He grew up wanting to be a hot-shot corporate boss, instead became a firebrand TV anchor inspiring millions.

King of Polemics How small-town boy Gobinath stumbled through life to revolutionize Tamil TV
news Interview Saturday, April 09, 2016 - 10:58

It was the year 1996. Gobinath Chandran, a dreamy-eyed boy hailing from Aranthangi in Pudukkottai district in Tamil Nadu, had already spent a year in Chennai city doing odd-jobs. Gobi had finished his graduation in business administration and was staying with his brother in Chennai. On a project with UTV, Gobi was visiting the Raj TV office in Teynampet to collect footage.

To be successful, you have to be at the right place at the right time. You also have to say the right thing. Gobi asked people at Raj TV if there was a vacancy for an anchor. Luckily, there was. The anchor for a Hollywood movie review show on Raj TV had quit last minute, and the show’s producer Priyan desperately needed someone to fill in. The anchor-links were ready, he just needed an energetic face to read it out. “I will test you on camera, come,” Priyan told Gobi. An excited Gobi borrowed a better shirt from a cameraman on the sets, stood in front of the camera and rattled off the links like he was a seasoned anchor. A surprised Priyan looked at him and asked, “Are you ready for the take then?”

And just like that, Tamil television had got what would become its most popular face in later years. Gobi has since moved on from doing small shows to become a news reporter, then a successful TV anchor, and now a firebrand motivational speaker who is a rage among the youth for his poetic aggression and refreshing insights. 2016 marks the tenth year of his famous TV debating show Neeya Naana (You or me) on Star Vijay which made him the celebrated public figure that he is. He also runs Taalkshop Academy.

Gobinath’s life is a lesson on what is wrong with our education system, and yet how we can make the best of it. His strong feelings about the system are evident from his public speeches. In a breathless, alliterative, aggressive and yet hilariously funny take on how we pressurize students into a life of monotony, he says in the speech below, we would rather die now than die after living that life.

 

 

In a nutshell, that is Gobinath. In long-form, he is even more interesting.

We sat down for a chat on a humid afternoon in March at his office in Chennai’s Ashok Nagar. And every now and then during the interview, Gobinath would come up with his poetic pearls of wisdom, which would eventually be tied into what we can learn from this beautiful world, and yet we don’t.

We all know the energetic Gobinath on camera, but when the lights are switched off, the aggressive speaker is a candid, self-effacing and unassuming man with lots of say. He has a sharp memory, and his stories are riddled with specifics. It is never some tea shop or that library – it is Aandavar Tea Stall, or Deepam Colour Lab, and Chintamani library or Sahayamata building. These spots from his past are so ingrained in his mind that the names flow out effortlessly as he narrates his story.

As I enter his office, two people stare down at me from their portraits, Che Guevara and Mahatma Gandhi. He notices me stealing repeated looks at them and, I would learn later, makes a mental note to bring it up later in the conversation.

Gobinath was born to a middle-class agriculturist couple Chandran and Kumudam hailing from Sithukaadu village near Aranthangi in Tamil Nadu on July 4, 1975. “I was born on the American Independence Day,” he says with a wide grin, offering the first of many more such trivia which were to come my way. He has one elder brother, Prabhakaran, who later played a crucial role in his entry into media.

“I was a studious kid, and well-protected. I was given everything I asked for,” he says, adding that when he grew up, the school was his base and his teachers were very supportive. He started out at the Government School in Aranthangi and then moved on to St James Higher Secondary boarding school in Palakurchi village. “It was a very good school. Education is an asset, my father believed in that, so he sold his assets to give me an education.”

His father was a man with foresight, and allowed his sons to explore life and pave their own way. “When my brother did his DFT (Diploma in Film Technology), nobody even knew what it was in our village. My brother was a state hockey player, and I was a ball-badminton player.”

As a kid, Gobinath wasn’t influenced by anyone, in fact he is even scared of ‘role models’, he says.

“I don’t believe in influence, only inspirations,” he says, and then corrects himself, “Actually I am scared of influence, ‘I don’t believe it’ is just a stylish way of saying it. I have a problem – I start acting like people who influence me, so I avoid it. My dad always told me that if you get influenced by someone, you will behave just like them, and I don’t want that. I can be so weak that sometime I deliberately repeat things I myself did on TV if I felt it was good.”

Gobinath on his show Neeya Naana

School played a major role in shaping Gobinath as a person, but it was his stint at National College in Trichy as a student of Business Administration that he discovered new ideas in life. He wanted to either study law or business administration, and eventually settled for the latter. “It was called a ‘semi-professional’ course then, and my dream was this: One day, I would be sitting on a giant chair in my corporate office, wearing a suit, and when my secretary walks in, I would stylishly turn around and give dictation,” he says, beaming with a childish smile, amused at himself.

In Trichy, Gobinath was living on his own and developed an individual identity. “I was keen to stay outside and study. I had a beautiful set of friends then, we used to stay at a mansion in Sahayamata Building in Kiledar street.”

He attended evening college, which meant he had the whole day to himself with little to do. “Everyone else would be getting back at 5PM tired from the day, and I would freshen up and leave for college then.”

But soon enough, he started feeling guilty about wasting the mornings, and that’s when he discovered the Chintamani library in Trichy.

“Everyone asks me today, ‘how do you know so much, do you just keep reading?’ Frankly, my reading has come down in comparison. It was the reading I did during my college days that is keeping me going even now. I used to read anything I could get my hands on. And librarians are good people, they help out when someone is showing interest,” he says, and then launches into a tirade on how there are so many libraries around us, and yet none of us use them. “We complain a lot that we don’t have anything in India, but go and check, you’ll find so many things.”

Gobinath was also a poet then, an idealistic one. And his first book, a collection was poems called Theruvellam Devaithagal (Angels all over the streets) was dedicated to the precious friends he made during this period.

“We were 5 back-benchers in college and called ourselves GIBSI – Gobinath, Ismail, Balaji, Sekar and Ilango. We took academics seriously, and today all of us are what we wanted to be in life.”

Gobinath also spent a lot of time with law college students then since his cousin Saravanan used to study there, “I used to attend classes with them, and prepare for exams with them just for fun!”

Trichy was the quintessential college life for Gobinath. College fests, watching movies voraciously (“It was the Karthik period,” he adds), loafing around the city, cycle tours with friends and taking photograph, “Photos were a big deal then. We used to wait outside Deepam Colour Lab till the printing was done!”

Even as college life ended, his dreams did not. A small-town boy who wanted to make it big in life, Gobinath was still innocently enamored with making it big in corporate life. “I wanted to do an MBA – and only in IIM, nothing short of that. And then there was a disease in my village – going to Singapore. Someone told me that if I learned computers, then I could go to Singapore and become like Singapore! Many guys used to fool me saying my visa is getting ready, I did not even know how that worked,” he says, guffawing at himself. He joined a course at NIT to learn computers, and meanwhile prepared to do his MBA. “I even researched about courses on Genetic engineering.”

Soon enough, he got frustrated at home, and then went to Chennai to live with his brother, who was working as an assistant cameraman.

At that time, the family was very clear that Gobinath would not get into media. It isn’t an easy life, and his brother was already living it. Gobinath was a studious child, so they wanted him to be the person with the stable job, while Prabhakaran could slug it out in the industry. “Also, I grew up with all needs taken care of. I would get three new sets of clothing on birthdays, get biriyani whenever I asked for, so they did not want me to go to media.”

His brother and friends were living in Chennai, all working in the film and TV industry. All of them were trying to make it big in the world of cinema. Over endless cups of tea and cigarettes, his brother’s friends would discuss movie scripts and ideas. Gobinath would listen to them, and offer his opinion every now and then, “My brother used to tell his friends not to bring me into this world, that I should not suffer like him.” But life does not always turn out the way we want it to be. He got pulled into that world, and started helping them with film projects.

It is around this time that Gobinath realized that making money was not easy, and that he had led a protected childhood ignorant of the true economic situation of the family. He saw how assistant directors in Chennai were driving auto-rickshaws at night to make some money and survive. He realized he could not just live off his family, and that it was time to make some money.

“And when I hit the streets for two square meals, my poetry died,” he says, and a long pause follows.

As his interest in MBA and corporate life started weaning away, he took any job which would come his way. He used to hit the streets and sell clothing-bits, knocking on the doors of middle-class households in Chennai and charming women into buying his textiles. He used to help his brother’s friends with scripting and production. He took data entry jobs since he knew computers. “At one point, my dinner money was from my data entry job. And it was tough, you have to type out a lot of pages to make very little money. So if I wanted to eat chicken that night, I would have to type faster that evening to make more money.” He lied to his brother that he was working as a marketing representative at a firm, the reality was he was on the streets, trying to make every rupee he could. He would walk into any interview which listed a salary of Rs. 25,000 or more.

It was around that time that he got into projects with United Television, or UTV. It was the early years of TV production in India, and UTV used to produce ‘in-flight’ shows for airlines. And Gobi was a part of some of them. And it was then, that Lady Luck knocked on his doors and he got an opportunity at Raj TV to do the Hollywood show. “The first movie I reviewed was Titanic. My friends were laughing their guts out because I was the one in the group who would mock others for watching English movies.”

But landing a show on TV did not really make life easier – in fact, he was now in for a grueling routine. The TV industry, even today, is notorious for underpaying and overworking talent, if at all they get paid. “So there was a period when I used to be selling clothing at a house, and I would be on TV reviewing a Hollywood show. The ladies were so amused, I became a celebrity seller, even if I was a poor one!”

When his brother later learned that he was selling clothes on the streets, he was livid. “He saw me spreading out my product at a tea shop, he was very unhappy. Back home 30 people were working on our fields, and I did not have to do this. But he understood that I was making my way up in life.”

And make his way up in life he did. Soon after, Raj TV started its news division, with journalists like KP Sunil and Jayaseelan at its helm. He was selected as a news reporter, and continued anchoring the Hollywood show. He got to be a part of some of the biggest stories during that era, from Veerappan issue to Sri Lankan refugees and riots in the Chennai central prison.

His reporting days were exciting, to say the least. "Even today, I miss field reporting. Nothing can match that," he says looking down, perhaps processing the memory flashes. He then moved to Jaya TV, and then NDTV’s Star Vijay news.

Gobinath with his Neeya Naana team after winning an award. Image: Dhivya Dharshini

At NDTV, his horizons widened. He understood news production and was given a national perspective on issues. And that’s where he started his news anchoring. “Jennifer Arul was the head of the unit, and one day there was a last-minute requirement for a news anchor. So she walked in and said, ‘Tiger, go read the bulletin’. And I did. My first bulletin was a super success.” During the 2004 general elections, Gobinath went live for nine hours straight, proving his mettle as a formidable news anchor.

It is at this point that Gobinath learned three things which would help him become one of the best anchors in town. One, give the gist of what you know, not everything you know. Two, as a journalist and anchor, the responsibility of making the viewer understand is his own, not the viewers’. And three, communication need not be brilliant, it has to be clear.

In the meanwhile, the Star-NDTV partnership was falling apart. With NDTV making its own plan to launch a news channel, they broke away from Star. But Gobinath was already getting offers from the Star Vijay administration to do special news-based shows. For a year or so then, he was working freelance and doing TV shows. He reported on the Tsunami for various international channels too. And in 2006, Star Vijay came up with the idea for a debating show where two sides are pitted against each other. Neeya Naana was born, and from day one, the team has remained the same with director Antony at the helm. “It is not easy to hold a team together for such a long time,” says Gobi.

The show was not a runaway success, but it got there pretty soon. “It took time to get populistic, but once it did, it made waves. The show proved that the Tamil audience could watch serious programming if presented in the right way, it is just an excuse to say that they only watch soaps.” The topics are chosen after a lot of thought, he says, “And we do it with sincerity. If we just make people fight, it shows. Thankfully for us, we have always had great participants. People have come out of nowhere to say thing which resonate across Tamil Nadu.”

One striking thing about Gobinath is his political internationalism, which is also a recurring theme in his speeches. Gobi is a strong believer in being self-aware, about knowing where we as individuals stand in the global arena. For that, he gives the credit to International Visitors Program he attended on the invitation of the US Government in 2006, along with candidates from 40 other countries.

“That was the turning point of my life. I realized who I was, where I was, where our country was. I met so many people from different countries and made contacts, I even interviewed George Bush then for 10 minutes.” His trip to the US, at the age of 31, was his first air-travel ever.

Through his trip, he was on small reporting assignments for Fox, witnessed Larry King live and even spoke at the Pentagon as a representative of the Asia region from that group. It was the kind of confidence boost which he required, and helped him to get back and rock the TV industry with Neeya Naana.

That trip also perhaps widened his vision as a political being.

So what is his politics? It is not easy to get him talking about it. “It can get controversial.”

He tells me, repeatedly, that his personal views don’t feature in his job. “I am very clear that I don’t bring my views in the show. I am different, Gobinath the anchor is different,” he says. And then, he opens up.

“I believe in democracy,” he says. “I believe in individual rights, and in secularism and non-communalism. Everyone should get their rights, and some might need more, like reservations. And we need to go beyond electoral politics and understand the business politics of the world.”

Gobinath is a pragmatist and a positivist, not the average socialism-spouting journalist. “But at the same time, I do believe that we should move beyond materialism. We have to look at how people below us are suffering, and help them.”

And then he says, “I know you were staring at the Che Guevera poster. Read what it says – just that I will help and fight along with those who are powerless – and I do believe in that, nothing else. And I believe in non-violence too, that’s why there is Gandhi’s image next to it. I had a Vivekananda poster also, but it is in the other room now.”

So, has he ever thought about becoming a politician?

“No,” he says.

Will he think about it?

He smiles.

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