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Reliving 9/11

SEVANTI NINAN


The accident at Gaya ... varying coverage

THE anniversary of September 11, and the Bush administration's efforts to obtain sanction to go in and get nasty in Iraq ensured that terrorism remained top of the mind for television viewers last week. So why should one move beyond Ground Zero and the Al Qaeda yesterday and Saddam Hussain today? Because terrorism can either be defined conveniently or more honestly, with a historical perspective. And the good thing about theDiscovery Channel is that it is there to provide an alternative to the CNN treatment of past history.

Last year in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, the Discovery Channel summoned its resources and put out a special programme which unflinchingly reminded the world about who it was that had created Osama Bin Laden. The United States, and the Central IntelligenceAgency (CIA), to make things difficult for the Soviets in Afghanistan. And last week the same channel aired a programme called "CIA files on the eve of September 11", which did the public service of reminding us who invented terrorism, in a sense. It was the same CIA. But what they did was not given the same label.

The one hour programme went over the agency's sometimes goofy, sometime evil track record. Faking a mass revolt in Guatemala, killing many in the course of its involvement in Laos, and pretty brutally too. Moving to Vietnam to compensate for the failure of the Laos mission and leaving some 40,000 dead there before the American public began to get vocally uncomfortable. And of course pre-Vietnam, there were so many attempts to kill Fidel Castro of Cuba at John F. Kennedy and attorney general Robert Kennedy's behest, that when President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, a CIA agent in the programme says that the first thought that went through his head was, "I hope its gotnothing to do with Cuba."

Congressional hearings which began in 1974 after the agency was found to be behind the assassination of President Allende in Chile, attempted to put a lid on the CIA's own brand of terrorism worldwide. But Ronald Reagan came along in the 1980s and resurrected the agency's role in American foreign policy which led to the creation of the Contras in Nicaragua, and the selling of arms to Iran to fund the operation. Then came the CIA intervention in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. When we have to listen to President Bush's righteous assertions these days, it's useful to do so with a perspective of what the American contribution to terrorism has been. Only, they didn't call it that.

* * *

The public service role of television news at the time of a major accident is fairly obvious and the private news channels now slip into it in a practised way. You get names of passengers, interviews with survivors, contact telephone numbers and the latest developments, almost continuously.When the Howrah-Delhi Rajdhani derailed, Aaj Tak, Zee News and Star News did all of this. Doordarshan was slower to react, between news bulletins there was nothing except a couple of special bulletins. No running super on the National channel, or Metro or even DD Bangla. When there is no news channel surely you can use the existing channels without actually interrupting the ongoing programming? And could DD Bangla not have done a little more than stick to their usual programming? Do they realise how callous their unresponsiveness seems?

As far as coverage goes, Aaj Tak as usual overdid it, eager to be the first and give the most, it thrust mikes into the face of the injured including a woman whose eyes were half-closed, who had difficulty in speaking and was obviously in pain. Its other speciality was to ask long leading questions which amounted to putting words into the mouths of those it interviewed. It also had an animated visual of a train coming along and then dramatically derailing. Do we need these cartoon special effects? It is acquiring a reputation for being a channel that lacks restraint — Had Tak? (as in, kis had tak jayegi?)

Doordarshan as usual was flatfooted, linking up to correspondents who sermonised from Bihar and Kolkata whereas what you needed was brisk, comprehensive reporting. Phone numbers can be provided as a running super at the bottom of the screen or in flashes between programmes. They do not have to be read out with great deliberation on prime time news. And the sweet young things DD's news division has recruited need to become more seasoned before they can be fielded as anchors on days when major news is breaking.

* * *

Zee TV's fictional world of the rich and famous and those aspiring to get there is currently fixated on Mumbai's imagined high life. From 9 p.m. onwards you have a new crop of serials on glamorous or trying to be glamorous women ("Love Marriage", "Kittie Party", "Lipstick") and it is such a tiresome cliché that you have to think up new angles to make it watchable. So the latest daily offering at 11 p.m., "Lipstick", opened with an episode in which the female protagonist discovers that her husband is gay. She bursts into her bedroom after a late night party and finds her husband in bed with another man. Wow. A milestone on Indian television and all that? Nothing of the kind. Because "Lipstick" is unlikely to have the imagination to further explore this angle sensitively, it is just bunged in there to provide the inclined-to-be-nasty heroine Sheetal with a reason for being nasty. This, incidentally, is supposed to be a serial about rival publishing empires.

Memorable male or female characters on television are in extremely short supply. Symbolic to me of this scarcity is the presence of Kruttika Desai, here as an aging, still-beautiful actress who schemes and plots to stay in circulation. She is unlikely to be more than a cardboard nasty in "Lipstick", whereas those who loved "Buniyaad" in the 1980s on Doordarshan will still remember how fresh and unforgettable she was as JB's young widow who finally marries the serial's protagonist essayed by Kanwaljit in his pre-"Saans" days. "Buniyaad" had no gloss at all, but it had warmth, was moving, and offered genuine drama.

"Lipstick" derives inspiration and some of its story line from racy fiction such as I'll Take Manhattan. It promises sex and seduction in future episodes. When it becomes suitably convoluted, will people stay up till 11p.m. to catch it? A largely middle class viewing audience needs one or two characters it can to relate to, to become sufficiently hooked on a daily drama. This one does not seem to have any.

E-mail the writer at sevantininan@vsnl.com

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