Beyond the moralising screen

Print edition : January 23, 2015

In a scene from the Woody Allen film "Blue Jasmine". Woody Allen chose not to have the film shown in India rather than have the health warning message distract from even the couple of scenes in it which has a character smoking. Photo: AP

NOW that Vinod Mehta has (in his latest book, Editor Unplugged: Media, Magnates, Netas and Me) confirmed what we always suspected—that there’s many a sip between the shot and the sound bite—it helps us understand the pathology of the nightly news show better. We must—that is, the non-prohibitionist, imbibing silent minority—be thankful to Mehta for giving the act of drinking dignity, and putting it right up there where it matters, on prime time national television news. He tangentially identifies other worthies who, like him, are single malt aficionados and who, it appears, likewise nurse their drinks while they await their turn to launch into their thirty- or forty-second bursts on one or the other matter that “the nation wants to know”; but which, as we who watch know, the nation cannot get to know because they are invariably cut off in mid sentence by the impatient anchor who has so many others, apart from them, to harangue. It is hardly surprising that they need their drinks to see them through such ordeal. Whether, or how, the volatile nature of the news hour drives its regular “guests” to the bottle, to brace themselves against the neglect, the obloquy, the taunts they are subjected to, or to mitigate their frustration at being yanked off the shot just about when an idea or a sentence was taking shape in their minds, may be the timely subject of a socio-psychological study.

But overall, Mehta’s refreshingly candid self-avowal about his favourite alcohol keeping him company as he is warming up to a debate in the media limelight must, in turn, warm the cockles of the hearts of those forced to take to it less publicly, or even surreptitiously, given the public frown or censure it elicits in these morally squeamish times. In fact, the vision being evoked of a post-total-prohibition teetotal nation is as chilling as one where total reconversion, post ‘operation ghar vapsi’, has taken place.

The helpline drink may be a category that the news show has brought into vogue. But what drives those, who don’t even have a glass to clutch on to, to voluntarily undergo this nightly erosion of self-worth is as intriguing as it is nonplussing. The ones who take the cake are the duo from Pakistan, who submit themselves to some pretty vicious tongue-lashing every now and then, that is, every time it’s time, in the calculation of the channel’s TRP trackers, to do some Pakistan bashing. They come in twos for some reason, although the two keep changing, and the normal combination is a general and a diplomat. What is strangely common about them is their masochism: the need, almost, to be insulted without being able to get as far as half a sentence back in reprisal.

The spokespersons of political parties, particularly this winter collection, win hands down as the dullest of the lot. They say the most predictable things even more predictably, if that’s possible. The smartest, always, of course, are the host anchors themselves. And that’s understandable. Why would they run a show where someone else runs away with it? So you can’t act funny with them or they will put you in your place instantly. It doesn’t matter that in any case you are shown your place most of the time. You can sit there and sulk and stew in your juice and raise your hand to speak and are not allowed to speak for as long as you like. That is about all you are entitled to. One would think that after one round of such shabby treatment you would not come back for more. But there you are again, and again and again, as persistent paragons of patience. That’s when the inquisitive viewer begins to wonder whether such formidable forbearance is not buttressed, at least in some cases, by a peg or two of the right stuff to hold the nerves down and keep the ego at bay.

The warning

It feels good to know, or even merely to suspect, that such drinking behind the scenes goes on if only because it goes against the impositional moral grain of the times. But drinking as part of the scene, whether in film or television, is another matter. You can’t, unless you carry a warning text, through the sequence of the act of drinking, about alcohol being injurious to health (and destructive of family and nation). This is part of the campaign initiated by former Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss, himself a medical doctor, to sanitise the mass media of the evils of smoking and drinking. Now, one has to concede that in terms of implementing an anti-smoking public policy Ramadoss’ zealousness has been effective. Smoking has indeed been disincentivised and stigmatised fairly thoroughly in society and this must reflect in a decline in the number of those who light up a cigarette in public, or even in private.

The gory visuals linking smoking to abominably horrific forms of cancer in the mandatory capsule that precedes a film in the movie theatre have the desired effect of frightening you out of your wits and leaving your mind unsettled for the film itself (you eventually develop the defence mechanism of looking away when this cancer scare starts). They also have the not-so-desired effect of further stereotyping cancer as the dread disease and, in this case, making it somehow culpable to boot, because you bring it upon yourself by smoking or chewing tobacco. The bitter impact this may have on those in the hall who have cancer, and without having touched tobacco in their lives, obviously doesn’t matter in the scheme of the larger public interest.

