By T S Sudhir & Uma Sudhir
A journalist friend who watched `Peepli live’ first day first show, warned me against watching the film with a non-journalist. “If it is not a journalist with you, you will be made fun of. Because right through the film, I was squirming in my seat,” she said.
I didn’t heed the advice completely. I saw `Peepli Live’ with my journalist wife Uma and an IAS officer friend and her 12-year-old son. Even the lad, who I had predicted would be bored with all the realism and cynicism we had expected to see, thought it was a very interesting film. The sadness of reality, laced with wry humour, hard-hitting without melodrama, telling the truth almost as it is, without allowing any moment of catharsis. A story of India as it is playing out in the larger-than-life news channels.
For people like us who have had the opportunity to watch firsthand, social realities through the media lens, it was the inside story of an open secret being told. And told well. And it triggered memories of many close-to-the-film real-life events. Where circumstances look so hopelessly hopeless, so tragically comical, that the best you can do to stop yourself from becoming bitterly cynical is to carry the memory of a lighter moment.
Our bureaucrat-friend identified almost instantly with the `babus’ on screen. Peepli’s district magistrate was so convincing (as was every other character in the film). So typical that a district collector would react in this way, she confessed. Like involuntarily standing up while talking to the CM over the phone, becoming a docile mouse in front of an aggressive CM, bureaucratically reeling off names of welfare schemes, all named after political leaders, whether or not they have any relevance being an insignificant detail. Quoting rules to overrule the very purpose for which they are framed.
She recalled an instance when malnutrition and starvation deaths were reported by the local media in the district where she had just taken charge. This despite work provided under the employment guarantee scheme. If the men turned up for work and earned an income, the money went to the local liquor adda at the end of the day. The children remained unfed or underfed. So the district administration decided to set up a community kitchen. NGOs pointed out that the hygiene standards was so poor, it was leading to diarrhoea and other infections. So an enterprising additional collector ordered a tanker to be brought in to the drought-hit district and personally supervised to ensure the children were given a bath, given a hair cut and their nails cut.
Midnight it was reported to the collector that one of the children was unwell. She immediately ordered that the child be hospitalised.
“Mother is refusing to come. She says she cannot leave her goats unguarded at home,” the junior replied.
Ultimately, the collector ordered the `arrest’ of the woman, so that she could be forced to go with her child to hospital. Another matter, by morning the mother and child had `escaped’ from hospital.
The leader of the Opposition in the state confided: “We know you are a very efficient and honest officer. But while talking to the public, we politicians have to condemn you as `nikamma prashasan’. Aap mind mat kijiye please.”
By the end of it, the officer admitted she wanted the `story’ to just get over. It happened as soon as the media moved to its next story. The food camp also folded up. Till malnutrition and starvation is rediscovered by the media and the bureaucracy and the political class, all over again.
One scene in Peepli that particularly provoked a laugh was of a patient outside a public health centre trying desperately to hang the drip bottle himself on the stand even as he is being wheeled out in a stretcher.
In fact, during a recent shoot at a medical health camp in a village in Srikakulam, one apparently influential local person insisted that our cameraperson take his shots. The cameraman told him his brief was to shoot doctors taking care of patients. In a few minutes, the man was back in a white coat, armed with injections and even gave a shot or two to more than one patient. Uma was shocked when she found out the man was not a doctor at all. But had just decided to play the role, so he could be captured on camera.
Closer to what a media circus can become was the tragic incident of a 2-year-old boy who fell into a borewell, in a village some 175 km from Hyderabad, this January. With the local media drawing parallels to the `Prince’ episode in Haryana, that captured eyeballs for hours and days together, the entire administration, not wanting to be found wanting in any aspect, was galvanised into action. Very soon, OB vans of all Telugu and national channels were there to cover the rescue efforts minute by minute. It was a long wait as earthmovers and cranes had to be brought from the district headquarters to this remote village.
Very soon, just like in `Peepli Live’, enterprising locals brought in food and drinks. Smalltime vendors did brisk business, catering to the hungry and thirsty TV crews who had landed in a hurry from Hyderabad. Every politician wanted to be seen in the forefront of the action (to be beamed live into homes across the area). A woman politician dressed in her fresh summer-best saree insisted on peeping time and again into the deep hole, at the other end of which was the child, unmindful that each time she did that (so she could be hog air time on TV), she was pushing in small pebbles that could badly hurt the child. Besides of course causing unnecessary commotion and hampering rescue work. The local MLA spotted Uma and much to her embarrassment and discomfiture, ordered his minions to arrange special lunch for her.
Unfortunately, the child was brought out dead around 5:30 in the evening. And what followed then on one of Andhra Pradesh’s premier Telugu news channel was the stuff, TV journalists are taught to avoid. A reporter on the spot wailed and wailed, unable to control her tears at the death of the baby boy and had to midway hand over the mike to another more sober colleague. Later I learnt, that instead of being pulled up, she was lauded by her top boss because apparently “the TRPs shot up during that time”.
After the film, as we were heading home, our friend’s son said, “Mummy, the film shows we should not trust the media. Nor the bureaucrats or politicians.” To make light of his biting conclusion, I joked, we should not have got him to see the film !
If only `transparency’ allowed people to know not just how the media, but governments, bureaucrats and corporates function, we would be shocked out of our wits, with the real-life tales of blunder and plunder.
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