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The Sultan of news
Had it not been for a shaved head, one of Indian television's most iconic news presenters may not have made her debut. The year was 1968. Salma Sultan, just 23, was a Doordarshan announcer who secretly nursed the ambition to read the news someday.
"Then, DD's news presenters were more mature. Young people were not considered for a newsreader's position, " remembers Sultan, who lives in Delhi's Jungpura area. "I would keep asking the producers when I would get a chance to read the news. But they would always tell me, 'Tumhara time bhi aayega'. I knew it would be a while. " And then came the fateful day. The daily 3 pm edit meeting was about to start. Gopal Kaul, then DD's star presenter, came in on time - but with a shaved head. "He didn't want to be a newsreader anymore. He wanted to be a producer, but wasn't being given a chance. So as a gesture of rebellion, he turned up bald that day, " says Sultan.
Producer G G Shukl was in a fix. They were to go live with the bulletin in five hours, and he didn't want to put a bald presenter on air. Their other option, Pratima Puri, had taken the day off. "Shukl asked for whoever was available. I happened to be on duty. They asked me if I would present the news. I jumped at the opportunity, " says Sultan. The next few hours were a blur of activity - make-up was applied, lines rehearsed and the camera and lights came on. The bulletin began and soon ended.
So what happened after samachar samapt hue? "I was very pleased with myself after the bulletin. I walked into the production control room expecting praise, but there was pin-drop silence. I had gone through the bulletin so fast - 15 minutes of news in eight minutes flat - that they just couldn't run the film, " she laughs.
Gradually, with a little help and training from Doordarshan, Sultan went on to become one of the most recognised faces in India in the 1980s. Viewers followed her words as closely as they followed her saris and later a rose tucked under her left ear became synonymous with her. "I just put a rose in my hair one day, but it became such a rage that I couldn't read the news without it. If I couldn't manage to get a rose from my own garden, I would pluck one from my neighbour's, " says Sultan, who stopped reading the news in 1997.
Newscasters today don't seem to have individual styles of presentation anymore, she feels. "I don't blame them. They do what the channel asks them to. All of them wear the same kind of clothes, talk in the same manner. They've all been moulded the same way, " she says.
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