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Meet Women Pilots on Evacuation Mission

Meet pilots Daisy Chacko and Aakanksha Verma who are part of India’s unprecedented worldwide evacuation operation Vande Bharat.

By Shweta Bhandral

The frightening possibility of contracting COVID-19 did not deter Daisy Chacko from standing up for duty. She grew up with the ambition of becoming a fighter pilot. Indian Air Force had not yet opened its doors to women fighter pilots when she passed out of flying school, Daisy joined national carrier Air India. Daisy always loved a bit of adventure.

The 36-year-old volunteered for the Vande Bharat Mission, a massive evacuation programme to bring back Indians stranded abroad due to the pandemic-induced lockdown.

On May 20, she flew the long Mumbai-Riyadh–Kannur Vande Bharat flight as its captain, leaving her overwhelmed with the sense of solidarity. Unprecedented situations call for extraordinary missions.

Captain Daisy Chacko (R) with her co-pilot Duhita Reddy

“People said they were proud of us. They blessed us and were genuinely happy that a young woman flew them back home,” avers commander Daisy who also flew the Abu Dhabi-Ahmedabad-Mumbai flight as part of the mission.

Interestingly, India has the highest number of women pilots in the world. Though it only 1092 licenced female pilots compared with 8797 male. This 11 per cent ratio is much more than the global average of 5 per cent.

 The likes of Daisy are part of this legacy. In fact, it was Air India that broke the glass ceiling way back in 1966 employing its first woman pilot. “More than five decades later when I joined, this is one profession where there is equal pay and respect for professionalism,” says senior commander Aakanksha Verma, also 36.

Captain Aakanksha Verma

Aakanksha got her student pilot licence at age 16, even before her driving licence. Her father was her inspiration for her “focused approach” towards building her career, she recalls. “Dad in uniform was captivating for me. In class 2 we had to write a paragraph on what we want to become, and I wrote ‘Main ek mahila vimaan chalika banna chahti hoon (I want to be a woman pilot)’,” says Aakanksha.

India launched the Vande Bharat Mission on May 7 to be executed in three phases by Air India. The second phase started on May 16 and will end on June 13. During this period, the country will fly back 32,000 Indians from 47 countries in over 160 flights. In phase three, private airlines will be roped in. Both pilots were in-home quarantine when we spoke to them, which is mandatory after Vande Bharat flights.

Captains Minaxi Tayal and Aakanksha Verma

Mumbai-based Daisy, married to a pilot says she did not think twice when this opportunity struck for her to volunteer for the mission. “I have no children, no old parents living with me, and because I was involved in a lot of relief work in Mumbai during these lockdown months, I had no fear,” this ‘COVID warrior’ explains.

When Aakansha decided to volunteer for Vande Bharat, her 86-year-old grandmother got worried. It was her mother who encouraged her to be part of it. Aakanksha flew to Bangladesh and back on May 9.

Captain Aakanksha Verma’s Vande Bharat flight to Dhaka

There is very little interaction between pilots and passengers, but Aakanksha found the feedback from the ground staff in Dhaka heartening. They told her about how relieved the passengers were on seeing the national carrier land, she says. “All their (passengers’) anxieties disappeared and they knew they were safe and finally going home. Onboard I could feel gratitude and a sense of relief on their faces,” she notes.

Meticulous procedures are followed on evacuation flights. The process can be time-consuming so as to ensure safety. Both the women pilots eShe spoke to feel that the frequent training they are given to upgrade their skills came in handy during this mission.

Captain Daisy Chacko

Daisy is enamoured by the role of doctors and nurses in this pandemic. “Hats off to health workers. It is a Herculean task to be in PPE and work for hours,” she states. Aakanksha agrees, “I have a lot of gratitude for doctors and nurses who wear these suits day in and day out. It’s difficult to breathe in those suits.”

Vande Bharat Mission, once complete, would have brought back 259,001 Indians from 98 countries. Among the ones who have registered, 28 per cent are workers, 25 per cent students, professionals 14.5 per cent and short-term visa holders such as tourists 7.6 per cent. Priority to fly back home is given to those with compelling reasons, like job loss, medical emergency and senior citizens.

Captain Daisy Chacko with her crew

Asked about the financial viability of the local airline business, Daisy and Aakanksha hope the industry will ride out of the bad times gradually. These pilots feel that it is time to accept the ‘new normal’ and open the skies in a phased manner. “The industry was already in bad shape, and so it is time to move forward. New rules are in place, lesser people will travel, but we have to restart,” says Daisy.

Aakanksha believes, “With only one-third of the fleet back in operation, it’s going to be a wait-and-watch situation. A new travel protocol for passengers and crew, to be followed during the pandemic is out.” She adds, “It’s never too late to get back on your feet.”

First published in eShe’s June 2020 issue

Syndicated to Money Control

“There Is Polarisation, Intolerance… It’s the Best Time for Humour” – Satirist Naomi Datta

Former broadcast journalist Naomi Datta used her snarky, irreverent online persona to launch her own brand of satire.

By Shweta Bhandral

Radiant smile, quick wit and her one-liners on everything from politics to Bollywood – these are what one remembers after meeting Naomi Datta, author of How to Be a Likeable Bigot – A Handy Guide for the Savvy Survivor, a humorous take on life in India today. But being a satirist is a second career for Naomi, who was a broadcast journalist until a few years ago.

