A decade after Joshy’s 2012 film Run Baby Run with Kerala’s electronic media at its core comes Aashiq Abu’s Naaradan, with a similar backdrop and setting. A lot has changed in Kerala’s mediascape in this period and scenarist Unni R draws a lot of references from real incidents in the intervening period. Of course, the lead character Chandra Prakash or CP played by Tovino Thomas is clearly a caricature of Arnab Goswami, who doesn’t have a counterpart in Kerala for now.
Naaradan is a one-time watch and has its moments but much like Trance (2020), it is a lost opportunity and has its share of flaws. When an accomplished filmmaker like Aashiq Abu teams up with someone like Unni R, who, incidentally, was among the first batch of Kerala’s broadcast journalists, much more was expected than what is on offer.
Naaradan does offer some pointers on what could be the imminent future of broadcast journalism in Kerala, where half-a-dozen channels jostle for space by dishing out very similar content.
The first hour is really engaging, with the banter and camaraderie of journalists who wind up at a liquor joint late at night over gossip making for some delightful exchanges. There are allusions to many running jokes on people appearing on ‘live telecasts’ showing up elsewhere and how competition and the hunt for ratings create bedlam.
There are sly references to caste and how some channel managements coax journalists to change their surnames to make the most of their identities. The irony in Renji Panikkar’s character delivering a dialogue on how he couldn’t visit a Scheduled Caste magistrate (played by Indrans) in his chamber to place a request since he is a ‘24 Carat Menon’ is not lost and symbolises how Malayalam Cinema is finally addressing caste.
Tovino’s CP is shown to have a ruthless streak even in the initial stage where he is otherwise content being the ‘face’ of the channel. CP is also shown to be a chip off the old block in the way he coldly dumps his girlfriend after realising she lost her inheritance. Such a background is indicative of the transformation ahead, except Aashiq Abu brings in a motivational trainer to groom CP into an Arnab-like figure, which was totally unwarranted and makes for a dull passage.
Tovino Thomas is one Malayalam actor who is generally not averse to playing unconventional roles and he does a great job of imbibing Arnab Goswami’s mannerisms complete with the smirk, glasses and stock expressions.
Tovino is really convincing while staging the primetime debates reminiscent of ‘The Nation Wants To Know’ charades of Goswami and his minions on ‘national’ media. The name ‘Narada’ for the fictional news channel is supposedly an allusion to the mythological messenger than a reference to Mathew Samuel’s media venture post Tehelka which shut its Delhi bureau down overnight leaving its employees high and dry in 2017.
Most importantly, Naaradan offers a vision of what could happen to the Kerala’s mediaspace if a particularly successful online portal running solely on YouTube revenues manages to secure a satellite TV license in the near future, as is being rumoured. Yes, I am referring to Shajan Skariah’s Marunadan Malayali, which thrives on the voyeuristic psyche of Malayalis combined with hyper-nationalism, communal rants and innuendo.
The 'Marunadan Malayali' Phenomenon
In the mid-nineties, a young man from Kanjirappally completed his diploma in journalism at the Trivandrum Press Club and later joined the Syro-Malabar Church-run Deepika daily as a trainee in Kottayam. His seniors remember him as a “trouble-maker” back then, with a rebellious streak and propensity to be at the centre of conflict. Today, he runs Kerala’s most successful online portal occupying an entire floor of a skyscraper in the heart of Trivandrum with a sprawling office, even paying his staff on par with legacy media.
While some qualify it as ‘yellow journalism’, there is a clear method to Shajan Skariah’s strategy and it may not be long before he revives the defunct Mangalam channel or floats a 24/7 channel.
His 10-minute videos, where he holds forth on the most scandalous topic of the day or speculates on politics are religiously consumed by a large section of Kerala’s educated middle class. The jingoism and licentious approach topped with dollops of Islamaphobia – in a society where making communal remarks are frowned upon – has acquired a cult following.
Naaradan, by placing a Goswami-like anchor in the Kerala TV space, might well be a premonition on what Marunadan Malayali could resemble if it were scaled up.
Apart from all the stated reasons that work for Marunadan Malayali, the pronounced Left bias of a section of the Kerala journalists, translating to not just being left-of-centre on social issues, but being pro-CPI (M) at work, is the clincher. A byproduct of Kerala’s campuses being dominated by the Left in the past four decades (often through undemocratic means), and journalism as a natural progression from campus activism, it is only natural for someone who sloganeered for Pinarayi Vijayan in college to behave in a certain way in newsrooms, despite the professional checks and balances and managements that act as a counterbalance. This may be one reason why Kerala broadcast media ended up blowing the bugle collectively for ‘Captain’ Pinarayi Vijayan in the run-up to the 2021 assembly elections, with surrogate advertising used to fix managements.
Marunadan Malayali is bitterly anti-CPI (M) and often irrationally so, thus attracting a class that is frustrated with the perceived pro-Left slant of a section of the broadcast media. Shajan Skariah also maintains a charade of non-partisanship although his journalism is borderline yellow, effectively acting as a propaganda machine for the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Rumours of the CPI (M) arm-twisting Mathrubhumi News, whose majority shares are held by the leader of a political ally of the CPI (M), to moderate its anti-government editorial stance, failing which they engineered a change of editors, didn’t help the cause of legacy channels. The positioning of the ideologically-ambivalent Twenty Four, the latest news channel in Kerala, is also keenly watched on this front.
The Decade Since 'Run Baby Run'
When Run Baby Run was released in 2012, Kerala only had four mainstream 24/7 news channels – Asianet News, Manorama News, the now-defunct market leader Indiavision and a fledgling Reporter – without counting the mouthpieces of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Congress. It was released before the solar scam and the bar bribery scam rocked the Oommen Chandy government.
There are no references to these events but it may be remembered that Aashiq Abu had joined issue with the bar bribery scam organising a much-publicised campaign against Kerala Finance Minister KM Mani on Facebook. That was one instance where the crux of his argument in the film, on the media defaming people without evidence and holding parallel trial, was violated by Abu himself. There are no references either to the abdication of a section of the media following the Sabarimala protests in the wake of the Supreme Court order allowing women entry into the hill shrine.
Unni R also loses an opportunity at highlighting the friction between journalists and the management who are often at odds on many issues, resulting in stories getting killed for vested interests. Take, for instance, the renewed interest in the case of the actress-abduction-and-assault case following the emergence of a whistleblower in film director Balachandrakumar, who, unsuccessfully approached two prominent news channels before Reporter, run by a journalist, showed the gumption to air it, thus, turning the case on its head.
It is the issue of the honey-trapping of minister AK Saseendran by Mangalam news channel, by a female journalist on its rolls on the instructions of its editor Ajith Kumar coinciding with its launch, which forms a crucial part of the narrative in Naaradan. There is the dependable Sharafudeen portraying an idealistic counterpart to Tovino’s CP and, his character’s name and fate are also inspired by real-life events.
Naaradan offers a glimpse of what may be in store if the right-wing ecosystem manages to get its own champion in a professional set-up in Kerala. Today, many of us don’t remember how Arnab Goswami’s boisterous antics and irreverence were loved by a section of the middle class before he turned full-time propagandist. It may not take another decade for such a propagandist to take centrestage in Kerala, not least as a counter to the Left predilections of a section of the journalists in legacy media.
(Anand Kochukudy is a Kerala-based journalist and former editor of The Kochi Post. He tweets @AnandKochukudy. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)