-How a group of young independent filmmakers, journalists, and social activists came together to make a rural investigative film, employing non-professional child actors from the villages of Haryana.
Inspiration for cinema can come from diverse fronts. Some employ their imagination to the wildest range of possibilities while others look around for real-life stories that are intriguing and inspiring. For some, cinema is a commercial media form meant to entertain and entertain alone. Others see cinema as a powerful tool which can start a dialogue on contemporary social issues.
We belong to the latter category of filmmakers.
As a group of filmmakers, journalists and social activists, our past experiences of criss-crossing the rural heartland of India led us to conclude that there needs sustained activism and advocacy to achieve the true essence of girl child empowerment in India. Through films and media advocacy what we strive to achieve is to give a voice to the voiceless and inspire and instill in children the infinite powers their actions and reactions have.
After a few years of working on documentary films, In 2017, we began our first fiction project by telling the real-life story of “Afzana”, a 14-year-old girl from rural Haryana who defied social norms to pursue education. Our idea was not to limit the film to festivals and among viewers online. Coinciding with National Girl Child Day, we held a screening in Delhi with the participation of over 500 people including Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia. During the event, we raised over Rs. 1 lakh, which was later used for the education of 20 girls in the Haryana village where the film was shot.
We took the film to communities across the country and held over 50 screenings. The short film was also an entry to Jagran Film Festival ’18 & New York Youth Film Festival ’18. The film was a starting point to discuss issues around child marriage and girl child education. The experience proved to us that films have the tremendous power to start a dialogue.
Inspired by the success of “Afzana”, in our latest venture, we have broadened the canvass by making a feature-length film titled “Balak Times”, which is a story inspired from two real-life incidents.
The first is the tragedy at BRD Medical College, Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh in 2017 in which over 60 children died due to lack of oxygen supply. The sheer negligence of the government administration led to the death of children-many of them diagnosed by encephalitis-a brain inflammation caused by an infection which is sporadic in that region of the country leading to several deaths every year.
The second is the fascinating story of ‘Balaknama’-a street children-run newspaper in Delhi in which children write on issues affecting their daily lives. Publishing a newspaper would be the last thing anyone would expect from a child growing up in the streets of Delhi. But with the support of a non-profit organization, the monthly newspaper has been successfully running for the last many years, receiving attraction globally.
Combining both the incidents, “Balak Times” film tells the story of three school-going girl children in rural Haryana who publishe an underground newspaper to bring the culprits of a hospital tragedy to justice.
Set in Mewat region of Haryana, known for its skewed gender ratio and patriarchal norms, the film’s main cast are girls from the community who don’t have any prior acting experience. Rather than relying on a big cast or known faces, our idea of filmmaking is to give opportunities to children from marginalized communities to express themselves. Without the support of any production house, we pooled in money from known sources and conceived the film on a shoe string budget with limited resources.
The inspiration behind the film came from our strong belief in the power of independent and community-led media at a time when media is fast becoming commercialized. We live at a time when stories are picked and pushed based on their potential to attract a ‘click’ or based on TRP ratings rather than considering the merit of its contents.
We see how media of all sorts are budging to pressures of various kinds while forgetting the purpose of their existence – to inform public in a non-biased and objective manner. At a time when social media and digitisation is transforming the information flow in rural India, fake news is a menace that is wreaking havoc.
Even at this digital age, we know rural stories are under reported and villagers are often at the mercy of mainstream media to report their issues. We wish to change this scenario.
In these dangerous times, we believe media needs to be decentralised. Rather than being a consumer, people should have the power to be the creators – creators with ethics and responsibility.
Why Children? We often ask why not ? We all know innocence is inherent to children and they are not corrupted by many external influences. Through our fictional story, we wanted to shed light on the reaction of a group of children when something terribly wrong happens in their village. They could have kept silent and went on about their lives like everyone else.
But what if they react? What can they achieve? Can they stand up to the powerful system? This is what the film tries to communicate.
The film “Balak Times” would be premiered in an event organised as part of National Girl Child Day celebrations on Feb 3, 2019 at Jesus And Mary College Auditorium, New Delhi (03:00 pm). Around 500 invited guests from universities, NGOs, government agencies and media will attend the event.
Post the film screening, we would have child reporters of ‘Balaknama’- the street children-run newspaper in Delhi, who would share their experience with the audience. Video interviews of child reporters from Chhattisgarh, Meghalaya and Telangana would also be shown in the event.
The idea is to bring children’s media representatives together and listen to their stories and struggles. Through this, we would like to create a discussion on the relevance of independent media initiatives.
During the event, we plan to launch a crowd-funding project which would enable us to complete the post production of the film, which would help us match our film to industry standards.
Apart from that, using the funds generated from crowd-funding, we plan to launch a year-long pilot project in the villages of Haryana where we would give media training to children in the locality where the film was shot. The aim would be to setup a community media platform exclusively led by children where they would be making films on issues affecting them. We want to make them story tellers independent of others. We look forward to a time when mainstream media would be relying on the stories brought out by the children to understand the ground realities of the region.
After the pilot project in Haryana, we would like to expand this project to other regions in rural India.