How apt, that director Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight has released in India at a time when a wave of ‘McCarthyism’ is washing over the country.
A gritty, bare-bones newsroom drama that shows a crack team of American investigative journalists from the Boston Globe chasing a story against the most powerful organization in the western world – the Catholic Church – Spotlight is a searing depiction of what it really means to be a journalist; to be the voice of those who have no voice.
Unfortunately, Spotlight is also a heart-breaking film; because in its depiction of actual events surrounding allegations of wide-spread paedophilia and subsequent cover-ups by upper echelons of the Church, the film shows us instantaneous parallels with the state of media and politics in India today. It breaks your heart, because what’s going on in the name of journalism right now is something that should make every one of us hang our heads in shame.
Spotlight has a star-studded ensemble cast, but it doesn’t take you too long to look past the actors and understand why and what those *journalists* are fighting for. The Catholic Church might spend many billions annually in philanthropic work, but there is no greater good that can balance out the fact that there’s a shockingly high number of sexual abuse allegations against them – and this is a problem born out of the system itself, because religion-bound celibacy is an antiquated concept that deserves to die.
In India, the current equivalent of this powerful organization is the government – a body of people determined to silence all voices of dissent, sane or shrill, by trying to cloak their actions under the garb of nationalism and economic development. Like the Church, they are also backed by millions purely on blind faith.
So what if the economic development is restricted to large corporations sitting pretty on unimaginable sums of money, never once percolating down to those who’re still at the bottom of the class and caste pyramid? So what if the nationalism, the cacophony surrounding separatism in Kashmir or Nagaland is rooted in a false sense of pride, without ever accounting for those who are actually at the receiving end of state-fuelled atrocities in these regions?
The Spotlight team, after persevering the way we humans are supposed to, have enough rock-solid evidence to bring down a cardinal of the Church, for shielding scores of priests who’ve molested hundreds of child victims, in just *one* city. (Cardinals are number two in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, second only to the Pope.) But the team doesn’t go with the story even then, because they want more. They want the system to be exposed, not just one individual.
It is a stunning moment, when they make that choice. They disagree with one another on it, but the tough call is taken. Because that’s what a journalist is supposed to do.
In India, what we get, instead, is a bellowing media spreading bedlam without once checking the veracity of the evidence they possess. Doctored videos, ‘photoshopped’ images, the testimony of agenda-driven, biased voices riding on the support of a clueless, belligerent administration that believes in simplistic, one-dimensional, emotional solutions masked by flimsy logic – just this much is enough for the media to go to hell and back, proclaiming guilt, and at times, even declaring that those in their crosshairs must be shot dead.
For parishioners, their priests are an earthly manifestation of their faith. A child is told to trust their god, and to trust the men entrusted with maintaining their relationship with their god. When these men break that trust because of a systemic flaw, it is easy to shroud that truth, because it makes people uncomfortable. It is the job of the journalist to speak that uncomfortable truth, no matter how much it hurts.
The Spotlight team takes on that responsibility, because to not do so would be akin to participating in the crime; it would make them a part of that same flawed system that has the potential to destroy lives as much as it has the potential to offer the comfort that only steadfast faith can provide. Here, in India, the rare voices of sanity and reason, voices like Ravish Kumar and P Sainath, are ignored, because they are too few, and they speak those uncomfortable truths that we don’t want to hear.
It doesn’t help that we as a people don’t know how to be consumers either. We’re quick to use derogatory labels like ‘presstitute’ without ever considering that there are two sets of people who are being denigrated in one fell swoop with that word. And the average person belonging to either one of those sets is a hardworking individual; one who doesn’t deserve to be insulted by those who haven’t a clue about what it’s like to be a journalist or a sex worker.
Young minds choose to become journalists because of idealistic principles and ethics that form the foundation of the Fourth Estate. These principles are in place because journalism is meant solely to serve the cause of humanity, to document fact, to opine sensibly on all angles of the debate, and to ultimately be the conscience-keeper of society. Time and tide erode that young idealism, because of the malaise the afflicts journalism from deep within.
Unlike the Spotlight team, journalism here is driven by commerce, not conscience. Spotlight reminds us, though, that the media still has the power to drive a revolution in thought. Yes, the film breaks your heart because it reminds us of just how far away we are from how it must be. But it also reminds us that there is an ideal to strive for, there is a cause worth fighting for.
Spotlight is a must-watch for people in the media, as well as people who consume the media, because it reaffirms one’s belief in the indelible ink flowing from the pen of objectivity and reason.