Oscar shines spotlight on India’s rural female journalists | Showbiz

In this photo taken on March 11, 2022, Meera Devi, editor and reporter of ‘Khabar Lahariya’ (Waves of News), speaks to villagers during a report in Banda district, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. — AFP photo

BANDA, March 18 – An all-female team of low-caste, smartphone-equipped reporters chronicling India’s hard heart could give the movie-mad country its first Oscar-winning film, after their own story became a acclaimed documentary by criticism.

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 ranges from cow theft to sexual violence and corruption.

They have earned the respect of their village communities by covering local stories often overlooked by established Indian media, but only after an uphill battle to be taken seriously by authorities – and even by their own families.

“Just getting out of the house was a big challenge… I had to fight many battles,” journalist Geeta Devi told AFP.

“Even my father was dead against me. He said, ‘You can’t do this job, it’s not something women are supposed to do.’

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

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

But as word got around that a Khabar Lahariya reporter was nearby, others approached her to beg for coverage of their own misfortunes – municipal neglect resulting in a lack of clean water and filthy, overflowing sewers.

Some women have taken her aside to privately share their stories of experiencing sexual harassment and violence — issues often smothered under the weight of small town stigma.

Formal discrimination against Dalits has long since been abolished, but they are still often banned from entering temples or homes belonging to higher castes, and remain targets of violence.

As members of a marginalized community and women from deeply patriarchal villages in the Hindi-speaking Indian heartland, Khabar LahariyaCorrespondents have a unique perspective on local affairs, and Devi says she’s proud to be part of a team working with a “feminist lens.”

“Women who give hope”

Their efforts are subject to write with firean Oscar-nominated documentary that has taken the film festival circuit by storm and has already won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance.

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

“It’s a very inspiring story. It’s a story of women who give hope,” Rintu Thomas, the film’s director, told AFP at an Oscars premiere in Los Angeles.

“I think that’s very strong and powerful, especially in the world we find ourselves in right now where there’s so much distrust of the media,” she added.

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

But no film or documentary produced in India has ever won an Oscar, despite foreign productions shot locally. Gandhi and Slumdog Millionaire every Best Picture winner in the past years.

“We can achieve anything”

Parts of India have prospered in the three decades since market reforms brought an abrupt 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 editor, says her work is driven by a passion to give a voice to those who are excluded from India’s success story.

“When I fight for the rights of minorities, tribes and other marginalized sections of society – when these people are heard and get justice, I feel great,” she said.

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

The 35-year-old joined the media house in 2006, shortly after it began publishing, working first on stories of cattle rustling and tragic family disputes before moving into local politics .

His work has sent crooks to jail and shamed authorities to order repairs to dilapidated roads, as well as charting the rising tide of Hindu nationalism in the country’s rural hinterland.

“Men here aren’t used to seeing powerful women, especially in a field like journalism. But we are changing that perspective,” she said.

“We have proven that if women have the right opportunities, we can achieve anything. Once you give women the freedom they deserve, you just can’t stop them. —AFP

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