The controversy about actor Shakti Kapoor's indecent proposals to an undercover journalist from India TV who was pretending to be an aspiring actress, is a wake-up call to some glaring issues.
The most pertinent question to be asked is -- what has this story achieved? Exactly four years ago, a similar scandal concerning the Tehelka tapes unveiled some political names of reckoning, and charged them with corruption.
Shakti Kapoor apologises
However, the consequence of those tapes was that the Central Bureau of Investigation decided to investigate into the matter, and the accused were in the legal line of fire. Other cases of journalistic undercover investigation like Arun Shourie's Kamla case, brought focus to issues like child prostitution and presented preliminary evidence for further investigation. In the Shakti Kapoor case, however, such intent is perceptibly lacking. Purportedly, India TV is presenting an evidence of the 'casting couch' phenomenon in the Indian film industry.
Hidden cameras expose or exploit?
A layman's definition of the casting couch would be the practice of aspiring actors indulging in sexual activities with a casting director or producer in exchange for a role in a film. For starters, it is not clear if this is considered an illegal practice in India.
In the US, where sexual harassment in the workplace is a widely addressed issue, there are laws against quid pro quo type of sexual harassment. However, if the employee has engaged in consensual sex, s/he has no claim in a court of law. In India, where the entertainment sectors have been accorded industry status only recently, employment laws are largely unenforced in these sectors.
In such a case, if the casting couch phenomenon simply amounts to consensual sex between two adults, one wonders if the nature of this phenomenon is on the same platform as other serious, illegal social evils. If illegal social evils like corruption, child prostitution or dowry are exposed by investigative journalism, it is welcome and lauded, as the exposed parties are typically tried in court. In this case, where the extent of illegality and the magnitude of social impact of the issue is suspect, the entire journalistic coup reeks of selfish motive.
Let us, for argument's sake, assume that the casting couch is actually an illegal social menace of national importance. Even so, the evidence presented by the 'sting operation' is not conclusive, or even indicative that the phenomenon is prevalent in the Indian film industry. The target of the operation was Shakti Kapoor, who is not a producer/director, and who does not qualify as a bigwig, even among the actors. It is not clear how his salaciousness is indicative of the casting couch quid pro quo syndrome between an employer and an employee.
Additionally, the undercover journalist does not seem to have met him during office hours, in a studio/other official premises, with the sole purpose of asking him for a role. If that had been the case, and if he had solicited sex from the journalist, it would probably have demonstrated the casting couch syndrome. In contrast, the journalist seems to have made an appointment in a hotel room at midnight, and served alcohol to him, by way of asking for a role! After such obviously suggestive actions, if the man was seen to be sexually involved, all that implies is that he is immoral, not that he solicited sex in place of merit.
'Did Shakti think about his family?'
If a representative cross-section of the film industry had been similarly charged, drawing the curtain on some heavyweights, it can even be assumed that India TV was making a social commentary. Given that this boils down to an inconsequential man's immoral behaviour, what is the news content of this entire scoop? It is not as if other fields do not have their share of immoral, adulterous people. How is that interesting enough to be flashed across all national media?
The names of other film personalities that Shakti Kapoor mentioned in the conversation, have not only been revealed, but made a hue-and-cry about. Considering that the man spoke in the confines of some private space about some people, with no knowledge that it would be relayed to anyone else, it does not merit any more focus than perhaps, a videotape of a party in which people are gossiping about public figures. It is obvious that the names of prominent people have been released in order to make people sit up and look.
The most disturbing aspect of this episode is not the Indian film industry's lack of ethics, but contemporary Indian journalism's lack of it. There seems to be absolutely no rules while digging out 'scoops.' The Shakti Kapoor episode or the recent Kareena Kapoor-Shahid Kapur episode is a direct violation of an individual's privacy, by recording their statements and actions without their knowledge.
The drift is obviously toward sensationalism over information. It might be too idealistic to expect journalism to be unbiased, such that the audience forms their own point of view. However, framing someone for obtaining no news or useful information, but purely for the sensationalism aspect, is bordering on yellow journalism. There are media channels that are dedicated to yellow journalism, like some tabloids in the west, or gossip magazines back home. However, a story or scoop in these channels is not given as much national prominence, newsprint and television coverage as the Shakti Kapoor scandal.
It is disappointing that prominent media channels are giving weight and time to this story, thereby implicitly permitting such dubious ploys under the pretext of journalism. If this gets the nod, there is nothing to prevent such tactics from being used to frame any political, corporate or bureaucratic personalities in meaningless sex scandals.
On a personal note, this drama seems to have achieved its actual intent. Until it happened, I did not know about India TV or that Rajat Sharma was involved with it. Now, I do.
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Shobha Vasudevan is a PhD student at the University of Texas, Austin