Sushant Singh Rajput: Something is rotten in the state of TV news

While Arnab Goswami started the circus, every other channel is scrambling to catch up.

WrittenBy:Manisha Pande
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If there’s anything that competes with the tragedy of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, it is the media coverage that has followed since. When the news first broke, we saw reporters rush to the actor’s home in Bihar, barge their way in and record the family in their most private moments of grief. We saw a relative request them to leave, hands folded, to no avail.

Then came the outsider-insider debate where the likes of Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami stopped short of calling Karan Johar and Alia Bhatt murderers. Every word uttered, every little clip from Koffee With Karan — a show that literally says ‘Stop Making Sense’ — was dissected ad nauseam. “Why would you say kill?!?! I can understand marry or hookup but why would you say kill?!?” thundered Arnab. Yup, that’s our man on national television discussing the subtle nuances of the game Kill, Marry, Hookup while a pandemic rages on, with the nation facing an economic downturn, and the Chinese threat on our borders. You’d think he could dedicate a ‘news’ programme to something more, well, newsy.

Moving swiftly on, this week, channels have found a new enemy: the archetype controlling girlfriend who apparently captured a 34-year-old man in his own house. Just like that we’re told it wasn’t the Bollywood camps and gangs and mafia and, what have you that led Rajput to take his life, but a girlfriend. And, of course, her kala jaadoo. Till only a week ago, we were told of the brilliant mind that Rajput was, his love for science, and stars. How he read books on astrophysics, read philosophers, and quoted thinkers. And, now, suddenly we are to believe that he was an impressionable mind who was led into believing in ghosts and ‘pushed to depression’ because of the said controlling girlfriend.

Yes, there is an FIR filed by Rajput’s father that makes a series of allegations against Rhea Chakraborty. But these are yet only allegations. Add to that you have Rajput’s friend now claiming that he was being pressured by the late actor’s family into giving a statement against Chakraborty. Clearly, this whole thing is way more complicated than it’s being made out to be.

A teary-eyed Chakraborty in a video statement said yesterday that she was being vilified by the electronic media. Whatever you may feel about the allegations, hers is a scary situation to be in. Imagine being made primetime news with anchors portraying you as some sort of a vamp who ‘baihlaoed, phuslaoed’ a man, coerced him into falling in love, and ‘gave him depression’ — whatever that means.

Imagine being photoshopped on to this.

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On CNN News18, anchor Anand Narasimhan, who is Arnab’s protégé from Times Now days, a Lite version with similar mannerism, but even poorer news skills, played an old video of Chakraborty where she’s clearly play-acting with her friends.

Here’s how Narasimhan described it: “...she can be heard boasting about being able to control her boyfriend with ease, calling herself a real don with her boyfriend being her chota mota gunda...that’s what she said.” He says the video may be a standup act that she was performing for her friends but “whatever it is, it has startled a lot of people”. Whatever it is.

The scintillating piece of news was accompanied by this classy graphic.

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Chakraborty had to issue a statement on that video saying that it was indeed a stand-up act.

Over at Aaj Tak, anchor Anjana Om Kashyap, has held three straight debates on Rajput. The headlines tell you the calibre of the discussion: A(pavitra) rishta; Sushant Ka Pyaar, Rhea Ka Hathiyaar; Dil Bechara, Gangs Ka Maara. The last debate was obviously conducted before Aaj Tak had zeroed in on the girlfriend angle. Kashyap asks: “Ab sab se bada sawaal yeh hai ki kya Sushant ke pyaar ko Riya ne hathiyaar bana liya?” (The biggest question is if Rhea weaponised Sushant’s love?) She goes on: “Rhea Chakraborty ka woh kaisa jaal tha ki Sushant ki zindagi usmain dam ghutne se saans nahin le payi?” (What sort of web had Rhea Chakraborty spun to suffocate Sushant’s life?) This is a news programme led by a woman, and yet you saw it indulge in the worst form of ‘girlfriend ne vash main kar liya’ rhetoric.

How these debates have set back efforts on de-stigmatising the discourse around mental health is yet another story. Across multiple channels Rajput’s friend and former girlfriend tell us how happy-go-lucky he was, how he wasn’t weak and how focused he was on body-building and his career, and how he could never have had ‘mental issues’. Ankita Lokhande on Republic TV stated that she doesn’t want people to remember him as depressed and that he was an inspiration for all of us.

All well and good, but here’s the thing about depression, it’s not a sign of weakness. According to a 2017 Lancet study, 193 million people suffered with mental disorders in India, of which 45·7 million suffered depressive disorders. It can strike literally anyone, even those who are at the peak of their careers as we know from the case of Deepika Padukone.

What’s amusing in the race to now declare Rajput as someone of great mental health is that this is the same media that was rushing to leak out private details of his therapy sessions declaring him bipolar and depressed within days of his death. It’s genuinely cute to see anchors ask with all the incredulity they can muster why Rajput was labelled depressed. Why? Maybe you should watch your own channel.

In all of this, our showman on Republic TV should be mighty pleased with himself. From July 20 onwards, Arnab put the focus on Rajput’s case. He has conducted 15 shows so far, progressively upping the bizarre quotient, with his reporters, if you can call them that, blatantly flouting all journalistic norms. One of them surreptitiously recorded Rajput’s fitness trainer. You can hear her say this would be “off record”, lying to her source. This conversation packaged as an “explosive sting” is nothing but the trainer’s impression of what could have gone wrong. At one point, you can hear the reporter ask, “Is it Karan Johar? Depression? Medical condition?”, and laughingly mention how all sorts of things are now emerging about Rajput.

Meanwhile, back in the studio, Arnab went on to suggest that Mumbai Police should be made a suspect in the case. Arnab has been on a warpath with the Mumbai Police since they began questioning him on his programming on the Palgarh lynching case — Rajput’s death has now provided the perfect arsenal to go at the Police and the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress government in Maharastra.

On Republic Bharat he makes his agenda clear: “Maharashtra police, Maharashtra ki sarkar, Sonia-Sena ki sarkar aur movie mafia Sushant ki maut ko atmahatya saabit karne main lage hue hain.” (The Maharashtra police, the Sonia-Sena government and movie mafia want to prove that Sushant’s case was that of suicide.) He is doing what he does with co-conspiracy creator Subramanian Swamy and BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis putting pressure on the Maharashtra government. But what excuse do other channels have?

True, Arnab started the circus but every other channel has been scrambling to catch up.

What should be a matter of investigation for the Maharashtra and Bihar Police has now become an ugly battle for viewership — a race to the bottom to entertain viewers with salacious details rather than inform them. As always, news is the loser, even as TRPs win. You can literally count the number of discussions on the new education policy on your fingertips.

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