Where’s Our Newsroom?
Is The Newsroom Aaron Sorkin’s come-back song after The West Wing? I think it might be. I managed to get my hands on the first two episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s new drama, The Newsroom which premiered in the US on June 24th.
Now for those of you who aren’t fans of or even aware of Sorkin, he’s the person who created and wrote The West Wing (for the first four seasons), A Few Good Men and The Social Network amongst other films. He’s known for his tight screenplays and smart dialogues and also very close-to-reality depictions of the locations and people his shows are based on – whether it be the Facebook office and Zuckerburg or the White House and an imaginary President or a naval base.
I had been waiting for The Newsroom, for many reasons. One, there seem to be no well-written non-family dramas made in India. The last really good one I remember is Ji Mantriji and that was back in 2001 and it got pulled off air mid-season. Two, I was also waiting for it because it’s about a newsroom and the way the media works. Which for some reason doesn’t seem to catch the fancy of Indian TV serial writers or film producers – other than some films, which are few and far between.
The Newsroom’s trailer has been buzzing around twitter for the last month or so. And it’s a damn good trailer, like all HBO shows have. And what struck me other than the smart dialogue, was the brilliant cast Sorkin’s pulled together. Episode 1 began with a public meltdown of news anchor Will Mc Avoy (Jeff Daniels) who is referred to as the Jay Leno of news anchors (because he’s popular and doesn’t bother anyone – remind you of anyone vanilla on our news channels?). And then there is a crowd of characters. From the network boss played by Charlie Skinner to Dev Patel playing the writer of McAvoy’s blog (which McAvoy isn’t even aware exists) to Emily Mortimer as his new Executive Producer Mackenzie – who’s just returned from Peshawar, and also happens to be his ex who cheated on him.
Sorkin’s packed in everything – office gossip and politics and inter-office romance. But the focus through it all remains the news – making the news, identifying stories, breaking stories, tapping the strangest of ‘sources’. And then there are statements which we are all familiar with. McAvoy’s guest on his show tells him, “I came on this programme voluntarily”. And he replies, “I don’t have subpoena powers. Everyone comes on this programme ‘voluntarily’”. If only our anchors would say these things. But then, they are on real-time news and not Sorkin’s show. So we’ll cut them some slack.
The characters do say trite things such as, “Let’s make a good news show and make it popular”. And seem to be on a mission – to reclaim the fourth estate. The storyline of the show is hinged on Will McAvoy being encouraged and sort of empowered by McHale into making a “meaningful” news show, instead of being a “ratings whore”. By basing the show in 2010, Sorkin manages to use actual incidents like the BP oil spill and the Arizona immigration bill in the first two episodes. And to show how their fictitious channel, ACN, is one-up and better than the others – the show mentions that on the night of the BP spill, CNN instead focused on the iPhone prototype an Apple employee left in a bar.
The dialogue is witty, smart and quick. McAvoy upon hearing of a news anchor called Muhammad joining CNN, quips, “Fox hired someone with three Muhammads in his name?” The fast-paced monologues of The West Wing and The Social Network are back. But it is a tad difficult to digest that Mackenzie McHale used to report from conflict-zones, but becomes an emotional mess when faced by her ex and can’t fathom how to use the office email. There are some home-truths like spokespeople canceling at the last minute because they don’t like someone on the news team. Or the attractive female channel economist who is not taken seriously despite her doctorate, simply because she’s a hotty. Dev Patel who has quite a large role is referred to as “Punjab” simply because he’s Indian.
What The Newsroom trips over is its sanctimonious protagonists. They are just so good-hearted. They don’t care about making money or TRPs. They only care about doing what is right. They seriously state that Mc Avoy’s studio isn’t a newsroom, saying instead “that studio is a courtroom” and he is “the moral centre of the show”. There’s the slightly nauseating, “we don’t do good television. We do the news”. They are the voice of nation. We have Arnab, and Sorkin has now given America Will McAvoy. He’s like Cronkite, Anderson and Jon Stewart rolled into one. It’s a little too good to be true. But then, The West Wing was also criticised for its holier-than-thou President and White House aides.
None of this detracts from the tight screenplay or the galaxy of stars who’ve been pulled together for this series, though. I’m waiting for Jane Fonda to make an appearance as the ACN network head, who’s been shown as a ball-breaker in the trailers. And you can’t not think of Ted Turner when you see her.
The Newsroom – and the fact that I can’t watch it yet in India – also made me wonder why we seem to fall so short of writing good dramas in India. The last few good ones which didn’t devolve into family sagas were Nukkad and Ji Mantriji. I cannot remember even one serial which is set in a newsroom or a newspaper office. There have been some films, but as I said before these are few and far between. And I’m not talking about films which have characters who are from the media. I mean an entire film set in a media house, revolving around what happens in the media.
The one serial which was placed loosely in the media was Shanti in 1994 with Mandy Bedi. And which was known more for her ‘ethnic’ attire than for the screenplay.
