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Gauri Lankesh documentary: ‘She approached life with both her head and her heart’

‘Our Gauri’, directed by Pradeep and produced by Pedestrian Pictures, is a portrait of the firebrand journalist who was murdered in September.

A month after journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead at her house in Bengaluru by unknown assailants, a documentary chronicling her life, ideology and work is up on YouTube.

KP Pradeep’s Our Gauri is anything but a hastily put together film. The 67-minute documentary, produced by Pedestrian Pictures, offers a comprehensive look at Lankesh’s worldview, her political ideology and explosive journalism.

Gauri Lankesh was the daughter of P Lankesh, an equally robust journalist from Karnataka and the editor of the powerful weekly tabloid Lankesh Patrike. After her father’s death in 2000, Lankesh took over the publication’s editorship and coached herself to write fluently and lucidly in Kannada. Until then, she had worked as a journalist in the English press.

The paper was, however, owned by her brother Indrajit Lankesh, so Gauri Lankesh started her own paper in February 2005. The goal of Gauri Lankesh Patrike was to take her father’s vision and ideology forward.

Our Gauri. Image credit: Pedestrian Pictures.
Our Gauri. Image credit: Pedestrian Pictures.

Pradeep first met Lankesh during protests against the saffronisation of the Bababudangiri shrine in Chikmagalur in 2003, he told The Hindu. The protests marked Lankesh’s debut as an activist and triggered a journey during which she tackled a variety of issues, including communalism, bringing Naxals into the mainstream, and supporting the fight of the Lingayats, who want to dissociate themselves from Hinduism. Somewhere along the way, Lankesh’s journalism and activism converged and became inseparable.

Gauri Lankesh was most renowned as a vociferous critic of Hindutva groups. In Our Gauri, Shivsundar, a Patrike columnist, puts it succinctly: “Gauri Lankesh Patrike was a weekly threat to the RSS.”

Pradeep begins Lankesh’s story from the end. The film opens with visuals of her house on the night of September 5 after it was transformed into a crime scene. Pradeep cuts to footage from the protests and the cremation the next day and finally settles down for a conversation with friends and family, all of whom can be seen grappling with Lankesh’s absence in their lives. Her sister Kavitha Lankesh speaks about the initial years and Gauri’s relationship with her family. Gauri Lankesh had instincts of a fighter right from childhood, Kavita says.

Gauri Lankesh (right) in a family photo.
Gauri Lankesh (right) in a family photo.

Deepu spends some time charting Gauri Lankesh’s decision to switch from English journalism to Kannada. “She didn’t have a very good vocabulary, she found the grammar and spelling difficult,” Shivsundar tells the filmmaker. “In two years, she managed to have such a hold over the language that she would point out the spelling mistakes we made in our copies.”

The agitation in Chikmagalur is the next stop in Lankesh’s story. She was among those who were arrested. Through file footage from the Chikmagalur jail that housed Gauri and interviews with people who knew her at that time, Pradeep establishes the context within which Gauri’s views were formed.

Pradeep charts every landmark in Lankesh’s public life: the case she filed against Uma Bharti, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh at the time, in the Hubli Idgah Maidan case, her involvement in the protests against the attack on over 25 churches in Karnataka during chief minister BS Yeddyurappa’s tenure, the efforts she put into understanding Naxalism, and her unconditional support for youth and student movements across the country, particularly her association with Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Jignesh Mevani.

Kanhaiya Kumar and Gauri Lankesh.
Kanhaiya Kumar and Gauri Lankesh.

As a portrait, Our Gauri matches what Shivsundar describes to be Gauri’s attitude: the right mix of head and heart. The invitation is clear: to look beyond the explosive and provocative words and focus on the issues that shaped them.

Deepu ensures that like Gauri, the film strikes a balance between the writer-journalist and the activist. Some of the most touching testimonials are by from those who worked with her in trying to bring out the tabloid every week against all odds. Pradeep gives adequate space to Lankesh’s writing style, the feedback she received from readers, the reach of the publication, her commitment to bringing out the newspaper despite financial troubles, and her determination in ensuring that every staff member got paid.

The film returns to the present to tackle some of the accusations that were thrown at Lankesh. A significant portion is dedicated towards rubbishing a theory that was doing the rounds after her murder: that she was a Naxal sympathiser and was killed by “one of her own”.

Pradeep also takes on people who celebrated Lankesh’s death on social media. “In the Bhagawata Purana, they say don’t speak ill of the dead, even if they are your enemy,” says HV Vasu, a columnist with Gauri Lankesh Patrike and Karnataka Janashakti. “Within a few minutes of her death, these people demonised her, telling lies. Isn’t there some minimum spirituality in everyone’s religion? Do those who celebrated her death not know even that much about their own religion?”

Our Gauri (2017).
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