Born and raised in the beautiful Khasi hills in Shillong, Meghalaya, Naomi came to Mumbai in 1999 to pursue mass communication from Sophia College. She always wanted to be a TV host. “I come from a small city, and it is a big deal there to have someone anchor on a national news channel,” she says. And so she worked hard to land an opportunity at one of the best TV shows of that time, The Amul India Show on TV18. Soon, she was producing and hosting her own show.

As Naomi lived her dream, broadcast news took a strange turn, with anchors shouting from the studios, and the focus shifting away from reporters on the ground. Disillusioned, she quit television to move towards the entertainment world, and worked as a creative director and writer for shows on MTV, Star World and Netflix. 

Humour comes naturally to Naomi, which is why her writing is also full of satire that makes you smile. She didn’t plan her first book, as she tells us: “I was in-between jobs and a bit disgruntled with Indian TV. I started writing a short story as a gift for my best friend. The story kept developing, and in four months, I had a novel, a satire called The 6 PM Slot. I got signed up by Penguin Random House.”

Naomi Datta with her two books

The book was appreciated but Naomi was not ready to be a full-time writer yet. For eight years, she continued to write satirical pieces, columns and even worked on projects with production houses as social-media strategist or creative director.

“Over the years, I was active on Twitter, and an online voice and persona developed – snarky, irreverent, sharp and yet not offensive. I realised that people enjoyed my commentary through Twitter or my columns. We also live in weird times – there is polarisation, intolerance and general toxicity. I thought this was the best time for my brand of satire and humour. It holds up a mirror to you but makes you laugh at the same time. We don’t do much satire in India – people often don’t get it. I feel I do it well, and there is an audience for it. Therefore, the book.”

Naomi’s second book How to Be a Likeable Bigot came out in December 2019 to very positive reviews. It is a collection of satirical essays on everything from corporate brown-nosing to mummy politics to armchair bigotry. Her publisher wants her to start work on the third one quickly.

So, what is the 42-year-old writing next? “I am currently locked down at home like everyone else! I want to write twisted, funny short stories about a post-Corona world. Human behaviour fascinates me endlessly. My friends are always worried they will end up in my books, and they will and have. And because my default setting is satire, it is mostly not flattering,” she says.

“I have a few ideas – when I finish washing, cleaning and cooking, I will write.”

First published in eShe’s May 2020 issue

Syndicated to MoneyControl

School @ Home: The Pros and Cons of Online Schooling

With online classes becoming the new normal in education around the world, parents, students and teachers weigh in about the challenges and opportunities.

By Shweta Bhandral

“Someone has entered the group, they are removing kids from the class, you have to come here,” Sasha, my 11-year-old, shouted for me to check what was going on in her online class before the teacher came in. The children were in panic mode, or perhaps excited, all the microphones and videos were on, and a surprisingly healthy discussion was taking place. Who could this be? Why would they be doing this? Is this cybercrime? They went on and on with their arguments and counter-arguments until I told them to run a virus scan on all their computers and inform the class teacher.

Online education is de rigeour in the days of the COVID lockdown, from small towns in India to the world’s most prestigious universities. While this appears to be the best solution in the short-term, there are various pros and cons that have already become clear in the past two months of the lockdown, especially in a developing country like India.

THE CHALLENGES

Just a few days into lockdown, Arambh School in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, asked its teachers to explore and identify an online platform. Subhi Malhotra, 40, who teaches English from grades three to six, found that the task wasn’t as simple as it sounds, and some teachers took up to a week to understand the process. She adds, “Not everyone can afford computers, headphones, broadband connections and the other devices one needs in this kind of setup.”

Neither are all teachers tech-savvy, trained to embrace change, or understanding of the needs of introverts who sit quietly in class. In addition, lack of private spaces in Indian homes could be a major hindrance to such classes for both teachers and students.

Connectivity and bandwidth issues have emerged as the biggest challenges in the Indian scenario. And while many kids genuinely do not have the resources required, many others happily use it as an excuse to skip class. Bandwidth issues are also forcing schools to keep the video off, which means that the teacher has no clue if the child is sitting and listening in the class or playing online or offline games, or using the internet for other purposes entirely.

At this nascent stage, training is needed to build online etiquettes – such as muting one’s mic, sitting at a spot with minimum background movement, chatting in the chatbox while the class is on, and so on. The class size also needs a re-think. A class with 40 or 90 students becomes just a monologue by the teacher.

“Online learning is not going to work if it replicates the classroom – monologues are not the way forward,” says renowned education strategist Meeta Sengupta. “Online is an egalitarian medium, and teachers will need to create lessons that are about listening more than about talking.”

Long scattered timetables have also increased the screen and sitting time of the child, which is physically harmful and mentally tiring. “Though we are getting to interact with our teachers and schoolmates and finishing our syllabus faster than normal, I don’t think it’s a good idea for our eyes and health,” says my daughter, Sasha, whose head starts to ache after a point.

Twelve-year-old Avi agrees: “The timetable sometimes has too many continuous online classes, which makes my eyes hurt, and sometimes the timetable has too many offline classes, which become boring.”

After all, a child’s education doesn’t end with textbook syllabi but includes all the other aspects that school provides: the friendship of peers, the attention of adults and a hands-on learning experience. Ten-year-old Raipur schoolboy Arjun says, “Going to school is much more fun than sitting at home. I miss my friends.” Sitting in one’s home may also make children lazy or laid-back, or alternatively, frustrated at their lack of resources. 

