News coverage of Sridevi's death: How media publications hastily leaped from Botox to the bathtub
The Sridevi story had quickly and grotesquely turned into a story of comeuppance for a woman who had wanted too much of everything – success, love and beauty. The news coverage has made a mockery out of everything the actress stands for.
The image from a television channel covering Sridevi’s death certainly spoke volumes. It was a photograph of a fancy hotel bathroom. But photoshopped into it was a portrait of the late superstar. On the edge of the bathtub there was a Photoshopped glass of wine. And a headline that would be the dream of any pulp fiction writer – Maut ka Bathtub aka The Bathtub of Death.
Another channel just went all out. They photoshopped Sridevi floating in the bathtub like the Lady of Shalott while Boney Kapoor stood next to it. The television anchor stood in front - a salesman of the macabre.
Unfortunately, this coverage says way more about us than it does about the mysteries swirling around Sridevi’s sudden death. It reveals us as the ultimate ghouls, as ready to place our heroes on pedestals as we are to knock them into the gutter. In life she was the stuff that our dreams were made of. Her death is the stuff of nightmares – a freezing frenzy of vultures.
One of the local Bengali television channels had six “experts” conjecturing about the circumstances of Sridevi’s death. That included a well-known Tollywood actress who informed us confidently about what appetite suppressant drug Sridevi was taking and its side-effects. The anchor reported breathlessly that “traces of alcohol” had been found in her bloodstream, stressed that the amount was unknown, and yet seamlessly talked about “otirikto modyopaan” or “excessive alcohol consumption” as being a possible cause of death.
They showed a bathtub and said without batting an eye that “this was that bathtub” as if the television channel had entered the sealed hotel room. They gave us details about the height of the bathtub and the Sridevi’s own height to bolster their theory about excessive drinking.
Barkha Dutt, dubbing this as #NewsKiMaut writes in Washington Post that “news anchors usually far too supine to interrogate the powerful contorted their bulletins by discussing, in all seriousness, whether a trained dancer could lose her balance in the bathtub.”
One account said she was found unconscious in the bathtub. Another said she was found on the bathroom floor fueling further conspiracy. Meanwhile all channels showed the forensic report of death by “accidental drawning” alongside her passport details, revealed for the whole world to see, her privacy rendered completely meaningless.
The problem is not that the media is pursuing every angle of the death of a superstar. It’s a bona fide story. It’s perfectly okay to query how she died. It’s absolutely legitimate for media to raise questions about puzzling gaps in the account. If she had gone to the bathroom around 5:30 after speaking with her husband for fifteen minutes, why was she not taken to the hospital till after 9?
What’s not acceptable is how quickly the subtext is shifting from the tragic untimely demise of a luminous superstar to the cautionary tale of a woman who flies too close to the sun.
When she died social media was rife with stories about her supposed relentless pursuit of size zero happiness. The woman once described as Thunder Thighs for her curves was apparently obsessed with being skinny, keeping every marker of age at bay. She might have been, but we forget that in the end it was her body. In its own finger-wagging way, this too was body-shaming as we hastily, and without any medical proof whatsoever, rushed to draw a dotted line connecting Botox to the bathtub. It became a story of the perils of being too beautiful, the price a woman pays for trying to defy age.
When the forensic report came out the morality play shifted course. Now we were rushing to construct the story of a porcelain beauty, empty inside, filling the void with alcohol and prescription medication to keep her thin. As if on cue, a local Bengali channel devoted an entire segment rehashing Sridevi’s alleged affair with Mithun Chakravarty over twenty years ago. Both Boney Kapoor and Mithun were married men at the time, we were told, but the silent reproof was reserved for Sridevi, as if she was the femme fatale in the story and the men innocent lambs caught in the headlights of her beauty.
The Sridevi story had quickly and grotesquely turned into a story of comeuppance for a woman who had wanted too much of everything – success, love and beauty. It all makes a mockery of her famous line from Chaalbaaz - "Main to sirf ek aurat hoon jo mardon ki banayi is duniya mein apne shart se jeena chaahti hoon." (I am just a woman who wants to live on her own terms in this world made by men.)
What’s sad is that in this march of the ghouls we miss out on so much more that was surprising about Sridevi.
In recent years one of the great surprises was when she appeared on Satyamev Jayate on an episode about child sexual abuse. On it, gay activist Harish Iyer talked about how he endured years of abuse fantasising about Sridevi, the woman who always came out on top, no matter what humiliation was piled on her. She was a “character of force” he said. She carried the promise of a “happy ending” even if it was in an alternate world, a fantasy one. Then Sridevi appeared on the show, resplendently beautiful, like a dream come true and applauded Iyer as a “real hero” for having the courage to be so upfront about his story while the audience cheered.
It was a wondrous emotional moment showing the truly incandescent power of Bollywood. It made real the promise of fairy tale ending, something we could cling to in our darkest hours, offering solace in the most unexpected places.
That’s what makes the final chapter of the Sridevi story so tragic. The woman who vanquished so many leering villains on screen is being stabbed in the back as her private life becomes public fodder and media wonders whether she drank wine or vodka. She is being photoshopped into a bathtub in a hotel in Dubai and she can no longer get up to defend herself.
Or perhaps it only proves that the media that is doing this has just found its natural home – in a toilet, plumbing the depths, drained of decency.
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