Nightcrawler to Peepli Live, how cinema has portrayed horrors of broadcast media over the years
If your head has been spinning from the vitriol and venom India’s news channels have spewed and spread for the last couple of months, you’re not alone.
In a scene from Network (1976) a ruthless TV executive, Faye, lays down the law of the floor. “I've been telling you people since I took this job six months ago that I want angry shows,” she says, red-eyed. Roughly fifty years on, Indian television is delivering the claustrophobic equivalent of what Faye’s pitch, were it to manifest in reality, would look like.
If your head has been spinning from the vitriol and venom India’s news channels have spewed and spread for the last couple of months, you’re not alone. You are also, let’s grudgingly admit, part of a minority considering the popularity of such content continues to rise unabated. This is largely because viewers in India are left to glean and decipher the little they can about the TV news business, from a medium not too dissimilar in its own ethical ineptitude - cinema. No wonder the two are in an abusive marriage today that neither can, or maybe even wants to get out of.
Cinema is an imperfect medium, its sociological flaws inherent in the way it is carefully enacted and edited. Live television on the other hand, however ugly, is truer. Sidney Lumet’s Network remains epochal even after all these years because it successfully forecasted the corruption of TV news, a medium that would eventually cave under the demerits of what was once its perceived advantage – speed. Like violence, TRP begets more TRP. Prime time television was supposed to inherit the rigour and righteousness of its predecessor – print – but it has instead wandered into the territory of frantic entertainment; at the expense of both fact and finesse of note. In Network, a star anchor, Howard Beale, who is about to be fired has a meltdown on live television. His insolent rant, the eternally popular “I want you to get mad” speech, unwittingly, becomes a network hit. It’s more sermonising than it is articulation, but it works because, as Faye predicted, anger works better than reason.
Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (2014), anchored by a mesmerisingly repulsive Jake Gyllenhaal, is a darker, atomically explicit look at the business of news gathering, the full-blooded hunt for ‘footage’ and the race to get to it first. Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a cynical loner who decides to film crimes and sell the footage to local networks. Death, violence and pain are not exclusive, but TV news makes a business out of exclusively capturing it. This worm-feeds-worm perversity is what Nightcrawler articulates well, particularly through the cold-blooded pessimism of a lean and bony Gyllenhaal, in perhaps the greatest performance of his career.
Newsrooms can at times be so vitriolic, so arbitrary in their competitiveness and the hustle to leap over the nearest competitive marker, that nothing about its world can be considered an impolite exaggeration. There is nothing too absurd, these days, for a news channel to attempt and fail at. We’ve seen the set pieces, shared them as memes and gone back for more. The circus, however, does not resent itself. It couldn’t and that really is the tragedy that ties jokers to news anchors.
Closer home, TV news hasn’t really been dissected by cinema with the same sharpness. Things have obviously worsened on the news floor in the last decade or so but the TV camera’s sinister self-interest has been a theme since inception. Cinema, in contrast, has worked hard to tell the other side of the story. No Killed Jessica’s Meera Gaity, for example, is a righteous do-gooder, who’ll carry that badge of foul-mouthed ethics because that is really the only way to stick to that elusive spine. Aziz Mirza’s ludicrously overdramatic Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000) is admirably sensitive to the power structures that run TV news from behind the screen. News doesn’t make news, the film tells us, people do.
When it comes to objectively portraying TV media’s underhandedness and insensitivity perhaps no other film does more justice than Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live (2010). Set in a village, the film satirises a farmer’s alleged suicide and the media-cooked hysteria that follows. It’s a bit unnerving to look at Peepli Live, a decade on, at a time when one high-profile death has been twisted and turned to whet the appetite of an audience that couldn’t care less for migrants dying on the road or farmers in their fields. Peepli Live can seem unserious and tonally kind to the subject at hand but that is because news television has itself drifted from the moors of ground reporting. Farmers, labourers, the poor are just not interesting enough anymore. The gaze has turned towards the elite, whereas debates now mimic a politics inspired by urban spontaneity on twitter. Naturally, some deaths seem more important than others.
All of these examples unfortunately leave out the conveniently aloof consumer of bile and by extension patron, of news television– the viewer.
Delusion and indifference are a stronger creative force than morality and responsibility. In an episode of Charlie Brooker’s seminal Black Mirror, for example, the whole of UK tunes in to watch the Prime Minister make love to a pig. It may be gross and gratuitous but nothing perhaps entertains the human mind more than the visualised degradation of another. Look no further than the most popular reality TV shows in the country today, the baseline gullibility they appeal to. The behaviour is incriminating but it’s hardly unique and therefore culpable. We’re all part of a mob, even if we participate from within our bedrooms. The fact remains that we have watered this tree of poison. But now that it no longer gives us the shade of news, reason, or even moral decency, it makes us no less responsible, and strangely, powerful. Lest we want to forget.
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