THE OPPORTUNITIES

But there are multiple positives to be spotted as well. Most children have taken to these classes like a pro and even help their teachers to conduct class peacefully. They are happy to upload their assignments on the Google Classroom, and with online worksheets, teachers no longer have to spend hours and days on correcting hand-written copies.

Aditi Grover, 44, who teaches entrepreneurship and retail to high school students in a public school in Delhi-NCR, affirms that the experiment had been successful for her senior classes. “These students are mature enough to understand the medium, its advantages and challenges. For subjects like IT, web apps and entrepreneurship, it is a blessing in disguise as the concepts can be explained better by features like screen sharing,” she opines.

Schools that were lagging in technology had no option but to pull up their socks, and even government schools have gone ahead with digital transformation.

Teachers have shed their inhibitions, adapted new technologies, and now better understand the world in which their students operate. Assignments are now given keeping in mind the availability of resources at home, which is making the teaching process more relatable and practical.

Meeta Sengupta

With most teachers being women, some effort is required to adapt to the new work-life imbalance, though. A senior teacher from a public school in Mumbai shares, “Teachers are working 24/7 these days, dealing with their household work, taking classes, understanding technology, making audio PPTs and assignments. Those who are good with technology are helping their peers catch up.” It’s a new normal, for sure.

Post-lockdown, Meeta suggests schools focus on best practices for health and safety first, then focus on safe spaces for genuine learning. “We have seen that the world managed well without an intense focus on exams and results – let us bring learning to the fore and push exams back to their proportionate spaces,” she says, adding that this may just be an opportunity for course correction.

“Education is about safety, care and progress, but we gave that up and ran children through the same assembly line regardless of safe mental spaces to grow, or care for personal potential,” Meeta says. “Everyone cannot and must not progress into being the best photocopier of them all. This is the time to reframe, redraft and rebuild our ways of learning and teaching. Our pause gives us a chance to turn our faces towards the sun again, towards authentic learning.”

First published in eShe’s June 2020 issue

Syndicated to MoneyControl

“Hate Is a Subtle and Evil Virus, as Dangerous as Corona”: Author Annie Zaidi

Best-selling author Annie Zaidi on inspiration, personal choices, and her prescient novel about bigotry and radicalisation in today’s India

By Shweta Bhandral

A peaceful countenance, a crisp cotton sari and a pleasant smile as she greets friends and guests at her book-reading session. It wasn’t the first time I was meeting Annie Zaidi but the girl I had known as a passionate poet and creative writer had never aspired to make a career of it.

Yet, here she was, experimenting with both fiction and non-fiction writing with seven books and other works to her credit.

Born in Allahabad and raised mostly in Rajasthan, Annie studied journalism at XIC, Mumbai, and joined Mid-Day newspaper soon after. “Through my job, I learnt how to write, research and gather information. Journalism helped turn me into a writer, and especially the particular kind of writer I am,” she says.

In 2008, Annie took up a part-time job that would help pay her bills and give her more time in hand. After completing her first manuscript, she quit the job entirely and lived on her savings for a year. By the end, she was financially broke but much more confident about her writing abilities.

“It is not easy. But it is worth doing if you want to do it,” she shares. “And sometimes, it is also useful to do it so you can discover how badly you want to write. The year I quit, I had decided that life was too short not to do the things I wanted to. That my art and craft matter more than job security. And that if I failed, then so be it.”

She goes on, “If you choose to do this, you must be prepared to be your own person. You surrender certain social circles and shrug off peer opinion. You live on a very tight budget. You don’t spend the way your friends or family members do. You may not be able to afford to have kids or send them to decent schools. You have to accept that these are choices, and nobody owes you anything.”

Her first book Known Turf was a collection of essays based on her experiences while working for Frontline as a reporter. The book was shortlisted for the Vodafone Crossword Book Award in 2010. Since then, besides books, she has written plays in Hindi and English, and experimented with writing and directing short films.

Her second book Love Stories #1 to 14 and third book Gulab were romances of a different kind. “I observe politics or the economy or the personal and often deeply lonely lives around me,” she explains. “The love stories were written separately over two years. Whenever I wanted to take a break from non-fiction, I would write a story. But I did impose a strict discipline upon myself, writing six to eight hours a day.”

Annie’s latest work Prelude to a Riot, written two years ago and published in late 2019, was born from observing how bigotry works in a society that does not see itself as bigoted or radicalised but is, in fact, quietly marching towards violence.

She says, “Hate is a subtle and evil virus, every bit as dangerous as Corona. I wrote the novel to capture that malignancy and its inevitable outcome. Unfortunately, by the time it was published, people were saying it is ‘timely’ because more violence unleashed.”

The 41-year-old believes in speaking freely, especially in a democratic republic founded on the premise of universal rights. She says, “Anybody who has the ability, the language and the tools should protect our fundamental rights. It is through silence that oppression works. But the few who are still speaking up for the rights of the many sadly get labelled.”

In 2018, Annie won The Hindu Playwright Award for her play Untitled 1. In 2019 came the prestigious Nine Dots Prize for her upcoming memoir Bread, Cement, Cactus: A Memoir of Belonging and Dislocation.

While writing a personal narrative, Annie has tried to examine the wider causes for the feeling of dislocation or displacement, impoverishment and discrimination, which can lead to migration or a feeling of homelessness.

