Shashi Kapoor and Kulbhushan Kharbanda in New Delhi Times (1986). Image courtesy: Ramesh Sharma
Cinema and its relation to truth has always been subject to suspicion. It is not subject to the same ethical obligation to objectivity and neutrality as journalism is. Conversely, through mixing fiction with non-fiction, it can ask fundamental questions that exceed the limits of journalism. As we wake up in a ‘post-truth’ world, and also come face to face with its brittle ethics of journalism, it will be interesting to look at how Indian cinema has treated its sibling medium over the years.
In 1981 Ashwini Sarin, a reporter for The Indian Express, bought a young woman from the flesh market of Dholpur in order to write an expose on the practice. Sarin’s story had the purpose of dealing a stinging blow to the nation’s ‘progressive’ foundations, but the question remained – to what extent can journalism go in its search for the truth? At what point does the script change from reportage to exploitation? The incident became the subject of a play by legendary Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkar and was later adapted into the film Kamla (1984) by Jag Mundhra. As real life journalism bleeds into the reel life reporter, we enter an interesting domain. Similar debates have always surrounded reportage – in which the act of reporting assumes far more importance than its subject, like in the case of the famous Afghan Girl photograph taken by Steve McCurry in 1984, without the consent of the subject Sharbat Gula.
The figure of the journalist has always featured prominently in Indian cinema, particularly in the political film. Political cinema always displays some aspirations towards realism, but it is not entirely free of the circulation of prevalent tropes. Representation of figures such as the journalist, the politician, the activist often dips into the pools of generic features, reducing them to a facile parade of stereotypes. Despite this tendency, some important portrayals of the journalist have emerged over time.
Noshu's journalism breaches the code of objectivity, as he himself is a member of the racket he exposes. His articles take the form of a confessional, attempting to redeem himself for crossing over the line.
One of the notable portrayals of the journalist comes in the form of Dilip Kumar’s Noshu in Footpath (Zia Sarhadi, 1953). A bleak tale set during a famine (a reference to the man-made famine of 1943 that devasted Bengal), the struggling reporter, Noshu turns into a black-marketer to better his fortunes. Featuring a restrained performance from Dilip Kumar, the character operates in the grey zone between the reporter and their subject. The narrative is set entirely within an urban neighbourhood and as the story progresses, the narrow gullies and crowded markets assume a look of desolation as the famine worsens. The film makes good use of its space, bringing a sense of despair through its drab locales, turning increasingly claustrophobic with the deepening crisis. Noshu’s moral dilemma is deepened by his idealist brother’s revulsion at the choices he made. He feels the walls closing in on him – his cynicism cannot bear the weight of bodies piling up on the streets. In the end, he assumes a pseudonym and starts exposing his fellow black-marketers in a local newspaper. His journalism breaches the code of objectivity, as he himself is a member of the racket he exposes. His articles take the form of a confessional, attempting to redeem himself for crossing over the line. Ultimately, he bypasses his trade altogether, turning himself over directly to the police. Kumar would reprise the role of the journalist twice more in his career – once in Leader (Ram Mukherjee, 1964) and again in Mashaal (Yash Chopra, 1984). He plays very different versions in both. In Leader he is clearly on the right, being framed for a murder by the powers that be. Mashaal provides a more complex approach – Kumar once again blurs the line between conscientious reporter and criminal, but only because he sees no recourse left to him. Hemmed in on all sides by the machinations of the evil Vardhan (Amrish Puri), he makes the radical choice of becoming a gangster himself to rival him. The film’s climax takes place inside a printing press, where Kumar affirms his continuing faith in the pen, even though he traded it for a gun himself. One of the most enduring images from the film is Kumar’s blood spilled on freshly printed newspapers - a dual-edged symbolism, signalling both his tragic end and a rejuvenating infusion of young committed journalists.
One of the most enduring images from the film is Kumar’s blood spilled on freshly printed newspapers - a dual-edged symbolism, signalling both his tragic end and a rejuvenating infusion of young committed journalists.
The close relation between the pen and the gun seems to always fascinate filmmakers. In Aarop (Atma Ram, 1974), Vinod Khanna plays Subhash, a hardnosed editor of the newspaper Maashal, refusing to budge from his commitment to the truth. His fatal moment comes when, in a moment of desperation, he takes a gun, aiming to shoot Kanchan (Bindu), a member of the villainous 3 Aces Club. He restrains himself at the last moment, but Kanchan is shot dead anyway and Subhash is framed for her murder.
The most poignant scenes of the film happens between Sarita and Kamla.
