After spending a day outside the actor’s house I have only one word for what I witnessed: Shame!
It was around 9.15 am on August 27 when I arrived at Primrose Building on Juhu Tara Road in Mumbai. Rhea Chakraborty lives with her family in an apartment in this building. A few reporters and camerapersons were gathered there, their broadcast vans parked nearby.
The TV news coverage of Sushant Singh Rajpat’s suicide is plumbing new depths every day. TV anchors have turned the tragedy into a circus, peddled innuendos to tarnish a woman’s character and aired conspiracy theories. I was at Primrose Building to see how exactly this spectacle was being scripted by sundry TV crews.
As I was surveying the scene, a reporter from TV9 Marathi arrived and asked a Aaj Tak journalist if it was the place where Rhea lived. Told it was, his crew set up the camera and he broadcast his report.
I decided to strike up a conversation with the Aaj Tak reporter. But we had barely started speaking when a car stopped by the curb we were standing on. The man sitting inside looked at us, clapped and drove away, laughing derisively. The Aaj Tak reporter wasn’t amused. “There is no respect for journalists nowadays,” he said. “People from Republic TV have dragged the whole media in the dirt. A bit of theatrics may fly, but these people have crossed all limits. Other reporters are facing immense pressure because of them.”
Hearing this, his cameraperson interjected, “80% of the news is falsehood. Rhea’s apartment is on the other side of this building but people from Republic TV give their P2Cs from here, claiming ‘Rhea’s kitchen’ can be seen in the background.”
P2C, or piece to camera, is the TV news jargon for the presenter speaking directly to the audience through the camera.
The cameraperson wasn’t exaggerating. I was soon watching reporters from Republic TV and its Hindi sister channel, Republic Bharat, obliterate all ethical norms of journalism, with the crews from other channels mimicking them. “Such a shame!” I thought.
“Rhea Chakraborty only speaks to a select few channels,” I heard one Republic Bharat reporter speak into the camera. “Is she afraid of Republic Bharat?”
Just then, she directed her cameraperson to pan towards a man leaving Primrose Building and started yelling, “This is an informer of Rhea Chakraborty.” The man ignored her and went on his way.
He was Ram, a watchman at the building. Through the day, Ram would repeatedly face disrespect and humiliation from Republic TV crews, with the videos of some of these incidents going viral. Seeing the Republic Bharat reporter badger Ram, journalists from other channels joined in. It seemed that they all thought Ram was their property, not a free man deserving of respect. When Ram returned after some time with a taxi, the same Republic Bharat reporter directed her cameraperson to follow him.
The taxi drove out with an elderly passenger, only to be blocked by the TV crews just outside the gate. The reporters shoved their mics into the passenger’s face and blurted out questions, all at once. Insisting that he was a relative of Rhea’s, they demanded that he answer them or they wouldn’t let him go.
The Republic Bharat reporter went so far as to threaten the taxi driver: “The car must not move ahead.” She then shoved her mic in the elderly man’s face and asked where he was going. The man asked the driver to move ahead, but the Republic Bharat reporter interjected, “No, he is not going anywhere.”
It wasn’t until the elderly man had repeatedly said that he lived in the building but wasn’t related to Rhea that he was allowed to go ahead.
There was one reporter, from NewsX, who didn’t join this melee. “The people from Republic have crossed all limits,” she said. “That man was a resident of the building. This is pure harassment.”
Harassment it was, indeed. I couldn’t fathom why a gaggle of reporters was chasing whoever came near the building and shoving their mics into their faces. What little piece of news were they afraid to miss? As far as I could tell, nothing newsworthy was happening at that place, besides their own reprehensible conduct.
After a while, a grey Innova arrived and all the reporters pounced towards it. They chased it into the compound of the building. The car didn’t stop. It speedily circled the building and exited. Nobody knew who was in the car but that didn’t stop some of the reporters from claiming it was Rhea’s brother Shovik Chakraborty. Why would anybody drive around the building and leave without stopping unless it was Shovik, they reasoned.
