The Broken News Sacrifices Engagement At The Altar of Lurid Entertainment

The ZEE5 Original, based on a BBC series called Press, has camp, cheese, cringe and everything in between
The Broken News Sacrifices Engagement At The Altar of Lurid Entertainment

Director: Vinay Waikul
Writers: Sambit Mishra, Purva Naresh
Cast: Jaideep Ahlawat, Shriya Pilgaonkar, Sonali Bendre Behl, Sanjeeta Bhattacharya, Faisal Rashid, Jay Upadhyay, Akash Khurana, Taaruk Raina
DOP: Harendra Singh
Editor: Gaurav Aggarwal
Streaming on: ZEE5

Breaking the monopoly of Hotstar adapting middling British television dramas, The Broken News is a ZEE5 Original based on a BBC series called Press. But everything about it suggests that it may have well been a 2004 Madhur Bhandarkar title called Media. There is camp, cheese, cringe and everything in between. There is good, bad and nothing in between. This sounds like a giant red flag, yet I didn't find myself being totally dismissive of the show. Early in the eight-episode series, I started experiencing what I like to call the 'Haseen Dillruba syndrome' – where I convince myself that the pitch of a film or series is consciously replicating the loud and pulpy medium it explores. 'Method' film-making of sorts. 

In other words, why should a narrative about the news look any different from the news itself? How else does one explain the title being a kindergarten-level riff on "Breaking News"? How else does one explain this title exploding onto the screen as if it were the beginning of a primetime India TV telecast? How else does one explain that, in terms of volume and complexity, the reporters exist somewhere on a scale of 1 to Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani? 

The trashy tone is almost reassuring, because it's worse when Indian stories try to be authentic about journalism and fail. Some of the best Hindi shows in recent memory have struggled in the newsroom: Paatal Lok, Scam 1992, Mumbai Diaries. But when it's a series entirely about journalism – in this case, the ideological and commercial rivalry between two Hindi TV news channels in Mumbai – it's better to embrace the myth and jog with it. Shows like The Newsroom and The Morning Show run with it. The Broken News sprints with it, and doesn't stop until it crosses the border and calls you an anti-national. It wears the excessive robes of fantasy. I mean, what editor defies the channel owner? What owner is philanthropic enough to want to create "the best channel, not the most popular one"? What 45-year-old editor offers to take the fall for her 30-something reporter, under the pretext that "I'm on my way out anyway"? What channel defies its sponsors and exposes the government? What anchor defies the brief and takes down a predatory Bollywood superstar on air? Hell, what is defiance even? Why am I sounding like the aggressive ticker at the bottom of those channel screens?

To its credit, the design doesn't shy away from reflecting today's socio-political realities. In the red corner are the Bad Guys called Josh 24/7 (as in: How's the Josh?), led by editor-in-chief Dipankar Sanyal (Jaideep Ahlawat), a TRP-crazed and morally bankrupt anchor who puts Arnab Goswami's blood pressure to shame. Their right-hardliner tagline: "Kyuki sawaal hai desh ka". In the blue corner are the DD-style Good Guys called Awaaz Bharati, headed by a veteran of credibility named Amina Qureshi (Sonali Bendre Behl), who also plays mentor to star reporter Radha Bhargava (Shriya Pilgaonkar). The series opens with a voiceover that's relevant as ever in context of where we currently stand: Sarkar ka virodh desh ka virodh nahi hai (Opposing your government is not the same as opposing your nation). Awaaz Bharati is crippled by poor ratings, leaving Amina in a tussle between native advertising and editorial integrity. Josh 24/7 is flirting with the sun, with Dipankar so drunk on power that he thinks nothing of humiliating ministers and industrialists on live television. In the first episode itself, he forces the (Muslim) youth minister to resign on air after securing a sexually explicit MMS from her teen years. 

