The Image Trap

BY bpsanjay| IN Media Practice | 14/04/2006
The death of celebrities like Dr Rajkumar is from the media perspective an opportunity to fill telecast time and satiate its appetite for ratings.



B.P. Sanjay



Dr. Rajkumar’s death was grist for the media and ETV Kannada virtually ran a non-stop coverage interspersed by clips, commentaries and VIP condolences and respects. It reminded many of us of the non-stop coverage by Doordarshan when Mrs. Indira Gandhi died and also the record crowds for the funeral procession of MGR and NTR. The intelligentsia will debate the death of policemen and civilians due to untoward incidents that marked the funeral procession. The iconic status he enjoyed in Karnataka is beyond doubt and the media will comment upon the virtual sway he had over the Kannada film industry in the days to come. Critical perspectives will be hard to come by in a surcharged climate where his fans will not brook any analysis that diminishes the status their "annavaru" enjoys.


Rajkumar unlike his contemporary icons in Tamil Nadu (MGR) and Andhra Pradesh (NTR)never indulged in politics nor his films had the strong ideological political discourse that MGR films had. His films did not create any illusionary maze that has paid and is paying political dividends in Tamil Nadu. The Dravidian parties political legacy continues to be imbued with the MGR charisma. There was no populism of the kind that was evident in MGR films. NTR carried less ideological baggage but jumped into politics and indulged in populism for sustaining his power. As Rajkumar stated in a felicitation ceremony his repertoire was varied and the fans adored his films.


Comparatively, Kannada films are not as commercially viable as perhaps Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam films are in territories beyond their states. The diasporic spread of Kannadigas is also limited and the iconic status he enjoyed occasionally translates into regional chauvinism that sparks off violent incidents. Regular media panelists such as Ramachandra Guha are articulating their perspectives and perhaps studio debates and panel discussions will follow in the days to come. His kidnapping by forest brigand Veerappan apart from heightened coverage in media did raise a number of questions and perhaps more revealatory stories will come out from cops, politicians and bureaucrats and put together pieces by enterprising media persons. It may be recalled that the failed emissary in the entire episode was a journalist.  Although not indulging in politics, his influence and following could not alienate him completely or rather make him apolitical. Political parties courted him by default. The subtle opportunity that BJP utilized during this time was evident for the viewer during the coverage. Their power balance in the State did give them an advantage.   


Kannadigas growing up in Bangalore remember the first time the cut-out culture entered the city due to the release of a movie in which Rajkumar plays a double role. They will also remember the area segregation where theatres would play only English, Hindi, Kannada and Tamil Movies. The highbrow appreciation for so called other language films sent ardent fans on occasional rampage and vandalism of theatres and disfiguring posters. The unstated grip of the star over the Karnataka film industry was evident and in a way affected the growth of others. The television channels’ interest in the actor goes beyond his star value and is reflective of the fact that the two large private Kannada channels with few more in the offing are essential part of expansion of both national and regional networks. In a way the adulatory coverage of the actor’s death with free use of adjectives to describe the mourning interspersed by condolences from across the country would have certainly heightened the identity of the channel.


Death of celebrities from the media perspective is an opportunity to fill in the time and satiate its appetite for ratings. Starved of news items that sustain the restless viewers’ attention channels get into a loop mentality ignoring the fact that despite technological support and forceful anchors and live feeds audience get fatigued. It has happened in the Jessica Lal case where media activism ignored technicalities and sought intervention through candlelight imagery and the like. In the heady days of Doordarshan seminarians never tired of accusing it of using public airwaves for fostering sympathy for the powers that be through funeral coverage. In the era of private channels the approach seems to be no different and media’s live coverage ought to go through professional scrutiny that balances the audience needs as well.


Truly, Dr. Rajkumar’s death is an end of an era that spanned five decades. While the rest of the nation mulls and debates over his iconic status and posits a north south equation of whether South’s adulation for its stars is a geographical trait there are other pointers that cannot be ignored. Be it Salaman’s jail term in Jodhpur or Amitabh’s hospital stay in Mumbai or the early injury episode or the never ending SMS based adulation for stars during their birthdays ably supported by television channels is indicative of the symbiotic relationship that media has developed. In a carefully crafted promotional strategy that builds stars and sustains the industry, media grabs every opportunity it can to keep it alive. Media’s coverage of his death and the funeral is indicative of the pattern that is to come.





The title of this article is borrowed from a book analyzing the MGR phenomenon in Tamil Nadu and the reasons for particularly the subaltern adoration of the actor. The author, Dr. Pandian indicates how the following was phenomenal from the very same classes that was continuously exploited. Sage Publications, 1992.


BP Sanjay is from Karnataka, grew up in Bangalore and was part of the cultural mosaic that exposed the city to a variety of films including the dominant presence of Dr. Rajkumar’s films.  Contact:

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