Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Oscars spotlight India’s brave women journos

Oscars spotlight India’s brave women journos

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Geeta Devi (right), senior journalist of Khabar Lahariya (Waves of News), interviews a woman while reporting in Banda district, Uttar Pradesh state on March 11. AFP

Oscars spotlight India’s brave women journos

An all-women team of smartphone-toting, low-caste reporters who chronicle India’s hardscrabble heartland may give the cinema-mad country its first Oscar-winning film, after their own story became a critically lauded documentary.

The journalists of Khabar Lahariya (Waves of News) have built a huge following across Uttar Pradesh, a northern state with more people than Brazil, covering a beat that runs from cow thefts to sexual violence and corruption.

They have earned the respect of their village communities by covering local stories often overlooked by India’s established media outlets, but only after a relentless battle to be taken seriously by authorities – and even their own families.

“Just stepping outside the household was a big challenge . . . I had to fight many battles,” reporter Geeta Devi said.

“Even my father was dead against me. He said, ‘You can’t do this work, this is not something that women are supposed to do.’”

As with her colleagues, Devi is a member of the Dalit community, the lowest rung in India’s rigid caste system and the victims of an entrenched culture of prejudice and humiliation.

In Banda, a riverside town a few hours’ drive from the Taj Mahal, Devi interviewed a woman rendered destitute after she was abandoned by her husband.

But as word got around that a Khabar Lahariya reporter was nearby, others approached her to implore coverage of their own woes – municipal neglect leading to a lack of clean drinking water and dirty, overflowing drains.

Some women took her aside to privately share their stories as victims of sexual harassment and violence – issues often hushed up under the weight of small-town stigma.

Formal discrimination against Dalits was abolished a long time ago, but they are still often barred from entering temples or houses belonging to higher castes, and remain targets of violence.

As members of a marginalised community and women in the deeply patriarchal villages of India’s Hindi-speaking heartland, Khabar Lahariya’s correspondents have a unique insight into local affairs, and Devi says she is proud to be part of a team working with a “feminist lens”.

‘Women who give hope’

Their endeavours are the subject of Writing with Fire, an Oscar-nominated documentary that has taken the film festival circuit by storm and already won the Special Jury Award at Sundance.

The fly-on-the-wall narrative shows dedicated journalists preparing to transition from their legacy newspaper operations to digital production, unbowed by their encounters with dismissive police and fearsome local strongmen.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Meera Devi (centre), managing editor and reporter of Khabar Lahariya (Waves of News), speaks to village women while reporting in Banda district, Uttar Pradesh state on March 11. AFP

“It’s a very inspiring story. It’s a story about women who give hope,” Rintu Thomas, the film’s director, said at an Academy Awards preview event in Los Angeles.

“I think that is very strong and powerful, especially in the world that we are in right now where there is so much mistrust of the media,” she added.

India is home to the world’s most prolific film industry and cinema holds a rarefied place in national culture, with stars enjoying almost divine status and people often queuing to watch the same movie multiple times.

But no Indian-produced film or documentary has ever won an Academy Award, despite locally shot foreign productions Gandhi and Slumdog Millionaire each winning Best Picture in years past.

‘We can achieve anything’

Parts of India have prospered in the three decades since market reforms brought a jolting end to decades of sclerotic, socialist-inspired central planning.

Khabar Lahariya works in areas left behind by the economic boom, where life has barely changed even as new wealth transforms the country’s urban landscape and culture.

Meera Devi, the outlet’s managing editor, says her work is driven by a passion for giving a voice to those left out of India’s success story.

“When I fight for the rights of the minorities, tribals and other marginalised sections of society – when these people get heard and get justice, I feel very good,” she said.

Born in a remote village and married at 14, Meera had to fight against the odds to get a college degree.

The 35-year-old joined the media house in 2006, soon after it began publishing, initially working on stories of cattle theft and tragic family disputes before moving on to local politics.

Her work has sent crooks to jail and shamed officials into ordering the repair of rundown roads, as well as charting the rising tide of Hindu nationalism in the country’s rural hinterlands.

“The men here are not used to seeing powerful women, especially in a field like journalism. But we are changing that outlook,” she said.

“We have proved that if women are given the right opportunities, we can achieve anything. Once you give women the freedom they deserve, you simply cannot stop them.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Research key to Kanitha’s rep for expertise

    Sok Kanitha is used to weighing in on controversial issues using a confident approach that signals expertise and authority, and a recent video she made was no exception. Her “Episode 342: The History of NATO” video went live on January 16, 2023 and immediately shot to 30,000 likes and 3,500

  • Cambodia maintains 'Kun Khmer' stance despite Thailand’s boycott threat

    Cambodia has taken the position that it will use the term "Kun Khmer" to refer to the sport of kickboxing at the upcoming Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, and has removed the term Muay from all references to the sport. Despite strong reactions from the Thai

  • Knockout! Kun Khmer replaces ‘Muay’ for Phnom Penh Games

    Cambodia has decided to officially remove the word Muay from the programme of the 32nd Southeast Asian (SEA) Games 2023 in May. “Kun Khmer” will instead be used to represent the Southeast Asian sport of kickboxing, in accordance with the wishes of the Cambodian people. Vath

  • Artificial insemination takes herd from 7 to 700

    Some farms breed local cows or even import bulls from a broad for the purpose of breeding heavier livestock for meat production. One Tbong Khnum farmer has found a more efficient way. Hout Leang employs artificial insemination to fertilise local cows. Thanks to imported “straws”

  • Chinese group tours return to Cambodia starting Feb 6

    Cambodia is among 20 countries selected by Beijing for a pilot programme allowing travel agencies to provide international group tours as well as flight and hotel packages to Chinese citizens, following a three-year ban. As the days tick down until the programme kicks off on February 6,

  • Capital-Poipet express rail project making headway

    The preliminary results of a feasibility study to upgrade the Phnom Penh-Poipet railway into Cambodia’s first express railway indicate that the project would cost more than $4 billion and would take around four years to complete. The study was carried out by China Road and