Thursday, December 16, 2010

Travails & Tribulations of a Television Newscaster (1989 - 2001)

I was thrown in at the deep-end when I was requested by the management of Rupavahini to read the English news bulletin on the 12th of August 1989, because the ‘others’ had vanished into thin air because of the death threats by the ‘red fellows’. I didn’t have any apprehensions about taking this challenge on because I had already undergone a thorough training in news reading in 1988, at SLBC, under veteran broadcasters such as Merle Williams, the late Livy Wijemanne and the late Jimmy Bharucha- regarded as a ‘colossus in Sri Lanka's broadcasting world’. Mr. Bharucha took me entirely under his wing thereafter and he became my Guru. This was the beginning of my twelve-year career as an English newsreader!

Being a newsreader is not as easy as it appears to be. Just like any other task commitment, dedication and determination to do better are vital components.

I don’t intend delivering a lecture here on how to be a professional newsreader, but I would like to share some experiences with you during my tenure of twelve years as an English newsreader at Rupavahini.

As far as my Guru was concerned, there was only kind of English- ‘British English’ (Public School Pronunciation or PSP) as is spoken by the bourgeoisie of the United Kingdom. He insisted that I listen only to the BBC news bulletins. After this thorough grounding in ‘correct pronunciation of the English language’ I realised how many common words we Sri Lankans were and still are mispronouncing.


I still recall my Guru’s words, “you think in British English, you read British English, and you speak British English”. No American English for my dear Guru. I was introduced to the ‘Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary by Daniel Jones’, by Mr. Bharucha, and the good student that I was I had a copy of it, at home, in my car and in my cupboard at Rupavahini.


He also insisted that I listen to the BBC World Service everyday and if possible on TV as well. Being one of his pet students, he used to plead with me, not to emulate “those news anchors on CNN,” because according to him, “they did not speak English”.


I must have inherited Mr. Bharucha’s aversion to American English, because to date, when I hear schedule pronounced as ‘skedule’, Lieutenant pronounced as ‘lootenant’, and ‘missile’ pronounced as ‘missl’, I break out in goose bumps.


In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, CNN became a hit, but dear Mr. Bharucha insisted that I should watch the latest ‘Breaking News’ on the Gulf war on BBC and not CNN. My curiosity got the better of me and I started switching channels between BBC and CNN to see the difference, and then I realized what Mr. Bharucha had been talking about. Since then, I have been a little weary of this ‘American English’ even though the latest edition of the Cambridge English Pronouncing dictionary by Daniel Jones has also incorporated ‘American English’.


English is a strange language! During my twelve-year tenure as an English newsreader, I discovered that what was regarded as the ‘current pronunciation’ of certain words a few years back, was not so in the current context. For example the pronunciation of the noun ‘controversy’, keeps changing from period to period. And we as newsreaders had to be au fait with the current pronunciation of ‘BBC English’. I hope I haven’t confused you, with all this ‘pronunciation’ jargon.


I also have a problem with this wretched laptop of mine, which recognises only ‘American English’ and not ‘British English’. So please do forgive me my revered mentors, if I have used words and terms, which are not typical ‘British English’. It’s all the fault of this wretched American laptop!


As a newsreader at Rupavahini, though I knew I was parroting utter bilge, every single news bulletin I read was a learning experience for me, where diction and pronunciation were concerned. Not once did I turn up at the Rupavahini studio to read the news, without ‘Daniel Jones’ by my side.

Although I knew, during a live telecast, there was no chance in hell for me to refer ‘Daniel Jones’ I somehow felt more confident, having the dictionary close to me.

By the way, some of you were under the impression, that the ‘news’ we dished out were written by us newsreaders. No way, we just parroted the stuff (trying hard to look very convincing in the process) that was landed on us.


The weather forecast was the biggest joke of all! I don’t know if the Met Department guys have got their act together now, but during my time, you could be rest assured, that the exact opposite of what was forecast happened.


I recall, way back during late President Premadasa’s period, when he launched the two-hundred garment factory concept. Though a brilliant idea, it caused a lot of pain to us newsreaders. Every single day, the news bulletin would start with the opening of a garment factory and a clock tower, and all the names of every single individual who were present. Good grief! Those days we used to blabber for over an hour on the idiot box, and afterwards I used to end up with a locked jaw!


Then there were times, very frequently, when we were made to bad mouth the previous political regime and praise the existing political regime and when the regimes changed, we were bad mouthing those we had praised and praising those we had blamed; typical state media syndrome.


I will never forget one of those bulletins, when I had to read an absolutely disgusting and defamatory item about the Hon. Karu Jayasuriya whom I held in very high esteem. I first met him before he ventured into politics, when I interviewed him for one of my TV programmes. Subsequently when I met him at a function, I apologised to him, and the gentleman that he is, said with a smile, “that’s perfectly alright, I know you didn’t write it”. What sins we newsreaders have committed!


Newsreaders also had other tasks to perform; announcing the results of general elections, Presidential elections and other elections. One needed great patience to perform this function. Holed up in freezing cold Studio 1 at Rupavahini, attired like Eskimos to maintain our body temperature, because those huge bright lights which are normally switched on, when an ‘on-camera’ performance takes place, were switched off, since only our voices were required to announce the election results. Trying to pronounce those lengthy names of those unheard of political parties, was a great challenge for our tongues.


We of course worked in shifts, and those who got the night shift were the lucky ones, because the election results used to come in sporadically. But those of us who got caught to the ‘early morning until late evening’ shift had a terrible time. The results had to be first announced in Sinhala, Tamil and then in English and by the time the last result is announced in English, there was a long queue of fresh results waiting to be announced in all three languages. If one didn’t have an accommodating colleague to take over, then one had to forget about food, water and even answering calls of nature.


Few of us newsreaders also had to shoulder other responsibilities, such as ‘on camera’ and ‘off camera’ narrations at each Independence Day celebrations, then the International Summits which took place and some after rehearsing did not take place. When President Premadasa hosted the SAARC Summit in Colombo in 1991, we were lead quite a dance. We had a rehearsal the day before at the venue; the BMICH (the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall).


I still recall sitting inside the main auditorium of the BMICH during the rehearsal with my Sinhala counterpart Anoma Perera, when President Premadasa himself walked in, to check on the arrangements for the event. Then he ascended the stage, and started giving instructions to various people concerned, over the microphone. Since these instructions didn’t concern us, Anoma and I were engrossed in a private chat of our own, then we suddenly realised there was complete silence within the auditorium.


President Premadasa was starring daggers in our direction…… Anoma and I were caught red handed, not concentrating on what he was saying. We immediately straightened up in our seats, and once the President was sure he had the attention of all of us, he resumed giving instructions over the microphone.


When President Premadasa was assassinated on May Day in 1993, myself and a male colleague had to break the news to the world. Not until after the bulletin was over, were we told, that our news bulletin had been hooked live to CNN and broadcast throughout the world. Thank heavens, we were not told about this before.


President Premadasa’s funeral was a painful one in more ways than one. Rupavahini decided to commence a live telecast on the day of the funeral from morning until after the funeral rites finished in the evening. There were myself and my colleague the late Ravi John to do our part in English, two colleagues each for Sinhala and Tamil. The live telecast commenced around 8 a.m. and after narrating a few words in English, Ravi was whisked off into the MCR (Main Control Room) to do some other narration over a foreign beam.


There was I stranded in the Studio, unable to budge the entire day. That is the day I found out, how one’s bladder behaves, when it’s not allowed the freedom to exit; it goes to sleep. By the time I returned home that day, it was almost 9 p.m. and my bladder simply refused to wake up.


One Sunday in October 1996, while peacefully mopping the floor at home, the telephone began to ring persistently, cursing myself for not switching on the answering machine, I skidded my way on the soapy floor to answer the phone. It was Sanath Gunathilake the Media Adviser to President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. He started the conversation by saying, “Sharmini you are going to kill me for this, but I want you to come as soon as possible to interview Madam (meaning the President)”. I looked at my floor mop and bucket in despair, when was I ever going to get to mop this wretched floor?


As promised by Sanath, an unnumbered black car with black tinted glass turned up at my home in under half an hour. I was whisked off to Temple Trees. Sanath looked so relieved when I finally landed. In the mean time I didn’t know what I was going to interview the President on. When I asked Sanath about this, he said the budget is around the corner, just ask her a couple of questions on it. And that’s precisely what I did; all types of budget related questions, some of them Madam President wasn’t too pleased with, but at the end, everyone was happy and I was relieved.


Come July 1997, I was into my eighth year as a newsreader. Of the huge number of newsreaders we once had, there were only about ten of us left, and we also had regular news reading days. Mine was every Tuesday. I used to always make it a point to reach Rupavahini at least three hours before the live telecast, because I had to do a lot of checking of the scripts, correcting grammatical errors, typos, consult ‘Daniel Jones’ and so forth.


On Tuesday 1st July 1997, I arrived as usual at Rupavahini. When I saw the headline of the main story, I freaked out! A once-upon-a-time friend of mine had been found guilty by the Colombo High Court, of criminally defaming President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Furthermore, he had been given an 18- month suspended sentence. The case was over a gossip column published on February 19th 1995 in the newspaper, of which he was the Editor. What a cause celebre that one turned out to be! The newspaper later admitted the article was incorrect.


Good grief! I couldn’t read this one. True I had been trained to read news bulletins under ‘any circumstances’ with a straight face, but even my mentors would agree, this was a bit too much. But at such short notice none of my colleagues were available, so with a straight-face

I read the news.

From thereon, I kept close tabs on my once-upon-a-time friend’s situation, and whenever the need arose, I swapped news bulletins with my colleagues. But unfortunately for me, the day he was finger printed none of my colleagues were available to help me out. So I had to maintain a ‘cool façade’ and read the news item, like any other news report.

Come 1998 and Sri Lanka was getting ready to celebrate her 50 years of independence from colonial rule in grand style. Rupavahini had its own plans, which included the jack-of-all-trades- me. A massive exhibition was organized at the BMICH, the grand opening of which was to be telecast live over Rupavahini, with yours truly doing the honours from the BMICH.

