Writing with Fire Is To Journalism What Dignity Is To Democracy

The one documentary that finds Western acclaim for exposing an India they are unfamiliar with is also the one that is perhaps wary of the India it so bravely inhabits
Writing with Fire Is To Journalism What Dignity Is To Democracy

Director: Rintu Thomas, Sushmit Ghosh
Cinematographers: Sushmit Ghosh, Karan Thapliyal
Rintu Thomas, Sushmit Ghosh
Genre: Documentary feature

In an India where truth often lies in the eyes of the beholder, it's the unseen who become – and make – the mirrors. The Dalit women reporters in the Oscar-nominated Writing with Fire come from a position of such disenfranchisement that agency is their only option. They come from a space of such darkness that shedding light is a coping mechanism. They choose to see, listen, change and challenge, none of which they were afforded in their own homes. At one point, a reporter insists on taking off her sandals before entering a Dalit family home on the outskirts of a casteist village. The owner – categorized as an "untouchable" – is visibly shaken by her show of tradition; he is so used to being treated as dirt that the sight of someone respecting the hygiene of his space is surprising. The women's journalism for Khabar Lahariya, then, is not so much a craft as a restorative identity; it isn't a job so much as a medium of personal expression. 

Whether it's two senior hands cooking in the kitchen and bemoaning the demise of the term "democracy" while a chauvinist husband's taunts fall on deaf ears – or the symbolic image of the group discussing the rise of saffronism and the need to be vigilant in their election coverage, during an offsite to Kashmir of all places – journalism becomes their shared language. Acknowledging injustice becomes a tool of inclusivity. Besides the desire to learn, their work infuses in them the ability to unlearn. In their surroundings, being a woman who asks questions is tantamount to social treason. But being a human who seeks answers is a revision of social structure. 

The makers of this documentary recognize that the voices of these remarkable women – who exist at the forefront of India's only all-female rural media outlet – are rooted in the intersection of gender oppression and political repression. As a result, Writing with Fire is situated in a period that ties the print outfit's transition to digital with Uttar Pradesh's transition to a state-sponsored breeding ground of violence against marginalized communities. It opens with the 2016 State elections and closes with the 2019 general elections, both of which are won by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Somewhere in between, Khabar Lahariya becomes the concrete bridge that connects grassroots courage to the endemic of Hindu nationalism. This is reflected through its choice of protagonists. Around 40 minutes into the film, we see the three women – veteran Meera Devi, fiery Suneeta and cub Shyamkali – starting to represent three hierarchical but tethered lenses of living and reportage.

Shyamkali, a single mother and uneducated newbie, finds her feet by puncturing the bureaucracy concealing the rape and murder of a lower-caste girl. Suneeta, a spunky young striver, uncovers the complicity of cops and authorities in a local mining mafia racket. And Meera, the most seasoned of them all, does the heavy lifting on the political beat – she profiles a Yuva Vahini leader and proud cow vigilante, politely probing the ruling party in a way that reveals their religious bigotry. The three women have different methods at separate stages of their career, but pursue similar destinations. Their questions emerge from a space of seeking accountability rather than informed opinion – exposing an environment whose rot runs so deep that the nature of atrocities becomes secondary to the concept of cultural decay. There is no context about how and why the newspaper was founded in 2002 – incidentally the year of the Gujarat riots – because this isn't a Khabar Lahariya documentary per se; it's a rousing journalism movie. It democratizes the grammar of oppression in a land where freedom of speech is a mythical construct.

Watching the reporters grow in confidence every time they use a smartphone to record bytes is akin to watching the forgotten embracing new ways to remember history. Director duo Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas inherit the tricky job of following the people who follow stories. It's tough enough to rationalize the presence of not one but two cameras during remote interviews. Which is why it's impressive how we overlook that the women are attracting double the stares and public scrutiny. Instead, we notice the little touches that distinguish the female gaze from a male one. Suneeta, the only unmarried one of the three, presents the most tangible contrast. When she reaches the house of yet another erased murder statistic, she cuts through the noise and sets about speaking to the bereaved family members. Simultaneously, we see the male reporter of a rival Hindi channel fuss about equipment and edits. Suneeta asks pointed questions to a sheepish police chief, while the other male reporters in the room try to cushion her blows with empty praise. They later mansplain the process of 'interrogation' to Suneeta during a tea break. Her wry inflections disguise her survival instincts, conveying a sort of self-awareness that the camera is perceptive enough to dwell on. With her, what we see is what we get in the final Youtube report – as opposed to Meera, who puts her subjects at ease before raining her voiceover-ed wrath upon them in the final cut. 

Perhaps the most haunting moments of Writing with Fire, though, feature visual cues of a country where trauma is cemented into its texture. More than once, we see the women commuting alone across Uttar Pradesh for stories – in trains, rickshaws, taxis, motorbikes, on foot. At all points, they seem to be one errant male away from becoming the story; the camera focuses on their tired faces, at once evoking the threat of abuse that they've internalized over the years. The bus Meera takes home every night is nearly empty by the time they reach her stop. The 2012 Delhi gang rape hangs heavy over this journey, as does the Gauri Lankesh assassination every morning she leaves her doorstep. These solitary moments between destinations contain within them both danger and dignity, even as their Youtube channel grows to a point where one can't be distinguished from the other. Those numbers mean little when an aggressive man confronts Suneeta for being a "privileged" reporter, or when an imposing politician and his sidekicks demand to know if the lotus on their banner will feature in the B-roll footage.

The things these women see – and choose to see – prey on their minds, evident from the post-interview frowns they wear. The toll shows. The primary rules of journalism – objectivity and distance – are often at odds with the empathy derived from their lived-in perspectives. For them and, by extension, the film-makers, this compassion and attachment to the crises around them – the need to not just feel but heal – are what separates them from the detached passions of their elite city counterparts. You see it in the way Shyamkali consoles a grieving father before switching to press mode, or in how Suneeta's sharp voice goes tender in her interactions with a victim's family. None of them become overnight feminists or cultural icons; they go home every night, live with the patriarchy and reach office the next morning with the zest to course-correct the future. 

Khabar Lahariya recently put out a statement distancing themselves from the documentary. The statement criticizes the makers for introducing them as an organization with a "consuming focus of reporting on one political party" and how "part stories have a way of distorting the whole". With the Oscars around the corner and the results of the UP elections still fresh, the timing is no coincidence. Whether the makers simplified a complex legacy to suit a narrative agenda or the journalists are merely batting for self-preservation and safety, the irony of it all is tragic. The one documentary that finds Western acclaim for exposing an India they are unfamiliar with is also the one that is perhaps wary of the India it so bravely inhabits. I, for one, didn't think of Writing with Fire as a misrepresentation of truth so much as a calibration of facts. There are upper-caste reporters as well as those of several faiths and ideologies in Khabar Lahariya, but the film chooses a perspective that best conveys the vigours of fearless journalism. Every crime or controversy reported stems from institutional apathy right at the top. Every atrocity is legitimized by the turning of blind and brainwashed eyes. If anything, this documentary is a profoundly powerful reminder of people in the time of politics. Of speaking in an era of silence. And of writing – stories, videos, segments, history itself – in the age of hellfire. 

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