Shahnaz Husain, the beautician, starts with a strong sales pitch for her products and never deviates. She says she sells civilisation in a jar, so I ask her how big the jar is. ‘Whatever I present to the Western world, it has India’s 3,000 BC civilisation in it,’ she philosophises. At least the tsarina of the jar has some sense of a historical timeline.

If Husain sells civilisation in a beauty jar, Shikha Sharma sells the Ayurvedic concept of healthy eating, cast as a constant tussle between tamasik and sattvik. The cardiologist-turned-dietician fends off my crackers with a broad, toothy smile. She tells me, for instance, that a man becomes what he eats. If I eat chicken, will I become a chicken, I wonder aloud. ‘You say you don’t believe in medicine. If a patient doesn’t take medicine, won’t he die?’ I ask. ‘When did I say medicine isn’t required?’ she replies, furrowing her brow.

Samantha Kochhar and Javed Habib are two celebrities from the beauty business who are real sports. In fact, Habib gets the game as soon as I ask him if dandruff can be traded like hair. Maybe the wig I am wearing gives me away. He is, after all, a stylist whose fingers converse with hair. When I ask him how many cities he has cut hair in, he says, ‘I’ve even cut hair on the moon.’ When the interview ends, he says, ‘Enjoy kiya na hum logon ne?’

‘What should one do to stop hair loss? The latest trend is to use goat piss. Do you do that?’ The questions I throw at Samantha Kochhar are enough to drive any guest crazy, but she has more mettle than that.

‘I wish it was that, but I would suggest that if it goes, it just goes,’ says the Delhi-based make-up expert and hair stylist. Perhaps my weird English gives the game away. She has a huge laugh when the interview is over.

Jazz or juice?

Ayan and Aman Ali Khan also have a good laugh when I pronounce jazz as juice and ask them if they’ve ever attempted a fusion of Indian classical with juice. Testing their general knowledge, I tell them that astronaut Sunita Williams has decided to play the raga Dhani in space. Is it a good raga to play in space? ‘Agar Sunita-ji ne select kiya hai toh must be, she must be having some vision,’ the senior sibling opines, all seriousness.

‘What is your favourite crime?’ gets me a puzzled damn-you look from the gutsy IPS officer (retired) Kiran Bedi.

‘It is nothing but a mental illness if a crime becomes someone’s favourite,’ she tells me.

I am lucky enough to get away with questions like ‘Why shouldn’t the government auction crimes like pick-pocketing?’ and probably leave her wondering if I’m nuts.

It is not as easy an undertaking, however, to grill a comedian. Sunil Pal, true to his profession, makes us both laugh in his inimitable style. When asked, for instance, if he makes comedy for man or for animal, the stand-up comedian observes, ‘Nahin, abhi tak toh humara desh aur humare kalakar itne advance nahin huye hain ki janwaron ko aap hansa sakein.’ No, our country and artistes are not yet so advanced that they can make animals laugh.

I try to unsettle Shiv Khera, but the glib talker that he is, the motivational speaker keeps a cool yet stiff mien throughout the show, delivering a monologue. It is really difficult to look at him without staring awkwardly. I get quite an earful. ‘Let me put it this way, Tony. There is no such thing as business motivation. Either you have motivation or you don’t have motivation.’ Or, ‘Winners have the habit of doing things losers don’t like to do. The things losers don’t like to do are the same things winners don’t like to do either, but they do it anyway. Losers don’t like to work hard but winners also don’t like to work hard either, but they have done it anyway.’

A googly for Aakash Chopra

Like millions of my fellow countrymen, cricket is my favourite sport. Tony B would be a no-show if he didn’t pull the leg of a few cricketers. I manage to rope in about half a dozen. I ask them all kinds of questions – how spitting on the ball affects the swing, whether they hit a six with one leg or both legs planted, what is more important, muscle or memory, and if they play one-tippa ball, two-tippa ball or surra ball. Batsman Aakash Chopra is one of the cricketers at the receiving end of such googlies. He attempts to answer while trying not to lose his cool. ‘Your knowledge of cricket is not something to write home about,’ an exhausted Chopra finally tells me.

There are many interviews that Star One and Channel V don’t run, in particular those with Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Girija Vyas and M.S. Bitta. Vyas, then the chairperson of the National Commission for Women, is hard to ruffle, even when perhaps she should have been. When I ask her which state a man should go to if he wants to beat his wife, Vyas says with a frown, ‘Nowhere.’

Naqvi jumps the gun when I start talking about Kashmir and say, ‘People say Article 307 should be scrapped. Do you agree?’ Clearly not hearing what I’ve said, he answers, ‘Definitely, it should be done.’ When it comes to Nandigram, he denounces the Dalai Lama’s ‘proposal’: ‘What happened in Nandigram cannot be undone with such proposals.’

M.S. Bitta confines himself to his pet theme, terrorism. My bouncer, ‘Which is the bigger terrorist, the Lashkar-e-Taiba or the Income Tax Department?’ leaves him dumbfounded, before he recovers to explain to me the difference between the two.

I wish Channel V and Star One had aired more of these interviews, in order to allow audiences to have a laugh at the expense of some of their political masters. One of the crucial aspects of a healthy democracy is the expressiveness of its comics and the use of humour to question the abuse of power. It defangs the autocrats, so to speak, and makes them lose their shine over a period of time.

Excerpted from A Taste for Trouble: Memories from Another Time, Aniruddha Bahal, Westland Publications.