Kavitha Lankesh is a noted film director and has won both international and national acclaim as well as awards to her films. Her first direction was “Deveeri”, based on P.Lankesh’s novel of the same title and throws light on the context of the caste issue and the lives of prostitutes in India. From then on, she has worked with numerous artists including Prakash Raj and Nandita Das for her films and continues to keep a focus on the social evils visible in almost every part of India, making her a very relevant figure in modern Indian cinema. Here is an excerpt of a chat my friend Sarat Sindhu Mukhopadhya and I had with her on a rainy afternoon at her home.
Kavitha Lankesh (KL): So, let us begin with you guys. What is the immediate problem that you have been facing in the fields you are involved with respectively?
Titas Biswas (TB) and Sarat: To admit the truth, both of us are still students, basically. The universities across India – including the universities we have been pursuing our higher education from are losing viability in terms of allowing their students to freely express their own viewpoints about everything beginning from the university campus to societal taboos and political rights.
A glaring example is Presidency University (previously known as Hindu College), which has an eminent history of over 200 years and its brilliant scholar alumni. Ever since 2011, the intensity of increasing oppression against students against basic rights like that of freedom of expression have been increasing at an amazing pace altogether!
The last two months observed violent protests at Jadavpur University premises against the Mamata Banerjee govt. regime’s attempt to completely abolish the student’s rights to form any kind of unions in the university premises and brought a proposal of establishing a so-called apolitical student’s council wherein the representatives would be chosen by the Vice Chancellor, who – quite ironically is appointed by the state itself.
KL: This has been coming down in several forms actually. The entire state machinery is attempting to curb our voices, be it individual or collective. It does not matter if you are a student, an artist or an activist ; either you keep your voices down or they will ensure everything on their part to silence you totally and completely. For how many years have you been facing this kind of treatment in educational institutions?
TB: Ever since we can imagine, perhaps. To be more specific, though – the intensity has been increasing highly in the last decade or so.
KL: I am not what one would decipher from the term “activist”. I am not an activist but I try to project the wrongdoings and mishaps and taboos of this society through my films. But filmmakers, too – have been facing similar issues lately. As a matter of fact, even a decade ago, you would not have to worry as much about censorship issues. While there remains a chaotic ambiance about pornography being open and visible to minors in the country and while the govt. still continues to be ignorant about the same, you have to worry a hell lot about portraying the economically and socially downtrodden in your films since a single use of cuss words or abusive language where it is necessary to portray realism would be censored by the board in lesser time than a blink of your eye.
Gauri was very vocal about all these issues. She voiced her opinion on everything beginning from the lower caste problem in India to the rising saffronisation of the general masses.
TB: There are the Ambedkarites who focus on the annihilation of the caste system from the country and there are activists like Jignesh Mehwani who emphasise on the gradual upliftment of the lower castes. What were Gauri’s perspectives on the same?
KL: As I had told you previously, I am not an activist. I do not know the tiniest details about these issues. There are a number of people who are working to bring her work in focus, and I can help you to reach them somehow, if need be.
TB: Was Gauri extremely vocal against the BJP and RSS?
KL: She was. As vocal about these issues an individual can be. She was concerned about the people here, she would try to expose all the wrongdoings that went against the interest of the commoners.
TB: Was it this spirit that cost her her life?
KL: Indeed. She was so vigorously bold and would work hard day and night for the weekly tabloid. And she was very picky about finding commercial sponsors. Mostly, the paper would run on the money she earned by selling books authored by herself and our father. She even used money from her insurances to make sure the workers in her office got paid well at the right time.
It also is quite tough to run a weekly tabloid in Kannada. But she was rigid about it, and very, very dedicated to the work she had taken up.
TB: Was there any difference between Gauri and her father?
KL: I could not spot any. She was very similar to him, extremely dedicated about work, dedicated about a writer’s duty to the people. She got herself another chair beside our father’s chair as a mark of respect to him.
TB: The BJP and a part of the mainstream media have been trying their best to put the entire blame of her murder on Naxalites. What would you say about that?
KL: Look, that is just not true. She was trying to bring some of the Naxalites back to mainstream life. She was trying to communicate with them, help them understand the context of modern day politics. It was not the Naxalites who took her life. Her murder was a part of the silencing propaganda taken up by radical nationalists and orthodox fundamentalists, who have been playing the two sides of the same coin in recent times in this country.
TB: How would you describe her political orientation?
KL: She was a leftist…but never of the extremist kind. She was a part of the larger movement, she would support a local BJP leader if he would have been working truly well for the betterment of the commoners in this state. She had had interactions with Jignesh Mehwani and Kanhaiya Kumar and was quite friendly with both. She was supportive of the JNU movement. Her entire team had been investigating the murder of scholar and professor M.M Kalburgi.
She was concerned about the murder of intellectuals by fundamentalists, just like all other progressive journalists in this country.
In fact, seven other left-leaning jounralists and scholars have been threatened in the week that followed after her murder. The far right in this country has left no other options open to put the blame on.
TB: How would she perceive the crisis in Kashmir or that in the north-eastern states?
KL: Coming back to this, you have to go through her work in order to find this out. The most important part is that her work is being translated in English so that more and more people can come up and learn about the cause behind and for her dedication.
TB: What drove her to take up the role of an activist?
KL: What I remember is the transition we saw in her when the 2002 Gujarat Riots were going on. She suddenly became very determined about taking up the necessary steps she could individually to stand against such incidents that caused nationwide bloodshed and trauma.
TB: Speaking of languages, what exactly is the issue in this state about Hindi being the national language?
KL: The common people in this state started the movement against Hindi being a national language since they had absolutely no relations with such an imposition previously! They have known Kannada to be their medium of expression ever since birth and just because the state wants to impose something on you does not mean that it has to be accepted readily.
TB: What was Gauri’s take on Lingayats?
KL: All of the Lankeshs’ are Lingayats but that does not necessarily signify that we are religious people. In fact, she would rather react quite rudely if you would determine her religion before listening to her say on it. She was an atheist, and so are the rest of us. We even had a group of family members and friends on a certain social media outlet where we would actively speak against orthodox Hindutwa and BJP and RSS but currently, we are too afraid to voice ourselves ever since the incident took place. It has been tough for all of us, and especially for Esha – she is still just in eighth grade.
TB: What was the motto of the Lankesh Patrike?
KL: The motto of the tabloid was to expose the govt.’s misdeeds. P.Lankesh and Gauri, both were anti-govt and anti-state activists. Both of them tried their level best to expose the scams and misdeeds of the authority against the interest of the people.
TB: Previously, there were organisations and forums like IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) that worked collectively to handle these crises and voice themselves on these grounds. How do you individually attempt to voice yourself on these grounds?
KL: I am a filmmaker and I want my films to carry out the messages that I feel are morally correct. When I directed Deveeri in 1999, it was in favour of the caste issue and the lives of prostitutes in this country. That we are to gather together or not is indeed an important question given the extent of oppression that is coming down on us artists in the recent times.
TB: How do we carry on her legacy?
KL: There are so many people who are constantly working for retaining the meaning of freedom of expression of one’s own mind. They are being threatened by the state, by the current govt. regime, by the fundamentalists but none of that is stopping them from speaking their heart and mind out. That spirit is the only ray of hope that could save us in the long run now.