I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. There it was, the 9 pm lead on a national news channel earlier this week - " SUSHANT SINGH RAJPUT'S NEVER SEEN BEFORE PICTURES ACCESSED"! Photos of the late actor's dead body were splashed across the screen. And with it, the death of television journalism in India was complete. The alleged editors of the channel don't think they have done anything wrong. Infact, they are proud of the tabloid coverage of this story. Ethics be damned. There is no dignity even in death anymore. The story of Sushant Singh Rajput has been the lowest of the low for most Indian news channels. And that's saying a lot in an industry that has set a very low bar for itself in the first place. For the last two months, we have been witness to a vicious media trial where the ex-girlfriend of the actor, Rhea Chakraborty, has been pronounced guilty on TV and on social media. She has been vilified, slut-shamed, accused of murdering him, drugging him, and stealing his money. Her family is being harassed by TV reporters who are parked outside her building all day and night. Even a food delivery boy was chased away (apparently, hummus is also being slut-shamed). All of this, in the middle of a CBI investigation that was ordered by the Supreme Court.
I don't know if Rhea is guilty of the things Sushant's family is accusing her of. I hope the CBI investigation is fair and gets to bottom of the story. If she guilty of anything, she should face the consequences. But the media trial and her vilification based on innuendo and conspiracy theories has been shameful. The investigating agencies are complicit in this, they have selectively leaked parts of their probe including private WhatsApp chats to select "news" channels. There are no editors or journalists here who are gatekeepers, who question the propriety of broadcasting private messages; who will not air information planted by agencies and do their own verification. No, they won't do, that because they are vultures. The hideous lapses include the unethical behaviour of Sushant's doctors who have gone public with his mental health issues. Doctor-patient confidentiality- what's that?
While the coverage has been nauseating, what stood out this week was Rhea Chakraborty's decision to break her silence. She spoke to three national news channels, including NDTV, and gave her side of the story. Of course, on the toxic social media platforms, where Rhea has been pronounced guilty and is awaiting full execution, her decision to speak out and defend herself brought out more knives against her. " This is a PR campaign," they're shouting, including the channels who did not get the interview ( but would happily have jumped at it if given a chance). Journalists in India have fallen to such lows that we now name call colleagues who get interviews that we don't. In the interviews, Rhea described the abuse she is facing, including rape and death threats. Outspoken women on social media face this quite often, so I believe her on this.
What further surprised me was a column on NDTV.COM by author Shobha De, where she has dissected Rhea's interview, her comments, even her appearance, furthering the worst kind of misogyny. Ms De writes, "Rhea played every card in the book, and went from vamp to victim in ten easy lessons. She discarded the sati-savitri, head-covered, white salwar kameez, grieving girlfriend look for a more contemporary and casual girl-next-door appearance. Her meticulous recreation of any and every turning point of the tragedy, complete with dates and an assurance that she can produce proof to substantiate her stories, made one marvel". Would a man being interviewed in Rhea's place have his clothes so closely scrutinised? What is wrong with Rhea remembering dates and incidents so carefully? Her life is on the line, everyone has passed judgement on her and she has a right to be heard. Remember, she hasn't been found guilty of anything yet. (The court of Twitter doesn't count.)
Shobha De further writes on Rhea's demeanour, "All of it stated bloodlessly, without a flicker of emotion. She didn't miss a beat dissing people who were close to Sushant, including his ex, and carried on for an hour or more, without tripping up even once."
This reminded me of some of the media commentary soon after Aarushi Talwar's murder. Her mother, Nupur, appeared on NDTV days later, and was torn apart by those who said she was not " emotional enough", "didn't look sad enough"; "why didn't she cry," they asked. Grief and pain manifests itself differently for different people. One of my closest friends in college lost her father but didn't shed a single tear for two months. She was in shock and guess what, folks, if someone is calm and composed, it doesn't mean they are not in pain. Incidentally, should Rhea have just lapped up the abuse and accusations she is facing from Sushant's family without hitting back? Why must women always bear the cross in a relationship? Indian families seem to think their sons are constantly brainwashed by their wives and girlfriends.
I have not watched the blow-by-blow account of this story simply because I find it revolting. At a time when India faces a huge threat from COVID ( we now have the highest number of daily cases in the world); at a time when the economy is in deep trouble ( by an "act of God" according to the Finance Minister, no less); at a time when people are struggling to get businesses back on track; when China has virtually invaded a part of Indian territory and refuses to back off - at this time, the wall to wall, tabloid, grotesque TV coverage of the Sushant Singh Rajput story is even more sickening. I am glad I'm not in television anymore. Imma bounce.
(Nidhi Razdan is Associate Professor, Journalism at Harvard and Former Executive Editor, NDTV)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.