First published in eShe’s May 2020 issue

Syndicated to MoneyControl

A Fact-Checker’s Life: Exposing Fake News and Communalism, Surviving Social Boycott

As technology majors and media houses gear up to fight fake news, fact-checkers at the forefront face the social backlash and soul-crushing battle.

By Shweta Bhandral

In April 2018, Google News Initiative (GNI) held their first train-the-trainer fact-checking workshop in India with 35 journalists from across the country. Attending that four-day seminar at Google’s Delhi office certified me as a fact-checker and verification trainer.

There was an urgent need for this education. The years 2017-2018 had seen 29 people die of mob lynching in India. Most of these incidents happened because of disinformation and misinformation – or ‘fake news’ – spread through social media and messaging apps.

I started using my skills to debunk images and videos shared widely on WhatsApp groups, and even shown on primetime TV shows. There was an increased sharing of fake stories, photoshopped pictures and unrelated videos during the Pulwama attack and various state elections.

Google News Initiative fact-checking workshop, 2018

The narrative became communal; even if I exposed the truth and showed the proof, people only believed what they wanted to believe. I was instantly labelled a ‘liberal anti-national’. The fallout was that I was asked to shut up or leave the group.

It didn’t deter me. While fact-checking became second nature to me, I also started training mass-media students. To play a better role in keeping logical, ethical and fact-based journalism alive, I decided to leave broadcast news to become a full-time trainer and educator at 42.

Shweta Bhandral at a seminar in Ahmedabad

I have trained more than a thousand students so far, and there are 241 of us GNI trainers out there sharing fact-checking skills with even more students and journalists. 

Parul Jain, a freelance journalist and former university professor, was part of the second batch of GNI’s programme. As a verification trainer, she is very active in north India. Her experience at Hansraj Mahila Mahavidyalaya, Jalandhar, was one of her most memorable ones.

The girls came from remote villages of Punjab and despite the language barrier (most fact-checking tools are in English), they stayed back for another day to master the tools and spread awareness in their village.

Parul Jain at Hansraj Mahila Mahavidyalaya, Jalandhar

Efforts made by GNI have encouraged media houses to create fact-checking desks, hire people with these skills, and even produce shows to spread awareness. Parul believes that all this is visible at ground level and a lot of people think twice before pressing the forward button. 

The training has impacted her professionally too: “The work I do carries credibility and responsibility. People believe in me so much that the authenticity of a message depends upon my yes or no.”

Parul Jain conducting a workshop

There are also those for whom fact-checking is a full-time job. The stream of fake news that started with the state elections, the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in 2019, and the Delhi riots in 2020 has given sleepless nights to fact-checkers like Pooja Chaudhari, 25, a senior editor at Alt News, a renowned fact-checking website and app that even state authorities rely on. “In the past one year, the fake news shared has become more communal with a powerful anti-Muslim narrative,” Pooja notes.

Fact-checkers have no fixed hours of work. During the Jamia Millia Islamia University anti-CAA protests in Delhi, the Alt News team received most of the videos at night. It would be 3 or 4 am by the time they did their research and uploaded the article.

“Most of the stories we published during CAA protests and Delhi riots centred on visual verification, especially of location. We watch videos repeatedly to get clues. Sometimes, we watch the same clip for hours until we find something,” narrates Pooja.

Pooja Chaudhari, senior editor, Alt News

Her workday starts even before she reaches office, as she tracks, collects and makes her list by scouring social media and the internet. “Alt News has a WhatsApp number where people send requests for fact-checks. We also have a mobile application where we get 300–400 requests daily.” But as the number of fact-checking platforms increases, so does the number of fake stories.

Urvashi Kapoor, 30, chief sub-editor at Vishvas News who reports on health, says that it sometimes takes more than two days to debunk a piece of fake health news, especially in the wake of COVID-19. The topics range from unproven cures to miraculous vaccines. “Dozens of viral articles are hosted on click-bait health misinformation sites,” says Urvashi. To bust fake news, she connects directly with doctors and relies on official sources like WHO or the health ministry. 

Like Alt News, Vishvas News is also certified by IFCN (International Fact-Checking Network) and is a unit of Jagran New Media. The coronavirus pandemic has pushed the team to be ever more vigilant. For instance, there were many cases when fake audio clips claiming to be from WHO officials or reputed doctors went viral.

Urvashi Kapoor, chief sub-editor, Vishvas News

In such instances, Urvashi says, “We talk to experts or directly contact the person mentioned in the clip. In fact, not just audio clips, we need to fact-check everything, be it a text message from a friend, something we read on social media, or something we overhear. As a health fact-checker, I know these viral claims are impacting lives,” says Urvashi.

Though working from home since the lockdown, fact-checkers like Pooja and Urvashi are working round the clock, and it takes a toll on them physically and mentally. “I feel I’m losing my compassion,” admits Pooja. “Of course, I feel a great deal of sympathy for victims, but over time I have become apathetic towards violence. I can watch violence without blinking an eye, and this is worrisome for me.”

To help the fight against fake news, follow these simple rules: Do not believe every message you get. Question it, don’t forward it. Do a simple Google search, and follow fact-checking websites.

