Cast: Sonali Bendre, Jaideep Ahlawat, Shriya Pilgaonkar
Director: Vinay Waikul
Rating: Two and a half stars
A pair of rival television channels operating out of the same Mumbai building represent two opposing philosophies of journalism in the eight-part Zee5 series The Broken News. Given the state of the fourth estate in this country, the relevance of this show cannot be overemphasized. It addresses pressing questions that thrillers rarely tackle, obsessed as they are with gangsters, secret agents and men in uniform.
Adapted from Press, the 2018 BBC One series created by playwright-screenwriter Mike Bartlett, The Broken News is directed by Vinay Waikul and scripted by Sambit Mishra. It indigenizes the original story (it revolved around two rival British newspapers) to reflect the current realities obtaining in the world's largest democracy.
Part political drama, part newsroom procedural, The Broken News does certain things that are startlingly gutsy when seen in the context of the way media outlets have in recent years been browbeaten into adopting safety-first tactics at the expense of facts.
For one, episodes of the show end with excerpts of Faiz Ahmed Faiz's Bol ke lab azaad hai tere playing over the credits. The context for that surprising choice is actually adumbrated right at the outset. Young, idealistic journalist Radha Bhargava (Shriya Pilgaonkar, doing a variation on her no-nonsense lawyer act in Guilty Minds) is charged with sedition for standing up for what she believes is right.
The Indore girl, who spearheads the news team of a television channel that steadfastly eschews sensationalism, is unfazed. She asserts that true patriotism lies in defending the nation against the government. This pearl of wisdom is admittedly hackneyed, but it has never been verbalized in an Indian web series quite as unambiguously.
"Sarkar ka virodh desh ka virodh nahi hai," Radha asserts in a voiceover that determines the course of this tale of two warring news channels that plays out over eight chapters - and a narrative time-frame of three months - and returns to the starting point, having revealed why the intrepid journalist is in trouble with the law, while setting the stage for a probable second season. The original British series had ended with just one six-part season.
Should we be looking forward to an extension for The Broken News? The series has its share of flaws, but the fact that it dares to call out political and corporate shenanigans in the unflinching manner that it does (at least in parts) sets it apart.
In a scene in Episode 7, hotshot news anchor Dipankar Sanyal (Jaideep Ahlawat, in splendid form), the face of the TRP-chasing Josh 24/7 channel and a seriously flawed man whose personal life is in a shambles, calls electoral bonds "legalized bribing of political parties". That takes some doing. The show slips in many such lines as it unfolds.
Unfortunately, at most other times, the screenplay hovers rather tentatively over matters of far lesser import that turn journalists into glorified gumshoes ferreting for information that the high and mighty want to conceal at all cost. The whodunnit part of the series is not quite as arresting as the segments that focus on newsroom pow-wows and occasionally throw up significant nuggets.
The Broken News is strewn with references to the misuse of sedition laws, the big industry exploitation of farmers, a cancer-causing uranium mine in Jharkhand, a media trial that ends in tragedy, a shopping mall fire that leaves 14 (including Radha Bhargava's investigative journalist-flat-mate) dead, a TRP scam, a movie star with a history of sexual predation, a secret government plan to push 24x7 surveillance on the population, opaque electoral bonds, data theft and corporate skullduggery.
Had the writing been as consistent as it is brave, this probe into "the messy business of news" and how it impacts, and is impacted by, politics might have resulted in a far more incisive indictment of not just the media, but also the entire post-truth environment created to strengthen political forces that have no respect for constitutional propriety.
The Broken News isn't only about media stars being in cahoots with smarmy politicians. It goes beyond the pivotal plot points to incorporate a wide range of themes of contemporary relevance although the story is confined to a single state of the Indian Union.
The series is set in Mumbai and centres on Awaaz Bharati News led by the uncompromising Amina Qureshi (Sonali Bendre ) and Josh 24/7 driven by their manipulative star anchor Dipankar Sanyal. The latter is acutely aware of what he is all about. He has no qualms about bending the rules of the game to benefit his channel.
The cynical Dipankar advises Radha, who admits that the former was once "the benchmark of good journalism in the country", to come out of her "college canteen". The world outside runs on deals, not on ideals, he says. In another scene, spurning Dipankar's job offer, Radha retorts: "I want to do news, not fiction."
The contrast between the two journalists is brought out through other means, too. We see Radha in situations that underline middle-class, small-town moorings. There are several scenes of her waking up in the morning, making herself a cup of tea and breakfast, and rushing out of the apartment to get to work on time
The high-flying Dipankar, whose wife has left him, has no home worth the name although he lives in a swanky apartment. We see him walk in and out of negotiations with powerful people. In his pad, too, he is more often than not with an escort. He does occasionally fret over his daughter who is in the custody of his estranged wife. His life is as complicated as he has turned his work into.
Jaideep Ahlawat effortlessly conveys the contradictions of Dipankar Sanyal. Shriya Pilgaonkar does not have as much range to work with, but she does not put a foot wrong.
Sonali Bendre, back in front of the camera after a long hiatus and making her web debut, brings remarkable maturity and balance to bear upon her interpretation of a woman who keeps her calm amid the provocations and challenges swirling around her.
One of the biggest drawbacks of The Broken News is that the actors playing the secondary characters, irrespective of the footage they get, remain largely peripheral. Only a handful of them - Faisal Rashid and Sanjeeta Bhattacharya, playing the female protagonist's colleagues, and Taaruk Raina in the role of a rookie reporter - manage to shine through the haze.
As for the series as a whole, the brighter spots are outnumbered by the drearier par-for-the-course portions. The Broken News is, therefore, passable, not spectacular.