Has anyone noticed how insidiously—and swiftly—the term Page 3 has entered the language? It’s not a new phrase, of course. In most of the world, the term refers to the topless bimbettes whose pictures appear on the third pages of tabloid newspapers.
But for readers in India, Page 3 means something entirely different. Here, the phrase refers to the society/party page in a city supplement, where various vacuous people are photographed giggling vacantly at the camera. So popular is the term that it has appeared in the title of two TV shows (admittedly, only on Zoom, where there’s Page Three and the imaginatively titled Not Just Page Three), one movie (Madhur Bhandarkar’s successful and influential Page 3) and has spawned a sub-phrase of its own: P3P for Page 3 People.
As far as I can tell, the Indian usage came from Bombay Times, The Times of India's pioneering city supplement, which first had the bright idea of inserting a celebrity sheet into our daily newspaper. Bombay Times ran its party pictures on Page 3 and though the section had its own name (some nonsense like Boomtown Rap), it was the page number that captured the public imagination.
The Bombay Times idea—unprecedented for a respected serious newspaper anywhere in the world—was such a great success that there was soon a Delhi Times, and then an HT City and a Telegraph Metro and so on. Eventually, their idea reached TV, when NDTV’s Night Out changed the rules of the party game and made a star out of Aneesha Baig, an otherwise cerebral producer, who suddenly became the most sought-after journo on the social circuit.
These days, Page 3 is big business. It isn’t just the spin-offs. It’s the original as well. If you want to get your party into Delhi Times or Bombay Times, all you have to do is to phone up The T imes of India’s Medianet division and, in exchange for a tidy sum of money, the Times’ reporters and photographers will offer you coverage and tell credulous readers how wonderful you are and how glamorous your party was. All this is entirely official and transparent (except to the readers, of course) and the Times’ justification is that Medianet is only taking the cut that would otherwise go to loathsome PR people, who make their living assuring clients that they can get them into the society supplements. I have no idea how much money Medianet makes from selling social coverage, but a figure in excess of Rs12 crore is frequently mentioned.
As good journos, we are all appalled by this blatant selling of edit space. But two things about the whole Page 3 phenomenon intrigue me. The first is that even though so many of us (including Aroon Purie, Vinod Mehta and other leaders of our profession) have written impassioned articles on the subject, there’s no evidence that readers give a damn. Is it because Indians do not care about editorial integrity and credibility? Or is it because we recognize that Page 3, by definition, features trashy people and, so, are not concerned at all about the methods used to decide which piece of Mumbai trash deserves to be included or which bimbette should be excluded?
Which brings me to the other intriguing thing about Page 3: What kind of person would want to be featured on it? If you scan most city supplements, you’ll find that three kinds of people get in. One: genuine celebrities who happen to be at events (awards functions, charity dinners, etc.). These are real stars and do not usually qualify as Page 3 People. Two: people who’ve paid to get in. I don’t want to sound too snobbish (he says, bravely….) but if you come across pictures of Lovely marrying Sweety at some West Delhi gala, the chances are either Lovely’s papa or Sweety’s chacha has written a cheque.
But it is the third category of people who fascinate me: the hardcore Page 3 regulars. Each day you’ll come across people who have no real reason to be considered newsworthy. There will be small-time industrialists; wives of auto-component manufacturers; obscure ‘designers’ you've never heard of; so-called ‘ad-men’; professional fixers; ‘models’ you do not recognize; and even ‘party animals’.
Why, you may well ask, do these people get featured on such a regular basis? You have to work in a newspaper to know the answer. The truth is that no member of what the supplements regard as ‘high society’ or ‘Bollywood royalty' will allow photographers into their homes. So, you’ll never see pictures of parties thrown by, say, Amitabh Bachchan, Mukesh Ambani, Parmeshwar Godrej or Gayatri Devi.
Supplement editors who have pages to fill every day fall back on product launches, which are usually attended only by these Page 3 people, or on paid features (the Lovely/Sweety/Bubbly market), or on parties thrown by people who actually call up the editors and beg them to feature their bashes.
How pathetic do you have to be to invite press photographers to your home? How shameful is it to suck up to supplement editors so that they describe you as a ‘socialite’ on their pages? And yet, Mumbai and Delhi are full of people who do exactly that. Most of them are cash-rich; usually, the wealth is first-generation and nearly all of them are devoid of any socially redeeming features. In some cases, they have been featured on Page 3 long enough to be famous for being famous.
I suspect that this is one social category that is exclusive to India. There are trashy people everywhere, but they are rarely featured in the media unless they have some show-biz connection, go out with celebrities, or inherit famous fortunes.
Call it the consequence of an 8% growth rate, of a middle class in transition, or of a media that has lost all sense of what news really is. But there is no denying that we finally have a bizarre social phenomenon that is our very own.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org