Arushi Talwar case: Idiot Box Democracy

(Hardnews June 2008)

Nupur Talwar, a practising dentist, showed up in the television studio of a channel in the capital. At the face of it there was nothing unusual, except for the fact that her 14-year-old daughter had allegedly been killed by her husband a week ago. Talwar displayed equanimity bordering on stoicism as she fielded all questions from an extremely inquisitive anchor. For many television viewers in the capital, who had been following the murder very closely, Talwar appeared as just another expert the channels usually invite to analyse such cases. She certainly did not look like a mother who had lost her daughter and had her husband behind bars. Despite attempts by the TV anchor to provoke her into breaking down in front of the cameras, Talwar did not oblige. She insisted that she was not interrogated by the police even nine days after the gruesome murder. Exhibiting righteous indignation over suggestions that a father could murder his own daughter, she succeeded in showing that hers was a normal family and they were victims of a larger conspiracy. Interestingly, she did not criticise the police so much as hoping god will help her get justice. It is easy to say that Nupur Talwar's journey to a television studio was to seek support and legitimacy from a larger audience. While this may be true, many of those who find themselves in trouble also see it as an opportunity to earn those 10 seconds of fame. They realise that they have a story to tell and they are also aware that there would be millions sitting in the comfort of their bedrooms or living rooms in Delhi, Bhatinda, Nagercoil or Jamshedpur, who would like to hear a mother recount what happened on the fateful day when her daughter was killed. Many of us who watch TV mentally keep working on a fuzzy script of how we would have responded in a similar situation. We all feel part of a reality show where we empathise or relate with participants. It is like the unreal phantasmagoria of the empiricist Bishop Berkeley, where everyone is playing a part. Mentally, we are ready with our scripts and how we should conduct ourselves if an opportunity indeed arises to speak in front of the cameras. This is quite like Hollywood stars who keep a little chit in their pocket during the Oscars, from which they promptly read out thanking their fathers, mothers, dogs, agents etc in case they win. Similarly, many ordinary folks are prepared for making a speech if the camera, indeed, shows up on their doorsteps. Has anyone wondered why many of those devastated by earthquakes or other natural disasters just stand in front of the camera and stone facedly share their grief with the rest of the world? Maybe victims experience catharsis in sharing with a larger audience. In a nutshell, TV not only decides on how an individual expresses himself or herself in front of a large audience, it also gets the audience to conduct itself as a grand jury to sit on judgment over the conduct of the person who is in the dock. Judgments are quickly dispensed when the audience respond to simple questions like "Was Arushi Talwar killed by her own father?" The outcome of such polls, many TV anchors would have their audience believe, is the only truth. As our reality shrinks to the 21-inch television screen, it is subverting established institutions like the judiciary and making a mockery of the police. Now judges, who have to dispense justice, go back home and watch TV to find out how channels are perceiving a particular case. Seldom has it happened that courts have passed judgement against those who are shown positively by channels. Even regular police investigations are being led by the idiot box. Witnesses to the crime are boldly stepping into the arc lights to tell the world about what they know.

TV has destroyed the myths that surrounded politics, judiciary, police and even technology that contributed in giving them inordinate power. Now, the camera has put everything under its scanner and is beaming images straight to ordinary people to pass judgments on the conduct of the government, police or even individuals. Now, the only thing that matters is performance.