Staying Informed in an Undeclared Emergency

On Tuesday, concurrent raids were made on the houses of activists in various parts of India, and five of them were arrested, allegedly for their Maoist connections to the Bhima-Koregaon riots if the police is to be believed. It isn’t — none of the arrested people seem to have any relation with Bhima-Koregaon (contrary to the allegations of involvement in the violence, all of them have decades-long engagement in working for the upliftment of the poor and the downtrodden; for the dalits, adivasis, farmers and other marginalised voices). Yet, the mainstream media reported them as such. The word ‘alleged’ was barely used, or used without conviction — what is this but a media trial?

Headline in the leading national daily Hindustan Times [29 August 2018]


The Malayalam language daily Maathrubhoomi reads, ‘Maoist connection: Raid in 6 cities. 5 human right activists arrested’ [29 August 2018]

Hindi language newspaper Hindustan reads, ‘Raids Across the Country on Naxal Supporters’ [29 August 2018]

What else was amiss in the manner of reportage about the topic is the fact the raids were conducted unlawfully, often in the absence of the residents and always without a producible charge against them — an exploitation of the Unlawful Activity (Prevention) Act, i.e, the anti-terror legislation — or how some of the arrested were made to sign documents written in languages that neither they nor the magistrate understood.

In these times of ‘Undeclared Emergency’, as it is increasingly being called, the mainstream media seems to be unbothered about the visible dissipation of civil liberties. This is because with their corporate and political overlords impacting their neutrality, they do not possess these freedoms themselves. In times like these, and in the hands of political parties, the media can itself become a vicious tool of spreading selective bias and propaganda: televised news is susceptible to unprecedented sensationalism, and print to the distorting forces of language.

This, of course, is what is happening today. With a major section of the mainstream media being owned by corporates and people with political leanings, selective or biased reportage and the propagandization of facts begin way before the news goes out into the world. This is a new form of censorship that we are slowly getting used to, and just as gradually raising the temperature in a boiling pot can kill one inside before they can begin to suspect it, our rights to freedom of expression and dissent are dying without us knowing.

When even the media — the very tool of shaping millions of people’s opinion — is tampered with, what does one do? To blindly trust the mainstream media at this juncture would be a blunder against the just democratic function of constitutional rights. I say this because groups have faced public persecution before solely on the basis of the media’s heavily opinionated distortion of events, and despite having done nothing wrong. We have already seen what an uninformed or biased media coverage can do to issues: think, for instance, of student protests at JNU, and the more recent ones at Ramjas College, that were appropriated by media coverage into ideological battlegrounds, into debates on Nationalism.

For those of us reading this — those with the privilege of having access to an extra slice of technology — it is a possibility to look at independent alternatives or do our own research, and to combat fake news, misreporting and propaganda using the wide powers of the internet. But how long before that power is also snatched away? Moreover, for millions of people on the margins such as the poor and the inhabitants of remote areas — and even the uninitiated, for they are on the margins of knowledge — regional print and televised news is the only source of information. For them, independent media and tools for research are inaccessible; neither are they expected to conduct research when our belief system inculcates in them them that the media is a fact-reporting machinery. And hence begins a process of brainwashing the public that ultimately ends with the crowning of fascism on all seats of power.

However, conformity cannot be manufactured for those who dare speak against it. If the media cannot express our dissent, we ourselves will have to rise for it — and rise before the foundations of our Democracy are made to shrivel and die.


On the 28th of August 2018, a wave of multi-city raids conducted by the Pune (urban) Police led to the arrests of five rights activists namely Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, P Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira. All the aforementioned have been vocal in their criticism of the government in power before. Their arrests come after a string of attacks on the country’s rationalists and other significantly alarming events, and have raised wide outcry from intellectuals and civil society.

Not Sanju, But the Media: How the Sanjay Dutt biopic shifts its dishonesty onto other shoulders

Celebrated director Rajkumar Hirani’s biopic of controversial Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt, Sanju, has hit the cinemas and been declared a massive box office success. However, not quite delivering the honesty promised by it, Sanju is Ranbir Kapoor’s shot to critical acclaim at best and a highly defensive hagiography of Dutt at its worst. But far more disappointing is the film’s lack of genuine efforts into creating a case for Dutt’s innocence. Instead, it relies heavily on techniques for inducing the audiences’ tendency to sympathise, and pushes all the blame over to the media.

 

In reality, this act of the filmmakers feeding our disgust for media sensationalism is also snidely influencing us into seeing the actor’s vices and misdeeds through the rosy lens of sympathy – and even endearment.

 

This strategic move against the media is underscored in the credit song of the movie, ‘Baba Bolta Hai Bas Ho Gaya’. The song has Ranbir Kapoor appearing alongside the very actor he plays in the movie: together the two Sanjus poke fun at the media for allegedly spreading fake news about celebrities; taunting their ‘sources’ and their exaggerations which create masala out of thin air to serve to the public; and finally, thrusting their newspapers straight at the camera. This slamming of the media could not be better timed, for the issue of fake news is indeed a pertinent question being recognised today. But for a movie like Sanju doing so, the reasons are not so noble.

The smartest part of this full-frontal attack at the media is that nothing it now says about the nature of the film itself will be paid any heed to. Of course, the primary goal of the move is to absolve Dutt of any blame whatsoever – and paint a misunderstood-at-best image of the star – by shifting it to the easiest possible target. Because a sizeable section of the Indian media is indeed deplorably sensationalist, anyone feels drawn to the idea of cursing at it. In reality, however, this act of the filmmakers feeding our disgust for media sensationalism is also snidely influencing us into seeing the actor’s vices and misdeeds through the rosy lens of sympathy – and even endearment.

