It’s a compelling documentary that engages its subjects with the same care they bring to their own reporting.
Across the rugged state of Uttar Pradesh in Northern India, a team of women journalists is bustling. Khabar Lahariya (‘Waves of News’), India’s only women-run newspaper, takes its responsibility to the community very seriously. These dynamic women are out amongst the people, documenting their stories, sharing them, and seeking answers on their behalf, often at great personal risk.
In Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas’ new documentary, Writing With Fire, the story of these women and their passionate mission for justice blazes across the screen with jaw-dropping tenacity. We join the women in 2016 after they’ve already been in business for fourteen years. Led by Chief Reporter Meera, the executive team has made the difficult decision to transfer their focus from print to digital production so that they might reach more people.
This is no easy feat in an area where access to electricity is not guaranteed. Many of the women on staff have not had extended (or any) exposure to smartphones. One reporter, Shyamkali, is even a little intimidated. And what’s the use of a smartphone if there’s no way to charge it?
Thomas and Ghosh use this change as the inroad to our journey alongside the women of Khabar Lahariya as they learn on the job while still trying to cover the region’s news. What’s instantly clear is how helpful smartphones are with documenting stories. Now, these women can record not only the testimonies of victims, but also their faces, voices, and tears. The digital camera becomes both record and memory for many.
The stories these women focus on aren’t easy ones to tell. Yes, their subject matter is heart-wrenching, but also because so many obstacles stand in the way of their reporting. Every day, every moment of their work is stonewalled by social constraints of gender and caste. We watch with clenched teeth as men shut them out without flinching. Even those in the reporters’ own lives provide little support.
As women journalists, Khabar Lahariya’s reportersare experts in the nuances needed to speak and read between lines.
As members of the lowest social caste in India, these Dalit women are doubly looked down upon. As Suneeta boldly investigates labor violations and corruption in a local mine, executives, officials, and other male journalists doubt her credibility because she is a woman and because they don’t think she has the material means to be of any significance or “use.”
Throughout the entirety of Writing With Fire, the lingering effects of colonialism are readily apparent, especially the calcification of the religio-social caste and dowry systems. Through these institutions, the living legacy of the British presence in India still prevents the women whose story Writing With Fire is telling from living fully mobile lives with futures curtailed by concerns over family finances, status, and honor.
The masculinities and nationalisms that directly confront these women may be read as a response to Indian Independence. Rigid gender and class divides are meant as a rebuff to the pervasive British feminization of Indian men. So when the reporters of Khabar Lahariya encounter officials and politicians during the election season, their political ideology is expressed through patriarchy. To them, a strong, proud, and independent India can only be reinforced by firm “moral” “purity.”
There’s a profound and palpable exigency to what these women do and Writing With Fire is very much concerned with looking at Now.
It would be easy for filmmakers to fall into a colonial narrative of their own to sell this story to Western audiences, painting India and its male population as “backward,” “primitive,” “undeveloped” or “ignorant.” But by making the audience privy to the delicate ways these women go about and often literally interrogate their world, Thomas and Ghosh deftly illustrate the truth.
As women journalists, Khabar Lahariya’s reporters are experts in the nuances needed to speak and read between lines. They listen to and listen through paternalistic and patriarchal prohibitions as seen when Suneeta looks for answers at the mine or when Meera talks with her husband about her aspirations. These are contemporary, modern women who intimately understand the rich complexities of their social lives.
It’s tremendously exciting to see the number of people who appreciate that understanding grow throughout the film. When Writing With Fire joins the journalists, their YouTube channel already stands at over 100K views. And that number slowly grows with each new story and solution Khabar Lahariya has to offer.
This exposure brings risk, and not just from trolls. The more the reporters share and advocate, the more they open themselves up to retaliation. With crimes against journalists on the rise in India and around the globe, the double edger of ‘exposure’ becomes readily apparent.
Writing With Fire does not reinscribe a colonial narrative of ‘progress’ that would detract from the work the film aims to highlight. Like what Meera teaches Shyamkali, it’s all about the angle.
In Writing With Fire, ideals meet praxis in real-time.
This is not about the women or Khabar Lahariya being brought into “modernity.” Liberties come at a cost, and technology is not an end-all-be-all solution. Ghosh, Thomas, and the news staff keenly recognize that being on the internet doesn’t equate to progressive thought. In much the same way the journalists finesse around social strictures, the directors must delicately dance around placing people on an ideological spectrum. No idea is labeled “outdated” in Writing With Fire. Instead, the film extends an invitation to watch them coexist from a somewhat removed stance, signaled by the camera watching other cameras.
Instead, Writing With Fire continually circles back to Meera, Suneeta, and Shyamkali, sitting with the camera at eye level. There’s a profound and palpable exigency to what these women do and Writing With Fire is very much concerned with looking at Now. These are practical journalists asking “what can be done now,” “what tools do I have now.”
In Writing with Fire, ideals meet praxis in real-time. It’s a richly human documentary about the importance and vitality of documenting lives and sharing human stories.
Writing With Fire is now playing in select theaters.