Kangana Ranaut made headlines yet again for a (very public) spat with a journalist at a press conference for her upcoming film Judgementall Hai Kya.
Here’s the lowdown: Kangana accused Justin Rao, a journalist for Press Trust of India, of running a ‘smear campaign’ against her because he criticised her presumed cinematic classic Manikarnika. Rao retaliated by telling her that she was speaking to him from a position of power, and that was unfair. She then called him a ‘friend’ instead, with whom she has shared a long lunch in her vanity van. She felt her friendship was betrayed here; and Rao denied this repeatedly (both the lunch and the friendship). After the heated exchange, Kangana’s sister Rangoli Chandel, officially the actor’s mouthpiece on social media, took to Twitter to criticise Justin.
Beyond the fracas, and now routine tendency of Kangana and her sister to draw attention by attacking someone, there is an interesting, age-old debate at play here. When it comes to being friends with an actor, a subject of a story, how much is too much? Where does the ethical line end? In this day and age of social media, algorithm based digital journalism and frantic blogging, is there a line at all?
True there was a time when journalists were considered friends of film stars. Film magazines sustained themselves on getting access to stars in their personal spaces, spoke at length about matters of love, life, cinema and everything in between. And these glossies sustained dreams of starstruck existences for readers, at once entertaining and providing insight into a star’s life (if only accidentally).
But the past two decades have witnessed a sea of change. As media exploded and the number of media outlets multiplied, journalists grew exponentially. So did opportunities for publicists to plug and post stories around their stars. How then does access to a celebrity change a journalist’s standing? Does it help or does it hurt?
Rajeev Masand, who has been interviewing actors, filmmakers and international celebrities for over 2 decades, has a clear point of view on friendship with film folk. “If you are a critic and a journalist, there shouldn’t be unconditional loyalty or friendship; and I don’t think there can be. Friend is a word used fairly loosely. My observation has been that this misunderstanding that one is a friend of an actor, just because you had lunch or spent some time together, happens with journalists. This doesn’t happen so much with an actor. In my opinion, this is harmful because then you are setting yourself up for disappointment because they are not your friends. And why should they be (your friend?) Why expect that? The only expectation that you should have from an actor, is that they will give you a good interview and tell you the truth,” he explains.
Despite having tracked cinema and met stars for all this time, no actor has ever visited Rajeev at his home, neither has he ever hung out with them casually. Keeping his personal space away from the professional has worked for him.
On the contrary, Bharti Dubey, with over 25 years of experience in breaking entertainment stories, has deep friendships within the film fraternity. “After having spent 27 years in the film industry, I have friends. Raveena Tandon and Salman Khan are my friends for life; in fact, I can’t interview a few stars, because a question of objectivity rises. I have had filmmakers that are my friends for years and years. But it is up to you; ultimately, there always is a line. Lines can blur with years of interactions but you need to draw your limits,” she observes.
Bharti has often crossed swords with celebrities of reckoning, but has never faced rudeness from them. “I have been thrown out of sets when an actor and her mother came charging at me for allegedly misquoting her; which I hadn’t done. Aamir Khan didn’t speak to me for 7 years, but has been cordial since. Mr Bachchan has abused me on his blog. But in each case, I have stood my ground, and management has backed me up on this. “
Baradwaj Rangan, who has tracked Tamil, Telegu, Kannada and Malayalam cinema for decades, offers an interesting perspective; when it comes to interactions and networking with people in cinema, behavior patterns tend to be similar. “In any profession, like in film journalism, there is a need to cultivate contacts versus a need to keep a distance. It happens in business and in all fields. When you interact with a person over sometime, a certain comfort level develops. I wouldn’t call it a friendship. I am writing a book on Mani Ratnam so have been interacting with him for over 6 months now. At the same time, your priority has to be your work. So if I don’t like a film and I have a certain comfort level with a person, I would text them and tell them so (prior to my review getting published). Some people take it sportingly and others take it hard. But as long as you are clear about it, it’s fine,” he explains.
Rangan has consulted on scripts and written for the screen too. He didn’t like Mani Ratnam’s latest film Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, and said as much. “There have been times when I have consulted on a script but written a ‘this film doesn’t work’ kind of review, simply because that’s what happened. I don’t think a distance (between a star and a journalist) should necessarily be kept as that can create a weird kind of tension, but you must be aware of where you stand. At Cannes, journalists and filmmakers as well as actors run into each other at parties and galas all the time. It doesn’t seem to affect their work,” he concludes.
As publicists control access to stars nowadays, getting a chance to glean a little extra from a celebrity can be tempting, while breaking bread. However, that this becomes a ground for an attack on a scribe does seem to come from a sense of entitlement.
“It’s a bit odd when she mentioned that this journalist has had lunch with him,” says Rajeev. “Just like it’s wrong on a journalist’s part to expect to be friends with an actor, I think it’s definitely wrong on an actor’s part that just because one shared a lunch with a journalist (as courtesy), he/ she is not allowed to be objective and report. I feel that there should be a line because they are your professional contacts. You can be polite, courteous and warm, but no one should mistake that for being friends,” he concludes.”
Instances of misuse of personal access are also visible, which is why the filter of publicists has become all encompassing. In some cases, journalists have used conversations that were off record to their advantage. “There have been cases; like when a very senior actor had mentioned recently that a journalist had misused access gi