Writing With Fire


For a lone woman , even conducting a simple interview can be intimidating – and dangerous.

(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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BLONDE: purple

The Last Color


Being a woman in India is walking the tightrope between tradition and equality.

(2019) Drama (Saffron PenNeena Gupta, Aqsa Siddiqui, Budrani Chhetri, Rajeshwar Khanna, Aslam Sheikh. Directed by Vikas Khanna

 

India has an amazing culture with much to admire about it. One of the things that is an exception is in the way that women are treated, particularly widows and orphans. In many ways, Indian society is downright repressive to those who have few advocates.

Noor Saxena is one such advocate. A lawyer, she has wrangled a decision from India’s highest court that grants rights to widows that they have not had for centuries. In Indian tradition, widows only wear white. They live lives devoid of color – they are forbidden from taking part in the Holi festival that celebrates the oncoming of spring. You may know it as the one where people throw colored powders at one another in a frenzy of joyful fun. Widows don’t get to take part in that.

Chhoti (Siddiqui) is a street rat living in the slums of Benares, a Hindu holy city along the Ganges. She makes money by doing a tightrope act and selling flowers in the streets. She hopes one day to earn enough to go to school and rise above her station. She befriends 70-year-old Noor (Gupta), a widow living in an ashram for widows who live lives of colorless and passionless reflection. As with most widows, her life is expected to be over when her husband dies; her body is just walking around until she can join him.

Chhoti also hangs out with Chintu (R. Khanna), a fellow orphan who aids her in her high wire act. The two dodge police officers trying to make enough to survive. They are aided by transgender woman Anarkali (Chhetri) who supports herself as a sex worker, mainly catering to brutal men like Raja (Sheikh), an ill-tempered cop who sees himself as king of his little part of the world. He is doubly frustrated because his wife not only hasn’t given him a son (only daughters) but she refuses to bathe in a sacred pool which would guarantee the birth of a strapping young son. He passes through the world as kind of a rage junkie, always looking for a reason to cause pain.

Still, Chhoti never fails to stand up for herself and with Noor guiding her and pushing her to be better than her lot, she falls under the vengeful gaze of Raja, particularly after she witnesses the evil cop doing something particularly heinous, something that could get him thrown in jail. Will Noor defy tradition and stand with her friend?

The movie looks at cultural attitudes towards women in general and the more marginalized women – transgenders, widows and “untouchables” in particular – and the traditions that keep them down. First-time director Vikas Khanna has a wonderful eye for color; the movie is gorgeous to look at even in its occasional brutality and squalor.

Gupta also gives Noor a ton of dignity and gravitas, perhaps more than the movie deserves. It sometimes seems to move at a very deliberate pace which can be maddening; hammering us over the head with how widows and orphans are treated might get the point across but it also at times feels like we’re being talked down to. When you’re trying to deliver a message with your movie, that’s a pitfall you want to avoid.

Still, there is a lot here that is worth checking out. The movie had a brief Los Angeles run and may yet make some appearances elsewhere; there may even be a VOD slot in its future although nothing official has been announced as of yet. Either way, this is worth keeping an eye out for.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderful use of color throughout the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Rather slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, particularly of the domestic sort; also, sexual situations and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Khanna is best-known as a James Beard award-winning chef. The film is based on a novel that he wrote decrying the state of women’s rights in his home country.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lipstick Under My Burkha
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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