Monday, June 8, 2009

Manufacturing controversies in the era of television

Gulf Today

THE media in Kerala has always revelled in controversies. Good-humored exchanges between eminent literary personalities, sometimes in verse, enlivened life in the early days of print journalism. Political controversies are, however, a recent phenomenon.

Since the pace of life was slow, an occasional controversy was all that was needed in the early days to keep the newspapers happy and the readers amused.

When competition intensified, the demand for controversy increased. As the print media was trying to cope with the situation, television arrived and quickened the pace. The 24x7 news channels raised the people's appetite for controversy.

The format adopted by the first news channel, and accepted as the standard by later arrivals, demands two or three topics for discussion each night. Since Kerala does not generate enough controversies in the natural course, the media finds it necessary to promote their growth.

A close relationship exists between the media and cinema, and the media looks to cinema not only for the entertainment component but also for controversies. Pride and prejudice are as much in evidence in the world of cinema as glitz and glamour, and the annual state film awards usually yield juicy controversies.

Last week, soon after Cultural Affairs Minister MA Baby announced this year's awards, TV Chandran, director, ridiculed the choice of Adoor Gopalakrishnan as the best director and his film Randu pennungalum oraanum (Two women and a man) as the best film. The prize has gone to a TV serial, not a film, he said.

Chandran was alluding to the fact that the prize-winning film is a by-product of serials based on Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai's short stories, which Adoor Gopalakrishnan had done for Doordarshan. Responding to Chandran's criticism, Adoor said it arose out of inability to distinguish between serial and film.

It was the differing approaches of two juries that offered room for Chandran to raise the criticism. Last year's jury, headed by noted Assamese director Janu Barua, had overlooked Adoor's film Naalu pennungal (Four women), also based on Thakazhi's stories, viewing it as a compilation of serials. This year's jury, headed by Kannada director, Girish Kasaravalli, saw no reason to make a distinction between a film based on a single story and one based on several short stories.

Adoor is not the first to do a film by clubbing together short stories. Satyajit Ray's 1961 film Teen Kanya (Three daughters) was based on three short stories of Rabindranath Tagore.

Chandran's was not entirely disinterested criticism. Two of his films, Bhoomimalayalam and Vilapakangalkkappuram, were in this year's competition. If the Adoor film had been disqualified on technical grounds, Bhoomimalayalam, which was adjudged the second best, would have been the best film.

The clash between the celebrated film makers was eclipsed by a public spat between Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan and eminent litterateur Sukumar Azhikode, which developed into the mother of all controversies.

Azhikode was among the social critics who had spoken up for Achuthanandan when the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) sought to deny him the chief minister's post. He claims an article he wrote in a Malayalam daily played a part in the politburo's decision to allow Achuthanandan to contest the assembly election, reversing an earlier decision.

Lately, however, Azhikode has given the impression of tilting towards party state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan in his feud with Achuthanandan. Echoing the line taken by the party newspaper, Deshabhimani, he accused Achuthanandan of rejoicing over his party's electoral debacle. Azhikode elaborated the point in an interview, published by Mathrubhumi weekly.

The interviewer quoted him as saying, "This man's laughter will only weaken the party further in the eyes of the world. That one should not pollute one's own cage is a great saying which everyone must understand."

When media persons drew his attention to the interview, Achuthanandan said Azhikode had referred to him as a dog which polluted its own cage, adding his culture did not allow him to respond in like manner. Azhikode retaliated by saying the chief minister did not understand figure of speech and was behaving like a ferocious animal.

By the weekend, the controversy became extremely messy with Azhikode at the receiving end of a vicious campaign, involving effigy-burning, poster publicity and a murder threat.

His attempt to close the controversy on the basis of a telephone call, which he believed was from Achuthanandan, collapsed when the latter denied he had called.

Police is now trying to trace the mimic who made the call. This is not an easy task. The number of persons who can mimic Achuthanandan and Azhikode is legion.

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