First published in eShe’s May 2020 issue

Syndicated to MoneyControl

40 Days – Mumbai COVID Lockdown Dairy

My new venture in the education sector got two positive responses and I was excited to start working with them April onwards BUT Covid19 happened and everything went standstill. It took just about 24 hours to shutdown, one of the most densely populated cities of the world, nearly 73000 people live here in every square mile. Mumbai has been my “karam bhumi” since last 17 years. Never have I seen it so quiet, so scared and so weak. 

This city of Maharashtra started shutting down from March 15, 2020, onwards.  I stay in Kharghar, a satellite town of this metro. I travel to the western suburbs of Mumbai to teach journalism at a few post-graduate institutes. As I took my last class before the lockdown on March 12, 2020, we were not contemplating a lengthy lockdown.  

By the time we were on 15th March, Schools and colleges shut down, board exams got interrupted midway, and students couldn’t get on with their internships or jobs. 

My daughter was lucky to finish her class five exams on 11th march, but this was the least of our worries because she is young.  There was anxiety among friends and relatives. A lot of misinformation was on a roll via whatsapp. People began to stock grocery, maids were asked to stay at home and housing societies closed their doors to all outsiders except the sweepers. 

Households and businesses in the city went in lockdown mode on their own, learning from the experiences of other countries, like Italy and Iran where things had gone out of control. As of March 20, the total number of coronavirus cases in India has climbed to 195 after over 35 new cases, highest in a single day, emerged from the various parts of the country. Maharashtra has had 48 positive cases, and India recorded five deaths. With a constant increase in the number of COVID positive cases in Mumbai and Pune state’s chief minister Uddhav Thackeray called for a complete shutdown of the city and surrounding areas. He said that from Friday midnight all workplaces would remain closed till March 31. Applicable in Mumbai, MMR Region, Pune, Pimpri Chinchwad and Nagpur. The local trains stood still; busses went off the road, shops shutdown. 

My husband was travelling to Mumbai from Punjab. There were very few people at the airport he told us and fewer in the flight. He reached home at 7 pm on March 21 and on March 22, the nation observed “Janta Curfew”. Though states like Kerala and Mumbai were following lockdowns, a lot of people were not expecting a nationwide action, but I guess it was inevitable.

On March 24 at 8 pm in his address to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a 21 day nationwide lockdown. By this time, India had 557 COVID positive patients, and it had claimed ten lives. He said, “there will be a complete ban on stepping out of the house. Every state, every village, union territory is being locked down. This is a step further than the Janata curfew. It is a step that is needed,” 

The nationwide lockdown led to something that nobody had factored in perhaps. All the big cities like Mumbai, Delhi etc. have a huge migrant workforce. This worker wanted to reach home before the states seal their borders. I managed to convince my maid and her family to stay put where they are, she is from Madhya pradesh and her son was all set to leave Mumbai since he is a daily wager here. I assured her that I will support her as much as I can and she stayed back. Delhi witnessed a crowd of approx 2lakh people most of them from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, struggling to get a mode of transport for home. Busses arranged within 24 hours, took these people home. The Delhi government was also able to convince a few to stay back in the shelters too. We got visuals/ news stories coming in from highways in Gujarat and Rajasthan where women, children, pregnant ladies are walking back home. All over India, this economically underprivileged class was walking home. Their only goal was to reach their village safe and sound. These people had either lost their job or were about to lose it, these men and women did not have money to pay rent and buy food next month. So they had no option but to leave for Home. Meanwhile, in Mumbai, the migrant labour movement was much smaller but the number of COVID  cases kept going up. 

The scare of COVID was now moving closer home. There were confirmed cases in Kharghar and several other areas of Panvel city Municipal cooperation. Two-three societies had to be sealed, disinfection and sanitisation process was carried out in infected areas. All through this, the people in Mumbai were very patient. They would stand in a queue to buy groceries. Daily needs were readily available. Big grocery retailers did face a shortage of labour, had some issues with delivery and supply chain. Still, they soon ironed out inefficiencies and worked systematically following Physical distancing and sanitisation norms. 

Everybody was expecting that by April 14 things would improve; there would be some relaxation in lockdown. The improvement was not even near in sight, COVID positive cases were on a rise in Mumbai. Much before April 14, Maharashtra govt. once again declared an extension. Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray said that the lockdown announced last month to contain the coronavirus infection will extend at least till April 30. 

While work from home became the new normal for many, some industries like the Travel, Hospitality, Finance and Media sector were looking at their worst days. Papers went out of print, TV channels had to work on less than half the staff, Hotels/ restaurants either shut shop or opened their doors as quarantine facilities for doctors, nurses and other professionals, Travel operators are not seeing any recovery for a year or two. Not only this, people are losing money invested in the markets and mutual funds. Job loss was evident. The impact of lockdown on the economy was on the face. International rating agency Fitch has slashed India’s GDP growth rate projections for 2020-21 to 0.8 per cent. The IMF and World Bank have also reduced their expectations from India. They are now projecting a GDP growth rate of 1.9 to 1.5 per cent for 2020-21. 

Since I am a freelance journalist and an educator, my streams were also drying up. I finished my syllabus with some online classes on Zoom in March, post that not much has come my way as Schools and colleges are struggling with the new dynamics. Though I am writing for a women’s magazine and have started storytelling sessions on youtube, income is much lesser than the expenditure for this month. It will be like this for the coming few months. My financial anxieties are at bay because I have planned my personal finance well. 