I arrived at Rupavahini as usual, where I was whisked off in the Chairman’s vehicle, and dropped off at the side entrance to the BMICH. There were long queues of people, going through the usual security checks by the Sri Lanka Police. Since I was in a hurry to get in, I noticed one WPC (woman police constable) looking around aimlessly, because there was no one in her queue. I later discovered why!!!!!!

I went up to her and showed her my Rupavahini identity card and explained that I was on official duty and I needed to get in fast. Without uttering a word, she knelt on the ground, took my foot out of the slipper and started massaging it. Then she gradually progressed up my leg and started to massage my knee, and then when she tried to poke her hand beyond, I nearly tripped and fell over her. By this time there were hordes of people who were more interested in the public massage session I was being put through, than the exhibition.

The usual screens which are in place for such ‘body checks’ were not there. The white gloves usually worn by those responsible for ‘body checks’ were also missing. My WPC masseuse then gave my other leg the same treatment, by which time, the neat pleats of my sari had come undone, and I had to gather it together, to prevent it from falling on the ground. Then the woman straightened up and decided to check my hair. She removed all the hairpins which held my ‘French pleat’ together. I was in such a state of shock, I couldn’t move or speak. Then she yanked the front of my sari jacket and shoved her gloveless hand inside. My God! Was this really happening to me?

When I ultimately managed to escape the WPC’s clutches, I ran in the direction of the Rupavahini stall at the BMICH with my long hair blowing in the wind, and part of the sari pinned on my shoulder and the rest bunched up in my left hand. Messrs. Chairman and Director General looked at me speechless; I must have looked a sight. After explaining to them about what the WPC had done to me, the Chairman immediately called the IGP, by which time the damage was done, and I was in no condition to do any ‘live performances’ on camera. And that was the end of Rupavahini’s grand plan to telecast live, with me opening the show, of Sri Lanka’s 50th Independence Anniversary exhibition. The next day, the full story hit the front page of a daily English newspaper, ‘The Island’.

Come 2001 I decided to call it quits once and for all, as far as news reading went, citing ill health (which was true). Twelve years of news reading was too much to take. I was beginning to choke on my own bulletins! But I had the misfortune of residing too close to Rupavahini and each time one of my former colleagues failed to turn up, I was summoned.

The last time, which was also my very last bulletin, coincidentally completed twelve years as a news reader, almost to the date, 18th August 2001. I was at home, barely out of a hospital bed and a fever of over 103 degrees Fahrenheit. I got a call from the then Director English Division, Anjanee Seneviratne, at 8.25 pm, sounding very desperate. After apologising profusely for pulling me out of my sick bed, she asked me if I could help out, since the rostered reader had failed to turn up, and none of my other colleagues was available. My loyalty to Rupavahini was such, and Anji being a very nice lady, I couldn’t say no.

With just thirty-five minutes to go before the bulletin went on air live, I dashed to Rupavahini; no time for make-up, hair-do and even to drape the sari (yes we used to wear the sari during our days as newsreaders). Thank heavens, you viewers out there couldn’t see below the news desk, because I actually read the news wearing a sari jacket, a pair of jeans, with one end of the sari thrown over the shoulder and tied at the waist with a shoe lace to keep it in place, hair a total mess and no make up. Those close to me said later, that though I looked like I had been yanked out of the spin-dryer of a washing machine, I had performed at my best at ‘parroting’ the news bulletin. Some consolation! And that was how I concluded my twelve years of service as a newsreader on State Television- Rupavahini!

But all things happen for a good reason, because shortly after, in December 2001 there was yet another general election and a regime change, which meant a new management at Rupavahini. Nothing unusual in that, because during my fifteen years at Rupavahini, there had been so many Chairmen and Directors General who had come and gone, I had actually lost count. In fact, whenever I used to go to Rupavahini, I inquired as to who the current Chairman and Director General were, because there were so many who came and went.

Two honourable and highly respected gentlemen who still remain in my thoughts are Prof. Tissa Kariyawasam and Hon. D.E.W. Gunasekera - both former Chairmen of Rupavahini, and gentlemen par excellence!

However, those who took over the sacred seats of Chairman and Director General of Rupavahini, after the regime change on 5th December 2001, were ‘different’. They had some weird ideas on how to turn good old Rupavahini ‘around’ and as a result, introduced an ‘alien culture’ to our State Television Station- Rupavahini.

The entire ‘news set up’ was changed! The lady English newsreaders were stripped of their saris and put into western attire. It didn’t end there, the news desk was replaced with one made of some transparent material, so that the viewers were able to see not only the legs of the lady newsreaders in short skirts, but much more. I used to cringe when people started referring to the main English news telecast on Rupavahini, as the “leg show”!

What humiliation for our State Television! The comedy didn’t end there, before long, there appeared ceramic mugs on the news desk, sporting the brand name of some beverage. Dear Mr. Leader of the Opposition, you have to take the blame for what your henchmen did to our Rupavahini; it is nothing short of sacrilege!

At least during my tenure as a newsreader, we wore the highly respected sari, and even the bilge that we dished out, we did it with ‘class’ in our saris!
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