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Story Matters | EP1 | Why Journalism Schools Should Teach Storytelling

Story Matters | EP1 | Why Journalism Schools Should Teach Storytelling

Reported by: Jessica Goel

One moment can change the entire trajectory of one’s life. Svati Chakravarty Bhatkal’s tryst with a fact-finding team during the 1984 Bombay-Bhiwandi riots eventually turned a first-year student of economics at Mumbai’s St Xavier College into a documentary filmmaker.

“Going into the affected areas to gather information and witnessing what had happened to people changed me. After that, I couldn’t have just taken a corporate job and be satisfied with it,” Chakravarty said.

After that decision, she went on to play many other roles as journalist, children’s book publisher and filmmaker. In 2012 she took on the role of co-director and headed field research for the TV show Satyamev Jayate (Truth Alone Triumphs), which was produced and anchored by actor Aamir Khan.

After four years of rigorous research on the field for the show, Chakravarty started to look for her next project. Satyamev Jayate covered a range of issues from female feticide to farmer suicides with the aim of bringing awareness. And though satisfied, Chakravarty felt that the impact while widespread was still a matter of chance.

“The impact of the show was like throwing seeds in the wind and hoping that they would land on fertile soil. Sometimes they would land on rocks,” she said. 

The show aired every Sunday with stories most Indians had never heard before. 

“Even though the show had a huge impact, the unfortunate reality of episodic television shows is that people move on to the next issue along with the TV show. They forget about what they have seen last week,” Chakravarty said.

But the power of the audio-visual medium was not lost on her. 

Searching for her next project, Chakravarty was shaken by how prevalent hatred was all over the world. “We are caught in a vicious cycle of action and reaction seeking revenge over things that happened in the past,” she said. 

At the time, Chakravarty came across a news report about how a woman, Avantika Maken, forgave the killer of her father and mother. After mulling over the article and reading it several times, she found her new purpose. She picked up a camera and set out to make a film. That was the inception of Rubaru Roshni (Where the Light Comes In). 

The documentary, available on Hotstar and Netflix, features three stories about atonement and forgiveness. It identifies the cracks in someone’s life after losing a loved one and in the lives of those who commit a violent act. But it is also about the light that seeps in through those cracks. Through forgiveness, all involved parties try to get closure and see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“These three stories represent very crucial decades for our country: the ‘80s, the ‘90s and the 2000s,” she said.

Rubaru Roshni explores the belief that humans can be reformed and can evolve into better versions of themselves.

“I met these people and I was so inspired and wanted to find out more about forgiveness. I didn’t know how I would raise the resources, but I knew that I wanted to pursue these stories,” Chakravarty said.

The first story is of Avantika, whose parents Lalit and Gitanjali Maken were killed as retribution for the anti-Sikh violence, and Kuki Gill who was convicted for the Maken killings. 

Second is the story of Sister Selmy, a Catholic nun whose sister, Rani Maria, also a nun, was brutally killed by a farmer, Samandar Singh, who was subjected to propaganda about conversions by Christian missionaries. The story not only results in forgiveness but a brother-sister relationship that has endured for years.

And third, the story of Kia overcoming the loss of her husband and daughter during the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai. The story explores Kia’s grief and how she found strength in the aftermath without any hate towards the attackers.

Rubaru Roshni is an honest portrayal of the innermost sentiments of the characters in these three stories. Chakravarty was able to bring out and capture the vulnerability in their emotions by connecting with them at a basic human level.

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“Journalism schools are not focussing on storytelling as much as they should,” Chakravarty said. “A story that is told honestly has the potential to touch and change lives. We give too much importance to the equipment or to deadlines. But if we forget that for a minute and pursue human emotion we will find authentic stories.”

She added, “The best pieces of journalism that I have done have come at a price. To connect with people, you need to share with them too. To end with a human connection, you also need to start by making a human connection with the character. We often give credit to the director, producer and cinematographer of the film. But it is the subjects of the documentary who really deserve credit. So for me, Samandar bhaiya, Sister Selmy, Avantika ji, Kia and Kuki ji are co-creators of this documentary.”

The idea of forgiveness was something that she stumbled upon. “I discovered the power of forgiveness through these stories,” she said.

The film is a look back at events of the past. Since she did not want a dramatic recreation of the past, Chakravarty relied heavily on newspaper archives and newsreels. In the documentary, she explored what the subjects of her documentary were doing at the time to deal with and overcome the pain caused to them decades ago.

The process of recalling what had happened is somewhat cathartic for them, too. Maken hadn’t met Kuki since she had forgiven him. But during the making of the film, she showed interest in reconciling with him. She called him over for lunch and they renewed their relationship.

“For me, a story isn’t just about the plot; it’s about the impact it has afterwards. So I choose subjects that I am passionate about and treat the project as a mission. You can’t change the world overnight but you can pick stories and themes that are close to your heart and tell them in a unique way,” said Chakravarty, who has now begun working on her next film.

To know what Chakravarty said about the role of storytelling in journalism, please watch the online conversation above.

(Jessica Goel is a Multimedia Producer at StoriesAsia, and a graduate from Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi. When she isn’t telling stories, she’s behind a screen illustrating artwork.) 

You can listen to the audio version of this podcast on spotify

*(The “Story Matters” series features storytelling practitioners who have been part of StoriesAsia’s unique editorial meetings as special guests. StoriesAsia believes that literary and cinematic techniques used by novelists and filmmakers are the best tools journalists have to tell real-life stories – stories that will generate empathy, helping our audiences to connect with the “other” at the most fundamental human level without cultural, religious, class, racial and geographical barriers. The series seeks to start a conversation about a possible collaboration between journalists and storytelling practitioners.)

StoriesAsia, a collective of independent journalists from 16 South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, seeks to replace the present-day parade of faceless numbers with humanising narrative nonfiction – a largely ignored journalistic genre in the region.

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