'Many men become rigid because they're not allowed to show emotions': UAE-based talk show host Anas Bukhash on tackling sensitive subjects

From talking about mental health to uncovering toxic masculinity, his show #ABtalks features celebrities in their most honest avatars



by

Anamika Chatterjee

Published: Thu 24 Nov 2022, 9:30 PM

Last updated: Thu 24 Nov 2022, 9:33 PM

What is a definitive interview? Ideally, it’s a conversation where a subject reveals his or her inner world — from professional achievements to personal failings (or vice versa), from moments of exhilaration to deepest fears, an audience discovers the perks and perils of celebrity apart from getting to know the person inside-out. In the age of social media, where public figures can always rely on their own social media handles to tell their story without any distortion, we don’t often find them in conversations that are ‘raw’ and ‘real’. And yet, Anas Bukhash has done just that. The 41-year-old Emirati host of the popular YouTube show #ABtalks has carved a niche for interviews that come closest to giving us a glimpse of what being a celebrity is all about. Sample this: in one of his episodes featuring famous singer Balqees Fathi, he asks if she has ever experienced depression, the question woven seamlessly alongside a celebration of all that she has achieved. In another episode, Pakistani singer Atif Aslam is seen talking about his childhood in a way one is not quite used to seeing him. Watching the show is as much about knowing the celebrity as it is about observing Bukhash’s composure as his guests take him through the highs and lows of their lives. In an interview with wknd., Bukhash talks at length about the fine art of interviewing and why it’s possible to have authentic conversations with famous people.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Let’s rewind to the year 2018. It’s a time when social media has taken life of its own and celebrities have a platform to tell their stories. Why was it important for you to start #ABtalks?

It was important because I felt it was time the Arab region had a show like this. When you have personally experienced different TV programmes, you know what you like, and what you do not like. I knew what I did not like, and those were very short interviews that just would not go in depth. There would be a lot of ads or sponsored breaks, and you could not even broach subjects like trauma or someone’s personal experiences. Also, I remember being on a celebrity show and the questions that were handed out were quite lame and superficial. It made me think this is such a wonderful opportunity to interview a person who is otherwise not accessible. It’s a gift to have a human in front of you from whose experience you can learn. But if you do not ask the right questions, what is the point? That’s when I decided to do something my way — the human way.

Your interviews begin with a deep question — how are you really doing. How often do you receive honest responses from your guests?

Almost never, until I repeat the question. If I ask you, “How are you really doing?”, your answer would be an auto-response like, “I’m doing fine, Anas.” I have to stress — no, really. But when you realise that the person asking this question genuinely wants to know how you are doing, you begin to open up. Nine out of 10 guests on the show take a deep breath before they get around to answering that question.

To have conversations that are honest, you also need subjects that are open to scrutiny, interviewees who are okay with being vulnerable in front of camera. Is there a process you have put in place that ensures the conversations are spontaneous?

I do have a team that looks at diversity. We don’t always want to have one kind of person on the show. The goal is to have variety in terms of nationality, culture, age. With vulnerability, I think people just need permission to be so. If you show them that you are there to actually know more about them and are interested in them and won’t judge, they will offer more of themselves to you. If you want them to be human, you have to be human too.

Yes, but public figures find it hard to be vulnerable on public platforms because one odd comment can be misinterpreted and blown out of proportion. How do you help them get rid of these inhibitions?

One, I do not push them too much if it’s something too personal. I respect their privacy. I am not there to look for either gossip or drama, and most of them realise that. Doing this in the initial phase of #ABtalks was difficult because the guests could never guess the response (from the audiences). Now that there is a nice collection of episodes, they realise there is power to being vulnerable. The show humanises celebrities. If you are raw, the audiences will elevate you because they will see that human side of you. Having said that, I still believe it’s hard for us to be vulnerable, even in our personal lives.

As journalists, we observe that between us and the celebrity, there is a middleman who is constantly telling them what to say and what not to say. Such attempt at image crafting takes away from the authenticity of the conversation. Have you encountered similar problems?

(Laughs) The good thing is nobody knows the questions before the start of the show. So I get to avoid all that. At the beginning of our journey, I had to prove that we are not here to taint them. Now anybody who is ready to be honest can come to the show. I don’t want someone to come rehearsed, photoshopped and edited on #ABtalks. Most of the episodes, in fact, are almost untouched. We shoot and post unless there is a technical issue or someone has said something that could be hurtful to another person. In fact, nobody else, apart from the shooting team, is allowed inside the studio, we don’t allow family members, siblings and managers because we don’t want the authenticity and flow to be lost.

