Our news channels have been in a tizzy these last few weeks — and seem to have been kicked into an overdrive in the past few days. They have discovered the Medellin Cartel in Bollywood and can’t decide whether newbie actress Rhea Chakraborty is running the cartel or whether she has been ousted from her post by superstar Deepika Padukone.
Last night, I made the cardinal mistake of tuning into some English news channels for 15 minutes. Times Now was flashing the hashtag #DeepikaMaalChats because they had discovered WhatsApp chat exchanges from — wait for it — October 2017. Chats that seem to show Deepika Padukone asking for hash from her manager. How have these WhatsApp conversations been accessed by news channels is my first question. My second is, who saves chats from 2017? But that’s a by the by.
My expectation of TV news is very low. But what was on display, passing off as primetime news, beggars belief.
Times Now, presided over by Navika Kumar – India’s answer to Hedda Hopper without the impact that the American actress and gossip columnist had on Hollywood — had managed to connect their drugs exposé to JNU and Umar Khalid, then to the Delhi riots, and finally to Pakistan! These claims were interspersed with stills from when Padukone was standing at a JNU protest. The only deduction that could be made from this absurd linking of events was that our nationalist channels – Times Now and Republic, which I’ll get to later – have decided that Deepika must be the next in the witch-hunt, for showing support to JNU students. On the Hopper connection, I fully expect Navika to be part of the Indian version of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, in which Hopper named suspected communists while contributing to the . It’s always heartening to see news anchors modelling themselves on tabloid journalists.
Times Now, never known for brevity, was promoting their “news” show with the following concise description:
"‘Maal chat’ rattles Bollywood: Agency lens on more A-List stars; panicky celebs consult lawyers. Deepika Padukone won’t answer TIMES NOW, goes underground in Goa resort. Thaali ‘apologists’ JNU ‘fans’ silent."
What are “thaali” apologists, you ask? You see Rajya Sabha MP and actress, Jaya Bachchan, had said, “Jis thaali mein khaate ho, us mein ched mat karo.” This has hurt our star anchors greatly, because how can one stand up for one’s own fraternity? So some bright spark at Times Now — I’m guessing it’s Navika or her able-bodied helper Rahul Shivshankar — came up with this ridiculous coinage, which was repeated ad nauseum by their panelists. I also noticed that Times Now had once again let Nasser Abdullah out of their dungeon, to be insulted by various panellists who have no work or people who want to spend time with them in the evening, so they sit on the panels every evening and show us why education is wasted on some.
But if you can get past the banshee pitch of the drawing room conversation that passes off as a panel discussion on Times Now – a special head nod to Padmaja Joshi who showed everyone how not to be a journalist last night – I’d just like to put things slightly in perspective. If the media and the Narcotics Control Bureau are chasing a 2017 WhatsApp chat where Padukone seems to be asking for hash – whether or not for her consumption we do not know – should they also not be asking for the arrest of Kangana Ranaut, who has that she used to be a drug user until a few years back? Goose-gander?
What I’m impressed by is how Arnab Goswami and Navika Kumar have encouraged people to believe that anyone can be a journalist and address the nation on primetime news night after night. What else could explain their positioning of Kangana, an actress, as a star anchor of Republic TV and Times Now? With the right amount of biliousness and decibel levels, even you can be a permanent expert witness to the prosecution on a national news channel.
Republic TV, which you should only watch in short two-minute stints unless you want a brain aneurysm, had an “actress” called Ananya Sethi on their panel. She informed us, the viewers, that, “the prevalence of drugs in the industry is not a few isolated events, there are addicts, peddlers. They are setting a very bad example, by keeping quiet they are also doing a crime”. This was on the panel discussion that was creatively titled #BollywoodDirt and flashed the number of tweets that had been posted about the discussion.
