Even if you have a passing acquaintance with the Hindi film industry, you will probably have heard of, if not seen, such movies as Satya, Company and Sarkar. Even if you’ve never seen a single of Ram Gopal Varma’s films—not even Rangeela—you’ll remember RGV as the person who found himself in the middle of a huge controversy last year when he decided to tag along with then Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and his actor son, Ritiesh, to tour the ravaged Taj and Oberoi Hotels in the aftermath of 26/11. Deshmukh said Varma’s presence was a “coincidence”.
But the public outrage at this level of crass insensitivity was so intense that Deshmukh was shown the door. RGV survived and went on to work on his next film, in which Deshmukh junior has a role.
Also Read Namita Bhandare’s earlier columns
The film that has emerged in the aftermath of 26/11 is Rann (battle) starring Amitabh Bachchan in what is reported to be an in-depth look at the media. Bachchan plays the role of the owner of a leading news channel who is torn between the pull of commerce and his commitment to the truth.
There has been some media speculation that the role is based on Prannoy Roy—though Varma says the character is entirely fictional. The portrayal of journalists in the world of Bollywood has, by and large, been positive. In Lakshya, Preity Zinta plays an idealistic journalist. In Mission Kashmir, the journalist (Zinta again) runs “Srinagar TV” while trying to decipher coded terrorist plans. Page 3, Madhur Bhandarkar’s famous take on the shallow, make-believe world of “society” journalists, came close to the truth: in a famous scene, the young, idealistic journalist on the page 3 beat hops on to a local train for the ride back home after attending one of the many parties she must cover for a living. And, of course, there’s my all-time favourite, Bhakti Bharve who plays the tough and feisty editor of the fictional “Khabardar” in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron—a woman who thinks nothing of manipulating the system all for the sake of a scoop.
I haven’t seen Rann, obviously, but from the few initial reports, including one in Reuters, the film “delves into the highly competitive world of television news reporting in India, putting the spotlight on the media industry’s insatiable appetite for advertisers and viewers”.
Is this RGV’s way of hitting back at all those journalists who lambasted him in November? Hard to say, but this much is sure: Rann will find several sympathetic takers, despite its obvious stereotypes (power hungry politician, unscrupulous industrialist, etc.).
The media, particularly television media, seems to have become everyone’s favourite whipping boy, and not without justification. Amitabh Bachchan himself has a lot to say about the practice of “mike-shoving”.
In one of his blogs he writes about how journalists rushed to Abhishek Bachchan immediately after his grandmother, Teji Bachchan’s funeral, to ask him how he felt (what did they think would be his reply: “great”, “just smashing” “on top of the world”?).
Once looked upon as the last defender of freedom, the image of the jhola-carrying journalist as an underdog determined to expose corruption in high places has taken a beating in recent times.
Certainly, the electronic media’s role in 26/11 came under a great deal of scrutiny, particularly as channels beamed live images of commando movements, very probably giving away vital information to the terrorists trapped inside hotels and a Jewish centre.
Yet, RGV could have overplayed his hand. By remixing lines from the national anthem as his title track—Jana gana mana rann hai, is rann mein zakhmi hua hai bharat ka bhagya vidhata—he has offended thousands of Indians and the censor board has refused permission to air the song. Varma’s argument that his film’s song is not the national anthem but is only “inspired by what it stands for” (whatever that means) is patently dishonest: you have only to go on to YouTube to recognize the tune and the words. I have never understood symbolism that merely pays lip service.
The excitement surrounding the auction of Mahatma Gandhi’s glasses left me cold, more so because we abandoned his ideals a long time ago. Member of Parliament Naveen Jindal actually had to go to court to fight for the right of citizens to fly the flag. And the silly slapping of cases on people who wear the tricolour (the colours, not flag) as dresses strikes me as a lot of hot air signifying nothing.
But in an age where everything that should have been sacrosanct—the media, the judiciary, our political system—is being turned on its head and becoming the object of rank cynicism, some things must be left alone. The national anthem is one of them. I’m not going to subscribe to the cynical view that Varma’s subversion of the anthem is a publicity ploy. I do believe that he has the right to creative expression.
He has the right to an opinion on the problems— terrorism, farmer suicides, crime—faced by India. But by subverting one of the last few untainted symbols of hope, of aspiration left in this country, he’s not doing anybody a favour.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org