By Barkha Dutt/The Washington Post
The sudden and mysterious death of Sridevi Kapoor, a Bollywood superstar beloved to millions of Indians and a rare actor who bridged the culture gap between the North and the South, is absolutely a valid news story.
For my entire generation, Sridevi was a cult figure. She began acting at the age of 4, and her films spanned multiple languages and roles. Her impeccable sense of comic timing and her willingness to experiment made her one of the pioneering women of Indian cinema. When she returned to the movies after taking a 15-year break, she gamely took on the challenge that female actors face in a shamefully unequal industry — one where 50-year-old men romance young heroines in their 20s, but women upward of 30 get swiftly ousted from mainline roles.
But the way her death has been reported in our media, especially on television, is the very opposite of journalism.
The coverage has veered into gossip disguised by claims of grief and has elevated scurrilous rumor over reportage. India’s prime-time news has scraped the bottom of the barrel in the hours since 54-year-old Sridevi died in the bathtub of her Dubai hotel room on Saturday night. Initially, when it was a heart attack that supposedly killed her, television ran programs based entirely on unsubstantiated conjecture. Panels on national news channels speculated whether Sridevi was under danger from fat-burners or steroids or countless surgeries. Of course, the anchors hastened to clarify that this was not about any specific case, merely about the pressures of the beauty industry on a middle-aged woman in a vain industry. But that little technical disclaimer didn’t fool anyone, as failed actors and cosmetic surgeons were pushed onto the evening news to mindlessly gab on.
Then it got worse.
As a broadcast journalist (currently on a sabbatical from the TV screen), I felt deeply embarrassed. I am sure I have done shows I am not super proud of, but never this. I saw one channel reconstruct the sequence of events leading up to her final hours by showing a floating Sridevi in a bathtub. Another tweeted a promotional promising all the details of “Sridevi’s last 15 minutes in bathroom.” After Dubai media reported that the forensic report said there were “traces of alcohol” in her blood, shows interviewed friends of the family on whether Sridevi usually drank red wine or vodka. “She only drank wine; never hard liquor,” our news presenters reassured us, as if to say that women who drink deserve to die, or at the very least, live dangerously. The whispers about her “drinking” were the perfect cue for the media to unleash morality judgments and wild speculations driven by the kind of double standards that are reserved for women. A guest on one show declared, “Even one glass of alcohol with antidepressants could have done this to her,” without any attribution or basis.
On another network, news anchors usually far too supine to interrogate the powerful contorted their bulletins by discussing, in all seriousness, whether a trained dancer could lose her balance in the bathtub. There was also some commentary on whether Indians get any of this, because, you see, we mostly use the shower — or bathe from buckets and don’t have a “bathtub culture.” I’m serious.
Phone lines were opened urging viewers to call in with their view on whether everything was kosher. “Can foul play be ruled out?” was the poll question of the day. Who needs the police, the prosecution, the judge, the jury or the execution when you have television?
Our fulminating anchors could be using their investigative journalist prowess to chase many other critical stories in India. We have a US$ 1.8 bank scam for one. Or the recent murder of nine children mowed down by a speeding SUV allegedly driven by a (now suspended) Bharatiya Janata Party functionary. Our media outlets could have shown an iota of the energy they have expended on the Sridevi mystery to put some tough questions to Donald Trump Jr., who was in India last week to market luxury condominiums on behalf of his local real estate partners. But Trump was asked virtually nothing probing on the brazen conflict his business represents — or on his family’s links to the growing scandal over Russia’s meddling in the U.S. elections. He complimented the Indian media as “mild and nice.” We should have been insulted. Mild is bad enough. And now we aren’t even being nice, as we blather on in a ghoulish manner about the death of a famous person whom we pretend to mourn.
A number of television shows have virtually alluded to murder as the cause of Sridevi’s death without any off-record sourcing or on-record claim. Personally, I do not know how she died. If Dubai’s public prosecution gives us more information in the coming days, I, along with millions of others, will have a better chance to make up our minds. But till then, everything else unfolding on our television channels and on social media — with both feeding off each other — is ludicrous, tasteless, misogynistic and tawdry. Above all, it is so unfair to the two young daughters of Sridevi, whose loss has been compounded by the furious scrutiny of their (fiercely private) mother’s life.
Sridevi was an icon who deserved much better than this salacious scavenging.
For me, the final embarrassment was watching a news host on India’s most watched Hindi channel stand next to a white bathtub across which was emblazoned with the words “Maut Ka Bathtub,” or “The Bathtub of Death.” In the hashtag-driven banality that has come to define prime-time news, I thought it deserved a counter-hashtag. “#NewsKiMaut,” I retorted — “The Death of News.” Not just Sridevi but television news needs an obituary, I said. It was trending nationally within five minutes of my tweet. Should the fact that so many are disgusted give me hope?
Not really. We often accuse television of being merely TRP (TV Rating Point) hunters. But the viewers are the ones who keep tuning in.
Sadly, we get the news we deserve.