Lawsuit by top Bollywood members puts spotlight on India’s media credibility

Leading Bollywood actors, filmmakers and industry unions have filed an unprecedented defamation lawsuit against two television news channels for
painting the film industry as a den of drugs and crime following the death of a young movie star.

The lawsuit, filed Monday, comes months after India’s freewheeling television news channels took on Bollywood, India's Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai, with a spree of allegations following the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput in June.

Rajput, 34, was found dead in his Mumbai apartment on June 4 in what police said was a suicide. The case is still being investigated.

The initial news coverage was focused on mental health in India's multi-billion-dollar movie industry. But Rajput's family disputed the suicide finding and accused the star's ex-girlfriend, Bollywood actress, Rhea Chakraborty, 28, of stealing his money and harassing him. She has denied the allegations.

Last week, a court in Mumbai ordered the actress to be released on bail in what her lawyer called a victory for "truth and justice".

Chakraborty and her family have been hounded by Indian media who have spent months obsessing over the case and expanding the dragnet across the industry with TV channels showing his body, analysing his medical prescriptions and suggesting “black magic” was performed on the actor.

On Monday, more than 30 Bollywood production houses and four industry bodies filed a defamation lawsuit in the Delhi High Court. They saw some of Bollywood’s biggest names, including superstar actors Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar, come together against news channels Republic TV and Times Now.

“These Defendants are conducting and publishing parallel private ‘investigations’ and effectively acting as ‘courts’ to condemn persons connected with Bollywood as guilty based on what they claim is ‘evidence’ found by them,” the plaintiffs said in a statement, referring to the two news channels.

The plaintiffs said they sought “redress against the irresponsible, derogatory and defamatory reporting” by the two television news channels and their leading anchors.

The two pro-government channels did not immediately respond to media requests, but Navika Kumar, a senior editor at Times Now, tweeted Monday, “If fighting for justice invites court cases, bring it on."

Shouting matches on stars, little on health or economic crises

Experts say television news in India is facing a serious crisis, with debates among commentators becoming increasingly strident and shrill.

India has one of the world’s most competitive media environments, with more than 850 news channels broadcast in multiple languages.

But over the years, the industry has faced a crisis of credibility. Many powerful television news anchors, known to support Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-leaning administration, often indulge in rancorous and chaotic debates in which shouting, screaming and name-calling have become staples.

In a column, What's Behind the Sudden Spate of Attacks on Bollywood, Sidharth Bhatia of The Wire, linked the phenomenon with the brand of nationalist populism championed by Modi's ruling BJP. "Film people everywhere, whether the US or India, are seen as liberals, perhaps even inclined towards the Left," noted Bhatia. "Hindi films by and large have reflected progressive views. This often troubles conservative politicians."

The media hysteria reached its zenith in Rajput’s case. Stories about the actor's death sidelined other critical issues, such as India’s stalling economy, the government’s coronavirus response and growing hostilities with China over a border dispute.

The result was a surge in ratings for some TV channels.

Advertisers pull out of hate-mongering TV channels

The tables, however, turned considerably last week when police in Mumbai accused Republic TV of rigging the rating scores system, a significant component in television channels' advertising income.

The allegations were denied by Republic TV but led to some Indian advertisers taking never-before-seen measures.

Automobile giant Bajaj Auto and Parle Products, India’s biggest biscuit maker, said they were pulling advertising from news channels that endorsed toxicity and hate-mongering. The companies did not name the channels, but the move was widely cheered on Indian social media.

Abhinandan Sekhri, the co-founder of media critiquing website Newslaundry, said most of India's TV channels had morphed into “reality shows".

“There will be repercussions if you do demonstrably false reporting,” Sekhri said. “It's about time advertisers took a stand and withdrew their brands from TV channels that thrive on false information and toxic content.”

(FRANCE 24 with AP)