Working on ‘Gauri’ was not easy, says Kavitha Lankesh

Filmmaker Kavitha Lankesh talks about ‘Gauri’, her documentary on the life and work of her activist-sister, which won the Best Human Rights Film at the Toronto Women’s Film Festival

September 30, 2022 07:17 pm | Updated October 01, 2022 03:36 pm IST

Kavita Lankesh during the making of Gauri

Kavita Lankesh during the making of Gauri

“I hope Gauri’s voice continues to resonate,” says Kavitha Lankesh. Her documentary Gauri on the life and work of her journalist and activist sister, Gauri Lankesh, has won the Best Human Rights Film award at the Toronto Women’s Film Festival (TWFF) 2022. Gauri was gunned down in 2017, on the porch of her home in Bengaluru.

Understandably, the win evoked mixed emotions for Kavitha. While the subject is painful and personal, Gauri is creating ripples at various international film festivals, such as the South Asian Film Festival of Montreal, International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam and the Sundance Film Festival among others.

“If Gauri was here and I had made an award-winning film on her, she would have certainly scoffed. She was never one for rewards or recognition,” said Kavitha.

“I am thankful to the jury of TWFF for recognizing the ‘spirit’ of the film, which exposes both the physical and mental threats being faced by journalists across the country. Over 200 journalists have sacrificed their lives in the last five years around the globe.”

Kavitha Lankesh during the making of ‘Gauri’

Kavitha Lankesh during the making of ‘Gauri’

The hour-long film pays tribute to all those who laid down their lives for voicing the truth, says Kavitha. “September 5, 2017 was the darkest day of my life. The brutal assassination of my sister by right-wing extremists shook the conscience of people across the country and abroad.” Kavitha believes that though the cause of such murders is attributed to ‘hurting religious sentiments,’ in Gauri’s case, there was another reason too — an attempt to muzzle free press. “Do you know India ranks 150 in the global index for freedom of expression?” she asks.

Initially, Kavitha wanted to make a full-length feature film on Gauri, but dropped the idea considering the cost involved and the pressure of creating a commercial film for a production house. Whilst fighting to get justice for her sister, knocking on the doors of State and judiciary, Kavitha wrote the script and shot the film commissioned by Free Press Unlimited, Netherlands. While over 300 filmmakers across the globe expressed interest in making documentaries on slain journalists, Kavitha is one of the four filmmakers who was chosen.

Kavitha Lankesh

Kavitha Lankesh

Kavitha says the proposal she sent to Free Press Unlimited was based on extensive research and an incisive understanding of Gauri’s life and her contribution to basic human rights. “I shot the documentary in various parts of the country, where she left her mark. Gauri speaks intensely about the risk of being persecuted by the State and hounded by society,” she says, adding that she opted for a big canvas to portray the radical, ideological and political situation in the country.

“My daughter, Esha, was quite anxious at the thought of me making a documentary on Gauri. After we were closely watched by extremists for over a year following Gauri’s demise, she was naturally concerned about our safety. Though I was undecided for a while too, my inner voice was firm and I finally told Esha I would go ahead with the documentary.”

Kavitha Lankesh during the making of ‘Gauri’

Kavitha Lankesh during the making of ‘Gauri’

While making the documentary, Kavitha was quite conscious of her proximity to the subject and was worried this factor could undermine her objectivity. “Initially, it was overwhelming to watch the footage collected from various sources, but after a while I could overcome it by considering it as a subject. I am thankful to the assistance of many people including civil rights activist and journalist Teesta Setalwad,” she said, adding that, Deepu, her cameraman, handled technical issues such as quality of old footage shot on various formats.

The documentary proved to be cathartic for Kavitha. “My intention was to narrate Gauri’s struggle for freedom of expression by upholding the rights of the oppressed classes and fighting against divisive forces in the country.” Recent breakthroughs in the investigation of Gauri’s assassination, arrests of a few fundamentalist activists and the resumption of court hearings on the case, have provided her a modicum of relief. Though calls from various quarters demanding a screening of  Gauri have come in , Kavitha is still apprehensive of screening it in public.

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