 minutes you have to finish fifteen media interviews and take 189 fan selfies. It’s annoying. I’m not saying don’t think outside the box, but try to stay on the planet.
Also, try not to be a d*ck about it. I’d almost allow the penguin-typewriter question if it meant that you solemnly swear to steer clear of the wildly personal and utterly inappropriate questions, just to get a 3-second reaction for your viewing pleasure. I’ve seen this happen so many times that sometimes I feel embarrassed to be called a ‘Bollywood journalist’. Here are four actual incidents I witnessed first-hand (well one second hand) and I would love to know if you would ever answer such a question yourself.
1. CAN YOU PLEASE RE(TWEET)PEAT THE QUESTION?
During the interviews for Happy New Year, Shah Rukh Khan and the rest of the cast were doing a mammoth day of interviews at the Red Chilies office before they took off on a world tour (of sorts). So obviously – as with all things – everything was running a little behind. Okay, a LOT behind. Ironically it was Independence Day and we sat in anticipation for our 7:30 p.m. slot to come in Waiting for Godot style. Hours passed. But I knew, that no matter what, I would not and could not leave, even if my entire crew upped and left. I would hold fort and do my interview!
Anyway, by 2 a.m. I was in too deep, I wasn’t going anywhere. I was prepared to wait till dawn and just shy of 4 a.m. it was almost our turn. There was however another Bollywood gossip website scheduled to go right before us and this lanky boy, who had been waiting a good 9 hours now went up to SRK tentatively, stuck a small recording device in his face and said, ‘Shah Rukh apke baare main jo Salman ne tweeter [yes, tweeter] pe bole uske bare mein apko kya kehna hai?’ Translation: Shah Rukh how do you feel about the comment Salman Khan made about you on Twitter? To which Shah Rukh put a hand on this poor boy’s chest and said something to the effect of, bro don’t meddle in things you know nothing about. Interview over.
Luckily for us we had come armed with cupcakes and a bowl of chits for them to play charades and while Shah Rukh Khan acted out Bluffmaster for Abhishek Bachchan – visibly lightening the mood – I thought to myself, you waited 9 hours to piss off Shah Rukh Khan?
PS. This was also the interview where Shah Rukh taught my husband the famous Raj ‘air hug’. #livingthedream
2. THE MODEL JOURNALIST
During one fashion week, there was a young newly-wed actress who had just walked the ramp for the first time. And in the press conference a journo chimed in, ‘Madame, when you walk the ramp, do you miss your husband?’ Um, what? For all 7 minutes, you mean? Now the thing is, if she were to say ‘yes’, he’d say she isn’t serious about her career and if she were to say ‘no... well, then she’s probably a slu*, never mind.
3. EXCUSE ME, WHAT?
During interviews in Delhi, the Bollywood brand ambassador for a fashion tour was doing back-to-back video bytes. Suddenly one interviewer asked her in Hindi how she had felt knowing that her alleged boyfriend’s wife had wanted her thrown out of a house party. The actress looked stunned and walked over to her team and said, ‘What is this nonsense? What have I hired you for? If this continues, I’m walking out of here right now.’ As she should! What a terribly inappropriate thing to ask someone on or off camera. Again, I was next and I meekly said, ‘Hi, I’m MissMalini I’m so excited to interview you,’ to which she responded, ‘Oh! Hi MissMalini, I’ve been looking forward to our chat!’ After that we had a nice chat about movies, fashion and girl power and I kept thinking what a d*ck move to make someone feel so humiliated in front of a roomful of people. #megafail
4. AT GUNPOINT
I got this story second hand, but my source is 100 per cent legit. Also, this happened at a press conference, so I’m sure there’s footage somewhere to corroborate. After an actress, known for doing theatre, had just finished a wonderful monologue she had written herself, the press conference started. First off a journalist began by asking her super inane questions like, ‘Madame, what is your favourite colour?’ And she answered, as you must. Then he proceeded to ask this question, ‘If you had once magic bullet and you could use it to shoot and kill anyone without any repercussions, would you shoot your ex-husband [who is a well-known director]?’ I can only just image her shock at this ridiculous question. I just wish she had said, ‘No, I would have used it to shoot you.’ Bam.
I’m sad to say we’re probably only scratching the surface here. I blame much of this press ridiculousness for fuelling, and often. starting fires where there need have been none. Case in point the Hrithik–Kangana saga. But I’m not going to go there, I think.
OH, MAKE THAT 5
You know, I have always maintained that I’ve been lucky in my entrepreneurial journey. I never faced any blatant sexism that I can recall; in fact, being a woman often played to my advantage when I nudged my way to the front of the line with my little flip camera in hand. And I’ve told this story loud and proud, many times. Hoping that there was a version of life here in India that was free of the pitfalls for women in a ‘male-dominated’ society. Alas though, that wasn’t meant to be. During a conference, where I was invited to speak about brand-building and story- telling (having just won IMPACT’s #1 Most Influential Woman in Media, Marketing and Advertising 2017), the Q&A was to be conducted by a very senior member of the media fraternity. He was meant to ask me just two of his own questions and then throw it open for people to tweet in theirs. He started off by saying, ‘So MissMalini, I’ve heard you’re very expensive,’ to which I amusedly replied, ‘Am I?’ Assuming that he didn’t mean the double entendre his sentence had uncomfortably just implied. And then, I’m so sorry to report, that of ALL the things he could have asked a successful, young woman entrepreneur, he chose to ask me this: ‘Malini, I’ve always wanted to ask you this question, how have you resisted the urge to have an extra- marital affair with a Bollywood star?’
Now the sucky thing is, you never think of the brilliant comeback at a time when you need it most. They all come tumbling into your brain hours later. I wish I’d said, ‘Have you seen how handsome my husband is?’ or ‘How have YOU? Oh, wait, never mind, you’re a walking chick repellent.’ or ‘Well, Mr if-you-can’t-be-sexy-be-sexist, if I was a man would you have asked me the same question? I think not.’ Bam. Lawsuit!
Unfortunately, I mumbled something about how that’s not how I see the stars, or how they see me and laughed it off. Uncomfortable. As I walked to my room fuming with the realization that I had just had my first truly sexist experience – with an educated member of the fraternity no less – I was most angry with myself for not having said something immediately. What mental conditioning had led me to let him get away with that in a roomful of people and allowed them to laugh at what they genuinely believed to be an acceptable joke.
Of course, the machinery went into motion immediately and many apologies were profusely made by the organizers (not by him though, I refused to give him that closure). But my faith in men was somewhat restored by my CRO Mike Melli, who immediately went up to him, in front of the heads of the event, and said with a smile on his face, ‘Congratulations on being a d*ick! You know, you’re what’s wrong with this country, and your hair is ridiculous.’ #afewgoodmen
Malini Agarwal's To the Moon: How I Blogged My Way to Bollywood is available on Amazon.