“I will bring out the truth, I will be the reporter for my brother’s death and other children who died in the incautious gas tragedy,” a 13-year-old girl made a firm promise to herself.” The powerful scene is from Balak Times, an investigative feature film that uses the 2017 Gorakhpur hospital deaths to emphasise the need for citizen journalists and community-led media in villages.
At least 60 children lost their lives in the tragedy as the authorities tried their best to sweep the incident under the carpet.
The film, directed by independent filmmakers Shawn Sebastian and Basil Poulose, is also inspired by Balaknama, a bilingual newspaper run by street children that focuses on issues of child rights.
Watch the trailer of Balak Times
Speaking to indianexpress.com, Poulose said, “The film was an attempt to have a discussion on medical negligence in Gorakhpur’s BRD Medical College and how children can use community media to address issues that affect them and which at times do not get covered by mainstream media.”
For Sebastian, the idea of filmmaking was to empower children to be storytellers. “Each one of us can be independent storytellers and there’ll be a time when the mainstream media would be relying on the stories brought out by the children to understand the ground realities of the region,” he said.
Coming together for social change on the ground, Sebastian and Poulose decided to cast in their film marginalised children of Mandawar in Haryana, where the film was shot, which fares abysmally on all development indices. For the first-time actors, the spotlight and camera takes were a thrilling experience. The story has empowered them in such a manner that one among them has actually decided to be a citizen journalist.
“I heard about the Gorakhpur gas tragedy for the first time through the directors, it was devastating to hear such a loss. After being part of this film, there’s a sense of responsibility in me now, and I tend to observe and boldly react to unusual happenings around me,” says 13-year-old Kajal, who is the film’s lead.
Likewise, the 16-year-old chief editor of “Balaknama” is no less inspired by the film. Fondly known as “editor Rani”, Jyoti said, “After watching Balaknama, we realised that it’s important to expand and reach out to children across the country as well.”
The first edition of Balaknama came out in September 2003 when members of Badhte Kadam, a federation of street and working children, sought a way to tell their stories, in their own words, to the world.
The newspaper is now run by more than 60 young reporters between the age of 12 and 20, based in Delhi and NCR, and has a circulation of around 5,000.
Shambhu, who works as a reporter for Balaknama, had tears in his eyes while watching the film. “Balak Times had an important message of giving voice to the voiceless and that all of us have the right to be heard,” he said.
Remembering his early days in Delhi, Shambhu said, “Because I was poor, I was only considered good to be a car cleaner or a garbage picker. But when I joined Balaknama, I realised we have rights too. We are citizen journalists and people should hear us. Through initiatives like Balaknama and Balak Times, we want to take the voices of the street children to the government.”
In order to reach out to the rural community, Balak Times was recently screened at the same village where it was shot. Through this film, the duo plans to take the film to villages across the country and start a year-long pilot project of media training for the children. They plan to set up a community media platform exclusively led by children so that they would be able to document or report issues affecting them.
In collaboration with other independent filmmakers, the duo had a common screening followed by a panel discussion on March 24, 2019, at Investopad, SDA, Delhi.