The Indian actor Sushant Singh Rajput, who in one film played the cricketer MS Dhoni, was found hanging in his Mumbai apartment on June 14. The Mumbai police said it looked like suicide. Shortly thereafter, the late actor's father called for his girlfriend, Rhea Chakraborty, also an actor, to be investigated, accusing her of abetment of suicide, a charge that didn't hold. But she was subsequently arrested last week by India's Narcotics Control Bureau on the unproven charge of sourcing drugs for Rajput.
From being largely unknown, Chakraborty's name over the past couple of months has been yelled so much in a handful of TV studios and amplified on social media to such an extent that it has guaranteed her an unwelcome legacy, the sort you wouldn't wish on anyone.
Last month Chakraborty filed a plea in India's highest court, of an "unfair media trial", one in which a staggering number of television anchors, without evidence, set off hashtags on the dangerous, easy-to-manipulate arena that is social media, demanding her arrest.
Media people in the know say the best way to not allow low brow TV material to gain traction is to not watch it. This would at least prevent their ratings from shooting up. But why does such clearly misogynistic content, where people are deemed guilty without proof, have takers at all?
It can be argued that no sensible viewer takes these channels seriously. One can't help but think of the time in 2018 when the actor Sridevi was found dead in a bathroom in Dubai and a gentleman from one TV channel climbed into a bathtub, presumably to help viewers imagine what it means to be found dead in a bathtub. He may have been parodied but the channel was also watched, and those views furthered the notion that this is what viewers want.
Enough people watch these programmes and begin to feel like they have skin in the game, a righteous vigilante mob starts to seek 'justice' – television shorthand for everything from seeking entertainment to seeking vengeance.
Broadly speaking, television ratings, which determine a channel's earnings, are dependent on revenues from advertisers. The more hysterical the news presented is, the more people watch. And the longer they keep watching, the more money gushes into the channel. It is how the cycle sustains itself.
At least two journalists at a disreputable but popular TV channel recently quit, because of this – using the actress-girlfriend as target practice. One of the two journalists tweeted about the "aggressive agenda" being run by the channel to "villify" Rhea Chakraborty. The journalist couldn't take it anymore. Several of her colleagues too spoke on record about being discomfited by what passes off as journalism.
In a piece for The Wire on witch-hunts, a Delhi-based researcher, Panchali Ray, wrote about a time in 1998 when she went through a similar hounding but was spared Chakraborty's fate because what happened to her was before social media, before TV debates where 'guests' (why do they keep agreeing to come on air?) are out to deafen their co-panelists.
And yet, even as Panchali Ray was spared the extent of this ugliness, in the years and decades since, she says has not stopped looking over her shoulder. Residual fears evidently exist even after the storm has passed.
Assuming Chakraborty gets out of judicial custody, is lucky enough to stay out and there is no court case, how does she move on from this unwarranted ordeal, which frankly is a matter of shame for a number of Indians. How many of us women, if similarly dragged over coals, lives shredded, presumed guilty with no proof, would function normally or get any sleep at all? The trauma may shadow Chakraborty for years.
A couple of weeks ago, I watched her being interviewed on a more sober channel. She was a figure of composure. Chakraborty told the news anchor, who she addressed 'ma'am', that this has torn her family apart. She wasn't crying. She wasn't dodging questions. "Sushant loved me," she said with what seemed like pride. It was tough to watch and not feel for her. One had to hand her respect for the remarkable job she was doing just holding it together.
Chakraborty may have an army of women – not just women, though – rooting for her and citing 'smash the patriarchy', but she is now locked up in a Mumbai jail till at least September 22.
Watchers of Indian TV news ought to be forgiven if they assumed, however naively, that there was nothing to report in India besides the repercussions of an actor's unfortunate suicide.
This is a country with the second highest number of coronavirus cases – having recently surpassed Brazil in that distinction, where the economy has seen better days, where industry is stalling and where, in the same week as Rajput's death, Indian soldiers bled to death in a border dispute with China.
In the middle of Charaborty's media trial though, a flicker of optimism seeped through in a tweet by a film producer, Nikhil Dwivedi, who expressed his wish to work with the actress once this nightmare subsides and the mob presumably moves on to its next victim.
He wrote: "Have the courts convicted her? In case they do, we shall wait for her to do time and reform. In case she doesn't reform then I shall take my words back. But the media and public needs to stop passing judgment". He also mentioned an important reminder, a truism that nevertheless bears repeating: "this is not how civilised countries behave."
Nivriti Butalia is an assistant comment editor at The National