(2021) Documentary (Music Box) Meera Devi, Suneeta Prajapati, Shyamkali Devi, Arti Soni, Alima Tarannum, Lalita Devi, Rojini Kumari, Anita Shakya, Kavita Devi, Geeta Devi, Krishna Mishra, Sahodra, Alka Manral, Lakshmi Sharma, Sunita Devi, Nazal Rizui, Saroj, Meera Jatau, Reena Ahirwar, Harshita Vera, Kumkim Yadau, Susheela Devi, Rajkumari Ahirwar. Directed by Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas
India has for many centuries held to a caste system, where the lowest are the Dalit caste, who were once known as “untouchables” in the sense that they were not allowed to make physical contact with other castes. While the name is no longer used, the same type of attitude still prevails.
And if you think that’s terrible, even lower than that is to be a Dalit woman. While it is now possible for Dalits (even Dalit women) to get an education, the women still remain subservient to men in their culture. Women are often placed by their parents in arranged marriages, and from time to time their husbands think nothing of using physical violence to control their wives.
Things are changing in some ways, and one of the agents of change are the intrepid reporters of the Khabar Lahariya newspaper (which translates as “waves of news”). The newspaper is grassroots journalism at its finest, and what is more remarkable that it is entirely staffed by women – most of them Dalit women. This documentary focuses on three of the reporters – senior reporter Meera Devi, who has been married since age 14 and prior to becoming a journalist was a teacher with a degree in political science; senior reporter Suneeta Prajapati, who is focusing on stories regarding illegal mining operations that employ child labor, place their miners in deplorable conditions in which injuries are frequent and deaths not uncommon; and cub reporter Shyamkali Devi who is young and married to an abusive husband, but determined to become successful even though she knows nothing about journalism or writing.
We catch these women during a period of transition for Khabar Lahariya as the print newspaper is pivoting into becoming a digital enterprise. This means teaching the reporters how to use a cell phone to capture video, file stories via e-mail and research on the internet, although several of the women have never used a cell phone before (Shyamkali among them). Shyamkali is having a difficult time with the transition; she doesn’t speak English and the phones require a certain amount of knowledge of the English language.
But little by little we see the effect that the newspaper has on local issues; a village that is suffering through a tuberculosis epidemic finally receives medical assistance after the paper shames the government into acting; a vital road in a village receives much-needed repairs after the newspaper points out the dangerous conditions, and politicians and police officers are held to task for their inaction.
India is a place where rape culture has thrived, and it comes as no surprise that much of the energy at the newspaper is spent on telling the stories of women who have been violated (some of them repeatedly), only to find that the police are unwilling to do anything about it. The general consensus is that “boys will be boys” and make “silly mistakes,” and that rape is really a mental health issue. Nothing to be done, so sorry, carry on.
We also experience the rise of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP party. We meet young Hindus who are determined to preserve the way of life that their theology has taught them to lead, and it’s fairly chilling. There are some disquieting similarities between the followers of Modi and the followers of Trump here. Trump has sown seeds of mistrust among the right for the media, a tactic that doesn’t seem as necessary in India as the media is sometimes as corrupt as the politicians themselves are. Often the reporters of Khabar Lahariya are held up to ridicule by their fellow reporters (all men of a certain class) and veiled threats are even made upon occasion. One wonders if the presence of a documentary crew filming the interviews might have saved the women from being the targets of violence.
The women are certainly courageous and dedicated to making life better for those with no voices, providing a voice for them. The filmmakers fail to provide more context. We learn next to nothing about what prompted the founding of the newspaper and it’s unique staffing policy, what prompted these women individually to become citizen journalists, how the hierarchy of the organization works, and how do they stay afloat financially. A little background information would have gone a long way in helping viewers understand, particularly those of us who aren’t familiar with Indian culture.
These women are definite role models, particularly for young girls who are growing up in what might seem to be a hopeless situation with little future and no really good options. These women seem to be bent on overcoming that situation, and despite having varying degrees of support from their families, it can’t be denied that these women are making a difference.
REASONS TO SEE: The women depicted here are courageous and tenacious, absolute role models. Quietly points out how what’s going on in India isn’t unlike what’s going on here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have given a bit more background on the various subjects i.e., why they got into journalism in the first place.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and discussions of sexual assault.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: More than 40 journalists have been killed since 2019, making India one of the most dangerous places in the world to report the news.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Under the Wire (2018)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
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