‘It had to happen’: What film and media professionals make of Bollywood lawsuit against Times Now, Republic TV

‘They are not rebels or political activists. This is being forced upon them.’

WrittenBy:Anna Priyadarshini
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There isn’t a norm of ethical journalism that TV news channels have not flouted in their shameful coverage of the actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. In particular, they have levelled serious allegations, without evidence, against many people in the film industry, describing them variously as “dirt”, “filth”, “scum”, “druggies”.

After enduring the onslaught for months, some of the big names in the film industry have taken action. On October 12, a group of 38 Bollywood producers and film associations approached the Delhi High Court for an injunction against TV news channels for “openly flouting” the Programme Code and making a “mockery of criminal justice system”.

The lawsuit, Bar and Bench reported, singled out Arnab Goswami and Pradeep Bhandari of Republic TV as well as Rahul Shivshankar and Navika Kumar of Times Now for "conducting media trials of Bollywood personalities” and damaging their right to privacy.

They weren’t asking for a ban on the coverage of the Rajput case by these channels, the petitioners clarified, but a permanent injunction "from carrying on reportage and publication of material that violates applicable laws".

The petitioners included production companies owned by Karan Johar, Farhan Akhtar, Akshay Kumar, Yash Raj, Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Salman Khan.

Their decision to take a stand against the toxicity that nightly issues from TV news was widely lauded, but it was also criticized by some as a “gimmick to be in the limelight”.

So, should the film fraternity have taken the TV channels to court? What would it likely achieve? Would it make much of a difference to the media discourse in this country?

Newslaundry spoke with several prominent film personalities and journalists to get a sense of how the two fraternities perceive the matter.

What film professionals say

Newslaundry contacted Anubhav Sinha, Hansal Mehta, Dia Mirza, Rohit Shetty, Anurag Kashyap, Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi, and Mahesh Bhatt to seek their views on the matter. But they were either unavailable or chose not to comment.

The actor Richa Chadha said because of her ongoing case of defamation she could not speak to the press at the moment.

Fellow actor Ratna Pathak Shah said, “I have nothing to share about this as I don’t really know about it. I don't want to make a comment about something I don't know about.”

Amit Behl, the senior joint secretary of the Cine and TV Artistes Association, said since the matter was in the court, they would rather not comment in detail. He, however, added, “All of us stand united against attempts to defame the filmmaking community. The film industry is made up of lakhs of hardworking individuals and we can’t accept being collectively labeled with all sorts of allegations.”

Gajraj Rao, the actor who has appeared in such movies as Shubh Mangal Saavdhan and Badhaai Ho, said it was “welcome” that the leading producers “finally took this initiative as it was long overdue”.

Bollywood doesn’t represent just the few people who appear on the screen, it’s inclusive of everyone associated with the industry, Rao added, and “painting the entire fraternity in black and white” was not justifiable.

“It is not only 50-100 people who run it but lakhs of people related to this industry, and everyone cannot be bad,” he said. “Otherwise the whole country would have become a Banana Republic by now.”

Siddharth, known for his roles in such movies as Rang De Basanti and Bommarillu, differed. “For many years now, a vast majority of the film fraternity has been paying the fourth estate to write positives, including many lies, about the films we make and our personal lives but the 'fraternity' never came together to oppose this vile culture,” the actor complained, adding, “Both the industry and the media lost credibility when this quid pro quo happened.”

“Suddenly taking umbrage now is tantamount to yelling at an animal you have raised badly just because it bit you.”

“The pillars that hold up our country are being eroded and their legitimacy is being put in doubt. So far, the judiciary, the legislature, the police and the media have all publicly bowed to this unwavering force of authoritarian majority. The next in line is the country's entertainment industry. We as entertainers hold great powers in our hands with respect to the voice and imagination of the common man. To take that power from the entertainer would be devastating. This attempt by the compromised media to attack the entertainment business reeks of this sinister intention. So what is the way forward?”

“It’s important the business sees it for what it is. It’s also important that the industry looks within its so-called 'fraternity' and identifies the obvious Trojan horses who are weakening their existence everyday. Not everyone in the fraternity wants what is best for it. It is up to the individual. Take a stand, introspect and try to improve your practices and have courage to follow through. The change will have to come from within not without and from each individual and not a fictional collective.”

What journalists say

It had to happen, the acclaimed investigative journalist Josy Joseph said, referring to the lawsuit. India’s mainstream media had flouted all democratic and ethical principles, he argued, so it was likely that it would face more such pushbacks in the future.

“We are actually plumbing the depths of hatred and bad journalism. I am in no way saying there should be a restraint on the freedom of expression, but many of the mainstream media outlets are not doing journalism. They are propaganda channels, or are sinister entertainment platforms that feed hatred in our society.”

As for why some Bollywood producers finally decided to take on the media, he said they were pushed into doing it. “They are not rebels or political activists,” he argued, “this is being forced upon them.”

Bollywood, Joseph further argued, wasn’t a “formal industry” so much as it was a “loose ecosystem”. “Many of my acquaintances there and some celebrated icons have been under unsubstantiated and unwarranted attack by the media and investigation agencies; there is a sinister plan out there. So if they stand up, it is for their survival.”

Arfa Khanum Sherwani, senior editor at the Wire, saw the lawsuit as a “good step” that showed Bollywood had finally woken up. But it wasn’t the revolutionary act that some had made it out to be, she added.

“When it was time to speak up for Muslims, Dalits, intellectuals, and journalists who were seeking accountability from the government and were being demonised on television news, Bollywood did not speak out. I think we expect too much from these people.”

Sherwani suggested that the lawsuit could be seen as a sign that the “expiry dates” of the anchors singled out in it were up. “These two channels are an extension of the propaganda machine of the establishment,” she said, referring to Republic TV and Times Now, “so by taking them on, they are indirectly taking on the establishment as well.” “Or, maybe,” she continued, “the establishment has given Bollywood the nod to go to the court to restrain these voices.”

In any case, Sherwani pointed out, big names in the film industry were only looking out for their interests. “Instead of Akshay Kumar, you could have Aamir Khan interviewing Narendra Modi tomorrow,” she said. “Because, in the end, they are not heroes but actors who are businessmen.”

Asked what the lawsuit meant for the practice of journalism, Sherwani explained that it was a double-edged sword. “If the court restrains these anchors, the same ruling could then be used against people like us when we express concerns about their policies and politics.”

Raj Kamal Jha, the editor of the Indian Express, referred Newslaundry to an editorial published by the paper on October 14, saying he concurred with the views expressed in it. The editorial argued that Bollywood did need to show spine, “but a cool head too”. “Calling for a gag on media, it plays into the hands of those who want to browbeat it,” it added.

Shekhar Gupta, the editor-in-chief of the Print, described the lawsuit as a “big turning point” for the Hindi film industry which, he said, had never seen itself as an institution.

“Bollywood never gets into controversy with Delhi, and by Delhi I mean the establishment,” Gupta argued, “so to that extent it is an important development.”

To buttress his argument, he pointed out that Bollywood had always been risk-averse. “Even when the Emergency happened, very few Bollywood people protested. It was Dev Anand, a couple of others and those who belonged to the old IPTA, the theatre association, old leftists from Lahore. Dev Anand and a couple of others got atop a truck and protested, and after that VC Shukla stopped Dev Anand’s movies on Doordarshan.”

As to what the lawsuit might entail for the media industry, Gupta said Bollywood producers seeking “legal redress” after they felt attacked was constitutional and legitimate.

This should serve to set up a conversation between Bollywood and the media industry at a level where it has not taken place so far, he added. “First of all, it’s a good story. They are filmstars, everybody gets hits. But it will be interesting if they realize that mainstream journalism also matters. Till now the contact between mainstream media and the film world is limited to the occasional interview. the Film press they control using access as leverage. So this might set up a wider conversation.”


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