SUNDANCE ’21 — Rural Journalists Break Taboos and Shine a Light on Injustice in ‘Writing with Fire’

A still from documentary 'Writing with Fire'. An Indian woman sits holding her smartphone, filming another woman. there are 5 other people in the room, men and women, watching the interview take place.
Sundance Institute

“I’m giving this interview now but who knows what will happen to us tonight?”

A woman speaks to 20-year old Suneeta about the collapse of an illegal mine in Uttar Pradesh, a state in Northern India. The subsequent deaths go unrecorded and those speaking up fear retribution from the ‘mining mafia’ who are in cahoots with the local police. Suneeta works for Khabar Lahariya, India’s only digital news agency run by rural women from marginalised communities and as a former child labourer from a family of miners, it’s a subject close to home. The sight of a female reporter is a novelty for the crowd of men around her who attempt to control the narrative, but Suneeta remains professional, “I don’t report for bribes” and confidently holds her own.

In their feature-length debut documentary Writing with Fire, Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh delve behind the scenes of this unique publication following two of its reporters as they cover everything from corrupt politicians and national elections to healthcare and violence against women. Like many of Khabar Lahariya’s reporters, Suneeta is a Dalit and belongs to a social group that sits at the lowest rung of India’s ancient caste system. Often referred to as ‘untouchables’ they have historically been oppressed, excluded from accessing education and healthcare and often live below the poverty line. Shot over five years, the film documents a crucial moment in Khabar Lahariya’s history as it takes its first steps to evolve from producing a weekly newspaper in print to digital news.

Suneeta is mentored by 32 year old Meera, Chief Reporter at Khabar Lahariya and a mother of two. Her husband is supportive as she juggles her demanding workload with family life but despite her professional status, the stigma of her social identity remains. Abuse is common and accommodation can be hard to secure as landlords often refuse to rent to a Dalit, let alone a female journalist who works late at night. Reflecting on her experiences she says, “I carry my caste identity as a weight on my back, maybe until the last day of my life.” When Meera first trains her team to use smartphones, the women are intrigued but intimidated by the devices; many of them are barely literate and the interfaces in English prove a hurdle. But they quickly find a solution, noting down the foreign alphabet phonetically in their native language and the mobile phone, once mastered, will be a powerful tool. Technology isn’t the only barrier; in rural communities it is often a brave decision for a woman to pursue an education and work outside the home. 

After interviewing a rape survivor whose request to file a report is refused by the police, Meera confronts the officer in charge who shrugs off responsibility and feigns ignorance of the case. In a country where women fear retaliation for calling out abusers, a culture of silence surrounds sexual assault and victim-blaming is widespread. In 2012, Jyoti Singh, a 23 year-old woman in New Delhi was gang-raped by several men and brutally beaten on a moving bus while travelling home after watching a film. When she later died of her injuries, thousands of people took to the streets in anger calling for justice. The four men accused of the attack were sentenced to death in March 2020 but not before the incident triggered wave of anger and a long-overdue conversation around sexual assault and the right of women to move freely in India’s streets without fear of violence. 

A still from documentary 'Writing with Fire'. Two Indian women are shown on the left of the image, interviewing 4 men sat on white chairs.
Sundance Institute

With a fast-growing economy and a youthful demographic makeup (50% of the population are under the age of 25) India’s self-image is that of a progressive player on the global stage. But its democratic values are increasingly under threat and for those at the bottom of the economic and social hierarchy there has never been so much at stake. The ruling party BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) is Hindu Nationalist and has —  following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s re-election in 2019 — now been in continuous power since 2014. When Meera manages to secure access to Satyam, the 21 year old leader of Hindu Yuva Vahini, a vigilante youth organisation she does so at personal risk. Her interview with him is both revealing and disturbing to witness as the young man with high political ambitions brandishes his sword, spouting anti-Muslim rhetoric and his wish for a ‘pure’ Hindu state.

Scenes from the women’s domestic lives provide useful context, highlighting the multiple ways in which the professional and personal intersect. Suneeta’s family don’t fully understand what she does and push her towards marriage but her father is proud of his daughter’s ambition. Pressured by her family to get married, she is torn between a sense of duty and desire for freedom. Meera’s husband on the other hand, while not overly optimistic about Khabar Lahariya’s longevity is supportive of her career and their affectionate banter reveals a relationship built on mutual respect. She manages her team with conviction and kindness, supporting their development and seeing Suneeta’s potential is training the young woman to one day take up a leadership role. Her talented protégé is open-eyed about the risks associated with their profession but notes, “Being a reporter gives me the power to fight for justice and that’s what I want to be remembered for.” 

A staff trip to Kashmir allows for a rare moment of reflection and in a poignant scene, the women cheer each other on as they share their hopes for the future. After discussing editorial strategy the subject soon turns to the team’s safety and the need for vigilance. The concern is prudent; as journalists they are operating in an increasingly hostile environment in which criticism of the government is viewed as ‘anti-national’ and those speaking out are often suppressed. In 2017, Gauri Lankesh, a prominent journalist known for her outspoken views against right wing extremism and caste discrimination, was shot dead outside her home in Bangalore. According to a report from Unesco, 47 journalists have been killed in India since 1995 and it is now considered one of the deadliest countries in the world to practise journalism.

These intrepid reporters amplify the voices of those often rendered invisible in modern-day India and the impact of Khabar Lahariya’s fearless reporting is real; reports about corrupt officials and failing infrastructure often result in action within months. The publication’s YouTube channel continues to draw larger audiences and its videos watched by only a few thousand in 2016 now regularly attract over a million views. Writing with Fire explores themes of female empowerment, gender and caste in India and offers a rare representation of Dalit women on screen. The film is a fascinating journey into the heart of grassroots journalism in India as seen through the eyes of the next generation of reporters on the ground. With smartphones at the ready, Meera and her team are poised to bring their unique brand of journalism into the digital era and show no signs of backing down. For these daring reporters, a woman’s work — speaking truth to power — is never done. 

Writing with Fire had its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2021 and won the Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary and the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award: Impact for Change. The film has been acquired by Sony Pictures Classics.

by Anjana Janardhan

Anjana Janardhan is a designer and writer based in London. She writes about film and visual culture for publications including BFI, Sight & Sound, Non-Fiction and Port magazine. You can find more of her work here.

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