Sridevi — Death by Media

Long live Sridevi, Journalism is definitely dead.

WrittenBy:Rajyasree Sen
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Spectres of former wives haunting present wives. A reporter standing in a bathroom next to a bathtub on the side of which a wine glass rests. Amar Singh as an expert commentator on how much alcohol film stars consume. Nasser Abdullah and Simi Chandok forming a crack team of detectives. Many drawings of Sridevi floating in a bathtub. Dial-in lines for viewers to call in and share their own conspiracy theories. A news bulletin represented by a drawing of a bathtub emblazoned with the words “maut ka bathtub” (the bathtub of death).

This is not some drug-addled stream of consciousness meandering which I’ve listed. This is just a smattering of what was passing off as mainline print news commentary and prime-time TV news panel discussions and in-depth reportage ever since it was announced that Indian actress Sridevi had died in Dubai on Saturday night at the relatively young age of 54.

Sridevi was not unwell and had recently begun acting in films again, and by all measures was a screen icon unlike any other of her generation – and maybe after. An extraordinary actress who had ruled the roost in regional as well as Hindi cinema, she was also known for being paid fees higher than many of her male co-stars.

Not a small feat at all. That the death of this healthy, middle-aged, successful icon would be reported by the media is therefore not shocking. This is tantamount to a Meryl Streep or an Angelina Jolie or Kate Winslet passing away suddenly. The news will be reported.

But what we have been witness to since Sunday morning is nothing short of a dance of death on both Sridevi’s body and on journalism. Editors, news channels, newspapers, panelists – who one would think would know better than to run with conspiracy theories and gruesomely packaged news reports after their “reportage” on the Sunanda Pushkar and Sheena Bora deaths – have plummeted to puerile lows which they may not be able to better.

I’m simply going to list what passed off as journalism since Sridevi’s death was announced. Keep in mind that at the time all we knew was that it was a cardiac arrest.

The information that the death is not due to cardiac arrest, but due to accidental “drawning” and that the Dubai police are now taking over the investigation – which is supposedly standard procedure – and Boney Kapoor is being questioned, has of course made our worthy editors exult in joy.

The rot was visible as early as Sunday noon, when The Times Of India published an article titled, “We will never know what killed Sridevi”. The article started with, “Why did the lovely Sridevi die just before her daughter Jhanvi’s debut movie release, just like her bête noire, Boney’s first wife Mona, died a few weeks before her son Arjun Kapoor’s debut release? What could the possible connection be — apart from of course the hapless Boney, widowed twice and left with four children to look after and help groom!

Was Mona Kapoor’s regret over her broken home so vast that it hung around and took Sridevi in its wake? Was her hurt at being upstaged by Sridevi in her husband’s life so deep that it ensured Sridevi too didn’t stay around long enough? Or is it to do with Boney’s destiny? So many questions…

So much bullshit, actually.

But this was just a precursor to what was to hit our TV screens by the next evening. On Monday, from 6 pm onwards, Bengali, Hindi and English news channels had already declared that either Sridevi was drunk or was murdered or died from plastic surgery – even though you can’t really die from a nip and tuck. As expected, none of these grave observations were backed by any facts.

ABP Ananda had already proclaimed that Sridevi was drunk, she had indulged in “otirikto modyopaan” (excessive drinking). They also showed us a bathtub and said, “ei shei bathtub” (this is that bathtub). There were deep discussions on “Sridevi-r shorirey alcohol” (alcohol in Sridevi’s body).

On the other side of the spectrum, Hindi news channels had decided that they would better Bengali news channels for sure. Aaj Tak had a suited “editor” standing in front of a drawing of a bathtub full of water, which had a portrait of Sridevi perched on it and the words “Maut ka Bathtub” emblazoned on the tub.

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TV9 had a drawing of Boney Kapoor looking at a bathtub in which Sridevi was floating, while the anchor stood next to the tub. ABP News had a one-hour bulletin titled “Bathroom ke woh 15 minute”.

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From 8pm onwards, every English news channel worth its salt was discussing Sridevi’s death. At 9 pm, Times Now, NDTV 24X7, CNN News 18, India Today TV, News X and Republic TV were conducting prime-time panel discussions on how Sridevi had died.

This, when they barely had any information regarding her death – other than that the death certificate said “accidental drawning”. This is not the post-mortem or autopsy report which, till we know any better, could still state that the drowning was the result of a cardiac arrest. But why wait for all facts to come in before bringing out the circus? And this was a circus which would make PT Barnum proud, only the freaks had just one skill — spewing garbage.

Here’s what was on display last night.

Aaj Tak maintained its standards, by stating, “sharab ke nashe main chali gayi duniya se Chandani [Chandani left the world in a drunken state]” and then bringing on Amar Singh – appreciator of film actresses as those tapes with his voice on them had revealed to us – to tell us that it’s normal to drink wine during weddings. And that Sridevi didn’t drink tequila or vodka, only wine, much like Amar Singh himself. I must say, Singh’s career trajectory from politician to alcohol expert is quite impressive.

Rahul Shivshankar, Editor-in-Chief of Times Now no less, had a panel with some worthies who are brought out of the dungeons below Times Now every time a well-known person dies under suspicious circumstances. Simi Chandok is the star attraction in his team of experts. Chandok spoke of how she knew Sridevi was drinking because of her “sources”, and that Sridevi was very upset because Boney Kapoor wasn’t as rich as she had thought he was, and that if Chandok had fallen into a bathtub, her family would have lifted her out of it — I don’t think Chandok should bank on this, because after listening to the rubbish she was spouting yesterday, they may well leave her in the bathtub.

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Shivshankar in all seriousness was discussing whether Sridevi drank vodka, or Bloody Mary which contains vodka or other cocktails, or was it wine? This is the editor of one of India’s leading news channels. He also ticked off Shehzad Poonawala because Poonawala said we should stop speculating, and every case wasn’t a murder. Because why should anyone speak any sense.

On NewsX, celebrity crime murder expert and generally unemployed person in Bandra, Nasser Abdullah made the only sensible statement I’ve heard him utter, “Frankly, I am no expert.” And then proceeded to tell us that this was indeed a murder and an investigation was required and Boney Kapoor’s behaviour was most suspicious. Amar Singh again popped up to tell us about his drinking habits and share his insights on Sridevi’s drinking habits.

India TV decided that alcohol was indeed the cause of death on their programme on “viral news” – asking “Sharaab ne li Sridevi ka jaan?” (Did alcohol take Sridevi’s life?)

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I was surprised to see that Republic TV was quite subdued in its reporting. Although Arnab Goswami was indeed debating #SrideviDeathMystery, and the fine Mr Goswami did make statements such as, “Under the influence of alcohol, would you slip perfectly in the bathtub and drown in the bathtub… bathtub is not a swimming pool.” And then segued into a discussion on the Sunanda Pushkar death. Speculation on two celebrity deaths, with one panel discussion! Smooth, Mr Goswami, very smooth.

CNN News 18 which is usually a little more restrained than others, had decided that even if the discussion was calm, the graphics would make up for any semblance of decency. Which is why we had a graphic of Sridevi floating in a bathtub. The 8 pm bulletin on Sridevi was followed by Bhupendra Chaubey’s show, still using the same graphic reconstruction, but peppered with statements such as “When someone collapses… when someone faints… how would it be… if a bathtub has neckdeep water… a reasonably tall person then slips in the bathtub and ends up drowning.”  

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I understand completely that nothing can guarantee TRPs as Bollywood and an alleged murder or death under suspicious circumstances involving a beautiful and famous woman can. And of course, if Sridevi or any person was indeed murdered and the murder was being covered up, it should be discussed. But these discussions on various channels pre-empted any announcement of murder or foul play. And the news definitely did not warrant hour-long panel discussions at prime-time. If anyone had flipped through India’s news channels last night from 8 pm to 10 pm, they would have thought we had no troubles in our country other than the death of a celebrity.

If only so much effort had been put into discussing the actual murder of 27-year-old Madhu, a tribal who was tied and beaten up by a mob. But that makes for such boring news. And I understand that Amar Singh, Simi Chandok and Nasser Abdullah would have no inputs to share – and need to be let out of solitary confinement now and then.   

I am well aware that no one is running a news channel for charity or the public good. But to take the business of news to this level where every horrific trope of yellow journalism becomes the mainstay of supposedly serious journalism is pathetic on every front.

I don’t know about Sridevi drowning in the bathtub, but we definitely saw journalism drowning and then floating on the surface of the water much like faeces does. I’m assuming today we’ll have various anchors re-enacting how Sridevi slipped and fell into the tub. Anything is possible.

And in case you thought that today is a new day and the media would have realised how repugnant their focus on the death was last night, at 7.24 am on Tuesday morning when I turned on the news – NDTV 24X7, Times Now, CNN-News 18 and News X – were still solving Sridevi’s death.

Long live Sridevi, Journalism is definitely dead.  


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