Shobhaa De: The great Indian media bazaar     

In this excerpt from Shobhaa De’s ‘Seventy… and to hell with it’, she lambasts journalists who ‘with fire in their belly’ moved to Delhi from Mumbai with their sharp suits and then turned sellouts

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Shobhaa De

Sometimes I wonder how some of my contemporaries would have fared had they stuck to their jobs in Mumbai/Kolkata, and not moved to Delhi. I am talking about the ones who used to boast, ‘I have fire in my belly and balls of steel.’ Now, sadly, the very same chaps have malt in their bellies and rubber balls between their legs. Had they stayed back in the cities which nurtured their early journalism, I think most of them would have grown phenomenally as writers/ journalists, but that may not have been their ambition.

Almost without exception, every single editor who relocated to the capital gained clout, but lost credibility. There is something toxic about the air in Delhi. The pollution is not restricted to the foul atmosphere. There is moral pollution that pervades every inch of the capital and ends up destroying the very people who set off jauntily to ‘clean the system’.

Editors who shaped opinion and influenced policy in the eighties are dead, dying or drunk. Drunk with their sense of entitlement and power, as they hobnob and get into bed with oily netas and boast they can bring down governments. Most have amassed fortunes in ten short years and live the lives of pampered nawabs, strutting around the corridors of power leering and sneering at lesser beings. The era of jhola-wallas ended long ago. But the Mumbai brigade that migrated to the capital, mercifully, did not pay the slightest attention to that pretentious dress code of Dilliwallas and brazenly took with them the Mumbai style of sharp suits and tailored kurtas to the salons of Prithviraj Road—a look that was more corporate honcho than hungry hack. These men knew their malts and molls, and impressed rustic politicos with their savoir faire. Coming from Mumbai, it was erroneously assumed they were on backslapping terms with Bollywood superstars. Media barons fell over backwards begging for ‘intros’ to starlets. Netas assumed these chaps could swing deals with fat-cat Mumbai industrialists and the fat-cat industrialists assumed the smart-talking journos would open sarkari doors. So many assumptions! Journalism itself became incidental. Cutting deals and peddling influence created the new generation of super hustlers, PR agents and—plainly put—media pimps. It was a huge sellout.

But then again, the ones who left knew exactly why they were leaving. They moved to Delhi to make money. Big money. They would visit Mumbai, stay in the best suites, throw their weight around and brag about their closeness to the biggest political personalities in the land. Soon Mumbaiwallas began to suffer from a major inferiority complex. Former colleagues turned into rivals and foes as they bitched out Dilliwalla editors and threw big numbers around to ‘prove’ their corruption. We heard stories about Swiss bank accounts and exotic foreign mistresses, lavish farmhouses and kids whose education had been underwritten at Oxford, Harvard, vaghera. Every

neta had his coterie of pets, and the ex-Mumbai men no longer needed to crawl for acceptance. As one of them put it, ‘We’ve all made money. What we need is fame.’ Tra la— television bosses decided the best way to shut mouths and neutralize criticism was to give everybody a talk show. It was an inexpensive way to co-opt top journos and a win-win for both. I remember one of them telling me in thrilled tones how he gets mobbed at airports!

Today, of course, it hardly matters who edits a newspaper or magazine. Readers don’t care. Nor do media maaliks. Papers are produced by the marketing guys who decide content. Every square centimetre is for sale—the front page, the sports pages and all else in between. The former Mumbai gang does not matter. But Bollywood does. Delhi bows to Bollywood and therefore to anybody in Mumbai who is connected to the movie world. I watch the charade from a distance and smile. Of course the media has changed. Of course it isn’t what it used to be. But then—what is? Move over, journos—make way for bloggers. And what is sweetly called MOJO (mobile journalism). I am all for it. Everybody is a journalist today. It’s far better than putting up with mediocrity parading as genius. Showbiz rules. Fake news sells better than the real stuff. Someone in Delhi, who once made a living out of ideas and words, now sits in the Rajya Sabha and peddles influence of a different kind. The masters have changed—from media maaliks to political patrons. Closeness to power corrupts. Cosiness with power corrupts absolutely. Theek hai, bhai. What the hell is ‘truth’, in journalism or outside it. Why point fingers at ‘sold out’ journos? Idealism in this business is about as useful as a fish that flies.

I have never been a people pleaser and I don’t write to impress my peer group. I know what they think of me. ‘Please, yaar, I can’t take her seriously! So banal!’ That’s okay. I don’t take any of you seriously either! Please don’t take me seriously. I would be seriously worried if this lot thought well of me. Some time ago, I was asked to be ‘in conversation’ with a very successful journalist/author. I think he expected to chew me up during the session and made the singular mistake of arriving for the interaction without doing basic homework (arrogance!). We were introduced in the foyer by the organizer and the author looked me up and down rather insolently before adding, ‘Oh . . . I saw you at the Jaipur Lit Fest last year. I was on stage with a prominent Pakistani writer who looked at you and said, “I want to meet her—she’s such a hottie!” You were wearing black leather pants.’ Mr Journalist, why the bullshit? So much for your journalistic eye and sense of observation. I don’t wear pants. And leather? Never! I smiled. We went up on stage.

He tried a few more sexist cracks that were pathetically out of sync with today. I steadily kept up my part of the evening by sticking to his rather mixed-up book. He tripped over himself over and over again. How can I take such a man seriously, huh? Later, I had a good laugh when I overheard him commenting about me in incredulous tones to one of his grovelling, snivelling groupies: ‘Man— she is something else! I am amazed—I mean, she’s so intelligent!’ No kidding, baby! Chew on that!

When Socialite Evenings was included by Juggernaut publisher Chiki Sarkar in her representative and very personal list of seventy books (‘A Reading List to Beat All Others’) for a special on India@70 (Hindustan Times, 12 August 2017), there was the expected sniping and bitching. But hey—I was thrilled! I got a huge kick out of the honour, just as I had when Penguin Random House picked the same book as a part of their tightly curated list of thirty classics when Penguin India turned thirty in 2016. I danced around the dining table with a copy of the book, singing a Bollywood song. ‘I am a classic!’ I told my family, flashing the book proudly. They smiled indulgently and asked, ‘So have you ordered chingri malai for dinner or not?’ Only my husband looked impressed and asked for a copy for his collection—God bless the man.

Excerpts taken with permission from Penguin

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Published: 25 Feb 2018, 1:00 PM