Just keep his words and cut the rest. Show it to me when you are done.

This is not an editor but a dreaded gangster, barking orders at investigative journalist Abhishek Dutta in the 2013 novel The Price You Pay by Somnath Batabyal. The novel tells the story of a cub reporter from a small town learning the ropes of crime journalism in Delhi, the seat of power in India. His professional and personal journey meanders through newsrooms, police stations and crime dens, until he inadvertently ends up an agent of the system he was out to investigate. The novel, which will be adapted for the screen by director Ajay Bahl (of BA Pass fame), is yet another instance of the seamier side of journalists and journalism being depicted in India’s popular culture.

It is about how excessive ambition causes the loss of moral fibre in journalism, says Bahl, who regards the story as essentially a “crime thriller”. The film is now in the scripting stage. “It is about how crime reporters get sucked into the system and start making compromises with ethics,” he said.

News-reporting and journalists are favourite themes of Bollywood films, but increasingly, the media has found itself at the centre of the story, because of instances such as the Radia tapes, the power-peddling controversy and the Zee bribing scandal. Anusha Rizvi’s 2010 film Peepli Live depicted the boisterous media circus at its worst: it told the story of a bankrupt farmer, Natha, who announces that he will commit suicide so that his family gets government compensation, and the media jamboree that followed in the village of Peepli. Peepli Live was India’s official entry to Oscars. The film came a couple of years after the Indian media and some top journalists drew flak for their overzealous coverage of the 2008 Mumbai attack.

Both Batabyal and Rizvi were journalists in the past and their work presents an insider’s view, painting a rather unflattering image of journalism in the country.

Batabyal, who is a lecturer in media and development at the School of Oriental and African Studies, believes the profession has come into disrepute. “This has very much to do with the entry of corporate players into the media,” he said. “While (in the past) industrialists have always invested in news, editorial policy was generally not interfered with. Now that has changed and changed very openly. In this scenario, journalism is losing credibility.”

The arc of public perception

Rizvi believes that journalists today are more removed from the people than before. “Common people are afraid of journalists, just like they are of the police who are known to misuse power,” she said. And in keeping with the public’s perception, journalists have lost the respect they commanded in films of a different era, such as in New Delhi Times, where they were portrayed as people of integrity.

A few of the most popular films of the 1980s explored different aspects of journalism. In the cult classic Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), two honest photojournalists (Naseeruddin Shah and Ravi Baswani) end up in prison while trying to expose the criminals. In the national award winning New Delhi Times (1986), the fearless investigative journalist Vikas Pande (Shashi Kapoor) ends up used by powerful people. And in Main Azad Hoon (1989), Azaad (Amitabh Bachhan) is forced to jump from a high-rise to bring a fake media campaign initiated by an insecure journalist, Subhashini Saigal (Shabana Azmi), and her company to its conclusion.

Depicting journalists became more popular in the 1990s, with the proliferation of television and the consequent association of glamour with the profession, say researchers Danish Khan and Ruhi Khan in their paper “From Romeo to Rambo: Popular Portrayals of Journalists in Bollywood Cinema”, published in The IJPC Journal (Volume 4 - Fall 2012 - Spring 2013). The public perception of journalists, fuelled by the overarching impact of the media, was reflected in film-scripts.

“It should not surprise us that viewers are getting more interested in the media,” said Moinak Biswas, head of the department of film studies, Jadavpur University. “The explosion of the media over the last couple of decades, especially after transnational communication became an ordinary fact of life, has meant that everyone is constantly made aware of media presence.”

Mehul Kumar’s 1994 film Krantiveer was about how journalists can fuel kranti, or revolution. Megha Dixit (Dimple Kapadia), whom the protagonist Nana Patekar calls kalam wali bai (lady with the pen), lives in the slums and covers the plight of the dwellers. In the 2000 Aziz Mirza comedy, Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, Ajay Bakshi (Shah Rukh Khan) and Ria Banerjee (Juhi Chawla), anchor-journalists of rival TV channels, are willing to go to any lengths – fake incidents, unethical sting operations et al – in a full-blown TRP war. In the end, they come together to rescue an innocent person. However, Madhur Bhandarkar’s realistic drama, Page 3 (2005) eschews such a good-over-evil ending, instead exploring the murky intersection of media, glitz and glamour. In the National Award-winning film, despite the best intentions of the hard-working journalists, the media owners succeed in hushing up a story that would have exposed a heinous crime.

Though journalism has been glamourised, its public image has taken a beating. The quality of news suffered, with TRP battle reaching scorching levels, says Rizvi. “Television channels constantly feed opinion to people rather than doing journalism. It’s more a spectacle, or a circus, the basic aim of which is to entertain.” Bahl too is of the opinion that the role of the media, particularly television, has become more to provide entertainment than bring news. This entertainment value makes journalism a rich source of material for writers and filmmakers.

A reflection of life

Shoma A Chatterji, the Kolkata-based expert on Indian cinema and writer, says the portrayal of journalists in cinema is nothing more than a reflection of journalists in real life. “By and large, journalists as a collective group of professionals are displayed in a rather poor light,” she said. Cinematic portrayals of journalists sometimes tend to get derogatory, she adds, but justified this, saying that it was caused by falling journalistic standards and ethics.

The question, therefore, arises as to why journalism, though discredited, continuously features in films and books. “One is impact: though discredited, journalists and journalism has a huge impact on our lives,” said Batabyal, who has also authored two academic studies of media practices in India. “That is why we as ordinary people want to understand the machine. Also, to me, it is easy script writing material.”

Beth Watkins, an expert in Bollywood history and lore, explains why the idea of journalist-hero will always remain a favourite. “The greatest potential of stories about journalists, I think, is that the journalist is a sort of superhero version of the common people,” said Watkins, who runs the blog Beth Loves Bollywood. “A journalist speaks for the rest of us ordinary people. However, they also have powers that regular people don’t: access to information, skills with research and words, audience. They’re a compelling balance of outsider and insider, and it’s interesting to watch them answer to their boss, their audience, their sources, and usually the over-arching heroic cause of ‘the truth’.”

That is why the popular theme of journalist as a hero and activist who fights justice was revisited in No One Killed Jessica (2011). The film was based on the Jessica Lal murder. A nationwide media campaign forced the reopening of the case, leading the accused, who were let off earlier, to face conviction eventually. Meera Gaity (Rani Mukherjee), the female war correspondent, is shown bending the rules of journalism “for the sake of truth and justice”.

Batabyal also points out that commercial Bollywood cinema stories are “shallow”, rarely going beyond personas. Bollywood stories about journalism end up being stories about journalists, he said. A deeper understanding continues to elude, though Peepli Live tried hard.

The Price You Pay, marketed widely as a crime fiction draws heavily from Batabyal’s own experiences as a crime reporter in Delhi. Abhishek Dutta, the journalist-hero of the novel, begins as a cub reporter with a newspaper which he leaves for television journalism, just like his creator. “What does being a successful journalist mean? That is the question I am trying to answer through Abhishek,” Batabyal tells Scroll.in.