But it’s not just Times Now. CNN News 18, which usually maintains a semblance of decency in the peepshow that is news TV, had also reached their own special nadir last evening. All the news channels I have had the misfortune of watching seem to be finding the most obscure people who call themselves Bollywood actors but don’t seem to have acted in any Hindi films, and making them expert panellists on Bollywood. Not to be outdone by Republic TV, CNN News18 had someone called Manvi Taneja, who looked as surprised as I did to hear herself being referred to as a Bollywood actor and that she was being asked to pass judgement on Bollywood. The only tolerable part of the programme was when Zakka Jacob’s attempt at matching Navika’s and Arnab’s pitch led to Abha Singh addressing him as Arnab. No insult can be worse than his. CNN News18 also referred to Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe and Whitney Houston’s deaths – that they have solved Monroe’s death is quite remarkable I must say – but I just want to point out that Sushant Singh Rajput did not die of a drug overdose, so I fail to see the connection being drawn.
Not to be outdone, India Today had on someone called Harshita Kashyap who was described as an actor!
No one is above this ridiculousness, though. Yesterday, NDTV decided to ask P Chidambaram for his opinion on the Farm Bill during primetime, but a few weeks back they had reported copiously on Rhea Chakraborty’s t-shirt slogan and carried a serious 10-minute interview with Shekhar Suman, who is both fighting the drug mafia and seeking justice for Sushant Singh Rajput! Why are Suman or his views relevant at all? Ours is not to question why, ours is but to watch and cry.
At least our news channels are providing gainful employment to struggling and retired actors, if nothing else.
To give Rajdeep Sardesai his due, his on India Today at least questioned whether the NCB was carrying out a witch-hunt. BV Kumar, a former NCB chief, did sound like a much needed voice of reason while offering advice to the NCB officers handling the matter.
There are many issues at play here. First, that the NCB is investigating filmstars who chatted about – and maybe consumed – drugs three years ago is ridiculous. There are far more pressing issues to be concerned with. Not to forget that an actress has been jailed for being “part of a drug syndicate” because she allegedly claimed to have bought hash for her boyfriend but not consumed it herself. Are the NCB’s priorities slightly skewed? One can safely assume so.
According to the National Mental Health Survey, which was prepared by NIMHANS, the rate of alcohol and substance use disorders is higher in rural areas and small cities than in urban metros – 24% rural, 20% non-metro urban, 18% urban metros. Is the NCB investigating the flow of drugs into these areas? Or is it more fun to spend time questioning actresses?
Second, who has released these WhatsApp chats that are being bandied about like the gospel truth?
Third, and most importantly, do TV anchors know that they are indulging in slander because they know no action will be taken against them? If you have not seen Navika Kumar’s supercilious smirk when Ranaut referred to Urmila Matondkar as a soft porn actress, please do so. Times Now and Navika supposedly apologised on air to Salman Khan for incorrectly naming him as a partner in the celebrity management firm Kwan. Every actor doesn’t have the wherewithal to bring the weight of law to bear on each and every TV channel maligning them.
As an aside, Times Now and Navika, for all their allegations that Sushant Singh Rajput had been slighted by the industry, should look at their own sister organisation, Filmfare, which never awarded Rajput for his best films through the years; not for Sonchiriya or Dhoni or Kai Po Che. Maybe Times Now should question Filmfare for shunning Rajput.
What passes off as journalism on mainstream news TV today is not kosher under any circumstance. The right questions are not asked and anyone is allowed to make any unsubstantiated claim without question. It would perhaps make the current discourse slightly more palatable if these same channels spent as much time asking questions about matters that directly impact the country and its citizens. How is the government dealing with the pandemic? Why is the government not paying GST dues to the states? Are measures being taken to bail out various industries and address unemployment? Why does the government not want to share the workings of the PM Cares fund? Is the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act draconian?
But no, all we care about is which actress — no male actors are being named, of course — smoked a doobie in 2017. What we are witnessing is the last vestiges of TV journalism going up in a puff of smoke.
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