Gauri Lankesh murder: The dangerous life of scribes in Indian cinema

Firebrand editor Gauri Lankesh was shot dead at her residence in Bengaluru. File photo
The assassination of senior journalist Gauri Lankesh at her home in Bengaluru on Tuesday yet again reminds us how fragile the glorified ideals of freedom of press and speech really are in our country. According to various news reports, at least five journalists were murdered in India last year. On the Impunity Index of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which ranks nations according to the number of murder cases of scribes without conviction, India is a dismal 14 (Pakistan is nine, Bangladesh 12). And, on the World Press Freedom Index 2017, India ranks a pathetic 136 out of 180 nations.

Perhaps the finest film ever on the hazards of journalistic work — leaving aside war movies — is The Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the film narrates the investigation carried out by the two journalists into the Watergate case, which — thanks partly to their work — turned out to be the biggest political scandal in the US, leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. With Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman playing Woodward and Bernstein, respectively, the film was the final of director Allan J Pakula’s “paranoia trilogy”.

The brazen murder of a colleague for honestly doing her job would be enough to inspire some paranoia in any journalist: Worse still, the gloating over it on social media by some supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party, not only justifying a crime but celebrating it; worse still, Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to follow some of these online trolls on Twitter. On a personal note, it was difficult for me to think of any films I could discuss in this dark, dark hour, till I remembered two from the 1980s. The first, New Delhi Times (1986). Separated by only a few years, they depicted the last gasp of pre-Liberalisation India. As we shall see, things might seem different now, but are they really?

As Jai Arjun Singh writes in his monograph on JBDY), Kundan Shah’s directorial venture, made on a shoestring budget of Rs 7 lakh performed modestly at the box office but set the benchmark of what black comedy in Bollywood could aspire to. Reflecting on the mood of despondency that inspired the film, Dhiraj Nayyar writes: “In many ways, the early 80s were a period of directionless despair for the country. India was well past its idealistic period of socialism that had culminated in the disastrous Emergency. ...The worst bits of India’s tryst with socialism — licence raj, corruption and crony capitalism — continued to hold sway. ...for mainstream cinema this was also the time when Amitabh Bachchan’s anti-establishment ‘angry young man’ character peaked in popularity, perhaps reflecting the mood of a somewhat frustrated nation.”

The protagonists of Khabardaar magazine, and get involved in an entangled skein of corruption and murder. The bad guys are builders Tarneja (Pankaj Kapoor) and Ahuja (Om Puri), municipal commissioners D’Mello (played alive and dead by Satish Shah) and Shrivastav (Deepak Qazir).

Besides a few asides on the uneven distribution of wealth and the ineffectiveness of the legal system, the makers of this film made no effort to introduce some reason into the madcap narrative, which after disappearing dead bodies, falling flyovers and mistimed time bombs, ends up in the iconic Mahabharata scene. (At one level, the epic represents the internal conflict, the million mutinies in the country.) Pursued by the bad guys, Vinod and Sudhir end up in a stage play, where a set of actors are performing the disrobing of Draupadi after the dice game. As the characters of the film intrude into the play, even the audience in the theatre, shown to be laughing their heads off, is implicated.

The ending of the film is, indeed, dark beyond description. Sudhir and Vinod, falsely implicated for sabotaging a flyover, are seen walking the streets of Bombay (now Mumbai), wearing the clothes of jailbirds. In the background, we can hear “ hai (The two are idiots, but their work is good; they have to be used).”

“I’ve been used,” cries Vinod Pande (Shashi Kapoor), the executive editor of JBDY's director had bagged this award in 1983.

The film revolves around the assassination of Bhaleram, a local MLA, in Ghazipur, which is also Pande’s hometown. Smuggler Iqbal is arrested and he names ambitious young politician Ajay Singh (Om Puri) in court. This leads to riots in the town, which Pande is then visiting. The carnage prompts him to launch an investigation, and as it progresses, he becomes more and more convinced that Ajay Singh is the murderer. The investigative piece he writes, naming Singh, brings him into conflict with the management of New Delhi Times, but the Nehruvian industrialist who owns the paper, Jagannath Poddar (Manohar Singh), supports him. But after the story is published, Pande realises it is not Singh — but chief minister Charturvedi — who got Bhaleram killed.

Gulzar’s layered script works on many levels. The narrative is anchored by Pande, through reflective voice-overs, who meditates on the “people’s history” created by journalists, very different from the history of the nation represented by the stones of monuments and ruins that litter Delhi. A more poignant symbol, which runs like a leitmotif through the film, is that of Pande lighting matchsticks, usually to light his pipe. Once or twice, he even burns his fingers, like he will in the course of the film. As if to drive the point home, when he and his wife Nisha (Sharmila Tagore) are attacked by thieves — or political goons, one is never sure — Pande’s fingers, albeit of his left hand, get caught in the car door and are fractured.

Discussing the incident later, his editor tells Pande it’s unlikely any politician would dare to send goons to attack a celebrated journalist like him. “New Delhi Times, was investigating the death of 35 people after consuming illicit liquor in Ghaziabad. Having discovered more details, he fixes up an appointment with Pande in the middle of the night; he also tells his editor that he fears someone is following him. Kedar never makes it to the rendezvous point; the accident occurs on the way. While Pande is convinced this is a murder, there is little he can prove, and by the end of the film, everyone, including him, seems to have forgotten it.

Hopefully, Gauri Lankesh’s martyrdom will not be forgotten so easily, and her killers will be brought to book soon.

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