This captivating documentary follows the reporters of India’s only all-female news outlet during their transition to digital journalism as they navigate political and personal tribulations. Written by GOOD DOCS intern Celeste Graham
Reviewed by the Washington Post as the “Most inspiring journalism movie – maybe ever” and The New York Times as “nothing short of galvanizing,” one small independently produced film has received a mass outpouring of critical acclaim. A two-time winner at the Sundance Film Festival and the first ever Indian feature documentary to be nominated for an Academy Award, Writing With Fire is a paradigm of the impact truth has in the face of tyranny.
Through the lens of directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, Writing With Fire’s viewers follow an account of how India’s only female-led news organisation ‘Khabar Lahariya’, (translated to “Waves of News”), adapts to digital coverage from 2016 until the general election in 2019. Based in India’s most populous province of Uttar Pradesh, this thought-provoking documentary enters the worlds of individual reporters, with Meera and Suneeta being the film’s most predominant subjects. Here, rural regions are neglected by the media despite an abundance of daily crimes, ranging from sexual assault to corrupt authorities and exploitative labour overrun by criminals. Writing With Fire captures the everyday obstacles these individuals face within their work and private lives, a reflection of the battle against caste discrimination, the urgency to empower marginalised voices in society and their fight for press freedom.
From the opening scene, we are introduced to Chief Reporter and the film’s protagonist Meera interviewing a victim about a harrowing recurring rape assault on a low-caste woman. The filmmakers capture a unique moment, as the husband of the victim discreetly concedes, “We don’t trust anyone except you. Khabar Lahariya is our only hope.” Meera steadily confronts the police on local infringements they disregard. It soon becomes clear that these officials are influenced by social and religious values rather than the truth.
The footage portrays Khabar Lahariya reporters disrupting the caste-hierarchy that permeates throughout Indian society. Uplifting the less dominant narrative through the reporting voices of the lowest-caste women – formerly known as ‘Dalit’ or ‘untouchables,’ – Meera states “I believe journalism is the essence of democracy”, as she holds the powerful accountable for inaction to injustice.
In the Hindu belief system, the caste system is a division of labourers, separating tasks and environments deemed ‘pure’ (religious rituals, schools, or public wells) from ‘impure’ (death, decay, or ‘unclean’ labour). As we enter Meera’s home, we learn she was pressured to marry at fourteen, diligently completing her education as she raises her children; “I tell my daughters their caste identity will always follow them … but it is important to keep challenging the system.” Despite its outlaw by the Indian constitution in 1950, caste discrimination is still commonly practiced among rural communities today. Additionally, caste identity is allocated at birth, so caste-mobility is not socially accepted.
The political repression of caste systems goes hand in hand with gender oppression. Writing With Fire balances bravery with humanity as Suneeta comforts a victim’s family in between filming, momentarily reflecting on the vulnerability of women recalling her own lived experience. This starkly contrasts to the male reporters at the same scene, scrambling to come up with a scintillating news story. Despite this, Khabar Lahariya remains objective and anchored by the truth, focused on unbiased-feminist reporting rather than fuelling the polarised mainstream media.
The film features multiple sequences of Meera and Suneeta standing their ground amidst crowds of men; in villages where their legitimacy is discredited, during their filming of political rallies, when interviewing religious vigilantes, and even within their own homes. Viewers hear from Meera’s husband, “I never expected them [Khabar Lahariya] to achieve anything … they won’t last for long”. Now armed with smartphones, Meera mentors the reporters in training to navigate the shift from print to digital. As many are semi-literate, journalism advances their education as well as developing life skills that provide the women with independence and autonomy to defy the bounds set by social prejudice.
A central point in the film is the increasing online attention towards featured stories, including a rising number of subscribers and over one hundred million views on the Khabar Lahariya YouTube channel. More than viral online, the women’s grassroots journalism has led to real impact, as rapists are prosecuted and remote areas receive healthcare. However, with more visibility the reporters are more exposed as targets of persistent harassment and intimidation. Khabar Lahariya speaks out against the extreme threat journalists face in democracies today, including the assassination of fellow journalist and Indian activist Gauri Lankesh.
Suneeta courageously reports on the mines she once worked in as a child despite being terrorised by the mine owners. Each day there is a personal risk, but still her family does not recognise her work – “Should I sacrifice my freedom to protect my family’s honour?” she asks. This scene is one of many in the film that demonstrates a fierce dignity despite her clear frustration, further reflected by the intimate style of filmmaking.
Writing With Fire focuses on the rising power of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the re-election of prime minister Narendra Modi. Meera inverts the political profile of the ex-Hindu monk and new Chief Minister, questioning BJP’s policies with candour including their response to increasing crimes against women. Caught off guard, the minister becomes suspicious and concerned with his image. This exposes an internalised religious bigotry that endangers both women’s rights and freedom of speech. Despite popular resistance to talk about religion in politics, doing so allows upper-caste individuals to assert their legitimacy.
We cut to Suneeta being shoved between rallies of men in support of the BJP. As the Hindu orange flag flies overhead, each supporter claims to not associate their religious beliefs with politics. These double-standards are exaggerated when Meera has access to an interview with a young leader of the state-sponsored Hindu Yuva Vahini (Hindu Youth Brigade), an all-male vigilante organisation. As he chillingly sheaths his sword from his belt for the camera, he preaches the protection of Hinduism as the path to prosperity across India.
In an ever-growing climate of fear, Khabar Lahariya remains unbiased and firm, yet nuanced when critical of government strategies – speaking out with caution. As caste discrimination worsens, the correlation between wealth and ritual purity has amplified the unequal distribution of power and minimal political intervention. However, with hope, Suneeta declares “Being a journalist gives me the power to fight for justice.” Writing With Fire encapsulates bravery with humility. This film is a cautionary tale for democracies everywhere, as well as a beacon of light in a world subject to fake news and social tensions based on prejudice. The fearless women of Khabar Lahariya continue their reportage and prepare for new challenges to their freedom, redefining the term ‘Dalit,’ woman, and – foremost – journalist.