News18’s birthday gift to Modi is a cinematic lickspittle

The media group, owned by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance, sells overtold stories as an ‘untold story’.

ByAyush Tiwari
News18’s birthday gift to Modi is a cinematic lickspittle
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Bhupendra Chaubey might have left News18, but his spirit lives on at the network. The phoney praise, bloated rhetoric, and calculated cringing that the former editor so ably championed remain the media conglomerate’s guiding values. They were on display last evening when CNN News18 and News18 India broadcast Modi: The Untold Story, a 20-minute saga of how the man who lords over the network’s ad revenue, business interests, and the country generally, is a great chap.

The “documentary” is a birthday gift to Narendra Modi – the “hero of the world’s largest democracy”, as per News18 – who turned 71 on Friday. It aired at 8 pm – a primetime slot – and tells the story of Modi’s early years, regurgitated mostly from a website maintained by the Indian government.

The show is silent about its creator. No names are flashed, though we are told it is a “History TV18 original” that is “based on true events”.

The story it sells is rather simple: Modi is an extraordinary man who stood out from the beginning. He might have been uncaring, uneducated and short, but greatness was thrust upon him. He was patriotic (joined the Hindu supremacist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh at 8), physically fit (came first in a one-legged race), selfless (missed his aunt’s wedding to look after a sage), and possessed qualities of a leader (was a class monitor in school).

Visually, the documentary has two dominant styles – shadows and tracking shots. The first is used to show us Modi’s childhood and teenage years. In the darkness of circumstances, at his small home, or in a library, or a rundown school, the light falls on the young Modi in every scene. He is illuminated, enlightened, like the Buddha, or someone destined to win the Philip Kotler Award.

The tracking shots come into play once Modi turns 17 and leaves home. He travels to Kolkata, Amroha, Kedarnath, Ahmedabad to quench his spiritual thirst. A camera follows a young man in modest attire walking in fields, dusty terrains and empty city streets. The gravity of these shots is intensified by an extravagant narrator and a dramatic score. But none of this can gloss over the plain dishonesty of this style: Modi never turns his back to the camera and he never dresses modestly.

“His love for attire is not new,” Gordhanbhai Patel, who once taught Modi, says in the film. “He was born with it.”

How truthful is The Untold Story? Let’s start with the title. There’s nothing in the documentary that is ”untold”. The public has been saturated with these stories for years: Modi selling tea, spiritual Modi, Modi the achiever, poor Modi, Modi’s love for Vivekananda, curious Modi, Modi the ascetic, and on and on.

A major source of information for this film on Narendra Modi is Narendra Modi. His speeches often boom in the background and the prime minister often becomes the narrator. But it also includes interviews of “historians” like Vishnu Pandya and “researchers” like Kishor Makwana. A Google search reveals that Pandya is a Sangh ideologue and Makwana a BJP functionary.

The documentary actually tells us more about the broadcaster than its subject. The News18 group has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of government ads under Modi. Its owner, Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance, has business interests in almost all realms of Indian life. It would be surprising then if this media group produced anything but a cinematic lickspittle for Dear Leader.

Even on days when we are spared such art on CNN News18 and News18 India, the network’s anchors cram the state version of news down our throats. While editor Brijesh Singh writes love letters to the prime minister, Anand Narsimhan and Amish Devgan take turns to give us masterclasses on how TV news should not be. Stories of public interest are altered or killed. Muslims are demonised on some days, and protesting farmers on others.

The network does all this while its website claims that its “focus is on driving the highest standards of creative excellence by fostering a culture of innovation”. And they need this mask as much as PM Modi wants to be known as the “hero of the world’s largest democracy”. It is under him, after all, that India has fallen on global indices that measure civil liberties, pluralism, press freedom, governance, economic liberty, and rule of law.

But none of these failures get serious attention from TV news channels because the media capture by the Modi government is substantial. The News18 group is a case study. In the week when dozens of children died of dengue in Uttar Pradesh, run by Modi’s BJP, a dissenting activist got raided by the Enforcement Directorate, and India’s top medical research body came under the spotlight for allegedly misleading citizens during the pandemic, News18 somehow decided a political primadonna’s hagiography was the most important “untold story” it needed to tell.

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