The truth about ‘true’ TV stories
Shoma A. Chatterji

HOW ‘true’ is a ‘true story’ beamed across television news channels? Can stories be ‘created’ out of thin air? Or can they be created from a conspiracy between the media and a third vested party, in this case, the local police? Are the police permitted to intrude into the privacy of innocent people interacting in public spaces even though they do not violate accepted norms of decent behaviour in public? When our cities offer little or no space to youngsters in love, should television journalists back the police that suddenly decide to take on moral policing without having the legal authority to do so?

Paromita Vohra is a filmmaker, writer, teacher and curator handling fiction and non-fiction films
Paromita Vohra is a filmmaker, writer, teacher and curator handling fiction and non-fiction films

These questions have been raised through images, interviews, voice-overs, television screens and visual metaphors in Paromita Vohra’s 29-minute documentary Morality TV Aur Loving Jehad — Ek Manohar Kahani. Paromita is a filmmaker, writer, teacher and curator handling fiction and non-fiction films. Her first film Annapoorna was on a women’s organisation of food workers. Other films are Cosmopolis — Two Tales of a City, Q2P, Unlimited Girls, Where is Sandra and so on. Q2P is a documentary on the lack of public toilets for women in the city. Her USP lies in tackling serious issues with her tongue firmly in cheek, evoking a lot of humour. "I believe it is possible as in all my films, to look at humour and irony and think seriously about important issues at the same time, much as it is in life. One may laugh at the irony of something, or the comicality of it, but one can also feel disturbed or enraged — emotions are not so black and white or simplified," she says.

Morality TV Aur Loving Jehad — Ek Manohar Kahani uses Meerut’s Operation Majnu, the news expose that flashed across television news channels in December 2005, as a peg to explore significant questions involving the young in urban metros. What is Operation Majnu? It is a ‘breaking news’ story. Police officers, mostly women, were captured on camera mercilessly beating up young lovers at Gandhi Bag in Meerut city. Interestingly, Gandhi Bag is the only real park where lovers can meet in peace.

The story assumed the title Operation Majnu. No one has a clue about how, when and from who the term Operation Majnu originated. But the two words are telling. Majnu is taken from the name of the male partner from legendary lovers Laila Majnu. ‘Operation’ connotes a big police attack. The two together, as the visuals show, can become explosive and carry over into the lives of many youngsters. Bittu and Anshu, young lovers and victims of Operation Majnu, eloped after the attack. They came back after the noise died down and their parents thought it fit to get them married.

We see women trying to run away from the television cameras, their odhnis pulled over their embarrassed faces as they cry out in appeal, "Please, photo mat khichiyega," again and again, in vain. The television photographers and news operators were promised an exclusive sting operation by the local police. The police taking upon itself the task of moral policing is not rare. But for television news channels breaking into the same park at the same time to capture the events live, is questionable. The exclusive sting operation boomeranged on the police that was looking for a good sound byte on television.

A year later, a television journalist said, "For two days, I kept trying to explain to my channel that this story was a set-up, that the media was hand-in-glove with the cops. I told them that the police wanted some cheap publicity and the media wanted some spicy news." But no one listened.

The film draws upon other related stories like the sting operation on Shakti Kapoor some years ago; Julie, the young girl from a doctor’s family in Delhi who fell in love with her Hindi professor and began a torrid live-in relationship with him; magazines like Manohar Kahaniyan and Madhur Kathayen that sell sleaze in the guise of truth. It cuts back and forth to the fictitious story of Meenu, a beautiful young girl who sneaks out to meet her lover every morning before going to work. It uses the Raakhee Sawant-Mika story to illustrate the television media’s greed for titillation and sensationalisation of stories that have no right to be on television. It does not take sides for or against any television channel as the camera zeroes in on different channels offering accounts of other similar stories.

"From Tehelka to India TV’s Shakti Kapoor story, the sting operation has become the accepted language of television news. When I saw the Operation Majnu story I felt as if this language had come to a culminating moment — one that justifies violence in the name of righteous indignation. I also wondered how, in this atmosphere of heavy moralising – whether political or personal – a young person was to find a true, meaningful, relevant articulation of personal relationships and their intimate journey in the world," says Paromita.

For the first time in Meerut’s history, a minor story, unconnected to public life, took such proportions. The incident led to a marathon race among news channels across the board, sensationalising the news rather than keeping it factual. Three days were filled with live telecasts, interviewing youngsters, political workers, journalists, writers and so on.

Priyanka, one of the victims, talks openly to the interviewer. We learn that Operation Majnu was spearheaded by Mamta Gautam, a policewoman. We see Gautam and her colleagues beating up the girls and young women for ‘indecent’ behaviour in public, as television cameras catch them live. Priyanka said that when she went to lodge a complaint of dowry harassment against her husband and in-laws, Gautam demanded Rs 10, 000. When Priyanka refused to pay up, she was threatened. "I will teach you the lesson of your life," Gautam reportedly told her.

"I feel I have been able to use an idiomatic and complex style with the help of an excellent crew. Yet, at the end of it all, Paromita says, "I am uncomfortable with words like media-bashing etc. because I do not consider this a blame game, but rather a moment to reflect for those who make this news and for those of us who watch it," Paromita sums up.