How Kavitha Lankesh's Award-Winning Documentary Imortalizes The Legacy Of Her Sister

'Gauri' captures the immortal legacy of the fearless Gauri Lankesh.
'Gauri' captures the immortal legacy of the fearless Gauri Lankesh.Kavitha Lankesh

They say that public memory is short and while that is certainly true, especially in the realm of politics, not everyone succumbs to collective amnesia. There are many who remember the dark, fateful day of the 5th Of September 2017 when renowned journalist, Gauri Lankesh was assassinated by three gunmen outside her residence in Bengaluru. One of the assailants later admitted that the act was to “save his religion”. This act of violence was not just a lambast of the fragile framework of Indian secularism but a bombardment of the noble ideas of freedom of speech and ethical journalism.

Was it just some brainwashed religious fanatics who acted in the heat of the moment or was there more to the story behind this heinous crime?

Gauri Lankesh, born in a Kannada Lingayat family in Mysore, was a talented journalist who began her career with the Times of India. With a career spanning over 25 years, she had become a powerful and relentless voice against fascism, communalism, and state overreach in Karnataka. At the time of her assassination, she was working as an editor in Lankesh Patrike, a Kannada weekly started by her father, poet-activist P. Lankesh, and she also simultaneously ran her own weekly called Gauri Lankesh Patrike.

The police found that the assailants who murdered Gauri outside her residency in Rajarajeshwari Nagar, Bangalore belonged to a Hindu fundamentalist group called Sanatan Sanstha. The reason why they picked Gauri as their target can be traced back to a video that the police unraveled in the due course of the investigation. The video was found in the mobile phone of one of the murderers. The video is of a speech that Gauri made criticizing Hindutva groups, questioning radicalism in religions, and claiming that violence has no place in a religion like Hinduism. The violent Hindutva outlook towards religion is a perverted lens of viewing Hinduism, which has brought nothing but misery and ill-repute to a religion of peace and love. However, Hindutva groups doctored the video removing the entire 15-minute speech and condensing it into a 5-minute hate video, showcasing only the part where Gauri denounces the Hindu religion whereas, in truth, she was questioning the extremist ideology of far-right Hindu groups and their misguided view of Hinduism.

To put it into context, the speech by Gauri was delivered in 2012 in Mangaluru in the aftermath of a Hindu extremist group attacking a group of young people celebrating a birthday a few days prior. In the speech, Gauri was questioning this group and their ideology which enables them to use religion as a justification for violence. The Special Investigation Team in Gauri’s murder investigation found that the doctored video in one of the assailant’s phones had been used as propaganda long before Gauri’s assassination, riling the far-right Hindu groups against her. A forensic analysis of the video conducted by the non-profit newsroom Forbidden Stories and Princeton’s Digital Witness Lab revealed that the doctored video of the speech had been spread widely among India’s Hindu extremist groups, painting Gauri as an 'anti-Hindu', and by default, an 'anti-national'.

A thousand arrests and convictions will not bring Gauri Lankesh back to life. She became yet another martyr for truth — a progressive rationalist who lost her life for her beliefs, much like Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and MM Kalburgi. Her death just goes on to show how two things that enjoy global mass appeal, religion and the internet, can be weaponized with devastating effects. It also shows the dangers of fake news and how ripples of misinformation can sublimate into a deadly wave of destruction. In a world where technology like deep fakes exists, we need to be constantly vigilant about the veracity of what we consume on the internet. It is not just far-right Hindu groups but global terror cells, jihadi outfits, and far-left movements that use the internet for proselytizing malleable minds, which makes it our duty to always keep our guards up and eradicate fake news the moment we spot it.

In the movie V For Vendetta, the protagonist says that ideas are bulletproof and he couldn’t be more correct. In the month of May 2023, Kavitha Lankesh’s Gauri, the eponymous documentary film about her sister Gauri Lankesh, won the Best Long Documentary Award at the prestigious South Asian Film Festival of Montreal this year. It is a film festival that celebrates the rich cultural diversity of South Asia while showcasing it to Western audiences and bringing together the South Asian diaspora. It is the documentary’s second international award following its win last year, at the Toronto Women’s Film Festival where Gauri won the award for Best Human Rights Film.

"To make a film on Gauri is a really tough decision because she was more than a sister to me. She was my friend, mentor, conscience keeper. I am still struggling to come to terms with her exit from this mortal world. But I decided to do the film just because she is a model to thousands of women and journalists in this country. The world knew more about her only after her assassination."

Kavitha Lankesh, on what inspired her to make the documentary, in a March 2022 interview with The Federal.

"Our mission is to support local media professionals and journalists, particularly in countries with limited (press) freedom and enable them to give people access to information through which they can monitor their governments."

Free Press Unlimited, a Netherlands-based press freedom organisation that commissioned the documentary.

Even though Gauri’s corporeal presence is sorely missed, Gauri’s death has inspired generations of journalists and rational people, who are not afraid to speak the truth. Even in a world where fascism becomes the prevalent ideology and truth is curbed at every corner, flowers will continue to blossom in spring and thousands of Gauri Lankesh will continue to be harbingers of truth. Art has this powerful ability to freeze time and Kavitha Lankesh’s documentary masterfully memorializes the life and legacy of her fearless sister.

You can watch a video of Kavitha Lankesh talking about Gauri, the importance of her activism, and her own documentary below.

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