Art and Abuse


Never has a death been converted into a media circus to the degree the Indian media has jumped onto Sridevi’s death for marketing purposes and tabloid journalism, before. This has especially happened at the expense of media reporting of other important issues, making the Indian public realize that this yellow journalism has backfired—it has exposed its insensitivity and voyeurism, and displayed its inability to engage in meaningful journalism. Some news channels had telecast entire sequences of reporters orchestrating the ‘scene of the death’ by standing next to a bathtub and falling in it at a certain angle, to prove actress Sridevi’s drowning. This prime time soap opera version of reporting has been taking place for decades—the famous case of a boy falling in a ditch and media channels maintaining 24/7 surveillance of his pitiable state to splash the same across television screens, comes to mind. The camera recorded every act of the boy while inside, having an unintended positive consequence because the attempt to generate TRPs through supportive messages from viewers ultimately made the local population extract the boy from the ditch. However, while imagining ourselves in his position, how would we feel if all our behaviour was being constantly monitored and then broadcast to millions of people? The camera lens and reporting, both of which seemed to have hit jackpots in the above mentioned cases, were violations of privacy, consent, and the right to dignity. Every joke about Sridevi’s death so carelessly spread around carries then ghosts of our insensitivity as human beings. But, the media is a manufacturer-cum-marketer of products that sell in the market, and we are the consumers. Its goods wouldn’t sell if we wouldn’t be interested in exchanging our time and money for them. What attracts us to these trends, all of which are contrary to our so-called socialisation in value-systems? Are humanistic values out-dated responses to the fast-growing consumer capitalist economy? What is our new ‘economy of emotions’?

Irrespective of rivalries within families or the Bollywood ‘community’, nothing gives our public and social media the right to dissect the personal choices of the deceased. When we examine this demand for empathy, we also presume that supporting the bereaved family is essential, and that the artist’s contributions to cinema must be explored to truly reckon with the force of her position in the film industry. But, should submitting oneself to the public eye as a representative or celebrity be converted into a direct and implicit invitation to invade their lives for our own voyeuristic pleasure? Preferring an actor’s work and studying the actor as a human being are two separate things; the actor grants the audience the permission to critique the former but the audience assumes authority over the latter. This leads to the gross injustice underlying the accusation that the actress died of drunken drowning, widely read as a miserable way to die. What is the alternative then? Should our tributes to a complex life lost, rest on recovering her gems from the annals of time? Should we contextualize her, or valourize her? How does one remember a performer in retrospect?

There is a great danger in separating the art from the artist. This danger has been recently exposed by the widely trending Me Too and Time’s Up movements, because the abuse of vulnerable women at the hands of powerful directors and producers like Harvey Weinstein, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen etc. has finally been called out after years of brushing it under the carpet. However, while being perpetrators of sexual assault, they have also produced films that are accepted as wonders—artistic creations redefining cinema and re-imagining the silver screen. Thus, reading their films in isolation becomes a fraught exercise. Our age-old belief in good art being equivalent to a good artist or good human being, has officially broken down. We can’t stop admiring their work, but we can’t detach ourselves from their abusive selves. This is the conflict on one side of the continuum which has the consumption of parodies of Sridevi’s death on the other end. Is this conundrum resolvable?

The least we can do to ensure self-reflexivity and discretion in our choices of art and artists, is to stop the unequal and discriminatory exchange of power. For instance, replaying the Indian actress’ death on screen grants immense attention and thus focalizing power to the media, just as honouring rapists with awards and glowing tributes subtly detracts from their roles as violators. And only then can any safe spaces be created, both for Sridevi’s mourning family, and for the traumatized victims of Weinstein.

– Contributed by Tript

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