For several weeks now, the obituary of TV news has been written by many media observers. The breathlessly sensational, ethically flawed and, at times, totally inane coverage of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s tragic death is being seen as the last rites of a medium in seemingly terminal decline. But is the maddening 24×7 breaking news whirl – trapped in a vicious cycle of ratings, revenues, hyper-competition and failed regulation – the sole entity that lies exposed by the theatre of the absurd that the case has become?
Take the role of the investigating agencies. When was the last time three of the country’s top national agencies – the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) – were seen to invest so much time and energy in a single case involving the death of an actor? Lakhs of small depositors will struggle to get their monies back and ensure swift prosecution of the guilty in the numerous financial scams across the country but the Sushant case has seen the agencies in overdrive. Only last month, the Bombay High Court granted bail to DHFL promoters Wadhawan brothers, who are accused in the Yes Bank money laundering case, because the ED failed to file their charge sheet within the statutory period of 60 days from their date of remand. In the Sushant case, the ED initiated a money laundering case against Sushant’s girlfriend actor Rhea Chakraborty and her family, based on an FIR filed by Sushant’s family in Bihar without even looking at the merits of the case.
The role of the NCB is even more contentious. Based purely on WhatsApp conversations – selectively leaked initially by the ED – the NCB registers a case against Rhea and her brother and then seeks to broaden the investigations into inquiring into alleged drug cartels operating in the Hindi film industry. As a senior NCB official admitted on camera, the allegations of a small quantity of individual drug use are not in the purview of the agency, which generally looks at the international and inter-state connections of drug mafias. But in this case, it would seem that procurement and consumption of 59 grams of marijuana has been enough for the NCB to make a slew of arrests. Even Sushant’s cook and house manager – whose sole ‘crime’ is to go and bring the ganja for their addicted boss – are accused of being part of a ‘drug syndicate’! Whatever happened to the NCB catching the real ‘big fish’ who spearheads the drug mafias of the country?
The trajectory of the case itself is revealing: a suicide case is suddenly billed as abetment to suicide, then is just as mysteriously claimed to be murder. The charges vary from nepotism in Bollywood to mafia connections to financial crime to political involvement to now narcotics: a smoke and mirrors game is played out like a scripted crime potboiler. Caught in an unseemly tug of war, the Bihar and Mumbai police badmouth each other with little effort at even basic IPS level co-ordination. The Supreme Court steps in and orders a CBI inquiry, a step which raises troubling questions over jurisdiction in such routine criminal cases.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room: the role of the political class in using the case for score-settling and election propaganda. Every political party in Bihar for example has embraced Sushant as an iconic figure in an attempt to invoke ‘Bihari pride’ ahead of the state elections. Forget the plight of thousands of Bihari students trapped in flood-hit areas and struggling to give their IIT-JEE and NEET entrance exams in COVID times. Forget the predicament of the lakhs of migrant labour without a daily wage for months. A campaign for ‘Justice’ for an actor is the perfect distraction. The BJP, a partner in the ruling Bihar coalition, has even printed posters and got ‘Sushant masks’ made to drive home the message. That India’s number one party should use the imagery of a dead actor to play local politics reveals the depths to which the ‘vote ke liye kuch bhee karega’ attitude has plunged.
In Maharashtra too, the BJP has used the Sushant case to try and corner the ruling alliance, in particular the Shiv Sena. That former Maharashtra chief minister, Narayan Rane, once with the Sena and now with the BJP, chose to make wholly unsubstantiated charges of rape and murder and even sought to draw in a ‘youth minister’ into the alleged Sushant conspiracy is a reflection of the coarseness of public life. That even a more sober leader like Devendra Fadnavis raised the political pitch shows just how mucky politics has now become. The attempt was obvious: use the Sushant case to somehow embarrass the Sena leadership and hope that the rickety three-party coalition collapses in the process.
The utter debasement of our ‘netas’ and their political machinations is hardly new. What is more disconcerting is the manner in which civil society has responded. Look at the film industry to which both, Sushant and Rhea belong. Barring a few brave voices, a majority of the elite stars have been conspicuously silent, almost frightened into submission by the cacophony of the media propaganda and the fear of being trolled by a social media lynch mob. If you can’t speak up when an industry is being demonised as a den of vice, then the timidity of the rich and powerful movers and shakers of cinema will come to haunt you forever. Not surprisingly, the vacuum is being filled by noisy newsmakers like actor Kangana Ranaut, who obviously has her own axe to grind and a possible political future to look forward to. That the Shiv Sena has invoked Marathi ‘manoos asmita’ while targeting Ranaut in abusive terms is another example of how the public discourse has got totally messed up.
Finally, the viewers who lampoon TV news have much to answer for too. In unrelenting COVID times, when the economy is in sharp decline, jobs are being lost and a belligerent China is making threatening noises on the border, the average middle class TV viewer is taking voyeuristic delight in tracking every twist in the Sushant-Rhea case, almost deriving a morbid fascination in escaping from the harsh realities of ‘Annus horribilis 2020’. Instead of a much-needed focus on serious issues of drug-taking, mental illness and depression that lie at the heart of Sushant’s ‘existential crisis’, as dutifully reported by the psychiatrists treating him, the spotlight has been on titillating the viewer with salacious gossip. If a Big Boss-style farcical reality TV spectacle is your preferred choice for prime time viewing, why blame the ‘noise’ channels whose sole obsession is ratings and not journalism?
Post-script: Last week in Mumbai, after interviewing the much sought after Rhea Chakraborty, I went for a morning walk along Marine Drive with friends. The GDP numbers had just seen unprecedented contraction and I thought that my business-inclined friends would provide me insights on the faltering economy. “Forget the economy, tell me do you think Rhea is innocent or guilty!” a friend shot back. It makes you wonder, are we hurtling towards becoming a banana republic of manic voyeurs?