It didn’t occur to them that maybe whoever was in the car was not looking forward to being harassed on camera. The Republic Bharat reporter insisted in her P2C that it was Shovik in the car and urged her co-workers to keep chasing it.
Moments earlier, while trying to burst through the gate, she had again yelled at Ram, asking him why he was stopping them from entering the building.
I asked a Republic TV cameraperson what made them certain that the person in the car was Rhea’s brother. They had been following it from the DRDO guest house, where the CBI officials investigating Sushant’s death were staying, he replied, flashing a big grin.
Next, it was a police constable’s turn to be harassed to the point that he was forced to leave. The same Republic Bharat reporter asked whether he had come to deliver the summons to Rhea or to meet her? “Why are you here?” the reporters asked again and again.
It turned out the policeman had come to look into a complaint that the mediapersons were incessantly harassing Rhea and her family. Yes, irony can sometimes be so cruel.
At around quarter past noon, the same car that had left after circling the building arrived again. Out stepped Rhea’s father, Indrajit Chakraborty. A scramble ensued, with the reporters shoving each other to get closer to Indrajit. He managed to get away though, with the help of a few fellow residents and guards.
As soon as Indrajit entered his wing of the building, Ram closed the gate and locked it. Two women who had walked in alongside the reporters called out to the watchman, asking why he was “saving” Indrajit. “The thief! Why is the thief scared?” one of them shouted.
That is all they needed to say for a battery of microphones and cameras to be turned towards them. One of them called herself Drishti Ajwani. She was a fan of Sushant, she said. This was the cue the reporters seemed to need to ask all manner of ridiculous questions about black magic, how it was performed, and if they had seen it done.
“When Sushant returned from London, these people kept him for three months,” the woman who called herself Drishti claimed. “He was made to fear an imagined ghost in his house.”
“The whole family practises black magic,” she continued, without any of the reporters bothering to ask if she had any evidence to slander a family in such manner, and demanded that Rhea’s mother be arrested.
“We are big fans of Arnab Ji,” the other woman declared, as if it was validation enough of their slanderous allegations.
Jumping at this, one Republic TV reporter suggested that the women speak exclusively to his TV channel. He escorted them from the parking lot to near a garden in the compound.
“Who were the people involved in this matter?” he asked.
“Her mother is involved, her brother is involved, her father is involved,” Drishti said. “Everyone is involved.”
“How did they perform black magic?”
The woman, for some reason, started yelling. “These people perform black magic a lot. Why are they hiding now? Come out, just come out, come out, come and face us.”
The reporter joined her in the yelling. “Get out, come out here, give us answers,” he shouted repeatedly, pointing towards the building Rhea stays in.
Returning to the woman and waving his hand, he asked, “Big politician, is there any big politician involved?”
“Why is Uddhav Thackrey afraid?” she replied. “Why is he supporting these people?”
“Are Bollywood people involved?”
The woman started blurting out names: “Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan, everyone is involved.”
Having been made an instant celebrity, the woman was subsequently sought out by reporters from India Today, Aaj Tak, TV9, NewsX, News Nation, India TV, TV18, India News. None of them asked her to substantiate her allegations and instead ran her wild conspiracy theories as “exclusive news”.
It isn’t that the reporters didn’t know better. They knew what the woman was saying was merely unfounded allegations, but it was good TV for their channels.
“Those two women were outside earlier and they stopped after noticing people from the media. When reporters entered the compound chasing Indrajit Chakraborty’s car they too went inside. They were saying rubbish but all the channels aired their claims by labelling them Sushant’s fans,” a reporter from a news agency replied when I asked about the credibility of the women. “The place has become a circus. They have turned it into a madhouse.”
After the two women had left the scene, the reporters from Republic TV and Republic Bharat again started harassing the watchman.
“Why are the police protecting them?” they demanded to know from Ram, meaning Rhea’s family. “Were there big politicians or big Bollywood people who used to visit here?”
Ram didn’t respond. He took out his mobile phone to make a call.