In terms of structure, The Broken News is similar to the recent Guilty Minds, a lawyer saga also starring Shriya Pilgaonkar as the voice of idealism and reason. Stories of MeToo, farmer exploitation, student suicides and medical scams dot individual episodes, but the macro story connecting all the episodes features a shadowy data-mining nexus between the government and a tech corporation. Which is to say: The news in any country is only as broken as its administration. I enjoyed some of the lead performances. Jaideep Ahlawat does well to manufacture that aura of arrogance and intimidation in the newsroom – he transcends his character's one-note vocabulary (masala! animation! tadka! hashtags!) and crafts a heady cocktail of abuse and ambition. Ahlawat is fast becoming the most credible actor in the streaming space today; one needs to look no further than his Dipankar to know that he – not unlike Nawazuddin Siddiqui in mainstream Bollywood fare – possesses the rare ability to turn campiness into an artform. Pilgaonkar gives her second successive solid turn as Radha, a go-getter who is too restless for Awaaz Bharati and too grounded for Josh 24/7. There's a pensive grayness about her sense of honour, which seems to be rooted in the grief of losing her friend just as much as the desire to be a great investigative reporter; the actress conveys her backstory through her body language alone, and it's quite a feat in a show that's all about telling. Sonali Bendre Behl, like her contemporaries from the '90s, returns to acting in the long format. Her Amina is not a particularly well-written character – saddled with News 101 dialogue and a cliched personal arc – but the actress stands out in her moments of moral conflict and authority, especially in her edgy exchanges with Radha. Of the supporting cast, Dinkar Sharma is eye-catching in a creepy urban villain-in-Mardaani sort of way, as the tech billionaire who shapes the final few episodes.

By now, it must seem like I have nothing negative to say about the series. But I've saved the best – or worst – till last. Midway through The Broken News, it started to dawn on me that perhaps the Haseen Dillruba Syndrome was a figment of my overactive imagination. There is, after all, a thin line between wilful pulp and unintentional tackiness. A lot of the craft, I noticed, is just fundamentally unsound. For instance, the greenscreen car scenes are awful, and it's impossible not to be distracted by how fake the scenery outside looks. No matter how much I tried to believe that maybe this was a way of mirroring the garish visual effects of actual news telecasts, I failed. Then there are some very basic staging problems. In a scene where a chief minister appears, we see him puffing away while speaking to his home minister – not inconspicuously, mind you, but in a way that is visually intrusive. Seconds later, it is revealed that he has lung cancer; I could almost hear the writers go, "Elementary, my dear Watson!". There's also a Covid monologue at one point, only so that it can culminate in – of course – "News ek deadly virus hai". 

Then there are the silly continuity errors. When one reporter discovers that her flatmate stole her story, their confrontation happens the next day, not accounting for the night together at the apartment in between. Corny dialogue ("You won't break the story, the story will break you") aside, the writing tries too hard to humanize Dipankar through the wreckage of his personal life. The dissonance is jarring. Moments after he forces a bereaved mother to promote an anti-bullying hashtag for a son driven to suicide by his own channel, Dipankar gets emotional about his childhood (something about having a voice after being from a 'mute family') with a high-class escort he spends his nights with. The execution of these scenes is strange for the empathy it strives to awkwardly elicit; the camera zooms onto his face, as if he were being told by the director to deliver a transitional expression for a flashback. Needless to mention, the flashback never arrives. The appropriation of the Pegasus scandal ('Gigasis' here) forces the series to descend into clunky thriller territory, where reporters end up fighting far more than their conscience to do their jobs. Then there's the episode where a reporter quits Awaaz Bharati, starts working for Josh, quits Josh, returns to Awaaz and is promoted to primetime anchor – all in a span of 24 hours. I don't know about journalists, but the HR departments might take umbrage at this little stunt.

This is perhaps the long answer to the short question: Why should narratives about the news look any different from the news itself? They should, especially in 2022, because the average OTT subscriber is not the average news consumer. To an entire generation, an intermittently self-aware show about a crooked system might appear as just that: crooked. After all, nobody breaks the news anymore – they break the internet.

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