Speaking of studio, #ABtalks is now also synonymous with a signature set — pristine white background with two chairs facing each other. How does the physical environment set the tone for a conversation?

The studio setting is minimalistic. You will notice there is no table, logo, plants or mugs. I feel the spotlight should always be on one person — the guest. I don’t want anything else. It helps if it is a quiet set because if you have too much noise around, the person can quickly snap out of the conversation and get distracted.

Anas Bukhash in conversation with Dr Deepak Chopra on #ABtalks
Anas Bukhash in conversation with Dr Deepak Chopra on #ABtalks

You almost always touch upon the subject of masculinity on the show. Is it a baggage most male celebrities carry with them?

Masculinity, as a subject, has become a talking point in recent years. It is important to highlight it because toxic masculinity exists and is often normalised. Men are often brought up being told not to be sensitive or expressive. This deteriorates them because it is only human to be sensitive and emotional. A lot of males, if not all, become rigid because they are not allowed to show emotions. As a result, anger and frustration builds, which manifests itself in form of depression or abuse. So toxic masculinity is a very dangerous thing and we must allow our boys to be expressive and sensitive to life. A lot has changed over the years. I feel the Internet has helped as well.

But the Internet can also be a confusing place with both narratives on masculinity jostling for space.

It is a double-edged sword. You can consume content that is abusive or just plain silly. Or you can use this double-edged sword to learn about cultures, listen to podcasts, read book reviews or funny content that makes you laugh. It is a tool, and everything depends on how responsibly you use it. A lot of credit ought to be given to the Internet for connecting human beings. Today, #ABtalks is watched in Norway and Japan, you could not have imagined this 20 years ago.

You also often address mental health issues. How often have guests broken down in front of camera on your show? How do you disconnect yourself from their emotional journeys?

#ABtalks, at this stage at least, is known to celebrate vulnerability. So any guest knows that I will ask some personal questions. So they may not be fully ready but still know what to expect. If somebody wants to laugh, they can laugh; and if someone wants to cry, they can cry. That’s the whole point — you just have to be you.

As for the second part of the question, I have released an episode every single week for years now, except if there was a big disaster around the world in which case we’d postpone. I think I have learnt to be more of an observer than someone who dives into people’s stories. I cannot afford to immerse myself into them because then I will break. And if I break, I can’t be a good interviewer. I guess I am wired this way.

It almost sounds like a role therapist plays.

I don’t consider myself a therapist. I am a mechanical engineer who likes what he does. I don’t like mechanical engineering, even though I studied it (laughs). I am just a good listener. Sometimes, you need someone, who is not your family or friend, to listen to you.

Have you noticed any major shift in the kind of emotional responses you receive from your guests post-pandemic?

It’s a good question. Personally, I think the world was forced to face itself during the pandemic. When you as a person are stuck in your studio apartment or villa alone, or with a partner and family, for such a long period of time and you are not used to it, you are forced to confront your issues. Pre-Covid, we were distracted with events, travel, shopping. During the pandemic, we did not have that choice. It was a tough phase but also a good one for some people. They realised if they were truly happy or angry with themselves. I think post-Covid, there have been more conversations on anxiety, paranoia and other mental health issues. Now it’s a topic that’s addressed seriously; people realise what’s the point of having a healthy body if you do not have a healthy mind.

The show speaks to so many people inside as well as outside the UAE. It has catapulted you into popular imagination. Does fame excite you?

My relationship with fame is defined by responsibility. When you have the eyes and ears of people fixed on you, you have to ask yourself how are you adding value to the world. I am lucky I became popular at an older age because I think fame, when it comes to you at an early age, can be detrimental to your growth as a person. I am lucky it came to me at 41. I also have good family and friends, and constantly remind myself why I started out in the first place. Ego is like a balloon. If you don’t hold its strings, it’ll fly. Sometimes, it is your friends and family who do the holding.

Since the show is on YouTube, can you really run away from the number game?

You can never predict virality, to be honest. If you have an answer to that, you will be the richest marketing agency in the world. You have to ask — what’s the goal? Is it to get more views? I think views without healthy response and comments don’t mean much. But if someone responds to you, writes a thoughtful comment, that’s engagement, which is more important than views. That’s how people connect with you.

Do you see yourself as one of the ambassadors of the young Emirati voice, telling the story of the region through a more authentic lens?

It’s not for me to say. But do I feel responsible? Yes, of course. I believe the region has unbelievable stories and achievements. And I have the responsibility to give a platform to them. It’s worth every camera, every microphone we can get to tell these stories.

anamika@khaleejtimes.com

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