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Crook, TRP-hunter, idiot, clown: How Indian journalist fell from hero to zero for Bollywood

Hindi cinema’s portrayal of journalists has gone from hero in the 1950s to manipulator, even joker. It reflects abuse & trolling they face on social media, especially women.

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A Diwali-Bhai Dooj weekend is a pretty good excuse to take a break from our usual fare, boring hard politics, and watch some movies instead. And also do some navel-gazing. As in, taking an introspective view of our profession, journalism.

Today’s editors demand the nutgraf. So here it is. How Bollywood and popular culture look at journalists has changed over the decades — from the quintessential good guy who beat the crooks and also got the girl in the 1950s, to a crook, manipulator, conspirator, cynical TRP-hunter, if not an outright joker.

What brought about the change and why? It is widely acknowledged that Hindi cinema (I only know Hindi) is usually the first to sniff the popular mood and social change. That is why the cinema of the 1950s and 1960s was so socialist, the 1970s populist, and post-reforms a breathless, urbanised celebration of the riches.

This thought process was triggered during the long months of the lockdown when two things happened to us. One, we bought our first smart TV. And second, we learnt to use OTT platforms. Among the things we did first — besides tracking the usual tele-series — was to go back to classics of the 1950s and 1960s, which either we had never seen, or saw as children and had zero recollection. The selection was made serendipitously, thinking about the most enduringly popular songs of the period that multiple generations have been humming.

The first, therefore, was Raj Khosla’s Kala Pani, 1958. Two unforgettable songs from it, ‘Hum bekhudi mein tumko pukare chale gaye’, and ‘Achha ji main haari chalo maan jaao na’ triggered it. The hero, Dev Anand, is a journalist in search of evidence to redeem his father, falsely convicted for a courtesan’s murder and jailed for life. He travels from Bombay to Hyderabad and lands up, where else, but in a newspaper office to check out old editions. Journalistically, it is a double delight because Madhubala is also a reporter working at this newspaper. You can pretty much anticipate how this unfolds. The good journalists win.

Dev Anand also features in Guru Dutt’s C.I.D. (1956). Again immortalised by its songs: ‘Le ke pehla, pehla pyar,’ ‘Jaata kahan hai deewane, sab kuchh yahan hai sanam’, ‘Kahin pe nigahein, kahin pe nishana,’ and ‘Aankhon hi aankhon mein ishara ho gaya’. Dev Anand isn’t a journalist here but an incorruptible CID inspector. And so intrepid that he merrily chases his own commissioner’s daughter Rekha, played by Shakila. But a fine editor is at the centre of the plot, Shrivastav, who persisted with exposing a big Mafioso, unmindful of threats or allurement. He pays with his life. It is Dev Anand’s task to catch the assassin and the mastermind, with more than a little help from the “boss’s” moll, Waheeda Rahman. Truth wins in the end. As does journalism of courage.

If the third example is also a Dev Anand film, it may also betray my own fandom for him and Sachin Dev Burman’s music. But Raj Khosla’s Solva Saal of 1958, with shades of Roman Holiday, has Dev Anand playing upright — and charming — reporter Prannath. He’s singing ‘Hai apna dil to aawara, na jaane kis pe aayega’ in Hemant Kumar’s voice on a train ride when he eavesdrops (always the quintessential reporter’s skill) on Waheeda Rahman eloping with her family heirloom and the bad-guy lover. It all works out well in the end again. The reporter gets the girl.

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Not to limit ourselves to Dev Anand, we go back to Raj Kapoor-Nargis starter and all-time superhit Chori Chori of 1956. Still hum the songs? ‘Yeh raat bheegi, bheegi’, ‘Jahan main jaati hoon wahin chale aate ho’, ‘Aa ja sanam, madhur chandni mein hum tum mile’, ‘Panchi banoon udti phiroon, mast gagan mein’, and many more.

Nargis is a runaway daughter and the tycoon daddy offers a huge reward for one who finds her. Raj Kapoor does. But he isn’t after this money. He plays jobless, freelance reporter Sagar who sees in Nargis a great story he could sell to his editor for a reasonable amount. Ultimately, as you can expect, the riches and the girl both happen.

