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In Bed With Celebrity

Is there hope when Page 3 vacuity occupies our media space?

In Bed With Celebrity
Atul Chaudhury
In Bed With Celebrity
In October ’95, I opened the first issue of Outlook with much curiosity and expectation. The Illustrated Weekly of India and Sunday, India’s best general interest magazines, had been dead or dying for some years. India Today had grown politically conservative and predictable while Frontline and The Week had not sought to expand their small largely South-based audience. The opportunity for a national liberal magazine seemed clear.

In retrospect, most successful magazines can be seen as historical necessities, emerging as responses to a deeply felt need within their societies. Harold Ross could only have created the New Yorker in the America of the ’20s, trying to fulfil the social and cultural ambition of the country’s affluent classes. The best magazines are often those that consciously challenge the ideological prejudices and tendencies of their age. By setting itself against the piety and sanctimony of Cold War culture in America, The New York Review of Books gained intellectual authority from its very first issues. Closer to home, both India Today and Sunday gained their reputation while exposing state brutality and corruption.

These magazines, Outlook’s true predecessors, weren’t radical by any means; but, given the times, they couldn’t but be anti-establishment. They emerged during a severe crisis of governance in the ’70s and ’80s, manifested by the Emergency and secessionist movements in Punjab and Kashmir. Much of their liveliness came out of their critical attitude towards India’s ruling elite and the authoritarian means it chose to deal with rising popular discontent with the political system.

In contrast, Outlook began its life at a time when large sections of the press were content to be mouthpieces of political and corporate interests. In the ’90s, the English language press was arriving at a political and intellectual consensus—now an ideological orthodoxy. It chose to expound that faster economic globalisation and a heightened nationalism not only resolved India’s urgent problems of poverty and inequality; they also held the key to Indian greatness in the 21st century.

It is strange to look back and see how fervently the English language press embraced this belief and how it set about changing, with evangelical passion, the national mood. Old ideals of austerity were strenuously mocked—a rejection reflected by the advent of Page 3 in the English language press in the mid-’90s. Suddenly, as Deng Xiaoping said while announcing China’s about-turn, it was glorious to be rich.

It helped if you were famous and beautiful as well. Bizarrely, beauty queens came to represent Indian excellence, part of the country’s aspirations for international eminence that information technology and call centre tycoons now advance slightly more persuasively. The withdrawal of government from the crucial sectors of agriculture, public health and education, the cuts in poverty eradication programmes, growing brutality in Kashmir—none of this seemed to matter much.

I expected Outlook to be different, not least because it was edited by Vinod Mehta. Mehta had begun his career in the ’70s, just as English language magazine journalism entered what seems now its golden age. M.J. Akbar edited Sunday; Aroon Purie presided over a stable of bright young journalists at India Today; Jug Suraiya brought out Junior Statesman; and an improbably young Vir Sanghvi moved impressively from Bombay to Imprint to Sunday. Mixing glamour with literature, Pritish Nandy revived the Illustrated Weekly of India. Even Gentleman aspired to intellectual cosmopolitanism.

Mehta had contributed early to this flowering with Debonair, where, interspersed with what now appear touchingly puritanical pictures of semi-naked women, were poetry and criticism of a high quality.In Adil Jussawalla, Iqbal Masud and N.J. Nanporia, Mehta had some of the best critics and reviewers in India. At the Sunday Observer, he introduced Manjula Padmanabhan, now one of India’s best writers, and Dhiren Bhagat.

Mehta’s publications seemed to easily embrace a particular Indian modernity found only in Mumbai: liberal individualism, alertness to style and indifference to political power. His refusal to compromise with corporate or political bosses in subsequent jobs seemed admirable. So the news that he was launching a newsmagazine made me hopeful. Ten years on, it’s with reluctance that I leave the task of praising Outlook to others and choose to strike a bit of a discordant note in these birthday celebrations.

Clearly, unlike many of his counterparts, Mehta has not cosied up to politicians or settled into television punditry. He did not relent in his opposition to the BJP, despite virulent outbursts from patriotic Indians in the US. Nevertheless, much political reporting in Outlook is gossipy and essentially repetitive, mostly describing who’s upset with whom and who’s likely to do what consequently. One still has to go to the left-wing Frontline to get a sense of the ideological currents and eddies behind the intrigues and defections of Indian politics.

Outlook bravely opposed the BJP’s nuclear tests in 1998, but it has remained unaccountably timid on Kashmir. On economic matters, the magazine has failed to uncover India’s many corporate skeletons—the cover story on Sahara came too late and didn’t go deep enough. Frequent articles by and interviews of Arundhati Roy do not compensate for the lack of sustained attention to the issues she and others raise. Not surprisingly, Outlook did not escape the intellectual fiasco of last year’s Lok Sabha elections: like much of the English language press, it was exposed as out of touch with the aspirations and frustrations of a majority of Indians.

But it’s Outlook’s coverage of the arts that’s disappointed most. The quality of reviewing in the English language press has declined alarmingly even as Indian writing in English diversifies, new TV channels proliferate and contemporary Indian art and Bollywood films acquire international reputation. Here one expected much from Mehta. But he has introduced no new Iqbal Masud or Chidananda Dasgupta, critics indifferent to hype and capable of cogent argument.

Perhaps this is impossible given that Outlook rarely reviews television, has barely two pages on new books—a quarter of which is taken by a gossip column—and relegates films to a corner in a page covering the antics of C-grade celebrities.

More disturbingly, Outlook has failed to rise above the so-called Page 3 culture. After an early exposé on fashion designers, it chose to indulge the fashionistas, TV and Bollywood starlets and other pseudo-celebs who seem tailor-made for Private Eye-like satire. Outlook produced impressive coverage of the Gujarat pogrom, starvation deaths and the suicides in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. But much of this good work is rendered morally incoherent by its hectic list-making (best restaurants, colleges, etc) and its preoccupation with the freakish and sensationalist aspects of metropolitan life (women who pay men for sex).

Outlook here seems to be aping American newsmagazines. But even in the US, where the middle class readership of Time or Newsweek is in a majority, the obsessions with fame, sex and money are remote from most people’s lives; and enough mainstream media fora point them out as vulgar and inane.

But humourless social climbing seems a sacred duty in metropolitan India these days. Certainly, anything that stokes middle-class fantasies and manages to hide the darker side of economic reforms is profitable.Not surprisingly, the unshackling of the Indian economy and the enriching of Indian cities has failed to lead most English language print media to intellectual independence and insight—the small, besieged English language press in Pakistan is far livelier on any given day. Falling way below the high standards they set in the ’70s and ’80s, Indian magazines presently seem vulnerable to globalisation’s worse delusions and clichés. Thus, the recent trivialities of Thomas Friedman can go largely unchallenged; and a vacuous culture of celebrity—Page 3 its most garish manifestation—is given disproportionate space in once respectable fora of inquiry and debate.

Outlook has done much better than many of its counterparts. But, on the whole, it has not bucked the general trend, tending to flatter rather than challenge its readers. This populism has earned the magazine more subscribers and advertising revenue. This is not an inconsiderable achievement. Faced with the internet and TV, most newsmagazines everywhere struggle to survive. Perhaps, entering its second decade as a financially viable entity, Outlook can now acquire the moral and intellectual authority it has possessed only fitfully so far. It is a harder task than making money; but it is what Outlook may be best remembered for in the long run.

(Pankaj Mishra is the author most recently of An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World.)


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