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‘Writing With Fire’ Review: Rousing, Inspirational Tribute to the Pride of Grassroots Indian Journalism

A group of low-caste women surmount personal and professional obstacles to bring boots-on-the-ground journalism to India in a time of flux.

Writing With Fire
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

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.” The steep learning curve she will nimbly ascend is one of three tales of personal and professional persistence that directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh tell in their accessible, engaging debut doc “Writing With Fire,” through which they’ll also tell the story of the Khabar Lahariya newspaper, and of India, in a time of seismic change. Thomas and Ghosh have found their angle, and it’s a powerful one.

But perhaps an angle on women as remarkable as these is not difficult to find. Meera, Suneeta and Shyamkali are three Dalit women, the lowest class in India’s caste system, previously termed — and often still treated as — “untouchable.” As Dalit they face discrimination and diminishment from the rest of society; as Dalit women they also chafe under the repressive traditions of their own menfolk. That they have kept an all-female newspaper going for 14 years is already an achievement, and when we join them, they are embarking on a new phase: Khabar Lahariya’s pivot to digital — not an easy ask when some among them have never used a cellphone.

Of the three, Meera has seniority. A wife at 14 and a mother a short while later, she is formidably accomplished: Before turning to journalism she earned a Masters in political science and a teaching degree, while raising kids and keeping house. That last ought be more important than her job, according to her husband, leading her best friend Kavita to point out acerbically that Meera’s job is what keeps house. By contrast, Shyamkali never had any formal education and feels its lack enormously, while Suneetra’s comparatively complete schooling also comes with is own dilemmas. Her father, with whom Suneetra has an endearingly irreverent relationship (“This is our usual friendly banter,” he says, after a bit of back-and-forth, “now she wont talk to me for a while”) cannot afford the dowries demanded by those husbands who would allow their wives to work. But her remaining unmarried is not an option either. It is a source of shame for her family.

Through private-life upheavals, the women doggedly pursue stories from around the region, and the viewcount on their fledging YouTube channel gradually ticks upward. Suneetra’s series on illegal, frequently lethal mining in her home village (“It used to be beautiful,” she says sadly, “now there’s always dust in our food”) gains national attention. But while the women fearlessly tackle many dangerous, bigger stories as India’s political landscape becomes more fraught, it’s their grassroots local reporting that yields the most measurable results. A marginalized community gets medicine; a vital road is finally repaired; a remote village connects to the electrical grid; and parched farmland gains working irrigation — all largely due to coverage by Khabar Lahariya.

Thomas and Ghosh, who also shoot (along with co-DP Kharan Thapliyal) and edit, don’t make any huge formal leaps here. And a basic foreknowledge of India’s recent socio-political shifts is recommended to place some of the outlet’s heroics in context. But the directors have so much to work with, it’s impressive they produce as coherent a document as this. With composer Tadjar Juniad’s musical stings smoothing the transitions from one story to the next, they cover a lot. And just when it seems there’s no time for levity they’ll slip in an unexpectedly joyous moment, like a journalism-workshop tour of Kashmir where the women have a snowball fight. Or a beaming Suneetra, Khabar Lahariya’s first international representative, in a selfie video taken on a bright Sri Lankan beach.

Back in India, Suneetra investigates the murder of a young woman. On her way back from the grisly scene, she’s shaken. “Sometimes I feel it’s a sin to be born a woman. A burden to her parents, then a slave to her husband,” she says. “Did you see all the blood?” It’s one of the only times the filmmakers’ presence is directly acknowledged and it reminds us that some of the riskier exchanges might have been possible only because an outside camera crew was there. “Don’t make the reporter the story” is one of the first rules of journalism. But some stories, like “Writing With Fire,” are worth breaking the rules for, and worth doing what we can to protect.

‘Writing With Fire’ Review: Rousing, Inspirational Tribute to the Pride of Grassroots Indian Journalism

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (online), Berlin, Feb. 1, 2021. Running time: 93 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary – India) A Black Ticket Films production. (World Sales: Autlook Film Sales, Vienna.) Producers: Sushmit Ghosh, Rintu Thomas. Co-producers: John Webster, Tone Grøttjord-Glenne. Executive producers: Patty Quillin, Hallee Adelman.
  • Crew: Directors: Rintu Thomas, Sushmit Ghosh. Camera: Ghosh, Kharan Thapliyal. Editors: Ghosh, Thomas. Music: Tadjar Juniad.
  • With: Meera, Suneeta, Shyamkali. (Hindi Dialogue)
  • Music By: