Indian television

Channel surfing: What’s next after news and news-tainment?

TV stars Arnab Goswami and Barkha Dutt provide contrasting visions of news television’s present and its possible future.

You can’t have missed the highlight — or lowlight, rather — of the news last week, which was Arnab Goswami yelling at Tehelka journalist Asad Ashraf, “You guys were a cover for the Indian Mujahideen”. This on a prime time News Hour debate on the Batla House encounter. Goswami makes a very random and illogical point right before this about ISIS invoking the Batla House encounter, but let’s not get into the other demerits of the debate, because this one really stands out.

Tehelka has put out a strong statement supporting Ashraf and condemning the vilification of their journalist, saying that he was pin-pointing loopholes in the police version of events and was well within his rights to do so. Ashraf is apparently looking at pursuing legal action against Goswami.

I thought we had seen the extreme of anchoring-as-performance-art, but apparently not. This is a really strange time for Indian broadcast news, because where does the news go from here? Once you’ve moved from the voice of the people to the conscience of the nation to the sole arbiter of reason, logic flies out the window. But in any case, this is beyond news and even news-tainment at this point.

A lovely counterpoint was an interview on The Buck Stops Here with Sarabjit actress Richa Chadha. Barkha Dutt spoke to Chadha after her TedX talk on overcoming bulimia. The interview was very well done, the questioning was sensitive, though maybe there could have been some sort of trigger warning, the way international media tend to do, when discussing issues like eating disorders.
Richa Chadha speaks about bulimia at TedX.

Dutt came across as warm and supportive, telling Chadha a couple of times that she was remarkably courageous to talk about bulimia, especially for the girls and older women out there. It’s quite possible that someone with anorexia or bulimia will take heart from Chadha’s cheery advice at the end of the show that eating healthy and well, and not throwing up, is what helps you keep the weight off, and gives you good skin and hair and the rest of it.

But first, the trauma.

Chadha’s first answer to a question on pressure and body-shaming was more about the pitfalls of celebrity-hood and how harsh audiences are. Not that this is untrue, but this phenomenon doesn’t really tend to evoke that much sympathy in us lesser mortals… Let’s be honest.

Dutt told her that it is a sign of her success if people are being harsh (in a way that you know to also be self-reflective), while prodding her to open up in the conversation.

Quoting the actor’s TedX talk, on being told to “gain weight, lose weight, fix her nose, get a boob job… etc”, Dutt asked her to expand on her statement, “I crumbled under the pressure like a wrecking ball had hit me.”

The bulimia apparently started around the time Masaan was coming out in 2015. Chadha says she wanted to speak out because of how prevalent eating disorders are. She said she had struggled with a slight eating disorder as a teen but never really thought it could happen to her. The penny dropped, apparently, while she was watching the documentary Amy on a flight. It made her realise how severe a problem she actually had. She spoke to her parents, a naturopath, and nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar. All the celebrity nutritionist did for two months was to give Chadha normal food, and the actor laughs about how content she felt about the rajma chawal and parathas.

But it’s here that Dutt wanted more detail about her illness, striking perhaps the only uncomfortable note, though she explained why she thinks we need to have it. “But let’s take you back to when you were actually bulimic. What were you doing when you were inducing vomiting — I’m asking you because I want young women, I want young girls who are anorexic and bulimic to listen to this and draw strength from it. Were you sticking a finger in your mouth, gagging yourself, throwing up after every meal?”

This level of detail cannot actually help anyone, and if Chadha had answered in graphic detail, we would have definitely needed a trigger warning. Her portrayal does reveal more about her psychological state, though. “I was starting to go crazy, I thought one time, oh I’m so busy anyway, it would be easier if I went on a drip once in a while or pop a pill instead of having to eat. That’s when I realised I had lost my marbles.”

That twisted reasoning is a demonstration of the brain at odds with itself, and stays with you.

Chadha also comes across as remarkably self-aware, talking about how she knows that this might seem like a “poor little rich girl problem” or a “first world problem”, but it’s not any less valid, and that there’s no point juxtaposing this sort of scenario with the drought in Maharashtra. We are “living in so many Indias”, she said.

There’s no denying the importance of Chadha’s core message, especially when it comes to impressionable young minds. Don’t fall for an illusion, she implored. “When you see us on a screen or magazine, we have a whole machinery…There’s a make-up artist, stylist, photographer, lighting, Photoshop. Don’t fall for it!”

Amrita Tripathi is a recovering news junkie. She has previously worked for CNN-IBN and The Indian Express. At times, she may have a glancing familiarity or more with the news players mentioned.

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