Column | Journalism films should move with the times

Column | Journalism films should move with the times

Along with the popular genres of sports films, political films and biopics, there is a category of movies that focus on professions. Thrillers and drama films in the category highlight the nobility, rots and ethics in a job. Some of them inspire the audience to look up to the beacons in a field of work and encourage them to follow their path.

As the new year begins, just like the entertainment industry, journalism, too, is at a crossroads. The credibility of media is at the lowest. Traditional media is strapped for cash and is facing intense competition from digital and social media. Fake news is taking down journalism and endangering lives and harmony. TV journalism has transformed into a monster that is difficult to tame. Journalists are being thrown out of work and killed… the issues that plague the sector are many.

The list of journalism films across is long. The non-profit journalism school and research organization Poynter has recently published a curated list of 25 journalism films from Hollywood. The crusades that journalists take up in the interest of the larger common good, inspirational stories of upright journalists who overcome many hurdles to shed light on truth have been successful. So were the films that expose the nexus between journalism and politics or between journalism and the business.

Citizen Kane, the press and creative freedom

One of the earliest Hollywood films that spotlighted journalism was Citizen Kane (1941), Orson Welles' debut film. Citizen Kane is widely regarded by critics as the best film ever made. Before he entered Hollywood as a writer, director and actor, Welles had directed stage productions and produced a radio anthology The Mercury Theater on the Air. Welles was also a part of the team that created the radio version of the newsreel-like drama series The News on the March by Time Inc, which categorised the format as "pictorial journalism". These two instances of his early career made him mount a landmark film on a totally one-sided contract—favourable to the writer and director and not the studio. The deal that gave Welles full creative freedom was unheard of at that time and rare for a debut writer-director in his twenties.

If you are keen to learn more about Citizen Kane's making and its relevance to the entertainment industry today, watch the latest Netflix film, Mank. It reviews the 1930s Hollywood and takes us through their race to finish the landmark film. Mank tells it from the perspective of Welles's controversial screenwriter, Herman J Mankiewicz, who had fought for and won his share of writing credit for the Oscar-winning screenplay even though his contract clearly denied any writing credit.

While Citizen Kane's link to journalism and the behind the scenes story of creative freedom and authorship are fantastic to read and watch, two recent films from Hollywood that you should not miss would be Steven Spielberg's The Post (2018) and Tom McCarthy's Spotlight (2015). The Post narrates the true story of The Washington Post journalists who published the Pentagon papers that expose the US government's involvement in the Vietnam war. Spotlight nail-bitingly chronicles The Boston Globe's investigation of child sex abuse by catholic priests in Boston.

Indian stories

As far back as 1987, Dennis Joseph and Joshiy collaborated for a Malayalam conspiracy thriller titled New Delhi, centered around a fictional Delhi-based cartoonist and investigative journalist GK. The blockbuster, which was later remade in Telugu, Kannada and Hindi, had revenge as the central plot. The protagonist who is on a killing spree gloated over the process of "creating" news rather than reporting it. More than a decade later, when print media was still dominant, Madhur Bhandarkar's national award winner Page 3 (2005) exposed some dirty secrets of how media makes and breaks celebrities with a great deal of authenticity.

The country soon got a TV news industry with channels in virtually every language spoken in various parts of the country. The questionable methods of reporting and excessive opinionating in these channels produce many victims. Former NDTV journalist Anusha Rizvi's directorial debut Peepli [Live] (2010) captured the audience's attention worldwide because it narrated the story of a victim of the TRP-hungry 24x7 news channels. "Natha zaroor marega" is an unforgettable line even after 10 years.

The same year, Ram Gopal Varma narrated the inside story of the news channel business in Rann. The riveting film starring Amitabh Bacchan, Riteish Deshmukh and Sudeep was a flop. Still, to Varma's and his screenwriter Rohit G Banawlikar's credit, the story proved to be prophetic. The plot would not have resonated 10 years ago as it would today because it is not hard to relate the characters to their real-life versions. Banawlikar is the writer of the adult star Shakeela's biopic that is getting ready for release.

The superhit No One Killed Jessica (2011) was touted as a journalistic retelling of how the reportage led to the Jessica Lal murder case's final sentencing. However, it proved to be a caricaturist one-(wo)man show of a TV journalist modeled on Barkha Dutt who bounces from one high-profile investigative story to another with ease.

More than stories, our industry is obsessed with stereotypes. It must be either a crusader, a villain or a character to mock at. Barkha Dutt has been the stereotype of an aggressive, liberal-thinking woman reporter. Her reporting of the Kargil conflict was referenced in multiple films to point to her. In Farhan Akhtar's Lakshya, for example, the aggressive war reporter character played by Preity Zinta, who annoyingly quizzes the defense personnel, is called Romila Dutta, just in case you fail to get it.

Scores of Malayalam films had ethical journalists as central and supporting characters. Pathram (1999), which carried explicit references to many real-life characters and controversies, was penned by Renji Panikkar, a journalist-turned screenwriter who penned superhit political thrillers and police stories. Sreebala K Menon's Love 24X7 offered a ring-side view of a newsroom while P. Sukumar's Swa Le (2009) depicted the life of an ordinary print reporter coming to terms with the changing reality of journalism in the age of TV. In Joshiy's Mohanlal starrer Run Baby Run, a high-profile ‘Reuters’ TV cameraman is trapped in a political murder in Kerala amidst channel wars.

Stereotypes and authenticity

Amazon Prime series Patal Lok is inspired by the book The Story of My Assassins written by the former Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal. At the center of it all, we have the character Sanjeev Mehra, the editor-in-chief of a channel who milks the made-up assassination attempt on him not only to salvage his career and image but also to kill the explosive story from being told.

If you want a real-life story, Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story on Sony LIV has The Times of India business correspondent Sucheta Dalal taking us through the Harshad Mehta scam as a critical character in the drama series.

Journalism has been a narrative tool in films even though the journalist is not a key character in the plot. The portrayal of journalists and the process of journalism needs a reality check. Caricatures of the loud news anchor and the glamourised or daring investigative journalist are just not enough for the times. It's high time the writers and directors moved over such clichés and lent authenticity to the characters and plots. The character of Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane was a well-researched synthesis of different personalities, including those of two giants in journalism, Joseph Pulitzer and Harmsworth Northcliffe.

(Dress Circle is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and film enthusiast. Read his past works here)

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