For weeks now, the obituary of TV news has been written by many media observers. The sensational, ethically flawed and, at times, totally inane coverage of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s tragic death is being seen as the last rites of a medium in seemingly terminal decline. But is the maddening 24*7 breaking news whirl — trapped in a vicious cycle of ratings, revenues, hyper-competition and failed regulation — the sole entity that has been exposed by the theatre of the absurd that the case has become? Are other institutions entirely blameless?
Take the role of investigating agencies. When was the last time three of India’s top national agencies — Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Enforcement Directorate (ED) and Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) — invested so much time and energy in the case of an actor’s death? ED speedily initiated a money laundering case against Rajput’s girlfriend, actor Rhea Chakraborty and her family based on an FIR filed by his family in Bihar with an allegation — since proven to be false — that Rs 15 crore had been stolen from the actor’s account.
Based purely on WhatsApp conversations — selectively leaked initially by ED — NCB then registered a case against Rhea, her brother and Rajput’s house help. It would seem that procurement, consumption and financing of even 59 grams of marijuana for an actor is enough for NCB to make a slew of arrests. Whatever happened to NCB’s original mandate of catching those who head inter-state and international drug mafias?
The case has unfolded in an almost fantastical manner: A prima facie suicide is suddenly investigated as abetment to suicide, then is just as mysteriously claimed to be murder. The narrative swirls from nepotism in Bollywood moves to mafia connections to financial crime to political involvement to now narcotics. Caught in its coils, Bihar and Mumbai Police bad-mouth each other with little effort at coordination. The Supreme Court steps in and orders a CBI inquiry, raising more troubling questions over jurisdiction in such criminal matters.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room: The role of the political class in using the case for score-settling and election propaganda. Every political party in Bihar has embraced the actor as an iconic figure in an attempt to invoke “Bihari pride” ahead of the state elections. Forget the plight of thousands of Bihari students trapped in flood-hit areas and struggling to give their IIT-JEE and NEET entrance exams. Forget the predicament of migrant labour without wages for months. A campaign for justice for an actor is the perfect distraction. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a partner in the ruling Bihar coalition, has even printed posters and got “Sushant masks” made to drive the message home.
In Maharashtra too, the BJP has used the case to try and corner the ruling alliance, in particular the Shiv Sena. That former Maharashtra chief minister, Narayan Rane, chose to make unsubstantiated charges of rape and murder and even sought to draw in a “youth minister” into the alleged conspiracy is a reflection of the coarseness of public life. The attempt is obvious: Use the case to embarrass the Shiv Sena leadership and hope that the rickety three-party coalition collapses.
What is more disconcerting is the manner in which civil society has responded. Look at the film industry to which Rajput and Rhea belong. Barring a few brave voices, a majority of the elite stars are conspicuously silent, almost frightened into submission by the fear of being trolled. If you can’t speak up when an entire industry is being demonised as a den of vice, then the timidity of the rich and powerful movers and shakers of cinema will come to haunt you forever. The vacuum is being filled by self-publicists such as Kangana Ranaut who obviously has her own political agenda. That the Shiv Sena is now targeting Ranaut is another example of how the public discourse has got totally messed up.
Finally, the viewers who lampoon TV news have much to answer for too. In these unrelenting Covid-19 times, when the economy is in sharp decline, jobs are being lost and a belligerent China is sabre-rattling on the border, the average middle-class viewer is taking voyeuristic delight in tracking every twist in the case. Instead of focusing on the issue of drug-taking, mental illness and depression that were at the heart of the actor’s existential crisis, as dutifully reported by the psychiatrists treating him, the spotlight has been on salacious gossip and even fabricated news. Sadly, if the spectacle of prime time Big Boss style reality tv is the escapist fantasy for a dystopian new India, then why expect any better?
Post-script: Last week in Mumbai, after interviewing the much-sought-after Chakraborty, I went for a morning walk along Marine Drive with friends. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) numbers had just seen unprecedented contraction and I thought that my business-inclined friends would provide me insights on the faltering economy. “Forget the economy, tell me do you think Rhea is innocent or guilty?” a friend shot back. It makes you wonder, are we hurtling towards becoming a banana republic of manic voyeurs?
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal