'There is certain loneliness to achievement': Indian journalist Barkha Dutt on why successful women often have it tough

Emmy-nominated journalist Barkha Dutt, who in partnership with KT Events and The Week magazine, is bringing her popular We The Women series to the UAE, on why gender matters


Anamika Chatterjee

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Photo by Sanjoy Ghosh
Photo by Sanjoy Ghosh

Published: Thu 5 Oct 2023, 2:20 PM

Last updated: Thu 5 Oct 2023, 2:23 PM

Mapping Barkha Dutt’s journey through television journalism is almost like mapping the journey of modern India itself. The Emmy-nominated journalist has been at the forefront of covering every important event the country has witnessed. A reason why today hers is a voice that one turns to for a more nuanced and angular view on issues that matter. As she brings her We The Women series to the UAE, in partnership with KT Events and The Week magazine, Barkha takes us through her journey as a woman journalist at the frontiers that were once considered male bastion. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Mapping your journey through television journalism is almost like mapping the journey of modern India. You have covered every important social, political and cultural event that has defined the country. What has been the personal cost of going against the ingrained? And was gender ever an impediment?

It’s so interesting that you say my life’s journey has coincided with stories of modern India. When I entered broadcast journalism, there was no private news channel in India at all. When I first graduated with masters in mass communication, there were only two production houses — one run by NDTV and the other by India Today. And Doordarshan, the public broadcaster of India, asked both of these production houses to produce 30-minute news bulletins.

That is how we entered the space that we now recognise to be broadcast journalism. And now, of course, television is being challenged by digital, and I now run my own digital multimedia platform called Mojo Stories. ‘Mojo’ means magic and the aim is to reclaim the magic of storytelling.

If you’d asked me what it is like to be a woman in this profession 20-30 years ago, I would have said that gender doesn’t matter. But today, gender does matter. At every stage, you have to fight at least four or five times harder, and when you get success, there will be people who will try to punish you for your ambition, professionalism and competence.

When I was in my 20s, I covered the Kargil war from the frontline. I have grown up as the daughter of India’s first woman war correspondent. Before my mother died when I was 13, she would tell me how the newspaper she was working for did not agree to her going to the war front in 1965. So, she would take a couple of days off and go there with a notepad and a pen, and then start sending stories from there. Many years later, when I said that I wanted to cover the war, the organisation I was working for and the military said, “Absolutely not. We cannot have a woman at the war front.”

They said they would not be able to look after me, I said I didn’t need looking after. They said there were no bathrooms for women, I said I would manage. They said they could not offer me a separate room to sleep, I said that was okay. I told them I realised I was going to a war zone and that this was not a holiday. And eventually, I was able to go. From that moment to now, being a woman has always mattered. It has always made life tougher.

Sometimes, you get noticed easily because you are a woman doing a job that’s associated with a man. But sometimes because they notice you more, they also judge you more. Women are judged for being powerful and successful. I always tell this story of an interview I did with Hillary Clinton when she was the secretary of state, where she said, “If you want to be a successful woman with a mind of your own, just learn to grow a skin as thick as the hide of a rhinoceros.” I am still getting used to that skin.

How did this consciousness take root over the years?

What happens is when young women start off in any profession where it’s not so common for women to rise to the top, they want to prove themselves on the basis of their work. They don’t want anything to be gendered. After you have proven yourself, it gets easier to own your gender. When you are in the process of doing that, you are actually scared of people telling you, “Oh, you are just playing the gender card.” Stage two is telling yourself and the world, “You know it was much tougher for me to get here.” Owning your gender happens at this stage.

Which reporting assignment deeply affected you?

I would pick two stories, and they are 20 years apart. The first is reporting on the Kargil War that also became a lifelong pursuit of reporting from war zones. More recently, as I turned media entrepreneur and before I could build the company, Covid happened. I realised it was a moment for me to remind my audience that I could still do powerful storytelling. I sat in a car and travelled the length and breadth of India. During the first wave, Indian airports were shut as a result of the lockdown. I spent three months on the road because this wasn’t a story that could have been covered from the studio.

During the second wave in India, I lost my father to Covid. Soon, I found I became the story I had been reporting when, on the day of his cremation, I got Covid. Even when I was locked in a basement in isolation, I found that the only way I could cope with the loss was to keep working. In fact, I did not stop working even for a day during 2020 and 2021.

How did you process that grief amid what was clearly a monumental journalistic achievement?

It was so contradictory. I was doing some of the best work of my life at a time when I had suffered the biggest loss in my life. I found it very difficult to reconcile, and I thought if there was to be any meaning to my father’s death, if I really had to make sense of it, I would have to keep working. By then, I had spent so many months reporting and had already seen so many people denied hospital beds and suffer loss.

It was a monumental loss because my mother died when I was 13 and my father was the only parent my sister and I had. I had suddenly lost everything. Also, of course, one is haunted by guilt. I wondered if I could have done something differently; why did I not spend more time with him? At the same time, another part of your heart and brain tells you that the pandemic is still on.

At one point, we brought his ashes home and I planted them at the rose bush of our backyard. And after 12 days, I was back on road. My father used to love music; I cannot listen to it anymore because it makes me want to cry. There are all kinds of triggers. But I only know one way of making sense of everything, and that’s through my work.

Speaking of work, you are also a bridge between two different generations of journalists — those who have witnessed television journalism booming in India, and those who are witnessing the rise of digital storytelling. You have been able to transition effortlessly into the digital era, and from a reporter, you have now transitioned to entrepreneurship. What has this taught you?

If you are smart, you will pre-empt the change, not respond to the change. Let’s be clear: technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning are going to transform our lives. These innovations will be as cataclysmic as mobile phones once were. When I started television, I remember there were so many people who’d come from newspapers, and they found it difficult to adjust to that pace of work.

Similarly, today, I see a lot of legacy media trying to adapt to digital era — there are shorter attention spans, how do you do short-yet-in-depth things. I could have decided to not be on Instagram or Snapchat or TikTok, but there’s no point being in your bubble. You have to change with the times. The challenge is to tell the stories you’ve been wanting to tell to new audiences. For example, at Mojo Story, our audience is 25-35 years old. And we are clearly older than the audience we are making stories for. So, one of the adjustments is in how you tell stories — find a way to use a 60-second video, use pictures. When I went to a war zone, I was taking a risk for myself. Now, I am taking a risk for my team. I have to give the people a choice to say no.

Secondly, you have to get involved in things that are not your domain, you have to get involved in talking to advertisers, sponsors, investors. Finally, what you learn as an entrepreneur is that no job is small for you. I want to know how to design a graphic, how to set up lights, so that if I have to do everything tomorrow, I can.

What is the cost of being a high achiever?

Every high achiever goes through lonely phases. There is a certain loneliness to achievement. For one, a lot of people do not understand why you do what you do. Secondly, we live in a world that can be ruthless. If you do well, people will pull you down. As a woman high achiever, I have learnt to not engage with trolls. Female achievers will always be trolled. People will be unnerved by our lack of apology. But there will also be moments of deep fulfilment.

What inspired you to start We The Women?

As I told you, when I was younger, I was in denial of the fights women have to fight, and also the celebrations we deserve to enjoy. As I realised the role that my gender has played in offering other women to dream bigger, I wanted to create a forum which not only acknowledged our challenges but also celebrated our achievements.

I wanted to create a space that was at the intersection of glamour, gravitas and grassroots; where a celebrity and a non-celebrity would be equal on stage; where we could have great conversation. So I decided to create We The Women. We started it in Mumbai but took it across India. I am so excited to be partnering with Khaleej Times and The Week for the Dubai edition. I am looking forward to meeting achievers in the UAE.

In the UAE, women have assumed leadership positions and have been making a splash. What do women bring to leadership?

Firstly, women have to fight to achieve things. And because they have to fight, they try to keep different parts of their lives ordered. Women don’t take anything for granted because it has come to them at a greater cost than their male counterparts. They don’t just fight to get a door open, but also for it to remain open.

We saw women found it tougher to remain in the workforce during the pandemic. Because we do not have equality at home, equality at work is always tougher for women. This is why they are deeply respectful of their work choices. Just by virtue of that, you will find women leaders are diligent.

Photo by Sanjoy Ghosh
Photo by Sanjoy Ghosh

Following the presidential nod, the women’s reservation bill is now a law. How will that change the landscape for women in India?

Change helps you realise how much has changed and, at the same time, how little has changed. I was just telling a friend that we have a woman president, we have had a woman prime minister, we have a woman finance minister, but it’s taken us so long to open the doors for women in Parliament. This law has come after 27 years. Because of certain technicalities, it’s going to take at least three years before it is operational. And once we formalise it, we will see a dramatic change not just in politics but also in how we understand women in power.

Has #MeToo changed ground realities for women in India?

It’s a very complex question because it’s caused a big intergenerational argument in India. Women of an older generation do not agree with it. Women of a younger generation completely believe in it. I am sandwiched between these generations possibly in my views as well. I do believe #MeToo movement created an important space for public commentary on men whose predatory behaviour had been turned a blind eye to for years.

But I am a little uncomfortable at every unpleasant experience we put in the club of #MeToo. We must be careful to pick up only non-consensual interactions where power has been abused. #MeToo is an overcorrection of things that have not changed for decades. It is important to call out entrenched patriarchy but we must be careful to not trivialise it either. We have to be responsible in going public with an allegation. It has also reminded us that change is difficult.

There have been detailed testimonies from women about particular individuals and we have seen them not exactly being penalised and they have come to realise that while #MeToo is an important moment in how we understand harassment, I believe with all its faults, we have to fight that fight legally. I am an advocate of #MeToo coupled with legal process.

Where should one draw a line between being a journalist and an activist? A lot of young people who enter the field often confuse the two.

At Mojo, we say, “We are neither chamcha (sycophant) nor morcha (activist).” Our job is to tell a story to the best of our abilities. You are a good journalist if your audience is not able to guess your politics. Your reportage should be as scathing to those who commit wrong and be open to acknowledging when something is correct. As long as it is not hate speech, you should be able to give all shades of opinion a respectful hearing.

We The Women will take place on October 26 at The Address Skyview, Dubai



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