Saturday, August 16, 2003
S I G H T  &  S O U N D

Amita Malik

Laloo in Wonderland
Amita Malik

IT was about five years ago. A BBC correspondent and myself were taking part in a discussion on the power of the media. It was being chaired by Vir Sanghvi. Both the BBC colleague and I agreed on the point that the most effective politician on the media in India was Laloo Prasad Yadav. The operative word was effective and we felt that this was because of two essential qualities: Laloo was a good communicator and a superb entertainer. And we concluded that under that court jester veneer, lurked a very shrewd politician. In spite of all the loud-mouthed netas on our TV and occasional polished performers, most Indians look forward to performances by Laloo on TV. And the astounding popularity at all levels which he encountered in Pakistan, showed that banning our channels by Pakistan has not really worked, it also showed the power of TV and the power and reach of Laloo as a communicator. All this is all the more amazing, because Laloo is also one of the best mob orators around and mob orators usually make bad broadcasters. So if Laloo drew admiring crowds on the streets of Pakistan, he also got compliments from top Pakistan leaders and generals and he got the best press and media publicity out of the entire Indian delegation.


In fact, so much did the cameras follow him that some of the other MPs, including the TV-conscious Rajiv Shukla, were seen edging nearest to Laloo whenever the cameras started rolling so that they could also be included in the shot. Most of the MPs, however, kept a dignified distance and got their turn when the media had finished with Laloo. I personally think that the best achievement of Laloo’s visit was to show Indian democracy at its best. That top leaders can retain their rustic patois, carry sattu and paan with them, speak funny English (much of Laloo’s is part of his act) and even when their politics is not ideal, they can join such delegations and outshine the others.

Laloo drew admiring crowds in Pakistan
Laloo drew admiring crowds in Pakistan

The media hype surrounding baby Noor and now the rustic and lovable Munir who strayed over the border by mistake are other examples of the power of TV. It would not have been quite the same with only the press and radio reporting the events. The Pakistan ban on Indian channels becomes all the more defensive in the present slowly thawing atmosphere. And I still find equally silly the decision at least of my cable operator not to give us Pakistan TV because first, it puts us in the same league as Pakistan although our government has not banned Pakistan TV. And, second, it robs ordinary Indians as well as professional media watchers of the chance to see how Pakistan TV depicts us and also how constricted their TV is, at least in comparison to the independent channels operating in India and even the government-dominated Doordarshan.

Jeena Isi Ka Naam Hai on Zee had taken a downward slide with the absence of Farookh Sheikh and the substitution by Vivek Oberoi’s father who was simply not in the same league and the frequent repeats in the last few weeks, with the Vivek Oberoi episode being repeated yet once again after his accident had made it something of a bore. The imminent return of Amitabh Bachchan with Kaun Banega Crorepati is also creating a lot of anticipatory excitement. Surely it is ironic that when Bachchan was having a run of business problems as well as a run of bad films the small screen should have come to his rescue.

At the time of writing, the inquiry into the suicide of Dr Kelly has just started in London and there is a lesson for us in India that it is an open inquiry with the distinguished judge requesting that the proceedings should start with one minute’s silence. And even more noteworthy is that the BBC, one of the two main parties involved in the inquiry together with the British government, is doing detailed coverage with a remarkable degree of detachment. Can you imagine the same thing happening on Doordarshan, where Directors-General are transferred out before their tenure is over because government wants a more pliable DG with elections round the corner? And this DG was trying to improve the image of DD as well as infuse more professional values into it. Perhaps it is time we dropped all this pretence about autonomy and remember what Indira Gandhi said during the Emergency when an intrepid station director asked her at a conference: "But what about credibility?" Snorted the lady: "Credibility? What is credibility? AIR and DD are government departments and will remain government departments." How right she was!

Tailpiece: One must give very high marks to all channels for their detailed visual and audio coverage of the Kumbh Mela. Special reporters, in addition to the routine news correspondents, did daily coverage of every aspect of the mela, including some light moments. What I found touching was that one of the correspondents was a Muslim, Imtiaz Jalil, and he seemed as much at home describing the finer rituals of the mela as his Hindu colleagues.