Anything goes, anything went

How do you describe a week of TV where Kaikeyi appeared dressed as a thoroughly modern saas-bahu in a sheer saree revealing her curvaceous body, eyebrows plucked into half moons, the head uncovered and her tresses fluttering with each indignant swell of her breast (Ramayan, Zee)? Where two splendid cricket centuries are scored in Ahmedabad but the most intriguing match was the one of Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly in the commentary box (Star Cricket)? Where a shootout at Chhattarpur (in Delhi) between two brothers and their supporters was more riveting than anything Gangs of Wasseypur could conjure up? And where the Chadha brothers were the only human beings who managed, at least briefly, to come between television news and Bal Thackeray?

Fantastical? Unbelievable? Or simply disproportionate? In the event, TV news gave the Shiv Sena supremo more live coverage in death than perhaps his lifetime. You must have seen it. From Saturday afternoon till late Sunday evening, the news channels, both Hindi and English, kept a very respectful vigil by the political leader's side; first at his home and then snaking their way through Mumbai at the same pace as his funeral cortege, they accompanied him and lakhs of Mumbaikars with ceaseless commentary on his character, his characteristics (his wit especially), his politics and his legacy right up to the moment his pyre was lit: "What a moment this is", breathed Arnab Goswami (Times Now) audibly moved by the spectacle, some 10 hours after he first went on air.

Bal Thackeray's legacy was described as "controversial", "polarised", "divisive" and "mixed" by TV anchors and their guests. For the most part, however, the inmates of TV studios were determined to follow the adage, speak no evil of the dead. Only praise him. TV anchors/ reporters from Mumbai and their expert panelists eulogised the departed leader: they were adulatory, complimentary, effusive or affectionate. Anchors like Goswami and Rajdeep Sardesai spoke of him the way they might of an eccentric but lovable elderly uncle. So did their counterparts on NDTV 24x7, Headlines Today, Aaj Tak, Zee News, etc.

Thackeray was a politician cherished and worshipped by his followers in Maharashtra but criticised and disliked by others for sundry commissions and omissions. He was indicted by the Srikrishna Commission in its Mumbai riots report. With such a questionable legacy, should TV news have accorded him carpet coverage, sprinkled with fond remembrances, homages paid by politicians and Bollywood stars alike? Should there have been a blanket black-out of other news on Sunday and 12 hours or more of almost uninterrupted coverage (barring commercial breaks) of his last journey? Should reporters and anchors have showered Thackeray with praise, faint or otherwise?

Many of us receive at least a dozen Indian news channels in Hindi and English. Plenty to choose from, you'd say. Not on Sunday, when Bal Thackeray's procession from his home in Matoshree to his funeral rites at Shivaji Park was the sole occupant of news space — unless you watched DD News. So, no plurality or diversity, only copycat coverage. But Hindi and English news channels are viewed throughout the north and the rest of the country, not only in Maharashtra.

And then, over the next two days, the same channels that bid Thackeray a fond farewell went hammer and tongs at Thackeray's Shiv Sena and the Mumbai police for allegedly persecuting two young women who made innocuous remarks about the total shutdown of Mumbai. Is there something ironic about that or not? The girl, Shaheen, had written that Sunday's Mumbai bandh was due to "fear". On Tuesday, Sardesai asked the Shiv Sena: does it mean that if you say or write anything against Shiv Sena, you are not safe? Perhaps that's a question TV news channels should ask themselves.

And perhaps Kaikeyi should be dressed up like a modern miss. And perhaps we should have more TV commercials like the ones promoting the India-England series. You know the ones? Where "Mrs Bhonsle ne angrezon ki bansuri baja di" and Shuklas "ne angrezon ka band baja diya"? Perhaps this is black humour and not in bad taste. Or no more distasteful than the Amul body warmer ad, in which an elderly, bedridden gentleman is deprived of his bed by the villagers who want to burn it as firewood to keep them warm.

In the laissez faire world of Indian television, anything goes.

shailaja.bajpai@expressindia.com

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