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January 17, 2001
Reality bytesEvery season the media needs a new villain. Just as it needs a new hero.
If you think this is an altruistic search, think again. The media needs its own heroes and villains for its own reasons. As indeed we all do. If you think I am exaggerating the point, watch M Night Shyamalan's new movie Unbreakable and you will realise how deeply ingrained in our psyche is this comic book morality game. Cops versus robbers. Cowboys versus Red Indians. Superman versus Supervillain. The search is always on to find those who can fit these roles and, when the media fails to find them, it creates them. Sometimes even by twisting the facts and forcing the roles onto unwilling people.
A perfect example is Hrithik Roshan. Wary of the media's intentions, he has repeatedly refused to play the role of Super Hero. For he is clever enough to know that it is a dangerous game where there are no permanent winners, no permanent losers. Everyone is grist to the mill. Yesterday's hero is today's total washout. Today's hero could as easily turn out to be tomorrow's archvillain. No one wins in this game except the media as the search continues for the perfect headline that can grab public attention and enhance revenue streams.
Last week's villain was Bharat Shah. Every newspaper and virtually every magazine had him on the front page. For someone who had always graced page three of the city supplement or the back page of the magazines as the toast of the cocktail circuit it was, in a curious way, a leg up the social ladder. From the Badshah of Bollywood, Shah has mysteriously metamorphosed overnight, in a Kafkaesque way, into this monstrous Supervillain. The man who could make Shah Rukh Khan and Juhi Chawla dance at his will was suddenly seen to have danced to the tune of a dark, frightening underworld that appears to have caught Bollywood in its hairy tentacles.
Whether Bharat Shah has criminal links or not, time alone will tell and, of course, the courts before whom the trial is about to begin. But, as far as the media is concerned, Shah has already been tried and hanged. Every day new stories break out about how he has cheated the customs and violated the country's foreign exchange laws. About how his companies are under-performing, how his television channel is about to shut down, how the films he was producing have now stopped rolling, about how he and his brother do not get along. The man with the Midas touch has now become just the opposite. Everybody shuns him. Even those who knew him, those who sought favours from him, those who most benefited from him now refuse to acknowledge that he even exists. From Bollywood's most publicised businessman, he has now become the invisible man. The man no one ever knew, ever spoke to, ever borrowed money from!
Whether Shah survives this media onslaught or not is his business. But it is time we realised the simple fact that this is no altruistic campaign that the media is running. To reveal the truth or track down a new villain. It is just part of its ongoing business, to create every few days a new hero or a new villain who can capture the headlines and sustain the sales. Whether it is newspaper sales or eyeballs that need to be captured, the objective is the same: bigger numbers, bigger revenues.
It is not social good that we are talking about here. It is just the bottomline that needs to be shored up, quarter after quarter. It is like any other business.
In the process, people get hurt, institutions are reduced to shambles, idealism yields way to petty commerce. Those who can manage or manipulate the media get away. Those who cannot are victims of the system. They are, like Bharat Shah, magically transformed from sugar daddies into Supervillains or, like Hrithik Roshan, are taken struggling and protesting to the dais and forced the wear the thorn of crowns as Super Hero. The sole beneficiary of this tragic tableaux is the media which, under the garb of being the fourth estate, earns more and more money even as it plays the role of gossip aunt, sleuth, law enforcer, judge, jury, hangman.
Newspapers have figured this out. That is why you see more and more sensational headlines, more and more hardsell every day. Everyone is trying to be heard above the din, the cacophony. So you need more sensational stories, you need more outrage, more sermonising. You need more heroes to be discovered, more villains. If you cannot find them, you will have to manufacture them. Otherwise sales will decline, advertising will fall, profits will shrink.
Television channels, quicker on the uptake, have actually changed the rules of the game. You no longer have facts and fiction on separate channels, as news and entertainment. You now have a melange of the two on both channels, masquerading as the truth in one and as entertainment in the other. Shows like Survivor or Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire have completely vanished the line that separates fact from fantasy. You no more know whether what you are watching is true or false, fact or fiction, reality or completely made up.
Maybe it is time to realise this. Maybe it is time to figure out the simple truth that the media has its own compulsions. That, today, it has become like any other business. It no longer has any commitment to truth or reality as we have traditionally known it. It walks the razor's edge, balancing between what the market wants and what it sees as its business opportunities. In other words, it is time we took the responsibility of judging what is right and what is wrong in our own hands and stopped depending on the media to make up our minds for us.
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