There have been some excellent films made on the media though. One of my favourites being Romesh Sharma’s New Delhi Times (1986). The film was about a newspaper editor played by Shashi Kapoor who comes to Delhi from Ghazipur in UP, and has to deal with the media-politician nexus. It spoke about everything which is commonplace today – corruption, murder, government bribery. A politician gets killed and the trail leads to the door of a parliamentarian who turns out to also be an underworld gangster. The film looked at the difficulties faced by a crime-beat journalist. Maybe the fact that film distributors and television channels refused to carry it, says something about why people don’t make films or serials about the inner workings of the media and the influencers around it. It’s also one of the few films which you absolutely cannot find a clip of on youtube. Go figure.
The other film which preceded this one and was an absolute delight, albeit in a slightly slapstick over-the-top manner, was 1983’s cult film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. It had everything. Sting journalism, a fearless female editor who happily used her feminine charms to get a scoop, and accidental journalists. If you haven’t seen it, it exposed the quid pro quo relationship between Bombay builders and licensing authorities. Something which still carries on till date. And starred a very thin Pankaj Kapur playing a builder called Tarneja who is trying to bribe the Bombay Municipal Commissioner (played by Satish Shah) into allowing him to build a flyover. But there are counter-deals happening with Kapur’s rival played by an even more emaciated Om Puri (they are both the picture of the starving NSD artist). There was also a magazine, the brilliantly named Khabardar (which seems like the precursor to Tehelka), which hires Naseerudin Shah and Ravi Vaswani to blow the lid off this wheeling and dealing. Jaane Bhi Do… is a delightful watch. And you realise how little things have changed, other than we’ve become far savvier at conducting sting operations today.
Then there was Main Azaad Hoon (1989) which was an Indian adaptation of Frank Capra’s 1941 film, Meet John Doe. The film was about a journalist – Shabana Azmi – and an editor who create a column in the name of a fictitious man called Azaad and write about corruption, government indifference and society’s ills. Knowing that sooner or later someone will ask to meet Azaad, they hire an unemployed Amitabh Bachchan to play Azaad. But soon the mascot becomes bigger than the idea, which is when things spin out of control. It was an excellent portrayal of the lies we are fed by the media and how Frankenstein’s monster is sacrificed because of Frankenstein’s folly. (Bachchan also looked a little like the monster in the trench-coat and gumboots which he wears through the film.)
Leaving the Nineties out of it, the last decade had Madhur Bhandarkar’s Page Three (2005) which was more on celebrity journalism and the close ties between socialites, businessmen and the media. But where Page Three lost out was that it dealt so much with the various characters’ romances and how these romances then affect their careers, that its popcorn treatment made you forget the film as soon as your popcorn finished. It did have some truths in it – such as what or who decides which news item should appear on which page, how actors will pander to journalists just to ensure their story is given top billing in the paper, how any negative news of a celebrity is simply brushed under the carpet and so on. But Bhandarkar’s poor production values and haphazard script just ended up taking away from a film which had great potential.
But the film of all films on the media – which should have sounded the death knell for any future films on the media – was Ram Gopal Varma’s Rann (2010). Amitabh Bachchan was Vijay Harshwardhan Malik, the head of a news channel called – very imaginatively – India 24/7. And sadly speaking, his is the fictional character which Jeff Daniel’s Will McAvoy reminds me most of. Because much like McAvoy even Bachchan refuses to compromise news for TRPs. He also has a rival, played by the eternal villain, Mohnish Bahl, who believes in ‘creating’ news rather than reporting it and runs another imaginatively named channel – Headlines 24. Bahl makes statements like, “News ko masala banakar beycho. Behenji-o ko hatao. Khoobsurat models ko le aao…Remember presentation is everything”. (Spice up the news and sell it. Get rid of the fuddy-duddy women and get some good looking models instead). Cut to next scene where Bachchan in his edit meeting says, “Presentation is not everything…khud ko poonchho, hum mein kitni imaandari hain?” (Ask yourself, how much integrity do I have?). All this interspersed with low-angle shots, a flighty Gul Panag who says how much she loves gossip channels, and Riteish Deshmukh as an honourable journalist. The film expected such great suspension of disbelief that I’ve blocked the rest of it out of my mind.
There was No One Killed Jessica (2011) though, which did what The Newsroom does in a way. It takes an incident which had already taken place – Jessica Lal’s murder – and plays out the investigation and the ‘facts’ of what actually happened. While it was well-scripted, it did seem like a PR spin for NDTV. And fell into the usual stereotype that if you are a woman who’s successful at your career, you must be single and foul-mouthed. And perfectly turned-out at all times.
It’s a wonder though that we don’t have our own version of The Newsroom, or that we didn’t even have a precursor to it. Going by the various shenanigans in the world of politics, cohabitation between journalists-industrialists-politicians, our celebrity journalist-led news channels and our editors who are never minding their Ps and Qs especially on twitter, we actually have an extremely colourful setup to base a show on. Maybe, now that Rann is a distant memory, it’s time for our indie film-makers to borrow a feather from Sorkin’s cap.
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