Straight talk with Faye D’Souza

Faya D’Souza   | Photo Credit: Vivek Bendre

Two summers ago, a video of a television journalist calmly but firmly telling off a misogynist cleric on air went viral. It announced the arrival of Faye Elvira D’Souza, then anchor of Mirror Now’s prime time show, The Urban Debate. Audiences began to tune in for her brand of scathing yet methodical deconstruction. A couple of weeks ago, another video featuring her was extensively shared across social media. This one, titled Uncle, Are You With Us?, and performed at the Mumbai Spoken Fest 2020, summed up how different sections of society are responding to the on-going CAA-NRC protests across India.

These are interesting and challenging times for journalists. The advent of social media and smart phones has changed how information is being consumed and distributed. And no one understands this better than independent commentators like D’Souza, who are determined to bring reliable news and balanced views to the public. The 38-year-old, who parted ways with mainstream media last September, around the time the media “failed to cover the truth about what was happening in Kashmir” (as she shared at the Spoken Fest), believes that sometimes, to truly do the job, “you have to create that space on your own”.

“I find that going out on the streets, into protests, meeting people and finding out what they are upset about, what they need, makes it easier for me to understand what’s going on in the country,” she says. Her crisp posts — laying bare hard truths and taking on the big powers (like her challenge to Amit Shah to debate the CAA) — on Twitter and Instagram have a strong following (869k and 195k respectively). Earlier this month, she also took her straight talking to Firework, the short video network, as 30-second videos. “The average post-millennial audience does not engage with news as we’d imagine. This demographic has apps on their phones that they never open; they only look at the notifications to get the headlines,” observes Sunil Nair, CEO, Firework India. “They don’t want to engage with news that go beyond the core of what the issue is. So, Faye is someone they connect with.”

That is not to say journalists are blind to the problems that alternative platforms of news dissemination come with. At the recent Jaipur Literature Festival, D’Souza joined fellow journalists and authors to discuss if social media has divided society. Agreeing that it can be divisive, she made her case with three arguments: there’s a lack of nuanced opinions on social media; it amplifies the ‘crazy voices in our heads’; and, most importantly, the infrastructure within Twitter and Facebook ‘allows for fake news to be pushed’. Her statement that Indian journalism is not addressing the young who are looking for information that isn’t ‘too loud, too shouty and too abrasive’ was met with cheers. In fact, that’s the gap she is hoping to bridge as an independent journalist. The Bengaluru native and Vogue’s Opinion Maker of the Year 2018 says, “I want to explore new formats and styles of getting messages out there; to talk about current affairs, to get people to think about things and talk to younger people about what’s going on in the country.”

Excerpts from a telephonic interview:

Faye D’Souza

Faye D’Souza   | Photo Credit: Vogue India | Bikramjit Bose

What has the response been like to the spoken word video?

Completely crazy! Almost everyone I’ve met has seen it, and people are writing to me from Canada, Australia and parts of the US. It seems to have really travelled and that’s quite overwhelming. I think everyone is forwarding it to prove that they’re not uncles, which is really funny. A lot of the younger people I spoke to said they identified with that feeling, ‘How are you silent at a time like this?’ As for the uncles in my building complex, they’re all trying to figure out which one of them it was.

Internationally, anchors like John Oliver and Hasan Minhaj have proven that comedy and current affairs can be mixed. Why haven’t we explored this format in India?

Those formats require large teams of writers and researchers, and budgets here tend to be difficult. Also, I don’t think we’ve had anyone yet who’s taken the risk here on that format. India is the perfect place for this because there’s so much going on right now. It would be nice to tell these stories in a way that people go, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking.’ India’s youth is very involved, active and woke, but there isn’t anyone talking to them. Nobody, for example, was talking to them about the abrogation of Article 370 and telling them what these decisions being made were.

Young India is a key area of focus with you.

I think there’s a case to revisit everything, because people in their early 20s weren’t around when we were listening to ‘Mile sur mera tumhara’ on Doordarshan. They’re a new generation and someone needs to tell them why India has reservation, or if we’ve managed to solve the problem we wanted to solve with reservation, or what’s going wrong with it, or where the caste system falls in this modern-day society. These are issues people have opinions on, but nobody’s giving them enough information to solidly form these opinions. That, I believe, is the calling going forward.

Why does being woke and responsive matter to post-millennials?

Because of the internet, millennials know that there are no more gatekeepers. They have access to everyone [they feel like they know you more personally], and there’s far more scrutiny of the way things are being done. So, there’s more respect for people who are brave, who take a stand, than someone sitting in big offices in big organisations. I also think that young people are looking for people to inspire them. Kannan Gopinath [who quit the IAS over restrictions imposed in Kashmir] is a great example. They have respect for him, for the stand he’s taken, for the things he says.

Faye D’Souza at the Jaipur Literature Festival

Faye D’Souza at the Jaipur Literature Festival   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

You’re talking about a form of independent media. Purely in terms of finances, it is not an easy business to get into.

People are asking questions around monetisation, but, quite honestly, I believe we should pay for good service. You don’t expect your phone service to come for free and nobody gives you free internet. Once you pay for your service, then you demand the best. I believe if you want honest journalism that treats you and your intellect with respect, you have to pay for that service. I am going to encourage my viewers and customers to pay for what we put out. If you aren’t paying for your news, you aren’t the end consumer. You are the commodity that is being packaged and sold to the advertiser. That should worry you, because then your relationship is the one that chicken has with Real Good [the fresh poultry brand]. If you aren’t paying, then ask yourself who is and what interests are we serving?

Is there a downside to striking out on your own?

I don’t have an office, which means I don’t have an IT person every time something breaks down. I’m working out of various other spaces, I’m looking for investors... it is scary, but exciting, too. I believe independent journalists are going to be the way forward. Not all large organisations are able to provide you with the independence to do the work that you need to do. Sometimes you have to create that space on your own.

How much has social media informed this new kind of storytelling in journalism?

Social media creates an interesting opportunity. Twitter is where a lot of people are exchanging stories. It gives a lot of new stories the pump-up they need. I don’t think people get their news purely from other platforms like Facebook. That would worry me because their algorithm pushes what someone’s paid for. I believe there needs to be a solution that will inform you about the 10-20 important stories of the day. And just by reading that, you’re sorted.

You’ve started a format on Instagram called News That Should Be Headlines.

I write what I think is important from the stories that I’ve come across. It has got an amazing response and it happened organically. My Instagram page went from 35k to 182k followers in three months. I have people writing back saying I should do it every day and more often. It reaffirmed that this is something that needs to be done — aggregated, even-toned news with sources [for young India].

What’s next?

We are a two-member team at the moment, putting out content every day. I’m hoping to grow this into a full organisation — a news-based start-up that will talk to India’s young people, without any of the shouting and the screaming.

With inputs from Surya Praphulla Kumar

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Printable version | Oct 28, 2021 10:04:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/straight-talk-with-faye-dsouza/article30701624.ece

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