Jan 2, 2009

Entertainment - Television news is for reel

Chitra Padmanabhan

Fatal attractions, one is told, are precisely that — fatal. More so when two ‘frame fatales’ like film and television are seized by a violent desire to be like the other in their hot pursuit of ‘reality’.

When that frame of reality happens to be the footfalls of issues like terrorism and the war on nerves, it is time to sit up and take note.

The switch has been happening over a period of time. Filmmakers want to ‘go real’; they hanker for the authenticity and immediacy of a television news frame, especially in the new crop of multiplex political thrillers, be it an ‘Aamir’ or ‘A Wednesday’.

They choose plots which echo real junctures that have come to pass in the life of the nation. Then they create a patina of naturalistic acting and dialogues, locations, ambient sound as well as impromptu and over-the-shoulder camera shots as on television news.

But television news seems to be going the other way. It is very often packaged as histrionic performance, dressed up in hyperbole and melodramatic mien, serenaded by lethal sound effects and evocative background scores, invariably from films.

And yet it is completely secure in the conviction that unlike cinema there is no confusion about it not being ‘real’, whatever it may do. It is the ultimate reality show.

This is especially true of occasions when an incident of immense proportions rips through the humdrum pace of normality, developing tragic dimensions over time and providing a captive audience hitherto undreamt of.

In the week that Mumbai lurched in pain, caught unawares by the terrorist’s calculated rage, the switch became glaringly apparent. Granted, the challenges of reporting 60 hours and not 60 minutes, live, unscripted, must have been a huge challenge at a time of immense responsibility, when television was the fastest and to all practical purposes the only source of information.

However, the references of news presentation seemed to lie outside the journalistic profession, exhibiting streaks that have been perfected over time by the networks. Each time India wins a cricket match anchors/reporters crow that “we” — not India — have won a match; every time there is a calamity one is struck by the rather unprepossessing manner in which anchors superimpose themselves dramatically in the coverage of an event.

‘S/he who controls the image is the righteous one’ is the adage by which news networks largely live in our times. However, the magnitude of those 60 hours was so great that the reality of a medium of news sans anchor in the conventions of the profession became glaringly apparent.

Rarely has any coverage been deconstructed in such detail — be it tragedy kings and queens wanting us to plumb the depths of their scarred hearts instead of trying to make sense of every leaden minute of visuals coming our way; or apoplectic anchors hectoring at the invisible terrorists, “We shall never let you succeed in your evil designs”. In that instant they became the voice of the nation and were no longer journalists who track news.

If BBC journalists seemed remiss in calling the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack gunmen and not terrorists as they termed the attackers of 7/7 in their own land, our own TV journos showed an evangelical zeal in repeatedly terming the attacks and attackers ‘evil’, forgetting what they were on camera for. We witnessed journalists lying supine and clutching their microphones to report on camera in a way we had not seen journalists reporting from conflict zones like Iraq or elsewhere.

Rumours about resumed firing in a part of the city were spilt spontaneously and later retracted. It was the scariest feeling – it seemed as if there were no gatekeepers of news to filter in all the information that was coming in. The viewer was caught in a paradox: able to see images but without much clue as to what was happening.

With the ebb and flow of outraged voices and matching background scores; with looping replays and hyped up commentaries to create a flurry in times of lull as far as the actual incident was concerned, in effect a new reality was being constructed in the studios – and offered authoritatively as ‘the’ 24/7 reality.

This was a bigger film than any filmmaker could ever hope to make, without the normal time constraints of 90 or 120 minutes. For instance, the number of times the video grabs of the two terrorists advancing in tandem was replayed created a distortedly fast pace and larger than life presence no movie on the mechanics of terror would be able to match.

Ironically, as public rage against the political class swelled to unheard of proportions, watching lives turn into detritus – a rage the television networks beamed again and again, adding to it their pained expressions, the print and net world was buzzing with outrage against the television news networks for making news almost invisible by playing out the tragedy in sensational tones, by becoming actors in it.

The pained faces of rescued hostages receded from the mind even as uncomfortable memories of reporters virtually forcing them to emote the horror they had experienced, lingered distastefully. That, unfortunately, is the numbing aftertaste of the television news coverage one was left with. Not to mention the competitive streak of various channels insisting that the visuals they were showing were exclusive.

Clearly, this was all about consumption of images 24/7 playing NOW — not even in the nearest cinema, but in your home theatre. No extra strong speakers needed; television news comes with a lethal decibel level and at a hammering pace guaranteed to quicken your pulse. There is no bigger entertainer than news milked as reality TV.

The boundaries are well and truly blurred. There was a time when we knew that a film, however, realistic, was not for real; that the aura of a frame which reflects the physical reality of an incident is television’s alone. Both come together in the phenomenon of news as reality show.

In our times we are almost tempted to say that the planet is not spherical but rectangular, for that is how most of us encounter it these days — through moving images, through the camera frame.

That is why it is somewhat unnerving to think that what we earmark as news and information and ‘reality’ could be television’s flight of fantasy, extracting the seed of emotion from a human dilemma and converting it into a spectacle to be viewed vicariously, not experienced with concern.

The debate generated around the television coverage of the Mumbai attacks is a watershed in a sense, for it has prompted reflection in some quarters. Time will tell whether the television camera corrects its retreat from journalistic conventions or tilts completely towards the hyper mould of the reality show, adding to it aspects of film at will for untold entertainment.

The frame of reality was never so tenuous.

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