#BathtubJournalism: Sridevi Kapoor’s tabloid-style post-death coverage

Sridevi Kapoor, a Bollywood icon, unexpectedly died on Feb. 24 in the bathtub of a hotel room in Dubai where she was attending a family wedding. The Indian media has since come under fire for their “ghoulish” and “shameful” coverage of the superstar’s passing.

Sridevi’s cause of death was reported to be an “accidental drowning,” and the Dubai police determined that no foul play was involved. However, this did not stop the media from having a field day with the tragic event.

The 54-year-old’s cause of death was not released until the days following her passing, but the media had its own ideas of what happened. From a heart attack to alcohol overconsumption, from the effects of Sridevi’s alleged use of diet pills to murder, speculations on the star’s death truly ran the gamut.

#SrideviDeathMystery began trending on Twitter as everyday fans chimed in with their far-fetched theories: Where was her husband, Boney Kapoor? Was the drowning truly accidental? Was Sridevi depressed? Did someone “make her” drown, as one claim stated? Couldn’t she just get out of the bathtub? If she fell in, wouldn’t all the water splash out? The Twitter conversation is ongoing.

In addition to the conspiracy theorizing on social media, television news stations put on an astonishing display. Several channels broadcasted tactless mock-ups of Sridevi’s body floating in a bathtub.

Image: The News Minute

Image: The News Minute

Still others placed their reporters next to or actually inside of bathtubs, promising insights into Sridevi’s last moments through their reenactments and recreations.

Image: The News Minute

Image: The News Minute

Indian citizens and Sridevi fans condemned the sensationalist coverage that robbed the actress of her dignity and her family of their peace. Rather than speak of Sridevi’s vast accomplishments and groundbreaking Bollywood presence, the media chose to focus on scandals of their own creation, giving a legitimate story a tabloid twist. The coverage has been called profoundly disrespectful to the late star and her life.

“The coverage,” reads an opinion piece in The Washington Post by Indian television journalist Bharka Dutt, “has veered into gossip disguised by claims of grief and has elevated scurrilous rumor over reportage. India’s prime-time news has scraped the bottom of the barrel in the hours since 54-year-old Sridevi died in the bathtub of her Dubai hotel room on Saturday night.”

The hashtag #LetHerRestInPeace gained popularity on Twitter as a response to the problematic broadcasts, as fans demanded respect for the superstar’s memory and a halt to the baseless claims and insensitive recreations.

The debacle has given rise to a new term to describe the media’s failings surrounding Sridevi’s death: #BathtubJournalism.

The posthumous dehumanization and objectification of Sridevi is one piece of a bigger conversation about the way that Indian media–Bollywood in particular–portrays women.

The media repeatedly emphasized Sridevi’s alleged use of diet pills and cosmetic surgery as related to her death. Not only were the rumors of fat-burning pill abuse and liposuction procedures false, but they were demeaning and misogynistic. This has sparked a conversation on how media pressures can affect Bollywood’s women, their body image, and their choices related to that image.

While it is both beneficial and necessary to have open discussions about the ways in which society pressures women to change their appearance to fit unrealistic standards, it should not be assumed that this caused Sridevi’s death. These implications can divert the focus from her accomplishments and true legacy.

Additionally, even if Sridevi chose to have cosmetic surgery, use diet pills, or drink alcohol of her own volition, this does not undermine her strength or the work she put into challenging sexist stereotypes in Bollywood through her dynamic roles. A woman’s morality should not be linked to her appearance, nor her “morality” as perceived by others linked to her worth.

Sridevi was “India’s first female superstar,” according to fellow actress Priyanka Chopra. Sridevi forever changed the face of Indian cinema when her graceful and intelligent performances centered women on screen.

These performances were “templates of femininity, freedom, and joy,” wrote Deepanjana Pal of The Atlantic. We should remember them as such.

“She owned every frame of every film she was in–without the need of a male co-star, bringing in audiences and setting the box office alight, firmly on her own shoulders,” read Chopra’s letter.

“Sridevi leaves behind a legacy that will live beyond us all, a legacy built on the foundation of pure dedication, talent, hard work and a sprinkle of fairy dust that was showered on her by the Gods!”

#BathtubJournalism should focus a little more on that fairy dust.

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