‘Heavy on morality, light on ethics’: The Statesman

An article in The Statesman newspaper,

‘Heavy on morality, light on ethics’
Source: The Statesman
22 March 2010

Is television the new god of millions of Indians who are hooked to its various programmes that range from telling one what gemstone to wear, to what products to buy, to what is happening in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Meerut? shoma a chatterji dwells on a shocking documentary that looks beyond the frames that weave the frenetic tapestry of “Breaking News”

IN the winter of 2005, Indians switched on their TV sets to watch yet another “breaking news” story – and what they saw was shocking indeed. In Meerut, police officers, mostly women, swooped down on lovers in a park and began beating them up. They were accompanied by photographers and news cameramen whom they’d invited along with the promise of an exclusive sting operation tellingly named Operation Majnu. Public Service Broadcasting Trust, Delhi, that produced the film, did not in any way interfere with its making.

What is the story behind this news story? Morality TV Aur Loving Jehad – Ek Manohar Kahani, a shocking documentary by Paromita Vohra, looks beyond the frames that weave the frenetic tapestry of “Breaking News” on India’s news channels to uncover a town’s complex dynamics – the fear of love, the constant scrutiny and control of women’s mobility and sexuality, a history of communal violence, caste brutalisation and feudal equations. Assuming the tone of pulp fiction and tabloid features, it examines the legacy of this kind of story-telling — from the relishing accounts of true crime magazines like Manohar Kahaniyan to the double morality of pulp detective fiction to the tabloid news on Indian TV — to unfold a thrilling but disturbing tale of its own.

The film was acclaimed at Stuttgart (Bollywood and Beyond, 2008), Berlin (Asian Hot Shots), Mumbai International Film Festival, 2008 (Competition) and the Bangalore International Festival, 2008. It won the Best Short Documentary Award at the International Video Festival of Kerala, 2008, and is being screened in Hyderabad at the Resistance and Perspective Film Festival this month (The festival had been cited wrongly as Resistance and Perspective in the article instead of Persistence Resistance. For more on the festival, log on to Persistance Resistance @ Hyderabad.) The opening frames are so peaceful that one is not prepared for the audiovisual shocks that follow. We see birds fly across an azure sky as the female voice-over in Hindi tells us, “For centuries, Indians have begun the day with sun worship.” The scene changes to a television screen and the voice-over now says, “TVC’s astrological gemstones have transformed the deity of millions,” setting the film’s tone. Is television the new god of millions of Indians who are hooked to its various programmes that tell one what gemstone to wear when and for what results, to what products to buy at cheap rates to what is happening in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Meerut?

Says Paromita Vohra, “I have had a troubled relationship with the idea of the exposé, with an ‘investigative’ story that will finally reveal and fix the culprits, from the time I began making documentary films. I felt that though self-aggrandisement and easy understanding are inherent in such stories, they are also wrought with problems. I felt it was a violent idea that needed to be executed seriously. The complexity of such situations needed to be understood properly. I felt this shows that we do not really live in a world of pure justice and democracy because when the media (television) and/or the police speak this language, they also speak a language heavy on morality, light on ethics.”

The narrative is anchored to the fictitious love story of the young and beautiful Meenu, who sets out for work every morning but, before going to work, she goes to meet her boyfriend at their secret rendezvous. “Little did this tender bud know the end of this thrilling tale. Her intoxication made her forget that whoever touches the double-edged dagger is sure to be cut.” Her story recurs like a thread that weaves the film into one cohesive whole. The camera and sound track cut into the voice-over of Rakhee Sawant with visuals as she complains about being kissed in public view at singer Mika’s birthday. When asked to respond, Mika sings a song. We see a smiling Rajat Sharma attack her with his acidic questions in his popular show.

The scenario shifts to Meerut, December 2006. Nitin Sabrangi, a writer in Satyakatha, a true-crime story magazine that sells very well in Meerut, says, “The new generation police have a strange psyche. That is why they took the media along (meaning television channels) to ‘publicise’ their good work. The whole thing was planned so that news channels could get exciting footage.” But things took a different turn. The media got its scoop but it backfired on the police. No one knows who gave the name Operation Majnu to this attack on innocent young men and women at Gandhi Bag in Meerut by the police, led by a woman named Mamta Gautam, who beat up the girls and young women for ‘indecent’ behaviour in public.
Gautam’s “back story” is narrated by a victim, Priyanka, who was beaten up for resting with her brother at Gandhi Bag that day. Priyanka says that when she went to lodge a FIR against torture by her in-laws, Gautam demanded Rs 10,000 and threatened her that if she did not pay up she would “Teach you the lesson of your life”. The film shows a scramble for sound bytes in Gandhi Bag as journalists, camerapersons and other staff from different news channels fight with each other for bytes to get the “breaking news” first.

For the first time in Meerut’s history, a minor story, unconnected to public life, took such proportions. The incident led to a marathon race between and among news channels across the board, sensationalising the news rather than keeping it factual. Three days were filled with live telecasts, interviewing youngsters, political workers, journalists, writers and so on. The film goes on to say that a young couple, Bittu and Anshu, eloped after Operation Majnu. The film draws upon other related stories like the sting operation on Shakti Kapoor some years ago, Julie, the young girl from a doctor’s family in Delhi, who fell in love with her Hindi professor and began a torrid live-in relationship with him, magazines like Manohar Kahaniyan and Madhur Kathayen that sell sleaze in the guise of truth.

Says Paromita Vohra, “From Tehelka to the Shakti Kapoor story, the sting operation has become the accepted language of television news. When I saw the Operation Majnu story I felt as if this language had come to a culminating moment – one that justifies violence in the name of righteous indignation. I also wondered how, in this atmosphere of heavy moralising – whether political or personal – a young person was to find a true, meaningful, relevant articulation of personal relationships and his/her intimate journey in the world.”

She says her film questions the police censorship and atrocity on the freedom of choice of young individuals to seek and find space for legitimate love that does not transcend barriers of public decency in any way. But by the time the film ends, the message that comes across is a film that is a powerful socio-political critique on the media’s approach to news bytes that are titillating and sensational enough to raise the channels’ TRPs. They are willing to do this at any cost even if this mens conspiring with the police.

One television journalist says, “For two days, I kept trying to explain to my channel that this story was a set-up, that the media was hand-in-glove with the cops. I told them that the police wanted some cheap publicity and the media wanted some spicy news.” But no one listened to him.

The film justifies cinema as a rich visual medium with a virtual flood of images, repeated shots of multiple television screens, collages of cheap romance magazines that sell like hot cakes, heart-shaped pink balloons filling the skyscape, to close in on the history of Meerut that has always been the bedrock for sensational stories. There is a flashback to the 1987 Hashimpura killing of 42 Muslims who were shot dead, their bodies dumped into a canal, but who have not got justice till date. The film closes on the notes of the famous song from Julie that goes, My Heart is beating…on the soundtrack. Anshu and Bittu came back and their families married them off.

Morality TV Aur Loving Jehad – Ek Manohar Kahani is being widely screened in media schools and other audience groups. “I feel I have been able to use an idiomatic and complex style with the help of an excellent crew – cameraperson Mukul Kishore, editor Sankalp Meshram and music composer Chirantan Bhatt,” says Vohra. And yet, at the end of it all, she adds, “I am uncomfortable with words like media-bashing, etc, because I do not consider this a blame game, but rather a moment to reflect for those who make this news and for those of us who watch it.”

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