Staying in the same decade, we have Guru Dutt’s Mr & Mrs 55. You’d connect with it if I reminded you of ‘Jaane kahan mera jigar gaya ji, abhi abhi yahin thha, kidhar gaya ji’. The context was very contemporary then, and in today’s language, might even be called woke. This was the year when Hindus got the right to divorce. A complicated plot was woven around the rich heiress Madhubala and her guardian-aunt Lalita Pawar, Bollywood’s favourite fly in the ointment.

The rest, you ought to watch. Just that Guru Dutt plays a jobless cartoonist who parasites on buddy Johnny Walker and hangs around in search of work in the newsroom where the comedian works as the paper’s photographer. My favourite sequence from the film: When Lalita Pawar comes to Johnny Walker’s bachelor pad to check on her ward’s prospective groom Guru Dutt.

‘You have no job, no income, don’t you feel miserable,’ she asks.

‘I have a roof over my head, I have three meals to eat. There are so many in the city who are much worse off,’ he says.

She’s, by now, horrified. Especially as she looks at the messy room and walls plastered with caricatures.

Tum kahin Communist toh nahin ho? (Are you a Communist by any chance?),’ she asks.

Nahin, main cartoonist hoon (no, I am cartoonist),’ says Guru Dutt.

Of course, the story ends how it should, with some drama. Love triumphs over money. Especially as the journalist is incorruptible.

Then change begins, and now I struggle to spot a film in the past four decades where journalists are not mocked, painted as goofs and villains, plain idiots or abused even with the MC/BC kind of gaali with hardly a pretence of even beeping the cuss words.

You can see this trend developing in Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), where two goofy photographers played by Naseeruddin Shah and Ravi Baswani are hired by a newspaper editor (Bhakti Barve) to conduct an investigation of the rich and corrupt. But in the end, she strikes a deal and lets them go to jail.

As I reflected on the change, I also figured out my severe limitations with recent cinema. But some I have watched, Peepli Live for example, and PK. Both mock television reporters mostly, unfortunately as far as this portrayal goes, young women. A sidelight: The little puppy Anushka Sharma’s character is displaying on her screen for one of those stories to mock TV journalism was adopted by director Rajkumar Hirani and has been his loved Buddy at home.

To understand this change, I reached out to those with better contemporary knowledge. Notably, former colleague and cinema specialist Kaveree Bamzai. When news TV began, in fact, is when Bollywood’s romance with journalists briefly returned. Preity Zinta played thinly veiled Barkha Dutt in Kargil-themed 2004 film Lakshya. But from then on, it’s been all downhill. Shah Rukh Khan had already told us about the awful things TV anchors would end up doing in Aziz Mirza’s Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000). By Peepli Live in 2010, the media with its stupidity and greed for TRPs, was pure evil.

By now, you can’t imagine a journalist being shown in good light, except something like Scam 1992 with investigative journalist Sucheta Dalal’s character. Remember that the series is set in 1992. The same superbly talented actor Shreya Dhanwanthary, who plays Sucheta, now acts as a TV journalist covering the 26/11 terror attacks in Hotstar’s Mumbai Diaries and is unethical to the core. She is cynically communalising a situation which isn’t so.

Did you watch Paatal Lok? We did during the lockdown. The editor featured there is so blinded by his own image, power and sex appeal that the truth no longer matters. And now, I believe there is the forthcoming Netflix production Dhamaka by Ram Madhvani, where the TV anchor apparently uses a “bomb attack” to win their way back into prime time. In Chak De! too, media has no scruples or ethics.

In Paa, Abhishek Bachchan as a politician-father lashes out at the media, while Hirani’s Sanju ends with the media being the only real villain in Sanjay Dutt’s life. Of course, the concluding caper sends ‘compliments’ to journalists’ ‘maa’ and ‘behen’ also. Journalism’s fall from grace in our popular culture pretty much reflects the abuse and trolling they face on social media, especially women.

What can we do? I’d return to the films of the 1950s.

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