Asian College of Journalism chairman Sashi Kumar, one of the first recognisable faces on Indian television, gives a recap of his career to Sudhish Kamath
“I got into journalism by chance,” says Sashi Kumar as he dives into a flashback on a rainy afternoon at the Asian College of Journalism which he runs – the greens of the campus serving as the proverbial metaphor for the pastures the profession offered him.
It was cinema that his heart beat for. “(But) the only stepping stone to cinema in the late seventies was television.” So Sashi Kumar went on to become a producer for Doordarshan in the Madras of yore. He independently produced documentaries, and soon, in the eighties, started writing on cinema for The Hindu.
“Out of the blue, Mr. Kasturi of The Hindu asked me if I would like to be their West Asia correspondent. I had no track record of political writing or reporting but he had a hunch that I could do it. I was in Bahrain for two years but the television bug was biting me and I came back.”
After a brief stint with Mudra Videotech, he joined PTI when they started producing content for TV. “When the skies opened up during the Gulf War, television was going through a liberated phase. I proposed to the PTI board that we should think of starting the first independent TV network in India. The board sat on it. I was getting a bit frustrated. Asianet was a name I almost incorporated for PTI. So with the permission of PTI, I decided to do it on my own.” Since he hailed from Kerala, he decided to start from home turf. A Malayalam channel and a cable network, SatComm. How did he raise the capital?
“That was the difficult part,” he admits. He put in all his savings. Together with an uncle who was a trader from Russia, he mobilised the first crore. “The first break came from Central Bank. It gave me the first loan of three crore rupees and then other institutions started adding to that. One didn't know if the channel would continue to be on air for the next month and it was that situation for well over two years. Lending institutions were asking the same questions: ‘You say you are going to break even in two years. What do we mortgage? The satellite up there?'” he laughs. “But when it turned around, it turned around quite grandly, quite majestically.”
Ultimately, he says, it was all good faith and goodwill. “Despite everything, we managed to pay salaries on time. I am quite proud of that. We had an excellent dedicated team who was there for the excitement in it,” says Sashi Kumar about the entrepreneurial phase of his life. “The total investment added up to Rs. 18 crore over two years. At that time, transponders were far more expensive than now. The hardware was more expensive than the software. We got a lot of software, including movie rights, relatively cheap. We had the early-bird advantage.”
Within a decade, the Asianet network turned profitable and Sashi Kumar divested his stake in the company after reaching a flashpoint with his uncle. “Yes, I made some money,” he understates with a gentlemen-don't-tell smile.
But the growth of media, he says, does not necessarily mean growth of journalism. “There's been a paradigmatic shift in the rules of journalism then and now. What was happening for a long time is that perhaps a lot of subjectivities were masquerading as objective. Today, it's far more open and honest. But at the same time, today journalism and journalists have also become a part of the problem. There's a lot more of the campaign variety of journalism, there's a lot less of reporting as being a player yourself. Then, of course, the obvious things like paid news, corruption and ambition.”
With the media becoming big, he says, journalism has actually shrunk in terms of values. He had nursed a desire to start a journalism school since his days at Asianet. Divesting his stake provided the perfect opportunity to dive straight into setting up the not-for-profit Media Development Foundation. “We were going to start a college when Manoj Kumar Sonthalia of the Goenka group suggested that we could take over the ACJ in Bangalore. No money exchanged hands. We were absolutely happy to carry that forward.” Thus, yet another dream came true.
But his heart continues to beat for cinema. “I still like cinema but the world has changed a lot. But I need to reassess my approach to cinema. I did make a film (‘Kaya Taran'). It was a financial disaster. I just spent a lot of money. Maybe I will do that again. But I wanted to give that a break and see if I can do something that has a fighting chance at the box office. Can I make a film with my own resources? Of course I can. But why should I?”