Standing by and filming

BY Jasmine Shah| IN Media Practice | 15/01/2010
NGC's documentary takes us back to the old question of whether media has any moral responsibility. Can any Hindi general entertainment channel beat the reality show they presented,
asks JASMINE SHAH. Pix: Burrp!tv

1993: When South African photographer Kevin Carter's award winning picture of a vulture appearing to prey on a hunger-stricken Sudanese child appeared in The New York Times, readers wrote in to know whether the girl survived. Carter was even criticised for not helping the child. The St. Petersburg Times in Florida called him another predator on the scene. Another vulture. 


2010: The National Geographic Channel. On January 12, the channel telecast a documentary on a baby 'Girl With Two Faces'. It re-telecast the same film on January 13.


The channel's synopsis for the programme goes like this:


In early March 2008 a miracle occurred in remote rural India. A baby, seemingly in perfect health, was born with two faces. Worshipped as a goddess, both mother and baby were said to be in good health. But how long can she (or they) survive? This moving film follows the baby from an incredibly early point in her life. We see the diagnosis, the treatment, and watch as her parents have to make vital decisions to try and ensure the survival of their child.


The reality:  The channel's cameras get to the village, Saini, near Delhi, when the child is six weeks old. Born 4.5 kg, Lali has two heads -- four eyes, two mouths, two noses -- and one body.


The docu tells us that the parents belong to a lower caste and they live in a large joint family. The villagers consider Lali to be a reincarnation of Lord Ganesh and Lakshmi. The villagers pay obeisance to the child and offer money and flowers.


Now, from nowhere, a doctor from Bangalore  comes to know of this child and visits the family. He says, 'I am fascinated' by this case. He tells that the child is weak, her health is deteriorating and needs treatment. The 'good doctor' offers treatment in Bangalore and tells the family to "decide" on this and leaves the frame.


The doctor narrates in the documentary that Lali's anatomy has to be analyzed because he is not sure whether both the mouths lead to a common stomach or whether one mouth leads to the lungs, feeding through which could lead to lung infection.


Now, Lali's fed through both the mouths using a feeding bottle. The deteriorating health is palpable. The family is yet to contact a doctor or go to a hospital. The camera keeps rolling.


The baby's family calls for a meeting of the elders and village sarpanch. They discuss and decide to take the baby to doctor after the harvest. The documentary shows the village's harvest session like some Bollywood scene. It also shows the worsening health of baby.


Lali stops taking milk. She starts vomiting and is highly dehydrated. She losses weight, the skin colour turns dark. The worried parents now take the baby to a hospital in Noida. This doctor tells the parents that the baby has pneumonia (lung infection), blood poisoning, and congenital health problems. She needs immediate medication and drips have to be given.


The parents do not hospitalize the baby. They go home to take the permission of elders. The camera was at Noida hospital, when the parents decided not to admit the child and also at the consequent elder's meet. The baby is exhausted.


The parents return with the child to the Noida hospital after getting 'permission.' And the camera follows them. (They situation befuddles any viewer because the family members have mobile phones. They used the phones to click the baby's photographs but did not think of using them for seeking 'permission'.)


After three or four days in the hospital, Lali dies. It's not The End, yet for NGC team.


They baby is given a 'ceremonial' burial. The family boasts that nobody in their family has ever had such a "ceremonial" burial. They don't stop at it. The family decides to build a temple in the baby's memory.


Six months later, a temple under construction is shown. After a few more months, devotees are thronging the temple of the two-head 'deity'.


Can any Hindi general entertainment channel beat this reality show? A 'real' reality masala story. The only trouble was the channel chose to play with the life of a child. The documentary looked so orchestrated. Everything and everybody played to the script. In fact, when the girl dies, one of the uncles shouts at the camera: 'Ab ja sakte hain. Khel khatam hua.' (or something to that effect).


In Carter's case, The New York Times, in a special note, said the girl had enough strength to walk away from the vulture. But sadly, these camera-wielding vultures will never walk away.




Jasmine M Shah

Research Associate

Department of Biotechnology

Indian Institute of Technology-Madras



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