Let me confess, straight off the bat, that I have not seen a single movie starring the late Sushant Singh Rajput. Since I have virtually stopped seeing Hindi films after the 70s, even the Shah Rukh Khans, Aamir Khans and Salman Khans have passed me by, like the idle wind. They are a closed book to me. Therefore, when the news broke that the young, aspiring star of the silver screen SSR (let us accord him the honour of an abbreviation, a la SRK) had taken his own life, I received the information with a degree of academic consternation and sadness. What his near and dear ones must be going through can only be imagined. My only recollection of SSR, given my interest in cricket, is confined to the M.S. Dhoni biopic, in which the young actor had portrayed the cricketing legend to wide public acclaim. That must have taken some doing because the immortally abbreviated MSD is a sporting icon the likes of which only a handful of Bollywood actors could have dreamt of coming close to. The actor had much to lose and little to gain in cinematically stepping into the former captain’s big boots. All said and done, the young actor’s untimely and unnatural passing has raised many an eyebrow while the cops across two important states of India are at each other’s throats, accusations and counter accusations flying thick and fast, the air generally reeking of suspected foul play, conspiracy theories, cover ups, financial finaglings and other unsavoury areas of speculation. The incident needed to be reported, given due prominence and thereafter, quietly moved into the background while the investigating authorities did their stuff.
However, that is not the way with our media, and I am here referring to our television news channels in particular. Once they smell scandal, they are like a rabid dog with the bit between its teeth, refusing to let go. For over two months now, virtually every channel has been monomaniacally obsessed with the life and times, not to mention the death and the dubious circumstances surrounding it, of young Sushant Singh Rajput. Covid has become so rampant it has almost ceased to be a talking point, achieving topical herd immunity; Ayodhya, after a brief flourish has taken a back seat; the Rafale jet has all but flown the coop; the fury of the monsoon floods is sporadically featured (to show there’s no ill feeling) and the near-moribund Rajasthan imbroglio has revived briefly thanks to a late intervention by the Gandhi siblings. Add to that the plane crash in Kozhikode, in which less than 20 people died, hence the media lost interest after a couple of days. In fact, I was completely taken aback when one particular channel, known for its undisguised support of the ruling dispensation at the Centre, headed up by an anchor whose second name is Garrulity, completely ignored the Ayodhya fanfare in its prime time show, on the very day the ‘Bhumi Pujan’ was in full swing, with our Prime Minister leading the ceremonies. I could hardly believe my eyes. Has there been a rift in the lute? Is there something amiss? I smell a big, fat bandicoot. Instead the said channel and a few others were reporting, 24 x 7, every single, often irrelevant minutiae of the SSR case. That continues apace even today, over two months after the tragic event. So much so that the average viewer has been completely turned off the subject, and forced to switch channels (if they can find one) to something entirely different, like the audience-deprived, sanitised Test series being played in England against the West Indies (just concluded) and now, Pakistan. Those who are into cable television greatly prefer its variegated options for entertainment of every possible description. I send up a silent prayer of thanks that the IPL has been given the green signal to be played in the Middle East.
Under the circumstances, why would anyone want to gawp, day in and day out, at half a dozen talking heads going hammer and tongs at each other about whether Rhea Chakraborty and her cohorts have stashed away huge sums of money at the expense of the deceased SSR’s recently acquired wealth, or if the poor little rich girl is being made a tragic victim of circumstances and being thrown cruelly to the wolves? Even the actor’s personal diary has been dragged with a fine tooth comb. The debate rages on and moves into more sinister territory suggesting the possibility of foul play with some big names from the film industry being slyly introduced into the discussion. To top it all, it’s now a right royal slanging match between the cops of Bihar and the gendarmes of Mumbai. The gloves are off and it’s a no-holds-barred contest with invective being freely exchanged. How can any channel resist this real life screenplay?
For their part, the television channels claim they are only doing their bounden duty in their attempt to ask the tough questions to help the nation get at the truth. They claim ‘the nation wants to know.’ Frankly I think the nation has had it ‘up to here’ and is sick to the back teeth with all the media hungama. The saving grace is that a couple of channels are still leading their newscasts with the China Syndrome or the continuing Covid crisis, which in their infinite wisdom, they consider more critical to our lives than Rhea Chakraborty’s to-ing and fro-ing from the police station. Who knows, even the Independence Day parade might be given short shrift! To add to the general melee, SSR’s ex-manager, Disha Salian hurls herself off a 14th floor balcony just a few days before the actor’s apparent suicide, setting off further speculation on l’affaire SSR. A new version has it that she might have been raped and pushed off the balcony. As Agatha Christie might have put it, the plot thickens.
While all that is happening, it is not the self-righteous ‘truth seekers’ and their round-the-clock vigil that seems to be taking us nowhere, that gets my goat. The root of the problem, as television consumers, is the sheer inability of the TV producers to cotton on to the fact that there is something called the law of diminishing returns. If they insist on peddling the same thing, at the expense of almost everything else, then surely they must realise that people are going to turn the other way. Speaking for myself, I would much rather scan the morning newspapers to get a noise-free, balanced presentation of the news, which I can read at my own leisure without Arnab, Rajdeep, Sambit, Supriya, Sudhanshu, General Bakshi, the Poonawallas and sundry self-important individuals, all caterwauling and screaming over each other disharmoniously. Interviews with the actor’s physical trainer, gym instructor, head cook and bottle washer – they are all grist to the media’s insatiable mill. I sometimes wonder. Don’t the programme anchors ever watch recorded replays of their programmes? And cringe?* Or have they become completely inured to the madness? Is this the way they wish to project India to its citizens and to the rest of the world?
I have to arrive at the inescapable conclusion that they are fully aware of what they are doing, that it is the only way to increase their TRPs and the concomitant advertising revenues, and they have no intention of changing a winning formula. If that is what their research is telling them, I will have to question the intelligence of the average Indian viewer. Notwithstanding, I will not place the blame at the door of the viewer for his and her appalling taste. It is the programme designers who need to look at themselves critically before screaming from the rooftops that their channel is the most watched (our viewership is 757% more than our nearest rival!). Frankly, who gives a rat’s ass, as the Yanks love saying. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the channel with the lowest viewership probably attracts the most discerning viewers. That’s food for thought. As William Hodding Carter II, turn of the 20th century American author and journalist said, ‘Television news is like a lightning flash. It makes a loud noise, lights up everything around it, leaves everything else in darkness and then is suddenly gone.’
* As we go to press, we hear that Congress spokesperson, Rajiv Tyagi, died suddenly of a cardiac arrest soon after a particularly stormy and acrimonious TV debate. Tragic as that is, for his party members to attribute his untimely demise to the insane verbal fisticuffs on the idiot box, might be stretching things a bit. However, it does tragically underscore the point that we could all do with a bit more civility and decorum on these so-called debates.