Who does a journalist work for?
An editor who commissions stories, the media owner who insists that truth-hunting should be done within limits, conscience which is influenced by personal morals or the public which relies on journalists to inform them? For Shashi Kapoor’s Vikas Pande in the 1986 film ‘New Delhi Times’, a journalist’s only duty is towards the public. “Logon ko sacchai jaan ne ka haq hai, aur unko sachchai tak pahunchana mera farz.” (“People have a right to know the truth and it is my duty to ensure that they know the truth”) .
‘New Delhi Times’ is an unflinching and incisive look at the dirty nexus between politics, media and business, through one editor’s investigation into a political assassination. It’s a film which should be made mandatory viewing for all Indian journalists. Especially, considering we might not see a brave film like this in a while. (Ahem, Padmavati, anyone?)
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A Journalist’s Dilemma
If you’re a reporter covering a riot, do you stop to help the bloodied body on the road or rejoice at the story you’ve chanced upon?
In ‘New Delhi Times’, Vikas Pande (brilliantly portrayed by a pensive Shashi Kapoor) goes to Ghazipur, his hometown, where a communal riot has broken out. Allegedly triggered by two rival politicians, the riot takes over the town and ends up killing over 45 people. As he is travelling through the riot in a police envoy he meets Anwar, his colleague and a photographer (played by a much younger MK Raina). When Pande asks Anwar what he’s doing in a small town in eastern UP far away from Delhi, Anwar replies, “I came here for the story.”
Pande reflects on the bloody riots he has just seen and questions the role of a journalist, asking whether journalists sometimes forget to empathise with the ‘tragedy’ they are covering in the quest for that perfect story or photo. To which Anwar replies sardonically, that reporters empathise — but only when it happens the first time.
Talk to any journalist long enough and you’ll realise that desensitization to tragedy is a real issue. It’s inevitable in a profession where death is often quantified to decide whether it should be breaking news or just a small news item. But to see Shashi Kapoor grappling with the dilemma in a Hindi film released in 1986 is a revelation. Simply because it signals how much things have changed — and how much they remain the same.
Anwar and Pande’s back-and-forth on journalistic ethics, morality and reporting is riveting stuff which should be included in every journalism school. Through these two characters, the film asks us whether the role of the journalist is just to be a passive spectator (like Anwar) or be someone whose duty is to inform the public and keep doing it day in and day out — irrespective of whether things will change.
Shashi Kapoor’s Idealism…
Vikas Pande is an editor who swears by the truth. But even in the 1980s when the film is set, he is a rare man. The idealism of the freedom movement is long-forgotten (epitomized by the frustration of Pande’s activist father, played by AK Hangal) and it’s a time when the young and brash are flourishing.
Shashi Kapoor plays the determined, middle-aged, gruff and intellectual editor with restraint and thoughtful deliberation. Unassuming in a meeting with the newspaper owner and fiery when arguing with his editor, it seems Kapoor has spent decades absorbing the rhythms of a newsroom.
But his real contribution to ‘New Delhi Times’ was behind the screen.
Directed by a debutant Ramesh Sharma, Kapoor reportedly signed on the film for a paltry 101 rupees and was paid one lakh rupees as his fees. For a star of the Kapoor khaandaan to take an interest in a newbie director’s film on corruption in the media is a sign of the actor’s curiosity about lives different than his own. When the film ran into trouble upon its release with the censors (it wasn’t telecast on Doordarshan) and lawsuits (someone took offence to a dialogue which called all lawyers ‘liars’), Kapoor stood steadfast.
…And Om Puri’s Brashness
Vikas Pande is hell-bent on a story — an MLA’s murder — and while investigating this story he comes up against Ajay Singh. Businessman and aspiring politician Ajay Singh is played by Om Puri. With money in his pocket and chief ministerial dreams in his eyes, Singh is a man who has no scruples. When an MLA informs Singh about 35 people dying after consuming his liquor, he says “Log toh marte hi rehte hain!”
It’s this twisted morality which Pande’s is up against and one he grudgingly accepts as he finds himself being used as a tool by Singh and his rival politician to exact personal vendetta. When Ajay Singh gets a whiff of Pande exposing his role in an MLA’s murder, he attacks Pande’s family, puts pressure on the newspaper’s owner, resorts to threats and kills off possible sources.
The MLA’s murder is the Watergate-esque story which Pande runs after and it costs him almost everything. But like the best journalists, Pande investigates the story with the persistence of a bloodhound. As his wife Nisha (played by Sharmila Tagore) laments in one scene, he just doesn’t know how to give up.
Of Fearless Newspaper Owners & Typewriters
At a time when corporate control of Indian media is discernibly influencing editorial decisions, what struck me about ‘New Delhi Times’ was its steadfast and fearless owner, Jagannath Poddar (played by Manohar Singh). When his son, JK (played by Kulbhushan Kharbanda) hints at a paper staying away from politicians, he dismisses his concerns by saying, “Yeh kaam editor ka hai, ussi ko karne do.” (it’s the editor’s job, let him do it.)
The importance of having a proprietor or media owner who’s fearless and understands the importance of editorial integrity is reiterated when Pande is questioned by Poddar for pursuing Ajay Singh’s role in the MLA’s murder. Faced with an editor he trusts, Poddar responds that he is not afraid of political threats and will never be. As a young journalist, routinely faced with reports of publications ‘killing’ stories or being sued by politicians, Poddar’s fearlessness is an ideal to aspire to.
In the times of #MoJo and selfie sticks, watching journalists set newspapers on bromide paper, struggling to “hold the front page” because of a breaking news and dictating articles on a typewriter on a trunk call drove home how much the technology of being a journalist has changed; even as the moral dilemmas have remained the same. Thank god for Skype calls, I think?
#RelationshipGoals We Want
Shashi Kapoor’s Vikas Pande may be an executive editor in the film but his intellect is ably supported by his wife, Nisha, a lawyer in the Delhi High Court (played gracefully by Sharmila Tagore). Represented as an equal partner, nowhere is her intelligence, demanding work as a lawyer and advice undermined by Pande or the director. Pande supports her throughout, asks about her work and listens to her — a rare trait among Hindi film heroes on-screen. It is an example of the perfect marriage, and the kind I wished we could see more of in Hindi cinema.
When the “media is corrupt” is almost accepted wisdom and “presstitute” is a label we’ve all got used to, Vikas Pande and his relentless idealism is a breath of fresh air. Upright, fearless and relentlessly curious — he’s an editor I wish we had more of in 2017.
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and is being republished to mark the late Shashi Kapoor’s birth anniversary.)