Bollywood slams publicist for manipulating film review

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Noted industry personalities including Mahesh Bhatt, N.Chandra, Anupam Kher, Shakti Kapoor, Koel Purie and Konkana Sen Sharma comment on the beginning of an unethical trend, while Khalid Mohamed and Madhur Bhandarkar keep their lips sealed.

It is a development which could well shake the core ethics of journalism. For the first time in the history of Bollywood, a publicist has managed to dictate his terms in a film review.

Dale Bhagwagar, who happens to be one of the most influential PRs in the industry, shocked everyone when he manipulated words in a film review of leading journalist Subhash K. Jha last week. He did this, as he suspected that Jha had been vindictive to one of his new upcoming clients Nikita Anand (former Miss India 2003) in the review, because of his personal issues with the publicist.

The journalist, who had panned ‘Dil Dosti Etc’, a Prakash Jha production, was helpless when Bhagwagar simply contacted the owner of a renowned website and asked him to change a line in the review, as he felt it was “written out of prejudice” towards him. Shockingly, the website, without bothering to ask or inform the reviewer, carried out the change.

It can be recalled, that a few months ago, Bhagwagar had written an open letter regarding the journalist, exposing various facets of his doings. He had done this in retaliation to “inappropriate” and “attacking” articles the journalist wrote about his PR clients Shiney Ahuja and Shilpa Shetty. After the same, singer Sonu Nigam too, wrote an open letter condemning the same journalist, alleging, he asked for homosexual favours in return of positive writings. The publicist is rumoured to have leaked the news about Sonu Nigam’s grievances to the national television media. Following a traumatic showdown between the said journalist and Nigam along with other members of the film fraternity, Jha was unceremoniously removed from writing in several publications. It was believed by some that the publicist had schemingly maneuvered the journalist’s ousting.

Coming back to the review manipulation, the reviewer, Subhash K. Jha however, was caught unawares when we enquired about the same. He says, “I don’t have any idea about this. I don’t even have the time to keep a check on everything I write. I’m an experienced person and such changes have never happened with my stories.”

Whether Jha admits to it or not, the damage has been done. When we contacted Bhagwagar, he admitted to the manipulation. His justification is, “Mr Jha has a history of taking out his personal grudge on actors, other journalists and PRs, and he doesn’t spare me too. He bad-mouthed a client of mine in his review of ‘Dil Dosti Etc’ out of resentment against me. So I got it changed. What’s the big deal?”

When questioned about ethics, Bhagwagar cross-questions! “Where has the said journalist ever followed ethics?” The publicist says, he has heard that the journalist tells actors not to speak to staffers of the Mumbai publications he writes for, and to only give stories and interviews to him. Inspite of that, knowingly, some prominent publications prefer to downplay their own staffers and give a platform to the Patna-based journalist to run his writing factory.

From the way the publicist has conducted himself in the past, Bhagwagar comes across as one who is madly in love with his job. He’s known to fiercely guard and protect his PR clients against all odds, almost like a man possessed. “No media hanky-panky escapes my eye,” he says with a grin. “If I don’t protect my clients against such journalists who write for the sake of boosting their ego, then who will?”

No wonder, in his short but spiraling career as a PR, Bhagwagar, who has challenged the norm, has earned the tag of ‘Hitler’ in industry circles. According to some editors and journalists, the publicist is notorious in ‘dictating’ news pegs, stories, quotes, headlines and even story placements to the media. “But manipulating a review is going to the extremes. After all, it is the prerogative of a reviewer to write what he wishes in his review, and a publicist has no right to call the shots there,” says a famous trade reviewer requesting anonymity.

After this move by Bhagwagar, things are expected to change. In the coming days, other PRs might also try to take such steps if film reviews dissatisfy them. Everything boils down to the fact that there are not much of ethics left in the country today.

Koel Purie who recently appeared in a film titled ‘Its Breaking News’, panning the media on its sting operations, admits to this sorry state of affairs. “The state of journalism in our country is deteriorating. There is great responsibility and power associated with media; whether it is journalism or PR. But unfortunately only the latter is being utilized,” she says.

Celebrated filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt analyses, “Media is supposed to be the watchdog of the society, but unfortunately, now it has become the lap dog of power. There is a market force which is controlling every industry, and the newspaper industry is no different.”

While Mr Bhatt chooses to examine, Konkona Sen Sharma who played a gritty reporter in ‘Page 3’, admits to not being acquainted with the darker side of the media. “As far as changes in articles are concerned, I have no idea exactly what the PRs and journalists are up to. We all have different mindsets and different ways or working, but such manipulation is definitely alarming,” she says.

Shakti Kapoor, who not very long ago, unwittingly got involved in a sting operation scandal, understandably, doesn’t support the journalist. “Journalists need to refrain from damaging reputations of actors. Then such PR manipulations won’t happen” he says. “I think the Government of India should intervene and a line should be drawn. The way there is censorship in films, we have to have some kind of censorship in media too.”

Noted actor Anupam Kher says, “Times are changing, and so are a whole lot of aspects about journalism. I am not aware if PRs have begun making changes in articles and reviews. I’m surprised to hear about their influence from you. But if this is the case, it’s not the right thing to do. It depends on the reviewer who he wants to praise or thrash. He’s just doing his job.”

Filmmaker N. Chandra, who is making ‘Breaking News’, with his unique take on the media, adopts a more diplomatic stand. “Moral values in our society have eroded. We need to accept change and deal with it. You expect the most virtuous of people to be in the field of education, but it is not so. Same is the case with the medical and the police profession. Same with people in journalism and PR. So why single out any profession?” he questions.

Considering the nature of the issue, there were some who chose to evade it. Madhur Bhandarkar, who made ‘Page 3’, portraying the lifestyle culture catering to the media party pages, inquired about the issue but stayed away from comment. India’s most famous film-critic-turned-filmmaker Khalid Mohamed too, wasn’t keen to comment.

The bottom line is, for better or for worse, things are up for change. Until some radical step is taken, one has to be ready for many such rude shocks in future.

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