Last week, the police arrested Saif Ali Khan after a South African national of Indian origin, Iqbal Sharma, filed a police complaint alleging that the actor had punched him and broken his nose. Khan, out on bail, says he acted in self-defence. The incident took place on Tuesday night at Wasabi, a restaurant at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower.
Such an incident and the media’s coverage of it can illuminate the attitudes of a society — the police, journalists, other film stars, those running five-star hotels and the general public — towards violence, the rule of law and celebrities.
These attitudes are usually sub-conscious, but this week, we have some readers articulating their views about the subject, in response to HT’s Topic of the Week. From the letters HT received, some of which have been excerpted above, it appears that a considerable section of the public feels that Bollywood stars should be treated like anyone else and the rule of law should prevail.
If the attitudes reflected in these letters are at odds with what actually happens in a society that Peter Van de Veer, a Dutch anthropologist, describes as “one of the most hierarchical in the world”, it’s probably because those who feel angry about a perceived injustice will be more motivated to write in protest than those who do not. Still, at least some people do believe no one is above the law.
As for HT’s coverage of the incident, no reader has written to me about it, so perhaps most believe that the reporting has been even-handed. But my aim here is not to evaluate the coverage but to point out that maintaining balance, one of journalism’s touchstones, becomes especially challenging when a celebrity is involved.
One can begin by asking why this post-prandial brawl, among the many that I’m sure take place in the city, appeared on the front page. Is it fair to zero in on it just because a celebrity is involved? It is. The press gives celebrities reams of positive publicity so it is perfectly justified in focusing on public incidents that show them in poor light.
The obvious danger is that journalists will go soft on the star because they are so awestruck by him and his astronomical pay check. In a culture where many film stars are demigods and one’s monetary worth, rather than intellect, abilities and values, seems to determine one’s social status, this is not far-fetched. At the same time, there’s an almost equal danger that journalists will be particularly harsh, either because they resent the person’s success or are trying to overcompensate for the larger milieu’s tendency to indulge film stars.
Journalists can be put out of some of their misery if they simply stop giving film stars so much play — good or bad — in the first place, at the expense of interesting stories about people who are silently achieving excellence in other fields and surmounting obstacles without any fanfare. I often hear that journalists have to give stars extensive play because “readers want it.”