Ravi Belagere (1958-2020): Remembering a maverick whose journalism was both sensationalist and subversive
Ravi Belagere was a gifted individual with an intrinsic understanding of journalistic methods but, rather than restrict himself to being a writer and intellectual in an ordinary world — which he might have been — he used his skills in a darker world, and found himself transformed.
The death of Kannada tabloid journalist Ravi Belagere marks the abrupt end to a colourful career characterised by excitement and controversy. Belagere is best known as the founder-editor of Hi Bangalore, a sensationalist Kannada tabloid which caught the public imagination in the 1990s. There had already been a hugely popular tabloid in Lankesh Patrike run by litterateur P Lankesh but where that was literary and dealt with literary, political and cultural issues, sometimes in a controversial way, Hi Bangalore was unabashedly sensationalist and often dealt with the underworld and its nefarious doings.
When Ravi Belagere arrived on the scene in Bengaluru, his name was already familiar to me. He was from Bellary and I had worked there in the early ‘80s. Belagere was a lecturer in a local college — in History, I later learned — and Bellary was then a small town. I recollect a local talent contest among college students, Ravi Belagere standing behind a curtain, and visible from where I was sitting, singing in a full-throated voice as accompaniment to some folk dancing from undergraduate girl students.
He was a conspicuous figure in Bellary in the early 1980s, seen as someone ‘up and coming’, and the president of what could be translated as the ‘Citizens' Committee for Public Safety’. The ‘Committee for Public Safety’ was instituted by Maximilian Robespierre during the French Revolution mainly to decide upon public enemies whose heads should be cut off, but Ravi Belagere’s ‘Citizens' Committee’ busied itself with more mundane matters — like conveying advice to locals on the need to stay indoors when Bellary had a heat wave. I did not hear about him again until the later part of the 1990s, and the friend who told me about his tabloid was surprised that I had known of him in Bellary. At around this time, I also saw him speeding around on a Bullet motorcycle in Bengaluru, adorned with gold chains.
To give an idea of the kind of tabloid journalism engaged in by Ravi Belagere: he was direct in his targets, mentioning them by name, and with their pictures staring back at the reader from the cover. As instances, Girish Karnad was a votary of the Tipu Jayanti celebrations; these came under the right-wing radar especially in Kodagu because of Tipu’s doings against the Kodavas and there were Hindu-Muslim riots in Kodagu in 2015. Hi Bangalore’s headlines in a particular issue translated roughly as ‘On account of Girish Karnad’s stupid utterances fell Kodava corpses’. Another Hi Bangalore headline had a holy man on the cover — someone the readers might recognise — with the words, “the astrologer Guruji who swallowed a television girl”. A third had a man’s face on the cover and announced, “the ghoulish mind behind a beautiful face”. Needless to say, these headlines draw the reader by awakening his or her immediate curiosity. Belagere’s language was colloquial and he was not averse to using English words. The word ‘stupid’ in the article about Kodava deaths, for example, had ‘stupid’ written in Kannada script.
Apart from his tabloid and a lot of other writing he did in the 1990s — he authored fiction as well — he became well-known for a television programme called Crime Diary. Bengaluru was just seeing its boom period at the time and was a very glamorous space because of new economy businesses and the spending power they unleashed. Belagere went to the outskirts of the city in these years and investigated murders and violent crime. I recollect one story about a man who was beheaded by his wife and children, although his ‘only sin was enjoying a bit of rum every evening’. To make each story more graphic, the exact spots where things happened were photographed, with an irony-laden accompanying commentary in Belagere’s stentorian voice.
The stories were sensationalist but also politically subversive since they were showing up Bengaluru’s glamour for ‘what it was’. Much of Bengaluru’s Kannada-speaking populace did not share in the city’s prosperity at the time, there was disgruntlement at large and his reporting may have tapped that as well. His column on the underworld, ‘Paapigala lokadalli’ (meaning ‘in the world of sinners’), continued the same thing in the print medium.
Belagere came into notoriety a couple of years ago because of a tussle with his chief reporter Sunil Heggaravalli who, it is alleged, he tried to have assassinated. The latter sought protection for himself and his family from the Chief Minister because he feared for his life. The cause, it was reported, had to do with marital infidelity. Characteristically, the fight was carried over into Hi Bangalore with Heggaravalli subsequently suing Belagere for defamation.
I had been introduced briefly to Ravi Belagere in 1982 and was reintroduced more than 30 years later. When I told him that I had met him in Bellary in the 1980s, he immediately came up with a gesture of recognition, although there was no likelihood of his recollecting a handshake from 35 years before. But it will give the reader a sense of his essential refinement under the controversial position he held, and the dark reporting he was constantly doing. Ravi Belagere was a gifted individual with an intrinsic understanding of journalistic methods but, rather than restrict himself to being a writer and intellectual in an ordinary world — which he might have been — he used his skills in a darker world, and found himself transformed. Mixing with the kind of elements he must have — in reporting on crime and thriving on scandal — gave him access to all kinds of circles, and, consequently, to influence and power. It must have been initially heady for the man from Bellary; was it ultimately too much of a burden to bear?
MK Raghavendra is a noted writer and film scholar.
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