From running 10 kilometres from his workplace in Noida Sector 16 to his home in Barola to running to and from television studios, 19-year-old army aspirant Pradeep Mehra’s life seems to have made a 360-degree turn overnight. A day after featuring in a viral video shot and shared by filmmaker Vinod Kapri, the young teen from Almora, Uttarakhand, who works at a McDonald’s outlet, is all over news. The video, which shows Mehra running to stay fit in order to get into the Indian army, won many hearts on social media. The original video on Twitter by Kapri alone has clocked in 10 million views in just over two days. The video is all over Facebook as well as YouTube and Kapri even got into a copyright battle with Red FM Bengaluru that apparently claimed ownership of the video and sent erroneous copyright notices to people uploading the video on YouTube.
While Kapri may be fending off sharks on the internet, TV channels smell blood quicker. As soon as the video hit a few million views, all the leading news channels descended upon him, much like sharks to prey. What ensued was a series of television interviews of the befuddled young boy who was repeatedly asked intrusive questions about his life and even made to run inside the studio. Spirited editors cut and mixed the shots with the bits from Kapri’s video to create their own versions to rake in some of the views. Hindi, as well as English national news media, had found its latest lab rat - yet another social media sensation to fawn (read obsess) over, dissect and eventually discard when the news cycle moves on. After all, stardom today is as long-lived as the attention span of a Gen Z teen.
According to later posts made by Kapri, Mehra was apparently ‘picked up’ from his home by some ‘news wallas’ (media persons) belonging to a leading national media channel. He was apparently made to wait for two hours in the studio before being put on air. Once on air, he was asked to demonstrate his love for running — by literally running inside the studio. Kapri pointed out that Mehra works a day shift at McDonald’s which starts at 12 pm but that the news channels had no interest in Mehra’s job or livelihood. Several irate netizens raised objections to this insensitive media frenzy.
Such insanity from #media houses for #TRP!#PradeepMehra may or may not join the Army. But the media hounding of this overnight sensation shows that folks will do anything for TRP, even if it means holding the guy back from his work shift.— Akshat Saraf 🇮🇳 (@AkshatSaraf) March 21, 2022
Stop This! @vinodkapri @sakshijoshii pic.twitter.com/fPvi0zVPVQ
But for TV news channels, this is a familiar deal. Television shows make profits based on TRP and for most news channels, there is no bigger god than TRP and no method too low-brow or unethical if it ensures eyeballs. Be it dragging the name of the dead through the mud like in case of Sridevi’s death (channels used props like bathtubs and wine glasses to make their point), to becoming judge-jury-executioner in the Sushant Singh Rajput death case, news channels in India do not shy away from doubling down on cliches and the obvious, sacrificing all journalistic values and instead resorting to undignified tactics that not only misrepresent news but also harm the victims of such media madness, living or dead.
And when it comes to social media stars in India, many of whom come from humble backgrounds of tier two and three cities and villages, the invasive media glare can be invasive and even detrimental.
In 2019, West Bengal’s Ranu Mondal went viral after she was filmed singing a popular Hindi song by Lata Mangeshkar on a platform. Media channels and brands quickly jumped on the bandwagon and soon, Ranu Mondal became a household name. But eventually, reports of Mondal being trolled crept surfaced. First, photos of her make-up (ahead of a tv appearance) went viral, garnering thousands of rude comments. Then, stories of Mondal allegedly ‘misbehaving’ with media persons went viral. Her ‘fans’ suddenly turned hostile and accused Mondal of getting ‘airs’ and acting like an elite - a harsh reminder of her class and where she came from. After all, tantrums are only the birthright of star kids, not women found on railway platforms.
Mondal is not the only one. With the rise in social media, scores of such ‘talents’ have been scouted from across India and brought on to tv channels, only to be made into a spectacle for pop consumption. But what happens to these social media stars once the cameras turn away? While the social media attention and face time on TV news helps rake in temporary benefits and job offers (Ranu Mondal went on to record songs with music director Himesh Reshammiya and even released her own song), many are left with no option but to return to oblivion. One of the most heartbreaking examples is the case of ‘Warrior Aaji’, an 85-year-old Pune woman who went viral for a video showing off her martial arts skills. A deft Lathi Kathi performer, Shanta Balu Pawar’s story was highlighted by all national media channels in 2020. Then Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh even met with the old woman and offered her Rs 1 lakh. Other organisations and independent celebrities too reached out to the woman. By 2021, a report by The Indian Express found that Balu was back to performing on the streets. Once the fame had ended, people and news channels forgot all about her.
Another concerning aspect of the media circus around Pradeep Mehra, the runner from Noida, is the fetishisation of poverty and class struggle. Mehra’s video was shared first as an inspiration for the youth. The narrative, however, soon shifted to his class and social strata. His feat became more impressive because he was underprivileged. This kind of poverty porn is not just perpetuated by news channels but most television and reality show creators who are constantly scavenging for sad backstories. Rabble-rousing, tear-jerker journalism that attacks a person’s emotions rather than intellect has increasingly replaced rational media in India. And they serve an important point - to keep audiences engaged in inane and inconsequential human victories and neglect the larger socio-political and economic questions that the media should instead be asking. By repeatedly serving up such content, news media channels have attuned audiences to devour pain and poverty as virtues.
Not that the media attention is bad in all cases. Mehra, for instance, has been receiving a lot of love from people across the country and has even received gifts from popular people. Photographer Atul Kasbekar sent him a brand new pair of Puma shoes along with a sports kit. However, the constant media hounding seems to have left the teen a little stumped. In another video shot and shared by Vinod Kapri in his car, Mehra made appeals to the media to allow him to focus on his goal and not bother him.
The boy’s appeal should be a wake up call for media channels circling like vultures in search of talented people to exploit. And also to those people jumping with joy and validation at watching the underprivileged struggle for even basic needs. There are many Pradeep Mehras in this country waiting to be discovered. Those shamelessly promoting the boy’s struggle on their own platforms for profits are often the first to turn a blind eye to issues that millions of migrant workers like Mehra face every day. It is easy to sit on a moral high ground while appropriating someone’s struggle for some views in the name of philanthropy. But true support lies in working toward improving infrastructures that can help further young individuals like Mehra without the need for such media brouhaha.