As April 14 came closer, another frenzy of buying and stocking food took place. People were sure this time that the lockdown would extend. I spotted a lot of movement in the area, and the police came in everyday with an announcement van, requesting everyone to get inside. Wearing a mask was made compulsory if you were stepping out of the house. Departmental stores and vegetable shops in Mumbai were open through the day, this was done to avoid crowding at the shops. Despite all the precautions and efficient communication among various state departments a  considerable crowd emerged on Mumbai’s Bandra station wanting to go back home on 14th April morning; they were explained and dispersed by evening.

The roads in the city that never sleeps are as quiet as roads in a ghost town. The only vehicles moving are the ones with essential services tags. The banks are open, but they are not letting people enter the premise unless it’s something significant. The availability of things is still good. I can see a few skilled workers like a cobbler, and an ironsmith are now selling vegetables and fruits to earn money so that they can pay their bills. 

On April 14 at 10 Am in his address to the nation Prime Minister Modi extended the nationwide lockdown till May 3. This announcement did not come as a shock. People were prepared and ready. Just around this time, a case came up in our building. A heart patient who was in the hospital for about a month was COVID positive in his first test. His family went into quarantine, they disinfected and sanitised the whole building. We self-sealed the premise until we got the family’s test reports. It took about a week full of anxiety and confusion. The patient was in the hospital, and the family was locked in here at home. We provided them with Milk and vegetables. Finally, a doctor came from PCMC and took samples. In 48 hours, the reports told us that they were all negative. One week of anxiety and confusion ended with the sad news of the heart patient breathing his last in the hospital. The times are such that we could not even go to console the family members.  

The second phase of lockdown gave a kick to online schooling. My daughter is now studying on Google Suit, and Classroom from 8 am to 2:30 pm. It’s as good as a regular school day. Players like cue math, khan academy and other online learning platforms have improved their game in these days.  Teachers are doing some fantastic work as they take these classes and manage their homes. As everyone is settling in this new routine, including the kids with even their extracurricular activities like dance classes also happening online, there is news of another 15 days extension of lockdown in Maharashtra. 

A Few Good Women: The Glaring Gender Gap Among Indian Cinematographers

Only a fraction of cinematographers in Mumbai’s film industry are women – how does the skewed ratio play out in their career growth?

One would think making films is a matter of skill, talent and aptitude, and not one’s gender. But when one’s gender dictates opportunity, it is perhaps no surprise that women are still a minority in a creative industry like filmmaking. Only five to seven women make to the list of the top 100 cinematographers in India working in the commercial cinema space, doing big-budget or advertising films including in Bollywood.

Yet, for the young and old women behind the scenes of the thousands of films made in Mumbai every year, there is a ray of hope.

A cinematographer, or director of photography (DOP), makes each frame of a film come to life. This person is the crew chief who heads the camera and light crews on a film or video production, and works closely with the director to create what we see on-screen. The work is demanding, physically and otherwise, but also creatively fulfilling, which is why women are drawn to it even if the industry has not been very welcoming so far.

“Every day, I look forward to my work, even if it’s challenging to get,” says Mumbai-based Priyanka Singh, 35, who has been working behind the camera since 2011. Driving all her life decisions around her career, she is clearly in love with their work and has several documentaries and short films to her credit. Yet, she awaits that one big commercial project to move up the ladder.

Lead image and above: Nusrat Jafri Roy in action on set; the poster of one of her projects on Amazon Prime

With the influx of various digital platforms, the availability of work in the industry has increased several-fold. “There is enough work for all of us. But it’s about persistence and finding the right people,” says Nusrat Jafri Roy, 39, who has been in the industry since 2005, and was DOP for Kuchh Bheege Alfaaz by Onir, and the Amazon Prime series, Chacha Vidhayak Hain Humare.

According to some counts, there are about 2000-odd DOPs in the country of which only about 80 are women. Not many in the industry even know that they exist! This was reason enough for a collective to be formed in 2015, the Indian Women Cinematographers Collective (IWCC), which has helped these women build comradeship.

Pooja Gupte, 35, who has been in the industry since 2009 and looks after the IWCC website, is of the opinion that a lot of hard work is still required to create opportunities for women. One of the ways the cinematographers do so is ensuring that they include other women in their teams. “In my last project, I made sure we were all girls on the three cameras that we were operating,” she says.

It’s not just India, women cinematographers the world over are coming together and helping each other with work and techniques. “There is a sister code that’s developing,” says Pooja, who has just got back from the 16th Indian Film Festival in Stuttgart Germany, where she was the only woman DOP from India.

Pooja Gupte behind the camera in a Madhuri Dixit Production; she handles the IWCC website

With more than 1,600 commercial films released in India every year, the Indian film industry beats even Hollywood in terms of the quantity of films produced. It is expected to grow by 40 per cent by 2024. But most of the women DOPs in the industry are being left out of this growth spurt.

“If the project is commercially viable, then it is talked about and there is visibility. The men we work with do recommend us, be it DOPs or the directors,” says Pooja, “but as long as we only work on private films, which have a very niche audience, widespread recognition will continue to elude us.”

The industry is shy of giving commanding roles to women, and there appears to be a mindset problem at play. No wonder only a handful of women DOPs are known in the commercial film circuit. The rest bide their time while shooting documentaries, short films and digital series, waiting for the “one step-up project” that they need, as Nusrat puts it.

