2011 and 2012 have been years of bereavement for Bollywood. In a short span of time, we have lost four legends, who will remain immortalized by their glorious work. Shammi Kapoor, Dev Anand, Rajesh Khanna and Yash Chopra collectively defined more than an era in the film industry. Pick any memorable film from the 1960s and early 1970s and there’s more than a fair chance that one of these stalwarts was associated with it. Yash Chopra’s career, of course, extends way beyond the 70s, with his swansong releasing this coming Tuesday.
As an ardent fan of cinema in general and these legends in particular, I have been deeply saddened and disillusioned by how the media, especially of the electronic variety, has handled the news of their death. I vividly remember the media coverage of Raj Kapoor’s death in 1988, when we operated in a single channel scenario. Doordarshan literally made you live the tragedy. There was grief and somberness in the coverage, laced with oodles of grace and maturity. Importantly, the coverage went on over almost a week, with news slowly giving way to analysis and then to retrospective tributes.
Things have really changed in the last 20 years. I understand the news channel obsession with ‘breaking news’ and ‘exclusives’ to an extent (and that’s another topic altogether). But to see the demise of a film legend being reduced to breaking news and exclusives is beyond comprehension.
The truth is: News coverage of famous entertainment celebrities passing away has become a ‘byte fest’.The formula is to get other famous people, most of whom have not even achieved half as much as the one who passed away, to speak about the legend. Filters like articulation and relevant credentials don’t seem to matter. It’s clearly a carpet-bombing approach, where you try and contact as many talking heads as possible, and settle for the ones who agree to come on camera and give you a byte.
I can understand listening to Amitabh Bachchan, Shashi Kapoor, Shah Rukh Khan or Sridevi speak about Yash Chopra on such an occasion. But why an audience would like to see a byte from Tanuja or Sanjay Dutt is beyond my comprehension. On occasions such as these, film authors and historians should take the forefront. But for a news channel, they don’t make for good face value.
You can choose to get the wrong people on camera, but you can at least ask them the right questions. Basic research on the background of the person who passed away, and his association with the talking head, is conspicuous by its absence. It’s almost as if the imdb/ wiki filmography has been printed and some notes have been scribbled on it. And what’s with asking: “How do you feel about his death?” Is that even a question!
Even the choice of footage leaves me flummoxed. Certain channels kept playing Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge songs in their Yash Chopra coverage. For a man who has directed 22 films, most of which have been classics or blockbusters or both, why would you choose a film he didn’t even direct! Because you don’t even know who directed it, or you use it knowingly because it is popular footage? And what can I say about calling Rajesh Khanna ‘Babu Moshai’, except: Have you ever watched Anand, dude?
The ‘programme’ names often border on being ludicrous. A channel covered Rajesh Khanna’s death live, under a program called ‘Oopar Aaka, Neeche Kaka’. Looking for alliterations and puns in tragedy is not exactly the most sensitive thing to do, but if you choose to do it, choose words that at least make some sense. The commentary is frantic, almost as if it’s a race against time. After-death is anything but that, both literally and metaphorically.
I have been questioning in my mind about why such mediocrity exists consistently. Why are almost 20 news channels not able to put up even one decent programme between them on such an occasion? Why does the best ‘coverage’ on such occasions come from channels like Sony Mix airing the best songs of the legend, than from a news channel? And what use is the archival footage gathered over years, if you don’t have the right minds to interpret it intelligently?
Part of the answer lies in laziness. Journalism, even by the admission of several senior journalists, has become lazy. Of late, Internet has made it even lazier, where you can pick up a tweet or some wiki information, and just put it out in the media. It’s the easy way out. And it’s apparently enough.
The second part of the answer lies in the quality of talent available in the newsroom itself. Whenever there has been a political tragedy, I have found our coverage fairly acceptable. That’s because most senior and seasoned TV journalists come from a political journalism lineage. In films, the sensible names like Rajeev Masand or Anupama Chopra are limited to a weekly show and an odd interview. In Hindi, even that’s a luxury.
Try and question a news channel executive on their banal coverage of any of these deaths and the oft-repeated excuse comes into play: This is what the viewer wants.
No sir! The viewer wants more, if only you cared to ask him.
This post first appeared on mxmindia.com, on my weekly column ‘TV Trail’