'We Know it Won't Make Us Rich': A Small Collective in a UP Town Redefines Journalistic Practice

ChalChitra Abhiyaan, a film and media collective based out of Kandhla in western Uttar Pradesh, highlights the issues affecting the local communities in the region from which its media practitioners themselves hail.

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Kandhla (Uttar Pradesh): On July 20, journalists Mohammad Shakib Rangrezz and Vishal Stonewall of ChalChitra Abhiyaan were attacked while conducting a vox pop in Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat district. The vox pop centred on the recent decision by the Union government to raise the Goods and Service Tax (GST) on food items. The journalists were seeking responses from residents of Kishanpur Baral village on the matter.

The attacker snatched the reporters’ equipment, verbally abused them and threatened them with dire consequences if they returned to the village. Throughout the incident, which was caught on camera, the journalists stood their ground, responding to the assault with composure; they eventually retrieved their equipment, and continued with their reporting.

This event could be read as a microcosmic illustration of the two opposing forces at work in the socio-politics of India today — the alarmingly brazen attacks on freedom of the press by the state and its agents, and the unyielding resolve of a small but fearless section of the press to stand up to them.

The two journalists, Rangrezz and Stonewall, come from this tradition of independent journalism; independent not only in terms of professional moorings but also ideological ones. Both are part of ChalChitra Abhiyaan, a film and media collective based out of Kandhla in the Shamli district of western Uttar Pradesh, which spotlights issues and events having a bearing on the local communities from which these media practitioners themselves come.  

Also read: UP: Journalists Threatened for Reporting on GST Rate Hike

Literally translating to ‘cinema campaign/movement’, ChalChitra Abhiyaan grew organically out of filmmaker Nakul Singh Sawhney’s extensive travels in the region, during which he made documentaries such as Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai and Kairana, Surkhiyon ke Baad. The former, which trains its lens on the events leading upto and the aftermath of the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013, came to play a key role in moulding the spirit of the collective.

Stonewall, the first member to join the ChalChitra Abhiyaan team, recalls seeing Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai for the first time: “For the first time, I saw a true portrayal of our people, our language, our clothes, our geography. And it was also the first time I saw on screen the hatred that has ripped our region.”

He saw the film’s potential as a counterpoint to the lop-sided narratives circulating in the mainstream media and the fake videos that spurred the riots in the first place. 

Vishal Stonewall covering a story on ground. Photo: Special arrangement.

Stonewall comes from a Dalit sub-caste of stone-cutters and was inspired to take on the surname ‘Stonewall’ to honour his ancestors. Already engaged in survey and relief work in the riot-affected districts, he joined Sawhney in 2016 when the collective was first conceived.

New members gradually joined the team over the years and today, the team consists of nine members and a few volunteers, most of whom come from communities at the social margins, including women, Muslims, Dalits and economically distressed communities. 

 Also read: ‘Will Oust Divisive BJP’: Farmers Stand Firm at Muzaffarnagar Mahapanchayat

Perhaps this grouping together of people from the periphery has played a key role in contouring the collective’s corpus, which includes news features, documentaries and live reporting on communalism, caste atrocities, gender-related issues, labouring communities, healthcare and politics, among others.

A sample of the stories done by the team illustrates a concern with a wide range of socio-economic and political issues. Some recent stories examine the problems faced by hukka-chillam makers in rural Muzaffarnagar, public reactions to the Agnipath scheme, grabbing of agricultural and tribal lands and rallies in the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh elections.   

The goal, says Mohammad Savez Chauhan, a 20-year-old member of the team, is to bring the focus of the viewing public back to the problems they deal with on a day-to-day basis.

“We as a nation are being distracted by the narrative of communalism. Rather than blindly following what the political leadership of the country claims, we need to view things with a critical eye, we need to question public policies that hurt the interests of common people,” Chauhan said.

Spurred by this ideal, ChalChitra Abhiyaan tries to present an alternative point of view that counters the half-truths peddled by the state and its mouthpiece media. For instance, in his most recent news feature, Chauhan examines the on-ground condition of the purported beneficiaries of the Prime Minster Awas Yojna, which was launched in 2015 with the goal of providing affordable housing to the urban and rural poor by 2022.

Discussing the feature, he said, “The first instalment under this scheme was doled out a few years ago, so beneficiaries demolished their old homes, hoping to start constructing new ones. But then funds stopped coming and now these people don’t have a decent roof over their heads.”

In the feature, we see one of the interviewees lying on a bed, staring wistfully at the ceiling, resignation written on his face.