“Who are you calling,” the reporters asked.
This appeared to anger the reporters. “We are being threatened by the Mumbai police,” they said. “Is Mumbai police your private police?”
As the Republic TV reporter badgered Ram, his Republic Bharat colleague kept shouting that Ram was a “big informer” of Rhea.
It was 1 pm. Rhea had shared her father’s ordeal at the hands of the media on social media and asked for police protection. By then a video had also gone viral of the watchman Ram talking about his harassment by the TV crews.
Rhea’s post prompted a flurry of broadcasts from the assembled crews. I heard a News24 reporter telling his audience that Rhea’s appeal for security was only an excuse to evade questions. Two reporters of India TV, arms flailing and speaking on top of their voices, were alleging that Rhea took drugs.
At around 1.40 pm, a police constable entered the building. Within minutes, the TV reporters forced open the gate and went chasing after him.
They didn’t catch hold of the constable, so they began hounding Ram, who was guarding the shutter to the first stairwell of Rhea’s building. The reporters from Aaj Tak and TV9 Marathi demanded to know why the police had arrived? The Republic Bharat reporter asked why he was not replying to her when he had made a video with Rhea saying he was being harassed by the media. Ram tried walking away but was followed around. The TV9 Marathi reporter asked him if he knew of any illegal activities at Rhea’s place. Then, the constable emerged from the building and the reporters went after him. A reporter from India TV screamed that the Mumbai police was protecting a person being investigated by the CBI. The Republic Bharat reporter declared that Rhea was seeking security to escape questioning by the media and asked the constable, “Why are you aiding the accused?”
Then, a police inspector arrived with a constable and faced the same treatment. He kept urging the reporters to not crowd around him given the danger of Covid-19, but they wouldn’t listen. They kept asking why he was there? The officer finally replied that he was there to get Indrajeet to the office of the Enforcement Directorate, which is involved in the Sushant death investigation.
At around half past two, Indrajeet came down and was instantly mobbed. A few police personnel escorted him to his car, but the reporters blocked the way, demanding that he answer their questions. When the car began moving, a reporter with the YouTube channel National Reporter punched it. Had the police not been there, I don’t think Indrajeet would have been able to leave the building.
Seeing the behaviour of the reporters on Juhu Tara Road brought back memories of the Akanksha case from a few years ago when I was a crime reporter with an English daily in Bhopal.
It was 2017. Akanksha Sharma’s brother was leaving the cremation ground after performing the last rites of his murdered sister when he was mobbed by a group of journalists. He didn’t want to speak at the time and began to walk away, only for some of the journalists to throw him to the ground. “You’ll only leave after you answer our questions,” they said.
I could not tell if the reporters camped outside Rhea’s house were any different from those journalists outside the cremation ground in Bhopal.
After Indrajeet drove away, the reporters and the camerapersons milled about, chatting among themselves, making calls and doing occasional broadcasts. At around half past four, I overheard the National Reporter say on the phone that Rhea was an “extremely manipulative girl” and she was rumoured to perform black magic.
The media circus caused a minor traffic jam on Juhu Tara Road. Many commuters and passersby would see the cameras, microphones and broadcast vans, and stop to see what was happening.
At around half past five, a semblance of quiet set in and some of the reporters started exchanging crass Rhea Chakraborty jokes. The Republic Bharat reporter was still at it. Giving a P2C, she declared: “Rhea Chakraborty has to answer Republic Bharat’s questions. We will not give a platform to Rhea Chakraborty.”
By 8 pm, only a few cameras were around. Some of the reporters tuned into Rhea’s interview with Rajdeep Sardesai of India Today.
My mind was numbed and I could barely think straight. I left, restless and wondering what had happened to the institution we used to call a pillar of democracy.
If you, or someone you know, needs help to overcome suicidal thoughts, contact Fortis at +91 8376804102; AASRA at +91 98204 66726; The Samaritans, Mumbai at +91 84229 84528.
(Images: Prateek Goyal)