“Women helping women also have a long way to go. Not many women directors go out of their way to hire a woman DOP. They also might not know that there are so many of us around!”

L-R: The poster for one of Priyanka Singh’s projects; Priyanka in action for a short film

Priyanka adds, “Out of 10, only two producers or production houses take women seriously. Our names have to pop up in conversations for the industry to know about us.”

The situation is no better outside India. In the US, of the 250 top-grossing films of 2018, only 4 per cent had a woman cinematographer. Last year, for the first time in the Academy Awards’ 90-year history, a woman was nominated for cinematography. Rachel Morrison got the nod for her work as DOP for the movie Mudbound. Though she didn’t win, the nomination itself was historic.

Back in India, these girls from small towns without any godfather in the film industry watch the Oscars news with hope. Against all odds, they are doggedly optimistic about change.

GIRL POWER

These organisations are standing up for women in the film industry:

Indian Women Cinematographers Collective

IWCC is a Mumbai-based forum by and for craftswomen and technicians of the film industry, including non-cis male technicians and workers. The collective is designed to promote talent and create opportunities in the film industry, and is a space for contemporaries to showcase their diverse body of work. With dozens of women members, the collective hopes to “inspire girls and those breaking out of the gender binary to consider roles behind the camera as viable professions.”

Hip Hip HERray

A newly launched startup in the media and entertainment space, Hip Hip HERray Studios is India’s first digital content studio dedicated to women-only web series and filmmakers. With the backing of prominent names from the industry, it plans to collaborate with women from diverse regions of India, leveraging their storytelling strength. With its own earmarked budget, the new-age boutique will produce short and long form episodic series and films, creatively helmed by women storytellers.

Women in Cinema Collective

Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), an organisation for women working in the Indian cinema industry, was formed in 2017 after a popular actress was waylaid and raped in a car at the behest of  powerful Malayalam actor Dileep. Led by prominent female film personalities, WCC submitted a petition to the state chief minister for action on the sexual assault, which led to his eventual arrest.

WCC also protested against the decision of the film industry’s leading body to reinstate the actor Dileep when the case was still in court. They held a year-long awareness drive on workplace exploitation and gender discrimination. The group is now campaigning for equal pay and welfare schemes for women in the industry.

First published in eShe’s March 2020 issue

Syndicated to MoneyControl.com

The Purpose that Powers Women Television Correspondents

Women correspondents covering politics, conflicts and news events for television channels face daunting odds but are driven by the desire to make a difference.

When stone-pelting began in north-east Delhi’s Maujpur area on February 23 this year, 26-year-old Sukirti Dwivedi was one of the first reporters – and the only woman – on location. As multiple waves of bloodshed, property destruction and rioting were unleashed, and the police stood by doing nothing, all the television correspondents there began to fear for their lives.

“It was unsafe for everyone, not just girls,” says the firebrand NDTV correspondent. At one point, she found herself in the midst of a group of young boys, barely 17 or 18 years old, with stones and rods in their hands, their faces covered, and she noticed with a sense of foreboding that she was the only girl around. “That’s when I got scared,” she admits, adding that some senior citizens nearby came to her rescue.

After two days, as soon as the situation was under control, Sukirti – who was raised in Kanpur and had wanted to be a television journalist ever since she was a teenager – was back in the field. What she saw in the aftermath of the riots made her cry. “I broke down when I saw the school there completely burned down. The thought that there would have been children in there left me shuddering.”

Sukirti Dwivedi

Seven days of covering this kind of crisis can take a toll on anyone. “In many situations, being male or female doesn’t matter,” says Sukirti, adding that many of her male colleagues covering the riots had sleepless nights just as she did.

Broadcast journalism has seen more women joining its ranks in the past few decades, with women reporters now in parliament, covering elections, rallies, crime, corporate affairs and travelling far and wide to the interiors of the country for human-interest stories.

Most media headquarters are located in big cities, and while the job comes with its fair share of challenges even for seasoned metro-dwellers, girls from smaller towns appear to have more fire in their bellies.

Archana Shukla with her TV crewman

Archana Shukla, associate editor at CNBC TV18, was the first girl in her family to move out of Jamshedpur and start working as a journalist in Mumbai. It was a tough call for her parents 15 years ago when the microbiology student first made the move.

“My parents had their doubts. It didn’t help that the Bollywood film Page 3 starring Konkona Sen Sharma had just released and they were concerned about the safety of this profession,” she smiles. Over the years, Archana made it a habit to call her mother at least once a day wherever she was. The 36-year-old eventually made her parents proud by winning six awards for excellence in journalism.

Archana Shukla receiving the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award 2015 from Prime Minister Narendra Modi

But it’s one thing to allay your parents’ fears and another to deal with your own. A job such as this puts you in harm’s way more often than others, and Archana has learnt to keep her wits around her especially when she travels to the country’s hinterlands to cover social and political issues. Phone networks are often sketchy and places to stay are ill-equipped for women.

“It’s there at the back of your mind, a little fear when there is unrest. But news-gathering in television is teamwork, and we move as a crew, which is safer,” she shares.

While covering stories in far-flung areas of Bastar and Marathwada, Archana also had the experience of being mobbed, with people outraging and saying, “Media-wale kharab hote hain (mediapersons are bad).” She has now devised her own way to deal with them: “I take time, I listen to them, and then I explain myself. I remain sensitive to their concerns even while I tell their stories to the world.”

