Bob Marley once said, ‘Don’t gain the world and lose your soul.’ What happened in Mumbai, India last week could do with plenty of soul searching, although no promises have been made. It was the day a death became not just incidental but also a tamasha, adding another low chapter to the race for TRPs by some Indian media houses.
40-year-old popular television actor Sidharth Shukla’s untimely death was overshadowed by a television and social media coverage so blinding that even vultures zeroing down on their prey seem tame by comparison.
A sobbing Shehnaz Gill, Shukla’s rumoured girlfriend was accosted by cameras as she stepped out of the car at the cremation ground while his distraught mother’s private sorrow was made a public spectacle.
The shrieking and jostling of the mob- media interspersed with some locals clicking away on their mobile phone cameras was reminiscent of a line from Shakespeare’s Tempest, ‘hell is empty, all the devils are here.’ And still they carried on, jostling and tastelessly capturing a woman’s bottomless grief, merging the lines between reality and reality TV.
There was more. A channel ran a band saying “First On” — another version of the word ‘exclusive’ or ‘scoop’ as it was once termed, on visuals of the cremation. In this heady mix of target rating point (TRP) and voyeurism, even death became a casualty. An actor who did not come in a fancy car to condole was dismissed as being ‘gareeb’ or poor, in other terms not, footage friendly.
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And then there were some celebrities who unmasked more than just their face when they eagerly shared with the media every tragic detail from inside the crematorium. At least one of them was even vlogging live on social media while the last rites were being performed. This then is the ugly side of social media where the desperation to be fastest finger first craves even a burning pyre as the ultimate validation.
As journalists, being desensitised to tragedies is one thing, zooming in to get a perfect close- up of someone’s shattered tear drenched eyes, another. The editors who allowed sensationalism over a dead body must not forget that the dance of death spares no one.
Comedian Zakir Khan penned what is the most poignant few lines, also perhaps because while it is laced with the bitter truth, it won’t change much. Translated in English, the poem reads like this, ”they don’t think of you as a human being.
That’s why there aren’t any lines or boundaries. Your corpse is not a body without a soul, but an opportunity to click pictures. As many as they can click. They’re like the people who try to steal crockery from houses burning in a riot. Because after that, what use will you be to them?” Zakir isn’t wrong, remember Sushant Singh Rajput?
The actor’s suicide last year unleashed vitriolic anchors who echo their master’s voice, and they used Sushant’s passing away to malign whoever and whatever came in the way of their narrative. The young actor’s death was alive not just in his home state of Bihar that was going to the polls but also in Mumbai (where Sushant and Bollywood lives), the capital of the state of Maharashtra that the ruling party at the centre was desperate to win back.
Although their conspiracy theories were blown off one after the other, much as the houses the little pigs built in the fables but belligerent men and a woman in their studios didn’t give up till, they put an innocent woman in jail.
Actress Rhea Chakraborty knows more than a thing or two about what it is like to have the spotlight in a media circus. She was hounded into prison surrounded by a mob of screaming men and their recording cameras, trying to rip her off every ounce of dignity. They tried their best to make her the living dead, but she stood tall.
Rhea was finally released on bail after the court found no evidence of “financing and harbouring illegal drug trafficking.” Yes, a suicide had become a drug laundering case with many offshoots including murder, on the way.
Making a mockery of a tragedy
So, while Sidharth’s family grieves, the rest of us have our own baggage to bear. We should be in mourning for the shaky humanity breathing around us that dismisses the finality of loss as just a medium to leverage. But the murmurs of the recent past now fit the puzzle. What happened in Mumbai has precedents, only the setting and actors were different.
Last year, the police hurriedly cremated a 19-year-old victim of a gang rape in the middle of the night, her parents were not allowed to bid their final farewell. More recently, the government’s insistence that there had been no death due to oxygen shortage made a mockery of those who gasped for their last breath outside hospitals. For decades, it has been happening every single time justice is delayed.
Through it all, the media in India had one thing going- it was convinced it had still not become the paparazzi of European tabloids, the kind who were in hot pursuit of Lady Diana’s car into a Paris tunnel. Today it is better for some to not look at the mirror.
The boundaries for treating people with respect both when they are alive and after they have passed can only come from within- it says a lot- or perhaps there really isn’t much to say, for those who allow cameras to flash at funerals or give orders to cremate a victim without her family in the dead of the night.
They are also the same people who outraged over the images of burning pyres of hundreds in a pandemic and yet salaciously watch and telecast the cremation, of a celebrity. Even Bob Marley would have been at a loss for words.