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Kerala Media: A Macabre Dance Of Death

By K.M Sebastian

30 August, 2010

My father passed away last year. I had no idea what death really means until that day. Ours was a fortunate family with no immediate family members taken away by death and that may be one reason when it really came to us we were all so devastated. His death was hardly a surprise. He was 87 years old, yet he was fairly healthy. One fine morning he was taken ill and after several tests he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Then on, he was slowly sinking. We had about 40 days to prepare for the inevitable, still when it really came it was devastating. Memories came flooding through. Even though he was old and terminally ill, he was the one who held my tiny hands when I took those first steps. He was the one who took me to the sea and showed me that wide expanse and let me taste sea water. And the stories he told, the guidance he gave, and the dreams he instilled. The struggles and tribulations, the joys and pain of a life lived together, of a life shared together flashed like a slow motion movie. When he was taken away for the last time, I couldn’t control myself, I wept. I din’t want anybody to see me weeping, still tears came rolling down. During those short walk to the church, and then the cemetry, I was weeping. I was keeping him company for one last time, those walks, he walked so much. I was all alone. I wanted to be alone with his thoughts and my grief. And then he was gone, gone forever.

Death is a personal experience. It’s a moment when you want to be alone with the dear departed. It’s also an experience you want to share with your dear and near ones. Death is about life as much as it’s about death. According Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the American psychiatrist who wrote the groundbreaking book "On Death and Dying" there are five stages of grief. Commonly known as the Kübler-Ross model, It describes, in five stages, a process by which people deal with grief and tragedy. These stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It's through these five stages that one comes to terms with the tragedy. It doesnt' mean that everyone goes through all these stages and in this order. But, one goes through at least two or three of these stages before they accept the tragedy and decide to get on with life. You need love, care, consideration and support for a spiritual rebirth in life. The customory visit to the funeral home is not just to pay repect to the departed but by doing so we are also partaking of this spiritual rejuvanation of the living. Only those who can help the spiritual rebirth of the living are welcome in a funeral home.

My father was not a famous man. He was just an ordinary farmer who lived his life in the quiet of his village. He was also fotunate enough to die in the comfort of his home surrounded by his loved ones. So his funeral was a quiet affair. No gun salute, no mad rush of the television camera men and reporters vying for the best shot. I would say he was a forunate man. But many in Kerala are not as fortunate as my father. Some of them pay the price for being famous, some of them pay the price for being dead in a terrible tragedy. Either way, the last few hours of these people and their loved ones are made horrible, by the reporters and anchors in search of TRP ratings and higher circulation figures. Death becomes a double tragedy for the dear and near ones. This is called “ Macabre Dance of Death by the Kerala Media”. MN Vijayan, OV Vijayan, Lohitadas, Kamala Suraiya and many more were the victims of this “macabre dance of death.”

MN Vijayan was the unfortunate of them all. He was about to address a press conference when he collapsed and died in front of the camera. Within minutes his death was being telecast live on TV. Can this be more macabre? A man who ignited the kerala minds with his fiery thoughts and actions was shown on tv breathing his last. Couldn’t they show a little bit more respect? Would the reporter/cameraman, who filed those visuals, and the editor who decided to telecast those visuals (that included very much everyone in the malayalam television industry) would they telecast their father’s/mother’s/brother’s/ sister’s/wife’s/son’s/daughter’s dying moments on TV? My wife was seven months pregnant when this incident happened. She used to have nightmare for several weeks. My son may be a victim of this death industry, even before he was born. I know several people who were terribly upset by those visuals. The death industrialists must have patted themselves on the back for airing those visuals.

Kerala’s beloved script writer/director Lohita Das’s was an abrupt end. Life cut short at the bloom of life. Minutes after his death, even before the warmth of the body was gone, there his lifeless body was on TV. And then the death industry took over. Every other news was relegated into irrelevance and the macabre dance of death began. Cameras took position in every part of his house. Every nook and corner was covered. His wife and sons were not allowed even a moment of privacy. Cameras stood with gaping mouth to gobble up every celebrity that came their way. Every celebrity they could lay hand on was interviewed and their soundbytes played ad nauseum. When Meera Jasmine arrived all hell broke loose. This was the moment the cameras waited for. Every twist in the sinews of her facial muscle was captured and sent live on air. Even the unfortunate body of Lohita Das was pushed to the back ground.

This macabre dance of death by the media began with the passing of EK Nayanar. It was at a time when the news channels in Kerala were taking their baby steps. CPM gave them a big favour by deciding to take Nayanar’s body by bus, from Thiruvananthapuram to Kannur. For them it was a big PR opportunity. People lined both sides of the road and waited hours on end waiting for the convoy to arrive. It was a genuine overflow of emotion for a genial politician who captured the imagination of the people with his rustic wit. The young cable media found a prey they can feast on and they immersed their baby fangs with great relish. The whole charade was live on TV, anchors with their false grief, repeating the same platitudes over and over again. Since then, the kerala cable media has grown and over the years they had several dead bodies to feast their ever growing fangs on. Ponkunnam Varkey and Mathai Chacko with the unfortunate controversy over their burial place, OV Vijayan with the dispute over his last rituals, Ayyappa Panicker, Rajan P Dev, Kovilan, Kamala Suraiya, Sree Vidya to name a few.

The last mentioned two deserve special mention. Both Kamala Suraiya and Sree Vidya were exceptionally beautiful women who loved to appear beautiful. Sree Vidya in her last days was so concerned about her appearance that she didn’t allow anyone to photograph her. Kamala Suraiya’s sister Sulochana Nalapattu said that the only time she wept after Kamala’s death was when she came to know that Kamala’s body will be brought to Kerala and put on public display in Kochi, Alapuzha, Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram. She says Kamala who was so conscious of her beauty in life, would never have liked such public display of her dead body. But these women were put on display for public and the media to devour their shrunken beauty and the media sure did feasted on it.

The collusion of state government in these media charade of public grief is also a matter to contend with. O.V Vijayan’s and Kamala Suraiya’s dead bodies were flown in to Kerala at the insistence of the state government. It leaves ones comprehension why the government thinks that such a public display of grief is necessary to honour the great sons and daughters of Kerala. Indeed the government and the Kerala society must find out other civilized means to honour its eminent citizens, leaving the funeral and the grieving to the dear and near ones of the departed.

To twist P Sainath’s famous quote, ‘Everybody loves a good tragedy’ in Kerala. It’s safe to say that with every tragedy Kerala media gets more and more vicious and shameless. Be it Thattekkadu boat tragedy or the Irikkur accident where young school children lost their lives, or the Kottayam bus accident, Thekkady boat tragedy or the Mangalore plane crash, the media dances over the dead bodies of the victims and the grieving relatives. The ‘first visuals’ the TV channels proudly bring out are always gut turning, death in its raw, naked form dance into our living rooms. Young children nipped in the bud of life, mangled bodies, blown away body parts are dished out to us as first visuals. Sombre anchors with their false display of grief shoot away stupid questions. During the coverage of Thekkady boat tragedy one reporter was heard saying, “ ........ only fortunate thing is that no Keralites are involved in the accident”. When the body of a teenaged girl was being drawn out from the water in the Kottayam bus accident, TV cameras were found prying on her body like voyeurs. I’m not going into details. Everybody knows, how shamelessly the media cover every tragedy, how the media impinge on the privacy of the grieving relatives in a mad rush to get the best shot, how they break the tranquility of a funeral homes with their state of the art equipments and their flash bulbs. I’m not going into details about every tragedy.

Be it the coverage of a celebrity death or a massive tragedy like Mangalore plane crash, the commercial breaks duly come in. From the sombre face and false grief of the anchor we the audience are suddenly thrown into a seductive and sexy lux beauty queen or the macho under wear seller. Death and grief are gone and we are told to cosume to death. The more you consume, the more you’ll be happy. The commercial break ends and we are back at the mercy of sombre looking anchor and his/her false grief. This tells the whole story. The audience is just a potential consumer to whom the tragedy is packaged and sold with profuse dose of (false) grief and pain. To catch your attention they need to show you the most horrifyingly mangled body, the most heart rending story. Dead bodies of your sons and daughters are just a product to be sold duly packaged to the audience. These horrific, shameless coverage of tragedies or celebrity deaths has nothing to do with public interest but everything to do with commercial interest.

The fact that I have focused my ire on the visual media doesn’t mean that I condone the way the print media cover tragedies and celebrity deaths. They are equal culprits in the crass commercialisation of grief. They too bring out entire pages set apart for these tragedies with gruesome pictures and tear jerking stories. They too prey on the grief stricken relatives’ privacy for exclusive stories and pictures. May be, just may be, a degree less in their enthusiasm to squeeze the story out of the ‘victim’ than the visual media, since the deadline factor give them a little leeway. More over, the print media, with a long history of journalistic tradition has set for itself some norms and principles to deal with such situations, although such self regulations are fast eroding. Mind you, these norms and principles too fall within the ambit of commercialisation of grief and not intended to protect the privacy and dignity of the deceased and their relatives.

Malayala Manorama chief editor K.M Mathew passed away recently. The way Manorama covered his passing is an example to be emulated by the entire media fraternity of Kerala. On the next morning after his death, Manorama came out without a single picture of his deceased body!( anayway, in the edition I received). Even in Manorama News channel, his deceased body was shown from a respectful distance. This distance was kept in the entire live coverage of his funeral ceremony. No prying on the grief stricken faces of the family members. The dignity that K.M Mathew kept in his entire life was respected in his death too. Manorama acknowledged with the dignified and respectful coverage of its chief editor’s death and funeral that the dead too deserve dignity. Will Manorama with that epiphanic realization lead the way?

Press council has so many norms of journalistic conduct to protect the privacy of the living and none for the dead. When will they realize that as well as a man/woman has a right to dignity of life, he/she has a right to it in death too?

This article was first published in CounterMedia.in