The great Indian laughter challenge

P. Sainath

Friday, Oct 14, 2005

If you decide that 75 per cent of the country does not make news, you’re shrinking your potential zone of coverage. And if you decree that only a small section of the other 25 per cent does, you’ve painted yourself into a corner.

CROWNING SUNIL Pal of Nagpur the comic king in Star One’s Great Indian Laughter Challenge seems a waste of talent. The man is meant for bigger things. He’d make a perfect news and content manager for much of the media. To the chaos unleashed by ratings-obsessed TV coverage and newspaper circulation battles, he could just bring a more organised approach. Surely, a more balanced one. He might even find it a Greater Indian Challenge. Matching the media’s unconscious humour won’t be easy.

Take that television anchor in the studio, looking deeply concerned: “Raghav — how are the rains on your side of town? Raghav, can you hear me?” Of course he can. Since Raghav is standing on the roof of the same building, it shouldn’t be difficult. “It’s terrible Karan, one can only call it a deluge.” Raghav has been pressed into this dodge because other reporters are actually stuck in the waters, trying honestly to tell the story. Wet and miserable and unable to link up with their office — since the Great Indian Network has failed the Challenge. Up to a point all this is good, clean fun.

A rough guide to media jargon might help enhance that.

Special Investigation: This means the reporter actually visited the place.

Breaking news: Means we saw it on the other channel and had to move real fast to claw our way back into the game.

Exclusive: It has not ever been carried before on this channel.

Beyond a point, it gets bad. Running footage of the July flooding while allowing viewers to believe they were looking at the September rain was not funny. It just panics the hell out of people. (And remember, if the rival channel’s deluge is bigger than ours, head office will get annoyed.) Oddly, this high-tension stuff was interspersed with appeals from the government not to panic. Something like the mandatory caution on cigarette packs. (Statutory warning: This deluge is not so bad for you as the last one was.)

Mumbai has seen no rain since July 26. Not in media eyes, anyway. After that date, by media decree, any downpour becomes `a deluge,’ no less. It does tend to rain a bit in the monsoons, but that’s pass�. If it’s wet, it’s `a deluge’ or we’re not interested.

`Again!’ said one newspaper on September 10. Suggesting that this round, too, was `a deluge,’ as in July. The difference between Deluge I and Deluge II was some 900 mm. More than the annual rainfall of many districts in this country. But since it happened in Mumbai, the second round of heavy rain also became a deluge.

To its credit, one newspaper did point out: “Five per cent rain, hundred per cent panic.” But that was lost in the deluge of media-driven fear. “Where was the CM?” demanded another daily. Strange, since they were at a press conference of the same Chief Minister less than 20 hours earlier. They must have known he was at a Delhi meeting mapping out relief programmes for the July Deluge. Had he ducked that meeting, he would — quite rightly — have been skewered for it. With Deluge II (The Sequel), his going for it was the paper’s cue to move into outraged-guardian-of-the-public mode.

When the actual deluge took place, one leading weekly put Aamir Khan on its cover. Another gave Rani Mukherjee that honour, doubtless in the quest for gender parity. Maybe the sense of having missed out on the first one had sections of the media making a meal of it the second time around. Either way, the age of saturation coverage has arrived. On a very narrow base. Sangli, Kolhapur, Raigad, and Ratnagiri, for instance, took a far worse beating in the rains than Mumbai did on many counts. But then they’re lesser places. They can have floods. It will be a long time before they can work their way up the social scale to `a deluge.’

Of course the terrible flooding of Mumbai was and is a massive issue. It would have been criminally negligent not to cover it well. And the efforts of so many reporters were truly admirable. After that though, other priorities come in and public interest takes a back seat. Even as Mumbai’s Deluge II was being reported with some passion, news came in that Delhi was seeing its first rain in 40 days. Till that point, Deluge II was seen as deadly, horrifying. But just as we began to rebuild Noah’s Ark, it went right off the radar. The rain still hit the city, but it had been superseded in importance by the “Delhi-uge.”

The destruction in eastern Vidharbha had a strong man-made dimension. The opening of the gates of the Sanjay Sarovar dam on the Wainganga river by Madhya Pradesh led to the inundation of 37 villages. The event deserved both reporting and debate on the issues and lessons it raised. But coverage was cursory.

There was also a week when Mumbai was one mega-death trap. Buildings were falling like, well, buildings. Masses of them. You couldn’t throw a brick without fatally wounding a building. Dailies ran four pages in a single day on the subject. Short of issuing a helmet-at-all times advisory to readers, little was left to chance. In truth, Mumbai sees up to 200 buildings collapse in a year, so the problem is a real and big one. But at that point, it seemed all 200 were falling the same week. A few have fallen since, but the pack has moved on to other prey.

One catch with pigging out on superlatives is that you run out of them. So when a giant calamity does come along, you’re in trouble. On television, the sun rising in the East is `breaking news.’ Rising in the West would make it `a controversy.’ If a building collapse draws the same passion as the tsunami, you have problems. And yet, the intensity can be quite superficial. Very dangerous proposals have been approved for buildings that could truly cause mega-deaths. Not to mention mighty traffic snarls. These have received poor attention. Some papers have not covered them at all.

But the saturation coverage idea works just as well, even better, with trivia. A film star hospitalised with injury to her toe a couple of years ago was an ideal peg, for instance. Seldom in the annals of human anatomy was so much written by so many about so little.

This time around, film stars distributing food packets in the deluge and observing Ganesh Utsav `with gusto’ grabbed space. A healthy competition is good, and some of the fallout of new papers in town has been good too. But working Bollywood into the floods and even the Ganpati festival? That’s a race to the bottom. Many fine reporters now search for a Bollywood angle to the most legitimate of city stories. They know it’s their best — and sometimes only — chance of getting those stories into print. After the space Karishma Kapoor’s battle with her husband captured, how can one blame them? Or take the oodles of airtime that the accident involving Govinda’s family grabbed. (The one person who died in that, the film star’s secretary, remained invisible in that coverage. Not a star himself, he drove no ratings.)

There was also a deluge of Tarannum coverage. Where the issues involved are far less important than who got to Tarannum first. Who got an `exclusive’ with her, never mind what she said. (For some channels, even the rain falls `exclusively.’) It’s a kind of yah-boo competition that can destroy lives. The more so if the target is a soft one. Nothing stokes media bravery more than a target that can’t hit back.

True, all this has always happened to some extent with crime stories. But now the point of hysteria arrives much quicker. Before Tarannum, the Preeti Jain-Bhandarkar mess stole miles of space. Corporate bosses, even when awfully criminal, evoke more caution. They tend to have tough lawyers and, vitally, advertising power. The latter usually converts watchdogs into lapdogs with some ease.

The media’s `delugions’ are gloomy in more ways than one. Not the least because some of the efforts of their journalists have been very good. At times even brilliant. And that’s true of television, too. Drowning in the ocean of crud are islands of achievement. As in print, the ones producing that kind of work tend to be marginalised. Given that their efforts match the best anywhere, this is truly sad.

The media have locked themselves into this mode. And it is in part due to the narrow gene pool they’re trying to cover. If you decide that 75 per cent of the country does not make news, you’re shrinking your potential zone of coverage. And if you decree that only a small section of the other 25 per cent does, you’ve painted yourself into a corner. It’s like an overgrown adult swimming in a child’s tub. It looks about as stupid, too. If we could accept that the 75 per cent too could make news — and not just when they die in large numbers — things could be better. Otherwise, it’s “after us, the deluge.”

(This article originally appeared on The Hindu. You can read it here: