Dutt: Celebrity or criminal?

BY Archana Venkat| IN Media Practice | 18/05/2013
Fawning media coverage of actor Sanjay Dutt's conviction gave the sense of a man wronged.
Such news treatment dilutes the severity of his crime, says ARCHANA VENKAT

By convicting actor Sanjay Dutt in the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts case, the Supreme Court proved that all men are equal in the eyes of the law. However, it appears that in the eyes of the media some are more equal than others. What else can account for the kind of coverage we saw?

As the verdict was announced on March 21, the media was quick to capture the ‘reactions’ of the Hindi film fraternity – one of shock, anger and sympathy – extending unflinching support to the actor and his family. Some like director Mahesh Bhatt called the verdict cruel and inhuman, citing how Dutt had already suffered a lot through various past tragedies in his personal life (not to mention his serving part of the sentence in the past) and that perhaps the courts should have let him off. Some articles covertly supported Dutt’s extension plea till the time he fulfilled his professional commitments (rumoured to be valued at around Rs 80 crore), suggesting that several producers could go bankrupt otherwise. No one put out a story or suggested that these producers were taking a calculated risk knowing fully well that Dutt would have to face a verdict sooner or later. That would liken their position to stock market brokers whose risk didn’t pay off, and perhaps would not help turn the situation around.

Most media coverage veered towards gaining sympathy for the actor, thereby exposing their own bias towards the judgement.

Indian Express has been the most prolific in covering this issue and has done so focusing on the softer aspects of the actor’s life,  than just on the facts of the case. Reports covered every move of the actor post verdict and mentioned who else supported him on this journey – family (wife, sister, brothers-in-law), friends (like Mahesh Bhatt), media (the presence of crowds of journalists) and fans. The overwhelming attention given to him by everyone, except perhaps the police, would make readers think this was a man wrongly convicted.

The Hindu was neutral and stuck to facts while reporting Dutt’s conviction, citing the discussion in the court that included Dutt’s appeal for a lower sentence, citing his work done for several charities in the past. However, the report of his surrender was relatively sympathetic and mentioned Dutt saying he suffered a blow in his stomach due to ‘over-enthusiastic media personnel’, thus highlighting his movie star appeal. The actor’s lawyer was quoted in the report saying Dutt suffered from high cholesterol and arterial stenosis and had therefore requested among other items, electronic cigarettes, citing withdrawal symptoms if the actor was asked to totally refrain from smoking.

Hindustan Times filed a report saying Dutt feared for his life (from fundamentalist groups) and wanted to surrender at Yerwada Jail in Pune instead of Mumbai. The piece did not point out what gave rise to such fear in the actor, but proceeded to say that the court refused to hear his plea. The reader is left assuming the court did not consider this threat serious enough and perhaps there could indeed be a serious threat to his life.

The Times of India discussed a havan and other religious ceremonies conducted by the actor’s family as well as reported a list of friends and colleagues who visited him (as did Deccan Herald), showcasing the amount of respect and love he commanded among his peers. There are already reports of him spending the first night at the jail feeling ‘restless’ and ‘suffocated’. A report prior to his surrender also quoted how he was unused to the poor conditions that prevailed at jails and how this has spurred a teetotaler like him to take to alcohol to calm his nerves.

DNA spoke to various people from the film fraternity such as Pahlaj Nihalani, and Shatrughan Sinha building a case for ‘leniency’ for Dutt. The Telegraph quoted Mamata Banerjee (a politician with no real acquaintance with Dutt) supporting Dutt’s pardon.

It was left to a clutch of bloggers and columnists (Aakar Patel and Shekhar Gupta prominently) to present a different opinion – on why Dutt deserved this verdict and perhaps the public should be objective about the situation, considering the liberties he got to continue with life outside of the case. Resurrection of his career through films like Munnabhai MBBS, his de-addiction, marriage and turning over a new leaf was all possible because he was not treated like any other accused/criminal by his social circles or by the police authorities.

Shekhar Gupta in his column for the Indian Express said sarcastically that although Dutt was “…talented, vulnerable, gentle, well-behaved…obedient older brother…good husband and father…,” it was not enough to absolve him of his crime.  And pointed out that no tears were being shed  for Kersi Adjania, now 83, who served a two-year jail term for allowing his foundry to be used to destroy Dutt's gun.

When Sanjay Dutt went on to file a requisition for a six-month extension of his date of surrender, the media projected it as a professional move that Dutt was making on behalf of his producers. The Hindustan Times mentioned Mahesh Bhatt, a Dutt supporter, endorsing this view, but forgot to mention those like Rajkumar Hirani who said they would wait for Dutt to return before closing on their films. No producer was contacted to find out how many hours of work Dutt had left on their projects. Some reports said he had set a record of sorts when he finished dubbing for a film in three hours, while other said he was working 15-16 hours a day. The Deccan Herald did a better job, providing some details of the projects he had undertaken, but continued to focus on how much this work affected producers, pegging losses at as much as Rs 278 crore.

When the courts permitted not more than a month’s extension, the topic of discussion soon moved to which jail he would be housed in. Four options were suggested and policemen were routinely asked which of these would be considered viable for Dutt.  How should it matter to anyone where he was housed as long as it was deemed appropriate (by the court) for his crimes? When Yerwada Jail in Pune surfaced as a possible option, the media moved on to focus on Dutt’s sentiments as the days of his surrender approached.

The coverage starting Monday (May 13) upto Thursday (May 16) when Dutt finally surrendered has been nothing short of a reality show.  Indian Express, ToI and NDTV led the pack with the most stories and photo features on Dutt’s ‘journey’ from his home to the court premises. Details of everything from his mood swings, recurrence of alcoholism, teary-eyed episodes while dealing with family, havan and other ceremonies performed at his house, items he would be taking to jail (including a mattress, copies of the Hanuman Chalisa and other religious books, mosquito repellant, pillow, toothbrush, paste and soap, as reported by the Indian Express) and  what he would do at jail (farming, cooking and baking, as speculated by some, considering he focused on carpentry in his previous jail stint), which jail he would eventually go to (Pune, Nashik, Nagpur or Mumbai) and ‘pandemonium’ at the gates of the TADA court when he came to surrender – all were covered in regular updates.

Contrast that with the lives of the other four convicted in the case. Do we know which jail they would be housed in or what they would do once they landed there? Do we know how they traveled to the court to surrender  or what they wore or what their sentiments were? Do we know what they must be feeling when they left their near and dear ones? Do we know if their families can move on with the stigma of being associated with such a crime? Do we know what privileges they have been extended, given the long list of items that Dutt’s is allowed to carry with him? No.

PTI was the only one to cover appearances of others convicted in court and that too briefly, keeping the reportage to facts such as who had filed for mercy petitions or extensions and the outcomes of these petitions.  Not many newspapers carried these reports.

Coverage of celebrities has always been a contentious issue among the Indian media with some saying their celebrity status warrants greater scrutiny of their lives. But what happens to celebrities who are criminals? Should they be treated as criminals or as celebrities? Where does one draw the line?

Past coverage of Indian celebrities being charged for criminal offence has been inconsistent. In the Shiney Ahuja rape case in 2009, Ahuja was shunned by the film and media fraternity alike throughout and after the court proceedings and reportage stuck to facts. (Shekhar Gupta briefly made this point in a recent article in Indian Express about Dutt receiving preferential treatment.) Post his release (on bail) a few publications spoke to his wife who shared the family’s ordeal during the time. Star child Fardeen Khan’s arrest on cocaine possession in 2001 saw media sympathy. His father, the late Feroz Khan (a celebrity in his own right) had then claimed that Fardeen has been handed a packet at a night club and did not know what was in it. This statement was changed when Fardeen admitted to buying a ‘very small amount’ of cocaine for personal consumption, and was asked by the Court to undergo a de-addiction treatment since he was a first-time offender. Post the treatment, charges were dropped. The media made no mention of this until as late as 2009 in connection with another similar case.

When former cricketer turned parliamentarian Navjot Singh Sidhu was charged for culpable homicide of a youth in Patiala following a road rage incident in 2007, the media just reported facts about the death and details of the court proceedings. Media houses that were associated with Sidhu (where Sidhu was among guest speakers at panel discussions or contributed to columns), chose to carry brief press releases on this information.

The Western media’s coverage of celebrity criminals has been far more consistent, barring the late Michael Jackson’s trial on child abuse. Dr Dre (music producer and hip hop star), O J Simpson (footballer and actor), Mike Tyson (boxer), Lindsay Lohan (actress), Tim Allen (actor and TV host), Robert Downey Jr. (actor), and Paris Hilton (socialite), are some of the prominent celebrities in the West who have been convicted for varying crimes in the past. In most of these cases, the local media chose to show little or no sympathy. The media saw them as criminals first and celebrities second and treated them in line with the guidelines reserved for reporting criminal cases.

In Sanjay Dutt’s case, it is clear that the Indian media overwhelmingly saw and treated him as a celebrity. Perhaps the courts too fell for this image, as they allowed him a lot more privileges than other prisoners.. But the media, in its frenzy to cover other (more glamorous) facets of the case, did not point this out.

One can only hope that such one-sided coverage/ treatment is not repeated in other imminent celebrity court cases such as those of Salman Khan involved in black buck shooting and a hit-and-run case involving pavement dwellers.

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