Learning a few facts from fiction

The director Madhur Bhandarkar with Konkona Sen Sharma, the star of his film,

The director Madhur Bhandarkar with Konkona Sen Sharma, the star of his film, "Page Three." — Pic. by R. V. Moorthy.  

FOR SOMEONE who has been teaching journalism for several years, it came as a surprise to be told by dozens of students that I should see the movie, "Page Three," with them.

Madhur Bhandarkar's movie has been running to packed houses in Mumbai for several weeks and the audience consisted of mostly college students and young professionals.

One found that the best way to hold students' attention was to introduce references to movies. So films based on journalism always had a special appeal in class. Over the years, I had discussed with students ( 16-20 years ) movies like "Front Page," "It Happened One Night," and "All the President's Men."

Unfortunately, the video cassette of the 1960s "Sweet Smell of Success," produced by one of Hollywood's giants, Burt Lancaster, was not available. Burt Lancaster played an ambitious, unscrupulous editor trying to corrupt a young, honest reporter (Tony Curtis). The students were quite impressed with the film's story.

Their enthusiasm to learn from movies was welcome. Within days of the release of "Page Three," journalism students from various colleges wanted to know how true the film was to real journalism. When they were asked how many had seen it, almost all the hands shot up. Finally, I watched the film with them.

Even before the release of the movie, the page three phenomenon and its growing popularity were discussed in class. No one can ignore the page three culture in Mumbai.

Some of the students like Anjali, Shradda, Navroz and Neha held part time jobs in posh hotels which often hosted parties attended by the page three crowd. They knew the kind of people who attended these parties and the type of conversation and action that took place.

But the students found the atmosphere in "Page Three" different. Observed Shradda, `` There was some realism in the scenes. Costumes, for instance. The topics of conversation were very much the same. When a member of the page three crowd died, there was an animated discussion among his friends on what they should wear for the funeral. There was a similar scene in the movie and it sounded authentic.''

As part of their studies, many of them underwent practical training in the magazines and newspaper offices in Mumbai. Some of them covered various events including page three parties regularly. ``The page three parties, according to me, were mostly fun,'' observed Feroz. ``There was a lot of drinking and flirting, but I did not come across any hints of sexual perversion which was shown in the movie.'' Suneita said, ``I met leading designers, hair-dressers and models who were gay. They were accepted for what they were, there was no flaunting of their preferences as shown in the movie.''

``I think Bhandarkar wanted to shock the audience,'' pointed out Neha. ``Of course, there was an overdose of the page three culture in the Mumbai media and the movie wanted to expose some of the artificiality and false glitter. But many in the audience did not believe that the page three people could be as bad as shown in the movie.''

For them, the major point of interest was the role of the page three reporter, the crime reporter, the editor and the owner of the paper mentioned in the movie. They were amazed that the management could intervene and kill a scoop dealing with child molestation incidents involving some page three bigwigs, who were big advertisers in the media.

``Should the editor be so helpless?'' asked Preeti. ``This story when published would have been talked about for months and yet, the paper let it go.'' It was agreed that the editor, played brilliantly by Boman Irani, was professional to a certain degree. But even he could not get the child molestation story published.

In the journalism syllabus, there is a chapter on `Ethics.' With most of today's media managers obsessed with profits, editorial freedom had to take a back seat, was what the students learnt from the movie.

The students asked whether this writer had faced a similar situation in his 40-year career. Yes, I had. While working for a national daily published from Ahmedabad, I had information that a group of textile magnates had been arrested. They were having a liquor party, in violation of prohibition orders.

A story was filed with the expectation that it would appear on the front page the next day. But that did not happen. It was killed, apparently, on the orders of the general manager because the textile magnates were among the paper's biggest advertisers. A liquor party in real life, and child molestation in the film. But the results were the same.

``Sir, where is the freedom of the press?'' they asked. They are innocent and think that once they become journalists, they will root out corruption, fight against injustice and make the world a better place to live in.

After watching "Page Three," they understood that though some of the references to the page three culture was exaggerated there was some truth in how a professional editor and his conscientious reporter had to give up the biggest scoop of their careers. To that extent, everyone agreed, that "Page Three" was an eye-opener.

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