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When The Nib Was Straight
The irony is hard to miss. For those who can recall an earlier time, that is. A time when hold-all phrases like ‘infotainment’ and the ‘media’ had not yet gained currency; when there were films and there was the press and the latter was wont to use words like ‘mindless’, ‘regressive’, ‘repetitive’, ‘cliched’ and ‘formula’ to describe the former.
How the tables have been turned! Today, the news media, including respectable broadsheets, appear like handmaidens to the film industry. News cycles spin on new releases and fleets of OB vans stand on high alert to record every minor flutter in stardom. The glamour world has the news media in its thrall. But the transformation of the news media is just one part of the story.
The other part is about the shift in the commercial film industry. While the news media has been dumbing down, embracing trivialisation with a vengeance, Bollywood, the erstwhile factory for assembly line potboilers, has thrown off its straitjacket and grown a conscience. The masala film may still be its forte but a youthful, sophisticated breed of filmmakers riding the multiplex wave is tackling a range of contemporary concerns as well: dyslexia, exploitation, organised crime and youthful angst—serious subjects that once would have been the preserve of the sensitive, investigative journalist but which today find little more than superficial expression in the news media. And what’s more—here’s the really ironic part—Bollywood, from its new, high-minded perch, is taking the news media to task.
Bollywood trends reflect the public mood. And if an anti-media mood persists, it would be in its interest to pay attention.
Take this year’s official Oscar entry, Peepli [Live], which casts the Indian news media as a pack of bumbling, insensitive hearse-chasers. Or take Ram Gopal Varma’s Rann (2010), which had a media baron’s son enabling a politician and an industrialist to topple a prime minister. Or the Shahrukh Khan-Juhi Chawla starrer Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000), in which two rival media honchos acceded to the public hanging of an innocent man for profit. Or Madhur Bhandarkar’s Page Three (2005), which critiqued the news media’s overwhelming obsession with vapid celebrities. Satirical, darkly humorous and occasionally over the top. Yet, singly, each film is an indictment of current trends in the news media; together they represent a growing tendency to identify the news media as the new bad guy on the block.
Have things really come to this pass? Can the news media, with its feisty, noisy, and often glorious contributions to Indian democracy, be thrown in the unholy company of zamindars, smugglers, money-lenders, global dons, rapists, land sharks and crooked politicians—the roll call of villainous types in Hindi cinema? Does the business of providing news require its professionals to betray the trust of the gullible, exploit victims, deceive the public and work knowingly against the national interest? One would imagine that any self-respecting news media professional would be appalled by such accusations. And yet, can they be ignored?
In the late ’80s I was asked by a newsmagazine to write a cover story on the emergence of the politician as the new villain in Indian cinema. It seemed a pretty straightforward story: the examples of films about evil politicians were plentiful and the cover picture of a smarmy Gulshan Grover in khadi seemed to say it all. What was startling to me was the vehemence with which the politicians dismissed the trend, calling it an exaggeration and a distortion of reality.
It is not hard to see where putting on these blinkers has taken the political class. And it is likely that the news media would be equally badly served if it were to ignore the current trend. For even at its silliest, Bollywood trends reflect the public mood. And if the mood today has turned against the news media, it would be in its interest to pay attention.
And by paying attention it might, hard as it seems, find reasons for hope rather than despair. For, if one looks closely, it becomes clear that there is a significant difference in the way the news media has been depicted and the way villains are usually portrayed in the cinema. The usual way—if one were to attempt a definition—would probably be to summon up images of Ajit, Prem Chopra, Ranjeet, Amrish Puri and others, actors who fit their snarling, gruff-voiced personae onto various types of activities already deemed to be evil. The cinematic portrayal of the news media is significantly different.
In all the movies mentioned above, the bad is clearly set against the good in the same profession. Amitabh Bachchan in Rann plays an uncompromising media baron whose very credibility and reach is used to sell a falsehood and the wrong is righted by a quixotic rookie. In Page Three the young reporter played by Konkona Sen experiences a growing unease with the malpractices in her profession as does Shahrukh Khan, the ace reporter in Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani. And even in Peepli [Live], the most scathing exposition of the ills ailing the news media so far, the ambitious local reporter finds his conscience tugging him towards the real human story.
One would suggest then that if the news media is emerging as the new villainous presence on the silver screen, it is still, and perhaps unprecedentedly, a villain with a chance. Unlike the smuggler and the politician who have been tarred beyond redemption, the news media is being reminded of its abandoned ideals, ideals one presumes that are still alive in the public imagination and which are perceived as being junked for advertising and trps.
Can the news media haul itself back from the edge of the precipice? Perhaps it needs to remind itself that there was a time, not so long ago, when it was pointing a finger at its counterpart in the media, the film industry, accusing it of working with only the box office in mind. Today, it’s the turn of the film industry to remind the media that it too has a responsibility that goes well beyond entertaining the man on the street.