Archana Shukla at work

For correspondents covering politics, the playing field is still uneven. But Pallavi Ghosh, senior editor (politics) at CNN News 18, who has been covering Congress news for the past 18 years, sees positive signs of change. “From two or three female journos covering Parliament 18 years ago, there are about 25 now whenever Parliament is in session. It’s no longer lonely out there,” she informs.

Besides broadcast, the digital medium has also given women more avenues to step out and report news. There are now hundreds of women reporters across the country, working full-time or as stringers for websites, YouTube channels and social-media platforms, including bilingual ones.

For Pallavi, covering politics is exciting even if it’s not always smooth. “My first brush with a mob was in Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh, at an election rally in 2004. It was a huge, unruly crowd, and they went crazy to see a woman reporter amongst them. Things went out of control but my cameraman pulled me out of it,” she narrates. After that, she says, she was not scared anymore.

Pallavi Ghosh

On the day we speak to her, she is busy following Madhya Pradesh politics as former Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia joins the rival BJP. Quickly checking facts before going on air, she is collected and in control. Her years of experience have taught her a thing or two about dealing with male politicians.

“Some of the netas (political leaders) are very condescending and they think we women are just trying to earn some extra pocket money by stepping out to work!” says the 44-year-old indignantly.

“They even ask me, do I earn so that I can shop? So, yes, initially it was tough, but over the years more women have come into the field and that has helped. Also I think it’s important not to smile at their sexist jokes. You have to make it clear to them that you mean business.”

But the biggest challenge that on-field reporters face in India is not mobs or sleazy politicians but toilets! While Sukirti has learned to control her bladder until she finds a petrol pump when she is travelling, Pallavi carries a packet of Pee Safe in her bag.

Sukirti Dwivedi at work

In contrast, Archana, who often goes to villages, says, “Travelling has taught me lots of lessons in survival. Indians are hospitable people. I have made friends in several towns, and I use their toilets!”

The times are tough, and it’s physically a challenge, but these ladies are out there with vigour and resilience. After years of reporting and seeing things for what they really are, do reporters still remain idealistic about the profession?

“I was very idealistic when I began,” shares the young Sukirti. “I used to think, sarkar sunti hai (the government listens). For instance, if I report on street lights missing in a certain place, I thought the government would take action. But three years in journalism and my idealism is in pieces now.”

The thought that journalists could make a big difference has faded over time, adds Pallavi. “I am more pragmatic and less idealistic now,” she admits.

Despite their own disillusionment with the system, their value systems make them walk on the path of unbiased and credible reporting. As Pallavi puts it, “You should be able to look into the mirror and say, ‘I did my job well’.”

First published in eShe’s April 2020 issue

Syndicated to MoneyControl.com

Being on Camera – A confidence Building Workshop

Clicking a selfie or doing video calls with friends is one thing and being on camera to talk on an issue, report news or deliver content which the audience will listen to is totally another. Training students in this skill, I would call it art, is not easy and there are several factors at play. In a vigorous 12 to 15hour workshop Students are introduced to different aspects being on camera. Starting from understanding the news to various techniques and approaches that are followed by the industry to how one can create his or her own style. While making a student confident about himself/herself is half the battle won, now it’s about polishing the speech/ the way of speaking. This task takes time but in my workshop, I share a few exercises and methods through which interested students can sharpen their skill post the workshop as well. 

The workshop I took for third-year students of BMM, made me realise that voice training is as essential as look training. We did a two-hour voice session where students wrote a piece of news that they were following and have an interest in so that it’s easier for them to read and speak. While doing this we worked on skills like decision making, writing, patience, acceptance along with reading and diction. The final product of this workshop is a reporter style mojo video clip that everyone captures in their phones and a video of formal Headline + Anchor link in a Pendrive. It is shared with the students at the end of the session. Though happy with what they gained in the workshop the students realised that these skills are important as they are ready to step out in the real world.  

Giving direction to their positive thought – News Verification workshop at Hinduja

Empowering with Theatre

Theatre, an expression, an art form that has stirred revolutions, a confidence builder, it is an enabler of sorts for those who otherwise are quiet and introvert. 

I always knew the power of this art form but when I wrote a play on Fake News for children of a Municipal school in Dharavi, Mumbai it was about empowering them. It was a seven-day workshop, on day one we had a general discussion and then I told them the story. On day two I made them draw in class and then they had to do a show and tell. This helped me gauge their confidence levels, expression, diction, and voice. Then I shared with them our play’s script with dialogues and asked them to come prepared with the character they want to be in the play for the auditions. Day-3 we had a super audition session and while some got the characters they wanted to perform for some I choose the roles.

I carry a dholak and a dhaapli to my theatre workshops. A 12-year-old who did not want to act came to me and said “Can I play this” without a word I gave the dholak to him he played it like a drum and we made him the music man of the play. It was a batch of 25 students, we had about 18 characters to be played, so with one drummer, we made the rest of the singing band, which doubled up as crowd for various scenes. The next 4 days were intense practice, but due to family conditions and other such issues every day we would have one or the other character missing.

After all the stumbling blocks, the final day was something that I did not expect. The play was the grand finale of the event where children were showcasing all the activities done during the summer vacations. The children performed with such a lot of ‘Josh’ that there were rounds of applause in between the play too. It was praised by the School Principal, teachers and parents. This experience came to an end with a lot of selfies.