August 27, 2010


LAUGHED AND had fun over a movie which made mockery of my fraternity. For a change I did not mind. PEEPLI LIVE's visuals were afresh in my mind when one of my news coordinators called up last night to tell me that a woman had a dream that she would be dying at midnight.
I thought wow a TRP story! Lot of things were wrestling in my mind. Should we send an OB van to monitor her movements live till she kicks her bucket. And run a scroll saying few more hours before this lady bid adieu to life. Will she die or not! Why she had this dream! Then good senses prevailed – we didn't give it a damn attention and as expected it turned out to be a bluff.
For people who watched Peeli Live and had riots of laughter over the manner media functioned. Let me tell them it is based on a true story which was reported in October, 2005 in a village in Madhya Pradesh. The only difference is in the real story it was not a farmer but an astrologer.

Indian Express carried an interesting story about the entire episode. I still remember it. Let me tell you guys what happened on October 20, 2005.

Let's begin at the very end: Pandit Kunjilal, self-styled astrologer, is alive and well and living in Betul, Madhya Pradesh. At precisely 4 pm, Kunjilal (according to Star News’ correspondent) coughed. He drank some water and as Sahara’s correspondent reported in offended tones, ‘‘suddenly rose one hour early’’ from his certain death. Asked to explain the postponement of his date with darkness, the smiling media star of the day replied that it was all due to good wishes, prayers. ‘‘And how long do you propose to live, now?’’ demanded a disappointed TV journalist. Kunjilal grinned broadly: ‘‘God knows how long I will live.’’ Coming from a man who had predicted that he would die today between 3pm and 5pm that’s really funny.
3 pm onward: TV news channels Star News, Aaj Tak and Sahara who took Kunjilal at his word and devoted hours of live transmission time to his close encounter with death, were, like Queen Elizabeth II, not amused. He had spoilt their headlines. ‘‘Aaj Meri Mauth Hai (Star News), ‘‘Aaj Maroonga’’ (Aaj Tak), sound infinitely more filmi than ‘‘Mauth ka drama khatam’’ (Star) or Aaj Tak’s tame, ‘‘Mauth Talli ’’ (death postponed).
What went through Kunjilal’s mind during what he believed were his last few hours (did he do it to come on to the ‘‘video’’ asked one reporter, nastily) we will never know. All we saw was a man looking half asleep. However, these TV news channels knew death is a serious matter. So they took Kunjilal’s prediction very seriously. Fearing that he might pop it while they popped off for ‘‘ek chhota sa break,’’ Sahara simply stayed put outside his hut in Betul, and listened to people celebrating the event with dholaks and songs and posted regular updates on his health: ‘‘Doctors say he is fit.’’
As the leading news channels in the country, Aaj Tak and Star News (or is it the other way around?) felt it was their duty to treat the occasion greater solemnity. So they held studio discussions. Aaj Tak asked its resident astrologer for the day, K.N. Rao if people could accurately predict their own death. ‘‘Of course it can happen,’’ replied he gravely, adding that his analysis of Kunjilal’s kundali, indicated the strong possibility of his imminent departure. This outraged the General Secretary of the Rationalist Society in Kolkata, Probir Ghosh who went ‘‘pooh-pooh’’ or more polite words to that effect. His disparaging comments offended another astrologer, Acharya K. Arora who said he had no business criticising astrology. It was time for Dr. Vohra to referee. He took KBC’s 50:50 route: ‘‘Astrology is a very deep science but there is a lot of superstition in this country.’’
Meanwhile, where was poor Kunjilal? Left to die in Betul while they slugged it out in the studio. Star News and Sahara also staged it like a WWF wrestling bout between The Rationalist and The Astrologer. However, Star’s sympathies lay with the latter and, in particular, Prem Kumar Sharma from Chandigarh. As 4 pm neared and Kunjilal was obstinately still breathing, the anchor quizzed Sharma:‘‘But what if the time (of birth?) was 8? Or 8.30? Or 9?—is death a possibility then?’’ insisted the earnest anchor knowing this was a matter of life and death. Sharmaji was most unhelpful: No, 8 is not possible, 8.30 is not possible and nor is 9.
3.51 pm: Sahara’s reporter in Betul was losing his enthusiasm: ‘‘The clock is ticking on but it doesn’t look like he will die.’’ Indeed, Kunjilal was nonchalantly fanning himself. We saw doctors going into check him out—2 minutes to go, said the correspondent in a space-shuttle countdown voice but Kunjilal was not for, er, lifting off. Star News turned for help to the public outside Kunjilal’s home who dismissed the entire thing: ‘‘Nothing will happen—this place is just very superstitious. I only came because all your TV channels were carrying the news.’’
3.58: Just before the appointed hour, Aaj Tak and Star News went for a commercial break, no doubt unable to bear the tension. When they returned, it was to announce Kunjilal calling off his death vigil because the worst (time) was over. But the channels were not giving up so easily. Feeling almost cheated by his living, they flogged the story to death. On Aaj Tak, it was a triumphant smiling rationalist Ghosh versus Rao until a weary Rao could be heard asking ‘‘How long will this go on?’’, while on Star News, astrologer Sharma felt that Kunjilal probably staged the entire drama for media attention.
4.20: In the absence of Kunjilal, his son and daughter took over on Aaj Tak to say how happy they were daddy was alive and how poor mummy-ji had fallen asleep. The channels were getting very tetchy now—having exploited and been exploited by Kunjilal, the channels now turned on him: Sahara Breaking News: ‘‘Khatam hua natak’’, Astrologer Rao on Aaj Tak: It’s not right for an astrologer to predict such a thing.
And finally, Star News offered this by way of explanation for its behaviour: ‘‘It is always our aim to bring you the truth, so we stayed with the story. This was a drama, nothing more.’’ Never had a truer word been spoken.


kavitha said...

whatever it may b TRP ke liye kuch bhi chalega, end of the day it is an intresting point for each n every one, sum might think it will happen n sum feel it is all bullshit...but tv channels has 2 show everything ...i dont think it only happens in India haina sirji

journalist said...

True it happens in Media around the globe

srividya said...

ha ha... the entire drama was good and suspense.and thank you for telling the whole true story..i thought to watch Peepli live, but no need now...

journalist said...

watch peepli live you will love it. For me it was refreshing because it had Madhya Pradesh background and I could related the language and ambience as I am from Chhattisgarh

Jameela said...

Very good account of the media circus that surrounds a story that appeals to peoples' fear of death - there's a morbid voyeurism in all of us.

I remember on the 'real life' features desk a story came in about a girl who won her 'right to die' in court because she refused a life-saving heart-operation. The story was huge with all the media scrambling for pics of the girl in Disneyland on her last days.
The news even got through to a Russian oligarch who wanted to send the Russian circus or ballet to her back garden. Her mum said no thanks we'd like an extension on the house please.

After the millions of articles and pics, after the family and the news agency got their thousands, the girl decided to get the operation and is alive and well today!

Jameela said...
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