Stonewall feels that people sometimes hesitate to speak on camera for fear of retribution, but years of working in the field and earning people’s trust has allowed these media practitioners to make interventions on behalf of the local communities. “It is a balancing act, as we try to present problems of the people living at the margins while also being mindful of their welfare and security.”

ChalChitra Abhiyaan team members review a story in the editing room. Photo: Special arrangement.

Other kinds of interventions the collective has been able to make in the past include arresting brewing communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims in Budhana in Muzaffarnagar district in 2018, and spotlighting the grabbing of Dalit lands in Bantikheda village in Shamli district in 2019. 

Mohammad Shaqib Rangrezz informs The Wire, “I would like to think that ChalChitra Abhiyaan’s reports on these issues forced the local administration to swing into action and prevent the miscarriage of justice.”

Rangrezz comes from Lisarh village in Shamli district, one of the worst-affected areas during the 2013 riots. “My family had to flee Lisarh and we moved from place to place before settling in Kandhla. I never cared much about news media before, but the riots changed that. I became alert to the what was being said in the media and how it was being said.” 

Rangrezz feels that problems affecting the public are today being given a communal colour, whether at the local, regional or national level. “Take the problem of unemployment, for which Muslims are blamed owing to their population. This is a socio-economic issue but it is now being turned into a political one,” he said.

The journalist feels such misrepresentations can be countered through dialogue and discussion. 

Also read: Journalism and the Media’s Crisis of Credibility in an Age of Strident Nationalism

To this end, the collective organises film screenings in village chaupals, where residents gather to watch films and participate in discussions. Some films that have stimulated intense dialogue among the community include Sadgati (directed by Satyajit Ray), Kala (directed by Rohit V.S.) and Raam ke Naam (directed by Anand Patwardhan), among others. 

A screening organised by the collective. Photo: Special arrangement.

Nakul Singh Sawhney, the founder-member of the collective, informs The Wire that in the past, right-wing goons would disrupt the screenings, either by instigating village pradhans or by disconnecting the electricity supply. However, local communities support the collective’s efforts and often invite them to screen films and hold discussions.

“We have built a network of local youth who organise such events and we hope to formalise these networks in a structured way in the future,” Sawhney said.

The filmmaker views the team’s work as a “cultural intervention in the Gramscian sense” and feels that these everyday spaces and day-to-day recreational activities can be an effective means to break the hegemony of dominant ideological formations. “We must use popular culture and turn it into our own means of resistance,” he added.

The collective has worked proactively to facilitate such spaces and activities. Many local youth use the library at the ChalChitra Abhiyaan office, which works as a reading room, film screening space and training centre, where they study, discuss readings and films and learn the basics of video production, if so inclined.

Ikra Saifi, a class 12 student from Kandhla, started visiting the library with her friend Rashida Akhter Siddiqi after school and was drawn to the cultural ethos the organisation espoused. She approached Stonewall to express her desire of learning film production and today assists in shoots, does basic camera work and is learning to edit video sequences that she herself shoots. 

Ikra Saifi and Vishal Stonewall at a shoot. Photo: Special arrangement.

Saifi is the first in her family to receive a formal education and has had to overcome a lot of societal pressure in order to study as well as to work as a member of the collective. “A year ago, I would not have imagined I would become the person I am today. I never ventured out of home but after becoming a member of the ChalChitra Abhiyaan community, I am beginning to see the world in a new light,” she says. 

During her time at the library, she has been reading works by Premchand and Om Prakash Valmiki, and like other members of the community, has even begun to familiarise herself with the Constitution of India. Saifi recently prepared a brief on women agricultural labourers, specifically rice-cultivators, which she hopes to turn into a news feature. 

In the future, Saifi hopes to purse a degree in mass communication from Jamia Milia Islamia. “My family sometimes ask me to get married, but I have firmly told them that I will become a filmmaker. I feel a sense of responsibility to help young Muslims girls around me, and I hope my education and work will help me do so,” she said. 

This spirit of resistance and independence of thought and expression guides this young team which is redefining journalistic practice in a mofussil region in the Hindi heartland. Undeterred by attacks such as the one in Kishanpur Baral, or for that matter, the constant hindrances by state agencies, the team marches on. 

Stonewall puts it best in the following words: “Our work is based on ideology, we know it will not make us rich. But I feel it is the responsibility of local media practitioners like ourselves to give a voice to the common folk. Our intervention is small but it is a genuine attempt at bettering our society.” 

Pawanpreet Kaur is an independent journalist.