The good doctor-Minister, in his single-minded pursuit of public health, couldn’t care too much about private sensibilities; and when it comes to artistic sensibilities he seems downright philistine. Again, it may be unfair not to nuance the argument. It is one thing to do something, in the interest of larger public health, about what appears to be glorification of smoking or drinking on the screen. After all, we know of stars who have won the hearts of fans through their trademark smoking and drinking routines—think of Dev Anand’s romantic suaveness or Rajinikanth’s machismo flicks and ticks with a cigarette, Sivaji Ganesan’s consummate smoking and boozing stylistics, or Amitabh Bachchan, inimitable and peerless in his drunken scenes. MGR was the big exception who steered scrupulously clear of both (even when he was pretending to be drunk in a scene he carried little conviction)—and there may be some benefit of doubt to the view that this could have an addictive effect on impressionable star-struck minds.

The proportionate corrective response would be to remind the viewers, in a message put across along with the opening titles or thereabout, that the drinking and the smoking on screen are purely performative and that both liquor and tobacco are injurious to health—a variation, if you like, of the warning about stunts in a film or ad short being done by professionals with the aid of special effects and that viewers shouldn’t try to imitate them.

What we have instead, or additionally, is an intrusive graphic and text supered on the purportedly health-offending, that is, smoking or drinking, scene itself, which really is a crude and ham-handed way of dealing with artistic freedom. The more serious film-makers in India have, ever since this tagging practice came into force, been protesting against it as a violation of their creative space and an insult to their (not to mention the viewers’) intelligence. But in the dominant market model such labels on a consumer product, albeit a cultural product, seem quite normal. Woody Allen chose not to have his critically well-received art-house film Blue Jasmine (2013) shown in India rather than have the warning message spoil, or distract from, even the couple of scenes in it which has a character smoking (in character, one might add).

Although such health advisories seem, by now, to have become common accepted practice, it is not as if the matter is settled or that the artist is reconciled to this challenge to the integrity of his work. A few months back, a committee headed by Adoor Gopalakrishnan recommended to the government of Kerala—and the government instantly accepted the recommendation—that the health alarm be restricted to before the film proper began and that the scenes themselves, depicting smoking or drinking as the case may be, be spared being slapped with the cautionary notice then and there. However, it is not clear how this would tally with the stipulation put in place by the Central government, through a notification in September 2012, that the pop-up warning must accompany any and all scenes where any character smokes.

Alcohol and the act of drinking on screen seemed less prone to enforcement until the issue was forced with this Diwali season’s star-studded Bollywood release, Happy New Year, when its censor panel required that all scenes of drinking must carry the warning if the film was to merit a ‘Universal’ release certificate. There were subsequent reports that the Chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) had written to the censor boards in the country that they need not henceforth ask for such running admonitions in scenes of drinking.

Paradoxically, in the parallel make-believe world of the kitsch TV serial where artistic considerations don’t really matter that much, the warning note to be exhibited becomes like a licence, like an enabling sub-censor certificate, for shooting and showing extended stretches of drinking and drunkenness. These, if anything, have a far more sustained and more regular viewership than films.

A prime time and popular daily Tamil serial now on air has a few stock characters whose natural habitat seems to be a low-end bar. Elaborate, flippant subplots, which often occupy almost all of the time of an episode, are cooked up around the table in this watering hole, as these characters liberally down glass after glass of the cheaper varieties of Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL), the warning note about the hazards of consuming liquor duly and dutifully emblazoned prominently on the screen in a couldn’t-care-less manner throughout these scenes. It seems like a fittingly perverse response to an ill-thought-out ruse to diabolise drinking, which, while abiding strictly by the letter of the law, has, if anything, the opposite effect.

The discreet and classy drinking on the news show that Vinod Mehta alludes to is, of course, a far cry from these instances of serial (in the TV sense) alcohol abuse. In any case, we have only Vinod Mehta’s word for it. And we have known him to be mischievous in the past. There is no visual evidence of, or incitement to (one might add), drinking. One might quickly further add that the viewer, unless he is an old or reconverted teetotaller, doesn’t need any incitement other than the tension of the news hour itself to reach for his glass. There was this delightfully singular occasion, though, when a renowned senior lawyer appeared on shot holding a crystal glass with a liquid of a golden hue that looked a lot like some expensive single malt, and would occasionally take a sip from it, much to the consternation of the cameraperson or production assistant or whoever it was behind the camera who must have been, as the viewer could surmise from the lawyer’s reaction, frantically signalling to him to cease and desist. The legal luminary, magisterially indifferent to the camera and to the unseen but felt desperateness of those behind it, responded instead with a disarming conspiratorial wink and smile, as if to say, come on it doesn’t matter. Those were among news hour’s finest moments.

But just to be safe and protect themselves from the moral upstarts and vigilantes who are rearing their heads these days, the anchors or producers of new hours may like to consider keeping the prescribed message on the evils of drinking, with the accompanying graphic of the bottle crossed out, constantly supered on the screen through their show. After all it’s all happening live and there could be many a slip between the shot and the sound bite that unwittingly catches a wayward sip in the act. On that sobering note here’s saying, hic, “Cheers” to the new year.