When a soldier returns…

IN Media Practice | 27/09/2004
What should have been a family affair was laid bare at prime time, for the country to witness


                          Reprinted from the Hindu, September 26, 2004






Sevanti Ninan



ON Monday night, while channel hopping during a break in "Jassi Jaise ... ", I chanced upon Zee news. What was airing seemed initially like a human interest story, a follow up of the story of the soldier Arif, who had returned after four years as a prisoner of war in Pakistan, to find that his wife had remarried and was expecting a child.


The Indian Express had featured it that morning on Page 1, and it had seemed heart wrenching enough then: Gudiya, his wife, had been asked by the panchayat to go back to him, but he did not want the child she was expecting. It was a human dilemma that some one had to resolve.


Apparently Zee News took it upon itself to do so. Gudiya`s second husband Toufiq was not present in the studio, he was represented by his father. But Arif and his brother were there, as was the woman at the centre of this family drama. One thought it was story on the news, and would end in a few minutes. It did not, it lasted more than an hour. Through anchor Alka Saxena`s persistent questioning was laid bare at prime time, for the country to witness, what should have been a family affair, a question of difficult personal choices, complicated by religious and community edict. But for those very reasons it became a tantalising scoop, with a Muslim personal law angle to boot.


Throughout the one-hour plus airing, Gudiya listened to the country at large discussing her plight, whether or not her second marriage was valid, whether or not the eight or nine-month-old child (Zee and the Express gave different versions) she was carrying was legitimate. All in the name of solving her predicament. There were live hook ups to Muslim elders — an Imam, a professor, and a social worker. They were all asked whether asking her to go back to her first husband was right. The young soldier in uniform, Arif, struggled for composure in the face of Saxena`s questioning. Did Zee ask him to wear his uniform to the show to heighten its dramatic potential?


Occasionally she would tell us, "the story is taking a new turn all the time. All the protagonists are with us in our studio. Stay with us as we go for an ad break." Then it would be time for "Weathershield Max Interior Paint", "Ringuard", "Ashok Rasoi Chicken Masala", and the "Tata 207D1". Initially the programme did not pause for ads, but as it settled into being an extended reality show the ad breaks began, each one longer than the last.


A lawyer pronounced that her marriage to Toufiq could not be valid since a husband has to be missing for seven years, according to Indian law, before a marriage can be nullified. In the case of this couple, it had only been four years. The programme even acquired a tag line, "Yeh Kaisa Bandhan". As she went away for yet another ad break Saxena actually said, "Dekhte rahiye, Yeh Kaisa Bandhan." Voyeurism has come to Indian television.


Do you still love her, Saxena asked Arif at one point. Which man would she be happy with, she asked the woman. That they might have preferred not to answer such questions on nationwide television was not relevant. Gudiya replied that it was not a question of happiness but of the Shariyat. That provided even more fodder for the programme as it went on to pillory the heartless Shariyat. Larry King take note, you have serious competition.


Soon, viewers were invited to ask questions. We are getting lots of phone calls, Saxena announced. A viewer asked Arif, what if something happens to you again when you go back to service? What will happen to your wife then? He bristled a bit at that. It was hardly likely that he would be taken prisoner of war again, he said. Another viewer announced that he was confused at their dilemma but wanted to assure them that they would take the right decision.


Saxena warmed up as the programme stretched out. You have made a sacrifice for the country, perhaps another sacrifice is needed, she told Arif. Would he give up Gudiya and let her stay married to Toufiq? "Tell us, viewers are asking." You must be large hearted, she added. Can you do that?" To which the beleagured soldier retorted that she had been given things at the time of their marriage, what of those? Pronounced Saxena dramatically, it is a question of self respect, love, emotion, and the Shariyat." She harped frequently on the unborn child, "a child that knows neither shariyat nor law." Talk of milking a story for all that it is worth.


As 11 p.m. drew near, the anchor decided that the programme could not end without a solution which the channel could take credit for. A professor on the show said, don`t put pressure on her, let her delivery be over, and then a decision can be taken. Saxena seized upon that exit point. Do you agree, she asked every body including Arif and Gudiya. And then said, sounding pleased, "When we began this programme, we did not think there would be a solution coming out of it." This column is going to the press the next morning, but I can bet that there will be follow ups on the channel. Once you let the media into your lives you cannot shake them off so easily.


Does it occur to unsophisticated people bundled into a TV studio, that a show like this perhaps ends up exploiting them? Does it occur to the channel?



Contact: editor@thehoot.org

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