[Video: the credit song to ‘Sanju’ pokes fun at a sensationalist media]

 

In fact, cinematic liberties; quite like the question marks used in news headlines which have been so attacked in the film; are a great way to simply do away with some crucial facts and details from the biopic in order to paint a rather likeable, honest-but-flawed image of the superstar. The very creation of emotional appeal in the film that makes it entertaining also renders it merely an appeal that bases itself solely on the audiences’ emotional understanding of the star. No stone is left unturned to portray him as an ordinary man – indeed, from ‘Sanjay Dutt’ he is changed completely into ‘Sanju’, with nothing in the movie showing the effects of wealth and stardom on his personality where there must have been at least some.

Even those things that the Indian society at large considers to be definitive signs of vice are presented to viewers as misguided virtue on the part of Sanju: from drugs and womanizing, to his connections to the underworld; things that are normally considered signs of a detestable character are shown as acceptable ‘mistakes’ through elements of comedy and fetishisation, even as these are not accepted as mistakes for literally anyone else who commits them — not such an ordinary man, then, is he?

Dutt’s character in the movie is essentially a man-child, who is just under so much pressure of living up to his parents’ expectations and legacies. This is made clear in an abundance of excessively emotional, and even slightly artificial scenes in the movie.

The angle of Dutt’s trouble with pressure and ‘bad choices’ is played out from the very beginning of the film, which starts with the launch of the star’s acting career and his drug addiction amidst the failing health and eventual death of his mother, the legendary actress Nargis. The first half of the movie follows only the trajectory of his spiraling into addiction, peppered with enough scenes of friendship and comedy that not only entertain adequately, but also ensure that the audience attaches itself to the character. This is because the second half relies purely on this attachment and subsequently, on the sympathy it is able to generate for Sanju – who, through a quick succession of events and scenes is convicted for possessing an AK-56 assault rifle and a hand in the 1993 Mumbai serial bombings, and then is able to acquit himself of any mal-intentions (and terrorist activity) by proving that at its worst, everything was the fault of the media’s thirst for creating masala. The AK-56s were acquired to protect his family from the threat of harm from those against father Sunil Dutt’s humanitarian work post-Babri Masjid: in the end, ‘Sanju’ is just a man deeply sensitive and emotional, who cares for his family and wishes to protect it.

 

Cinematic liberties; quite like the ‘question marks’ used in news headlines which have been so attacked in the film; are a great way to simply do away with some crucial facts and details from the biopic in order to paint a rather likeable, honest-but-flawed image of the superstar.

 

This image of the family man is, too carefully constructed through certain cinematic liberties of omission. While Dutt’s third wife, Maanyata (played by actress Dia Mirza), is portrayed as his rock throughout the scenes from the movie’s present; all mention of his first two wives and his eldest daughter is conveniently missing. The strong ‘differences’ – both personal and political – between Dutt and his siblings; especially Priya Dutt; are also omitted through the marginal presence of his sisters in the movie. After all, the very ploy of showing how Dutt only acquired the guns for his father and sisters’ protection requires all of them to not only have a great relationship with the star, but also be dependent on him. Priya in the film is bereft of any dialogues or real presence, but increasingly seen accompanying her father and brother in scenes from the second half – a deliberate move to counter the reality of their relationship. The movie also fails to mention the (later withdrawn) statement made by Dutt to the police about possessing some licensed guns apparently due to his love for hunting sports, in addition to the AK-56s. This omission can possibly be explained by the fact that the statement makes blurry the need for acquiring the weapon which he was convicted for possessing in the first place. Yet, in spite of all these discrepancies, the blame for dishonesty is put squarely on the media since the burden of proof of honesty is too much for the movie to attempt to address. It is notable that even Anushka Sharma’s character as the well-known biographer sought after by Dutt is unconvincing and relies solely on the ‘truth’ of the story that Sanju narrates to her himself. The logical end is that since it takes this biographer no more proof to believe in Dutt’s honesty, it shouldn’t take the audience anymore, either. It is ironic that the media, which reports news mostly on the basis of similarly verifiable sources, is attacked for doing the very thing by the film which the film itself does.

But perhaps the greatest device in the movie for Dutt’s redemption in the eyes of the public is his face in the movie: Ranbir Kapoor’s performance in his subsuming completely into the personality of Sanju overshadows most other things – good and bad – about the movie. Indeed, he makes Sanju’s vices and his mannerisms appear almost charming. Of course, the role of the charming man-child is Kapoor’s strong suit, but despite the limited script he does bring the character fully to life – any less than this performance would have likely led to the sympathetic angle falling through. In that case, the only thing that keeps Sanju‘s attack on the media standing and even immune to question is the convincing power of Ranbir’s acting.

All of this is not to say that there seems to be no truth in Sanju‘s attacks on the media’s sensationalist tendencies itself, but to put all the blame entirely on the news is too escapist of a movie that earnestly claims honesty. Percase if Sanju was presented more as the realistic ‘ordinary’ man that he was intended to be and less as the victim/saint, there would be more credibility awarded to this lambasting of the media. After all, there can’t be news without the newsmaker.


 

What did you think about Sanju and its take on the media? Feel free to share your views in the comments below!