The necessary critical distance from the subject is once again under interrogation in Kamla. Taking its cue from the real life incident, Tendulkar’s script revolves around the erasure of the voice of the woman purchased by the reporter. In the film, Kamla, played with admirable poise by Deepti Naval, strikes up a friendship with the reporter Jaisingh Jadav’s (Marc Zuber) wife, Sarita (Shabana Azmi). Sarita is troubled by Jaisingh’s brusque attitude towards Kamla. In the reporter’s eyes she becomes an object, a form of evidence to be presented to help make his case. Having purchased her, he himself falls into the role of the master Kamla expects of him, refusing to take her agency into account. The most poignant scenes of the film happens between Sarita and Kamla. Completely embedded in the economy of the flesh trade, Kamla cannot imagine a relationship between a man and woman that is also not of a master and slave. She asks Sarita how much Jaisingh had paid for her. Kamla’s question ends up sparking the awareness that Sarita too had traded in her aspirations to become Jaisingh’s slave. When the film first shows their household, the camera frames their old photographs where we see Sarita’s academic achievements rivalled Jaisingh’s. Jaisingh regularly dismisses her objections and opinions, never once considering his wife to be a peer. The truth that he really exposes is that relationships of domination cannot be relegated to rural backwaters; they lie far closer to home. The film uses the metaphor of reportage to drive home a point which is far more uncomfortable – how far are we willing to go in search of that sansanikhez scoop? How much are our personal aspirations and privileges involved with our search for truth?
The truth that Jaisingh really exposes is that relationships of domination cannot be relegated to rural backwaters; they lie far closer to home.
The entanglement of high-stakes investigative journalism with political manoeuvring is not a new topic for Indian cinema. In Ramesh Sharma’s New Delhi Times (1986) Shashi Kapoor plays the reporter Vikas Pandey, looking into the murder of an MLA in Ghazipur. The film continuously questions the efficacy of Vikas’s actions. Vikas’s wife Nisha (played with great sensitivity by Sharmila Tagore) asks him “Paper mein chapwane se problems khatam to nahi ho jaate”. His jaded colleague Anwar (M.K. Raina) proclaims “Tum aur main logo ko sirf entertain karte hain”. The press never stops running and the hunger for news never abates, a truth even more starkly visible in our present times. Even the traumatic becomes routine in the economy of sensationalism. Within this foggy frontier, Vikas Pandey’s investigation reveals some uncomfortable truths – but most of all for himself. He realises that he had been a pawn in a political game played by the state’s Chief Minister and his supposedly righteous investigation is compromised. While Vikas works for a major newspaper, the film also delivers caustic commentary on the conditions of smaller newspapers. A reporter from the local newspaper of Ghazipur sardonically tells Vikas; “Humare chief editor to yaha ke thanedar hai.”
The press never stops running and the hunger for news never abates, a truth even more starkly visible in our present times. Even the traumatic becomes routine in the economy of sensationalism.
While these films feature journalists in prominent roles, the character also appears in supporting capacity usually as a representative of civil society. In Govind Nihalani’s seminal Aakrosh (1980), one of the very few films to talk of the adivasi’s plight in modern India, a hapless local editor is beaten up when he dares to go against the official state-supported narrative of an adivasi woman’s murder. Shabana Azmi played a significant supporting role in Amitabh Bachchan’s box office disaster Main Azaad Hoon (Tinnu Anand, 1989). Azmi’s turn takes us into a significant segment of our discussion – that is the portrayal of female journalists in Indian cinema.
Clint Eastwood recently courted controversy due to the portrayal of journalist Kathy Scruggs in his film Richard Jewell (2019). The film seemed to imply Scruggs having sexual relations with her informer, without providing any room for Scruggs’s narrative. The problems of gendered portrayals of journalists on screen are further compounded when it is becoming increasingly clear that workspaces in real life often function along those same gendered lines. Feeding each other in an ouroboros cycle, this contributes to preserving toxic cultures of masculinity.
The problems of gendered portrayals of journalists on screen are further compounded when it is becoming increasingly clear that workspaces in real life often function along those same gendered lines. Feeding each other in an ouroboros cycle, this contributes to preserving toxic cultures of masculinity.
