Monday, July 30, 2012

Tributes to Rajesh Khanna – Can the media please be truthful?

Last fortnight saw the death of a superstar. Rajesh Khanna perhaps took up as much newsprint and on air time in his death as he did in the prime of his acting career. Most reports and features were tributes to his great performances as an actor, and many took the liberty of gently admonishing today’s filmmakers by extolling the values of the 19070s era (romance and charm versus the ruthless violence shown in movies today).

Few reports mentioned his well publicized personal life – radically different from his on screen persona – or even made a mention of his failures (and there were many). Vir Sanghvi’s piece in The Outlook magazine briefly mentions his off-screen life but not without contrasting it with Amitabh Bachchan, then a fledgling actor who would go on to replace Khanna as the next super star. Gargi Parsai mentioned his desperation to seek media support as a politician. The one account that stands out is perhaps Sunil Sethi’s. This piece is significant because it makes Rajesh Khanna seem human. Without being judgmental, the piece talks about Khanna’s imperfections - in reel and real life – and gives us a small peek of the man and what stardom did to him.

A good tribute is one that stays truthful to the person and does not paint him as a perfect human being. No one is perfect. It is these deviations from perfection that shape personalities and make people memorable. Sadly, the Indian media has chosen to make a saint out of Mr. Khanna, like they often have of numerous other deceased celebrities. What is worse, they have done a tawdry job of it.

Most tributes to Rajesh Khanna have focused on his stardom, while conveniently ignoring his directors and playback singers, without who this feat would have been impossible. There are no nuggets of information on his acting methodology, his working style, his inspirations, or for that matter how he viewed his ascent into cinema – all of which fans would not disapprove of. Not only is this shallow writing, it also creates a perception that Khanna was perhaps as shallow in real life because reporters couldn’t seem to get any meaningful information out of him or his circle of friends. On closer observation, most of the features and reports look more like tributes to the 1970s, while using the superstar’s death as a mere peg.

To bring a dead person alive through a feature is not easy. Deifying them (by seeking ‘good will’ quotes from former colleagues) is not the answer.

(I wrote this piece for the Hoot Blog. You can read it here and share your comments.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Kaziranga: Minister washes hands off animal deaths

(Image Courtesy - AFP News)

By urging experts to help reduce animal deaths due to floods in Kaziranga national park, Assam, the state’s Forest Minister Rockybul Hussain seems to be washing his hands off the responsibility. What is more tragic is that the Minister has quoted facts of several past instances of animal deaths due to floods in the national park, as if this is a normal phenomena that doesn’t merit any cause for large scale rescue operations by the Forest Department officials.

Sunshine or hailstorm, the responsibility of wildlife welfare has always been with the Forest Department. The figures quoted by the Minister indicate that 559 animals were killed in the current floods, whereas 652 died in the 1998 floods. From an animal conservation perspective, a decrease in 100 casualties is no cause to rejoice, especially considering the widely publicized efforts by the Department to safeguard animals during natural calamities. Measures such as increased patrols, purchase of additional speedboats for patrol, creation of artificial highlands for shelter, setting up of corridors for the safe passage of animals across National Highway–37, have been highlighted time and again in many speeches by the Minister.

The media, perhaps caught up in covering the greater tragedy of human deaths and displacement, seems to have forgotten to even ask the Minister some fundamental questions - why was there no advance rescue programme to take the animals to shelter, considering some animals started mass migrating a few days prior to the floods? If natives could help animals into safe zones, why did the Forest Department not have the resources to do that? If poachers could kill animals as they scrambled for safety outside the national park, why did the Department not have any officials stationed nearby to prevent this?

The Planning Commission clearly mentions disaster management as an area assigned to the Forest and Environment Department. Under the Disaster Management Act 2005, the respective state Departments are expected to present a five year plan detailing approaches, strategy and investment priorities for disaster management. A comprehensive paper by a Conservator of Forests, Varanasi Circle, Uttar Pradesh, details what exactly zoological parks need to do to manage disasters better. Perhaps journalists need to read that document to know what questions need to be asked when covering disasters in national parks.

(I wrote this post originally for the Hoot Blog. Click here to read the post and comments)

Monday, July 2, 2012

Looking beyond celebrities in sports coverage

The media’s reportage of the drama involving the All India Tennis Association (AITA) and some prominent tennis players iterates two things – We are keen on reporting the doings of sports personalities with little analysis into the merit of carrying such news; and we don’t give much importance to reporting on sporting bodies and regulatory authorities.

When was the last time you read a news report on a sporting association or regulatory body in mainstream media? I can remember three instances in the last five years – The commonwealth games 2010 (pertaining to the various frauds that came to light), the IPL scam leading to Lalit Modi’s sacking and the fracas between actor Shah Rukh Khan and the Wankhede Stadium officials. 

(Image courtesy:
After NDTV reported suspicions of fraud in procurement for the Commonwealth Games 2010, the media chased this and other similar issues such as poor quality housing right up to the submission of the VK. Shunglu Committee report on the alleged frauds. What was sorely missed was timely information on how the CWG committee was formed, its functioning, progress of the projects (not just those which lagged in delivery), bidding process and other decision making by the executive committee. Such reporting could have spotted irregularities in various aspects early on and enabled course correction minus the hype.

Compare this with the coverage of the London Olympics, My previous post indicates why the Indian media needs to look at holistically covering sports.

The IPL scam was focused largely on the then proposed Kochi team due to the indirect involvement of personalities such as Shashi Tharoor. It was brushed off as a blot on the otherwise blemishless IPL. No details other than the amounts of money recovered by the Income Tax department or the fact that NRI money was used to fund the teams were disclosed. As for the Shah Rukh Khan episode at Wankhede, after much noise was made by both parties, no action was taken against the actor. The media promptly presented both sides of the story and washed its hand off. Has MCA never banned anyone else in their history? Why is there no CCTV footage of this incident? How often are MCA rules/ privileges abused (considering the numerous celebrities who camp in the stadium during the IPL)?

In a country where sports is seen as entertainment perhaps many would justify that it is fair to cover only sports celebrities, as one does of TV/film celebrities. But in a country where sports is increasingly seen as the only option for success for many talented youngsters from under developed states/ underprivileged families, it is imperative to cover developments around sporting bodies. For a country that is now serious (supposedly) about grooming its sporting talent beyond cricket, it is necessary that sporting bodies face such scrutiny from the media to improve their functioning, boost sources of funding, bring more knowledgeable persons on the board and have meaningful outcomes.

A case in point is the kind of people who are heading most sporting bodies in India. A majority of them have never played or refereed a sport or had any prior specialized experience of working with a professional sporting organization. Many are politicians who claim to “follow the sport”. I am sure the media can at the very least question some of the decisions they make and thrust them upon players.

I can think of three simple ways in which reporters can improve their coverage of sporting bodies

1. Write about less popular sports and their governing bodies – Aside from BCCI, most other sporting bodies are pretty open to meeting reporters and explaining how they function.
2. Speak to the non-celebrities who form the ecosystem of the sport – Ball boys, pitch makers, umpires/ referees, cleaning staff and committee members who are not prominent – all of them can give nuggets of information that can help you understand how these bodies function.
3. Read about sporting body operations in developed countries – The Western media does a better job of reporting on developments around sporting bodies. These include reporting on committee elections. This sporting body for instance has its annual report, strategy plan and operational plan on its website.

Can you think of how else sports reporters can cover sports bodies better?