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Writing with fire

Writing with Fire: the inspiring story of ‘untouchable’ journalists

Τhere is a news organisation in India that is fighting against all odds: misogynistic mentality, caste prejudice, lack of formal education and technical resources: Khabar Lahariya  is run exclusively by women who every day face multiple barriers, within their homes, within their societies, in the struggle to do their job.

Writing with Fire, a documentary by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, follows chief reporter Meera and her team as they transition from print to digital.  In a cluttered news landscape dominated by men, emerges India’s only newspaper run by Dalit women. Armed with smartphones, Chief Reporter Meera and her journalists break traditions, be it on the frontlines of India’s biggest issues or within the confines of their homes, redefining what it means to be powerful.

Τhe traditional caste system still holds sway in India. There are four main groups (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras) and historically you’re born into, marry and die within your strata. Then there’s a large underclass beneath that. These include the Dalit. To be ‘untouchable’ and female is to be subject to myriad daily persecutions: among them, a group of brave women who defied convention and started their own newspaper.

The documentary shows us the women of the newspaper, as they make the transition from print to digital, shooting stories on their mobile phones and disseminating via their YouTube channel. The three women the film primarily follows – chief reporter Meera and reporters Suneeta and Shyamkali – needed no empowerment from the filmmakers. The journalists are from the Dalit community, a so-called ‘lower’ caste in India’s millenia old and entrenched caste system, a barrier that they triumphantly surmounted along with their sex in a deeply sexist part of the world.

In some months’ time, cub reporter Shyamkali will solo pilot a story that brings an accused rapist to justice. But right now she is sitting in the shade of a tree with her boss Meera, who has spiked a story of hers because she didn’t like “the angle.” When Meera explains her reasons, Shyamkali is thoughtful. “Ah,” she says, “that’s what ‘an angle’ means.”

Shot over five years, the documentary charts the rise of Khabar Lahariya as their audience grows from thousands to millions, and the women overcome numerous obstacles in their paths. En route it takes in the rise of militant Hindu nationalism, India’s endemic rape culture and numerous other burning issues, without editorializing, but using Khabar Lahariya as a meta structure. It also avoids the trap of portraying the women as victims.

“This cannot be a victim story because whenever you hear ‘Dalit,’ more often than not, it’s either going to be a caricature or a victim,” Ghosh told Variety. “And for us, Meera and all the journalists, they embody a sense of power that Indians and the world need to witness. Because I believe that they’re showing us new ways of looking at an old world.”

“How do they tell their stories? How is it different from the other mainstream, ‘upper’ caste, male dominated media? How are they navigating these relationships?,” were among the questions the filmmakers asked while approaching the subject, Thomas tells Variety. “It was out of deep respect and curiosity that we approached, because these are modern Indian women that we’ve not encountered in such a setting. So to tell that story, to become like a film that can amplify that voice, was the guiding light for us.”

Funding for the project came from around the world. It won a grant from Canada’s Fondation AlterCine in 2015 during the development phase and generated buzz when pitched at DocedgeKolkata in 2016. Support also came from the IDFA Bertha fund, Tribeca and Sundance. Pitches at the U.K.’s Sheffield Meet Market and the IDFA Forum led to support from Chicken & Egg Pictures in the U.S., U.K.- and U.S.-based Doc Society and Norway’s Sorfond. Thomas and Ghosh were invited to the Talent Forum at Sundance in 2019 to present the film, and in 2020, while in post, support arrived from the SFFILM Documentary Film Fund in the U.S.

Thomas and Ghosh made it a priority to show the subjects of the documentary the film, before a wider audience watched it. Τhe filmmakers set up a screening in a little hut in a quiet part of town in Uttar Pradesh, where the film is set.

“After the screening, there was clapping, hugging and some tears,” say Thomas and Ghosh. “Everyone loved the film and said we’d documented a critical moment in their history. We’re very glad that we could squeeze in this screening – showing them the film before the world sees it was important for us. Their response made it even more special.”

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