Along with the issues of gender, Azmi’s performance opens the door to several questions of journalist ethics. A remake of Meet John Doe (Frank Capra, 1941), Azmi plays a reporter of a struggling newspaper who concocts a fictional character named Azad who vents his frustration at the corrupt system and vows to commit suicide on the 26th of January. Azmi does not do anything radically different in her articles, only using Azad as a pseudonym to write her usual reportage. Yet the illusion of an actual identity transforms passive reportage into galvanising activism. When pressured by her editor to actually find Azad, she picks out a down-on-his-luck man from the streets and christens him Azad. But what began as pantomime turns to reality, as ‘Azad’ turns out to be more than a puppet and ends up leading a political awakening in the city. Azmi’s reporter is initially as cynical as her political masters, but comes to believe in Azad’s cause. This should not really be a surprise to anyone, as Azad’s cause was really her own anyway, his first words written by her pen only. Despite Bachchan’s role being given the majority of attention, the film really belongs to Azmi’s character. The persona of Azad (an identity equivalent to the Guy Fawkes mask) acts as a conduit to her realisation that her world-weary cynicism was in reality desire for change. Her act of violating journalist ethics was really the first step towards uprooting the whole media circus.
Despite Bachchan’s role being given the majority of attention, the film really belongs to Azmi’s character.
Women journalists often come to portray the committed counterbalance to a pessimist worldview. In Mehul Kumar’s Krantiveer (1994), Dimple Kapadia’s Megha Dixit is the only person doggedly fighting for the under-privileged being crushed by a state-industrialist-underworld nexus. Her principles are contrasted against Nana Patekar’s nonchalance towards things that don’t concern him. But when the tide reaches his doors, Patekar, too, has to make a choice, and it is Dixit who shows him the way. We also find the female journalist in Rajiv Rai’s Mohra (1994). While Raveena Tandon’s image as the ‘Mast mast girl’ is remembered till date, what slips through the crack is that she was actually playing an intrepid reporter. But, we also witness a disquieting element creep into these characterisations.
Indian cinema and its inconsistent politics of showing rape has long been under discussion.
Indian cinema and its inconsistent politics of showing rape has long been under discussion. The rape-revenge trope and its ambiguous presentation is used extensively in the B film circuit but can also be spotted in more mainstream affairs. Both Krantiveer and Mohra present the female journalist’s body as sites of sexual violence. In Krantiveer, her rape at the hands of gangster Chattursingh Chitta (Danny Denzongpa) is the catalyst of her activism. Raveena Tandon’s Roma suffers attempted rape in her very first scene in Mohra. The fiery journalist is superseded by the image of the victim – a portal for the male hero to appear as saviour. It is no wonder that in a film bursting at the seams with machismo, the ‘mast mast’ image stayed while Roma disappeared.
A more sensitive portrayal is presented in Satyajit Ray’s Nayak (1966). Sharmila Tagore’s Aditi Sengupta is the quintessential female journalist – non-compromising, committed yet with a deep reserve of empathy. She is stinging in her disavowal of the superstar Arindam Mukherjee’s (Uttam Kumar in one of his iconic roles) aura yet practical enough to know that an interview with him would fetch more eyeballs for her magazine. But most significant of all, she accomplishes the most important task of the reporter – listening. One can easily dismiss her character as a meek observer of the superstar delivering a masterclass of self-mythification. But Aditi manages to walk the thin line between being critical and exploitative, part attentive friend and part incisive analyst. In the end, she refuses to do what defines her profession. She refuses to report. Ray would present a far less flattering portrait of the journalist in Ganashatru (1990) where the supposedly dauntless editor meekly surrenders to Hindu fundamentalist and corporate pressures.
The journalist character has continued to be featured heavily in Indian cinema, especially with the influence of the docu-drama on modern day ‘inspired by real events’ stories. While the focus has shifted considerably to TV journalism (think Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, Aziz Mirza, 2000; Kabul Express, Kabir Khan, 2006), representations of the old school investigative journo continue in films like Page 3 (Madhur Bhandarkar, 2005) and Guru (Mani Ratnam, 2007).
Cinema’s true potential is to occupy the space between the journalist and their subject. Over and over, in these films, we see this distance being reiterated, circumvented or simply transcended. While it can’t intervene in the daily struggle of news media to find the elusive truth, it can put on the mask of the journalist to ask the necessary questions that elude the four corners of the printed page. In Oscar’s Wilde’s words, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
Chintamani, Gautam. “Vinod Khanna, Saira Banu’s 1974 film Aarop highlights the importance of fearless journalism”, Firstpost, Accessed March 5, 2020. https://www.firstpost.com/entertainment/vinod-khanna-saira-banus-1974-film-aarop-highlights-the-importance-of-fearless-journalism-5437461.html
Kaul, Vivek. “The Indian media and its ‘Main Azaad Hoon’ syndrome”, Firstpost, Accessed 22 February, 2020. https://www.firstpost.com/india/the-indian-media-and-its-main-azaad-hoon-syndrome-398743.html
Outlook Web Bureau, “When An Indian Express Reporter Broke Law And Purchased A Woman For Rs 2,300 To Write A Shocking Story On Trafficking”, Outlook, Accessed 22 February, 2020.