21 April 2017

Not Papered Over

My Mirror column:

New Delhi Times depicts an Indian media threatened by the growing nexus of business and politics — thirty years ago.

Shashi Kapoor and Sharmila Tagore in New Delhi Times (1986)
In Ramesh Sharma’s New Delhi Times, a Delhi-based news editor called Vikas Pande (Shashi Kapoor) is caught in a communal riot in his hometown of Ghazipur. Being driven to safety in a police jeep, he jumps out to rescue a photojournalist friend being accosted on the street. Back in the quiet of the Circuit House room, the photojournalist Anwar (played by theatre director MK Raina) tells Vikas that he’d come to shoot a photoessay on opium smuggling, but on hearing of a riot, took his camera and jumped into the fray: “Mazaa aa gaya!

Tumhe riot mein mazaa aata hai?” Vikas chastises him. “Amaa miyaan,” drawls Anwar, “You know what I’m saying! You get a good story, I get some good photographs: what else?” Vikas looks disturbed. He says: “You know, Anwar, sometimes I feel a strange fear – that we professional journalists simply bypass the real tragedy of whatever we’re covering. We don’t even feel it.” Anwar looks up gravely, his veneer of easy cynicism gone. “We used to feel it,” he says. “When it happened once in a while, we felt it very deeply. But now, now that it is an everyday spectacle, we feel nothing at all.”

New Delhi Times (1986) was an early portrait of the Indian media: how the growing nexus between business and politics threatened its independence. Although it won Sharma the Indira Gandhi award for the Best First Film, and Shashi Kapoor his only National Award for Best Actor, it was then seen as political hot stuff, and Doordarshan chickened out of screening it at the last minute. So much water has flown under the bridge since that Sharma’s chilling expose now doesn’t make us bat an eyelid. As Anwar puts it: “Now that it is an everyday spectacle, we feel nothing at all.”

There are other ways in which the film hasn’t aged well: Louis Banks’ background score is incongruous, and the pace often laboured. Several sequences – a hotel striptease (the plump dancer is a nicely realistic ‘80s touch), or black and white freeze frames interrupting a riot – might now seem so overused as to make your eyes glaze over.

But the strength of New Delhi Times, based on a script by Gulzar, is its web of believable characters, each one a type that somehow steers clear of seeming a caricature. And while real-life versions of these exist even today, the difference thirty years make is apparent. The urbane English-speaking editor in 1986 smokes a pipe constantly, but remembers being taught by a Maulvi saab and retains close links to his well-off UP origins. His nationalist father (AK Hangal) is still a respected figure in Ghazipur, even if his clear-eyed view of local politics makes him cognizant that their honouring him is a way of coopting him. Vikas’s genteel lawyer wife Nisha (Sharmila Tagore) fights dowry death cases but also – an Indian Mrs Dalloway – arranges the flowers herself. Jagannath Poddar, the newspaper owner (Manohar Singh) is happy to entertain a rising politician at home, but feels no need to kowtow to him in the paper.

Vikas Pande also seems from another age because of his fearlessness-—which today might be called naivety. Even after being roughed up by unidentified men, threatened by anonymous callers and having his house cat gorily killed, Pande can tell his employers that management has no right to interfere in editorial decisions. Where does this strength come from? From his belief that another paper will gladly print his piece, and his skills are valued enough for him to keep his job.

The film is clear that a fearless journalist like Vikas Pande can only thrive while there are still men like Jagannath Poddar, who not only has the financial clout to run a paper, but also the moral fibre to not treat the media as equivalent to other forms of moneymaking.

Baaki sab vyopaar hai, vyopaar ki tarah chalta rahta hai. Is akhbaar ko main dharam maankar chalaata hoon. (The rest is business, it runs like businesses do. This newspaper I treat as my religion.)”

But generational change is afoot: Poddar’s son Jugal (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) wants Vikas’s hot-button allegations off the front page, and tries to tempt him off the paper with a new magazine to edit. And while the film does not focus on it, in the Hindi heartland, the rot has long set in: “If we publish the headlines as we see them,” the local Ghazipur editor laughs wryly, “our paper supplies may suddenly dwindle, or our press shut down.”

The Ghazipur editor may not be out and about in a curfew, but Vikas Pande will be escorted into town in a police jeep – not just because of who he is, but who his father is. While not making that the centre of its politics, New Delhi Times seems inherently aware of how networks of privilege, old and new, cocoon its club-going, squash-playing protagonists. It is the poor chowkidar, the bike-riding young reporter, the Scheduled Caste MLA who die unsung deaths. The honest bourgeois hero suffers profound disillusionment, but no palpable losses.

But Sharma’s film also points the way to our present. At one tense moment, Vikas meets his immediate boss, who laughs off any real threat to an eminent journalist like him. Vikas looks unconvinced. “Anything can happen now. These people can do anything.” he says. That may or may not have been true in 1986, but it does seem true now.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 16 Apr 2017

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