Ravi Belagere (1958-2020): Maverick Kannada Tabloid Journalist
M. K. Raghavendra
The death of Kannada tabloid journalist Ravi Belagere marks the abrupt end to a colourful career marked with excitement and controversy. Belagere is best known as the founder-editor of Hai Bangalore, a sensationalist Kannada tabloid which caught the public imagination in the 1990s. There had already been a hugely popular tabloid in Lankesh Patrike run by litterateur P Lankesh but where that was literary and dealt with literary, political and cultural issues, sometimes in a controversial way, Hai Bangalore was unabashedly sensationalist and often dealt with the underworld and its nefarious doings.
When Ravi Belagere arrived on the scene in Bangalore his name was already familiar to me. He was from Bellary and I had worked there in the early eighties. Belagere was a lecturer in a local college – in History, I later learned – and Bellary was then a small town. I recollect a local talent’s contest among college students, Ravi Belagere standing behind a curtain, and visible from where I was sitting, singing in a full-throated voice as accompaniment to some folk dancing from undergraduate girl students. He was a conspicuous figure in Bellary in the early 1980s and seen as someone ‘up and coming’, and the president of what could be translated as the ‘Citizen’s Committee for Public Safety.’ The ‘Committee for Public Safety’ was something
instituted by Maximilian Robespierre during the French Revolution mainly to decide upon public enemies whose heads should be cut off, but Ravi Belagere’s ‘Citizen’s Committee’ busied itself with more mundane matters – like conveying advice to locals on the need to stay indoors when Bellary had a heat wave. I did not hear about him till in the later part of the 1990s, and the friend who told me about his tabloid was surprised that I had known about him in Bellary. At around this time, I also saw him speeding around on a Bullet motorcycle in Bangalore, adorned with gold chains.
To give an idea of the kind of tabloid journalism engaged in by Ravi Belagere, he was direct in his targets, mentioning them by name, and with their pictures staring back at the reader from the cover. As instances, Girish Karnad was a votary of the Tipu Jayanti celebrations; these came under the right-wing radar especially in Kodagu because of Tipu’s doings against the Kodavas and there were Hindu-Muslim riots in Kodagu in 2015. Hai Bangalore’s headlines in a particular issue translated roughly as ‘On account of Girish Karnad’s stupid utterances fell Kodava corpses.” Another Hai Bangalore headline had a holy man on the cover – someone the readers might recognize - with the words, “the astrologer Guruji who swallowed a television girl,” and a third had a man’s face on the cover and announced, “the ghoulish mind behind a beautiful face.” Needless to say, these headlines draw the reader by awakening his or her immediate curiosity. Belagere’s language was colloquial and he was not averse to using English words. For the word ‘stupid’ in the article about Kodava deaths, he writes ‘stupid’ in Kannada.
Apart from his tabloid and a lot of other writing he did in the 1990s – he wrote a lot of fiction as well – he became well-known for a television program called ‘Crime Diary’. Bangalore was just seeing its boom period at the time and was a very glamorous space because of new economy businesses and the spending power they unleashed. Belagere went to the outskirts of the city in these years and investigated murders and violent crime. I recollect one story about a man who was beheaded by wife and children, although his ‘only sin was enjoying a bit or rum every evening’. To make each story more graphic, the exact spots where things happened were photographed, with an irony-laden accompanying commentary in Belagere’s stentorian voice. The stories were sensationalist but also politically subversive since they were showing up Bangalore’s glamour for ‘what it was’. Much of Bangalore’s Kannada speaking populace did not share in the city’s prosperity at the time, there was disgruntlement at large and his reporting may have tapped that as well. His column ‘Paapigala lokadalli’ about underworld doings - meaning ‘In the world of sinners’ - continued same thing in the print medium.
Ravi Belagere came into notoriety a couple of years ago because of a tussle with his chief reporter Sunil Heggaravalli who, it is alleged, he tried to have liquidated. The latter sought protection for himself and his family from the Chief Minister because he feared for his life. The cause, it was reported, had to do with marital infidelity. Characteristically, the fight was carried over into Hai Bangalore with Sunil Heggaravalli’s picture on the cover, the headline announcing, “her husband beat her naked- Sunil Heggaravalli’s Evil Story,” and Sunil Heggaravalli subsequently sued Ravi Belagere for defamation.
I had been introduced briefly to Ravi Belagere in 1982 and I was introduced again more than thirty years later. When I told him that I had met him in Bellary in the 1980s, he immediately came up with a gesture of recognition, although there was no likelihood of his recollecting a handshake from thirty-five years before. But it will give the reader a sense of his essential refinement under the controversial position he held, and the dark reporting he was constantly doing. Ravi Belagere was a gifted individual with an intrinsic understanding of journalistic methods but, rather than restrict himself to being a writer and intellectual in an ordinary world – which he might have been – he used his skills in a darker world but found himself transformed. Mixing with the kind of elements he must have hobnobbed with - in reporting crime and thriving on scandal- gave him access to all kinds of circles, and, consequently, to influence and power. It must have been initially heady for the man from Bellary but, as the ultimate result, perhaps too much of a burden to bear, since he died early of a cardiac arrest at the age of only sixty-two.