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  • Sharmila Tagore for Christmas and Sanjay Dutt for New Year’s eve

    Posted On December 18, 2000

    By Karan Thapar

    It’s strange how your memory can play tricks on you. For instance, I always associate Sanjay Dutt and Sharmila Tagore with each other. There is no logical reason for this but events have perpetuated the arbitrary connection. It first happened nine years ago. It happened again last week.

    In 1991 Sharmila and I used to together present Eyewitness. We’d set up studio at Kamani – oh yes on stage but there was no audience – and our guests would filter in, one by one, as the day went on. In those days television as we now know it did not exist. Videomagazines were the popular substitute. Ours was, initially, the lesser known but it was always the better one.

    “Who do you think we should try for next month?” I asked Sharmila. She has a keen sense of popular taste and in those days I would defer to her judgement.

    Her answer was Sanjay. Saajan and Sadak had been recently released and Sanjay was a much sought after Bollywood star. I knew little of this which is why I suppose I was sceptical. But rather than express my reservations I decided to telephone Sanjay and discover him for myself. If he could stand up to a telephone conversation he was on.

    After several phone calls I tracked him down to Calcutta. He was at the Grand. I got through around 1.00 at night. The hotel operator was reluctant to connect me but my insistence wore down his hesitation.

    “Hi” I said trying to sound friendly when Sanjay picked up the phone. By his voice I could tell he was not asleep.

    “Hi” Sanjay replied.

    A long silence followed. Sanjay, I suppose, was waiting for me to speak. After all I was the one who had rung up. But I was struggling for something to say. I could hardly announce that I had rung to check on him. Yet that was the truth. As a result I wasn’t sure how to begin.

    “Well” said Sanjay still sounding friendly. As I’ve since discovered Sanjay is very tolerant. He also takes everything in his stride. I continued to keep silent and he said nothing more.

    My mind raced over the various possibilities that I could open with. ‘Sharmila has asked me to phone you’ but that would sound like someone’s secretary. ‘I’m sorry to disturb you so late at night’ but that was so clearly the case he might have agreed and put the phone down. And finally ‘you don’t know me but I’m Karan Thapar’. That was the truth but why would it help engage him in conversation?

    Then it hit me. The morning’s papers had been full of a talk Sanjay had given on drugs. He had spoken to Calcutta University students on the perils of addiction. This would clearly have to be my opening gambit.

    “I’ve rung about drugs” I spluttered a bit too abruptly to be inviting. Fortunately Sanjay ignored my indiscretion. He listened attentively as I scrambled to correct the bad first impression I had made. I explained that I wanted to invite him to talk about his experiences so that others – younger people with less strength than him – could learn.

    “Will you do the interview?” he asked and then added sotto voce “or will it be Sharmilaji?”

    “Sharmila” I replied sensing that was the correct answer. He accepted at once.

    Ten days later the interview happened. Sanjay flew to Delhi, drove down to Kamani and opened his heart to Sharmila. It was one of the best interviews Eyewitness ever did and it got us nation-wide front page headlines.

    I suppose it was in the aftermath of this that the Sharmila-Sanjay association was born. Thereafter whenever I’ve thought of one memories of the other always follow. This is how last week’s events took place. They started when the phone rang.

    “We’d like a couple of big stars to end the year with” the lady from the BBC instructed me. In case you haven’t noticed I do a programme on their channel called Face to Face. Even if others don't, I enjoy it.

    “And who do you have in mind?”

    I wasn’t just being polite. The BBC pays the money which gives them every right to call the tune. More often than not they are also right.

    “Well I don’t know if you can get them but at least you could try” and then she paused. It seemed like a challenge. Ask a man a favour, then question his ability to do it and before you’ve finished you’ve aroused his pride. Mine was bristling to prove itself.

    “What about Sharmila Tagore for Christmas and Sanjay Dutt for New Year’s eve?”

    I suppose I should have gasped with horror. After all they are big names. Getting hold of one is tough enough. Both would ordinarily be impossible. Instead I smiled, no may be I laughed. This would be a cinch. It’s always a heady feeling when someone throws a challenge and it turns out to be the very question you crammed last night.

    “Done” I said with an aplomb bordering arrogance.

    I set about inviting them with diligence. At the time Sharmila was in London. Even though she would have been jetlagged she accepted within a few days of her return. Sanjay was in Bombay and needs permission to leave the city. Would he want to? For a mere television interview? Not sure of his answer I rang his father. Dutt Sahib has helped me in the past and I hoped he would again. He did.

    “I’ve got Sanjay coming tomorrow” I said to Sharmila after she had finished her interview and was preparing to leave.

    “Oh do say hello” she answered.

    At the time we were walking towards the front patio at Jamia Millia Islamia where our studio happens to be. I couldn’t help notice the number of heads that turned in her direction – and stayed turned – as she walked past. The Begum of Pataudi – which is the other name she likes to be known by – could make a dead man’s head turn. At Jamia everyone is under 30.

    “Guess who was here yesterday?” I said to Sanjay the next day. Because of the number of his fans his journey down the same passage was a bit more traumatic.

    “Who?”

    “Sharmila. She’s our Christmas special”

    “And I’m the New Year Turkey” Sanjay spontaneously quipped. “What a wonderfully gracious lady and, Christ, what a tough act to follow!”

    Now it’s up to you to judge whether the connection I make between the two of them is justified. It’s not just events and coincidences that draw them together. To my mind they seem equally frank, forthright and touchingly vulnerable. I like such people. I’m sure you will too. Sharmila’s interview is repeated today at 1.00 and on monday at 6.00 p.m. Sanjay’s starts on wednesday at 10.00 p.m.

    Papu, the marker at the squash court, has had a baby girl. He’s so happy he forgot to let me win. I went down in three straight games with barely a handful of points to save face. I wonder what will happen when he has a boy?


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