Writing with Fire and the Problems of Savarna Gaze

The documentary serves as an uncomfortable reminder of how ill-equipped we are to deal with the complex material realities of oppressed communities, especially when they implicate us at a fundamental level.

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Writing with Fire by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh is another addition to the bourgeoning mainstream media engagement with caste in India. The documentary has garnered accolades  – including an (ultimately unsuccessful) Oscar nomination – for its depiction of the journey of the women journalists who run the Khabar Lahariya newspaper in rural Uttar Pradesh.

While the documentary is a worthy endeavour that explores the lives of women journalists in a country that ranks embarrassingly low in world indices on press freedom, gender and minority rights, it has come under intense criticism from the subjects of the documentary themselves for misrepresenting their realities. The statement issued by Khabar Lahariya underscores the many problems with the documentary, one of which is the misleading claim that it is a news organisation run exclusively by Dalit women. 

The documentary does not explicitly mention the caste backgrounds of the journalists, for instance by leaving out their last names – which are a sure giveaway of caste background in India. However, even a cursory survey of the film’s reviews, along with the ‘buzz’ that has been created around it, indicates that the filmmakers gave the distinct impression that the documentary is about Dalit women journalists.

The Khabar Lahariya statement refutes this claim; instead, the collective asserts that they are  ‘Dalit-led, but also Muslim, also OBC, also upper-caste women’. The heterogeneity of the news room is not explicitly clear in the documentary, but the filmmakers do extensively cover Dalit families in UP, and their approach to the Dalit life-world raises many questions that require closer scrutiny.

Dalit lifeworlds: Expectations versus reality

One of the things that immediately stands out in the documentary is the absence of photos of Dr B.R. Ambedkar and Gautam Buddha in the many Dalit homes that the filmmakers tour. Photos and statues of Ambedkar and Buddha, along with Ashok Chakra, often mark the thresholds of Dalit bastis. Whether their absence in Writing with Fire is because of oversight – perhaps the film makers not consider it important to focus on them – or because Ambedkarism is not as hegemonic across the Dalit community, either way the omission of these signifiers raises significant sociological questions.

In addition to that, it is  surprising that the filmmakers made an almost three-hour documentary engaging with Dalit women journalists and communities in UP without mentioning Mayawati, one of the country’s most iconic Dalit female politicians who also served four times as the chief minister of UP, the Bhim Army or the many Ambedkarite organisations that offer crucial support and community-assistance to Dalits in a scenario where they are vulnerable to myriad forms of discrimination if not outright physical violence.

For a documentary that engages with caste in India, overlooking these key sociological indicators that influence, and add meaning to the Dalit community does raise eyebrows as it decontextualises the story and we get no sense of the terrain in which Khabar Lahariya is operating. 

The Khabar Lahariya statement, however, does caution against the dangers of openly wearing caste identities in the field. Although the statement comes post-facto and we have no knowledge about the conversations that happened behind the scenes, it was incumbent on the makers to know their field and approach it with the utmost sensitivity. Instead, the documentary subtly gestures to the identities of the ‘lower’ caste journalists, which also raises a lot of questions on the ethics of representation, especially when it heavily impacts the lives and livelihoods of the people involved.

Despite these conspicuous omissions, Writing with Fire is a well-crafted documentary, albeit with a pre-determined narrative that the filmmakers set out to pursue with careful editing, and a strong grasp of the expectations of its urbane, broadly upper-caste, secular, film-festival going, post-Black Lives Matter target audience in North America that is in the process of ‘discovering’ caste.

Also Read: ‘Writing With Fire’ Tells a Story of Many Fights; Most Importantly, the Fight To Be Heard

Representing caste and gender

The primary narrative is that of the success of Khabar Lahariya, whose story is presented as the rise of the underdog. The documentary depicts the journalists as not only upsetting caste barriers but also subverting patriarchal norms by choosing to pursue a career in lieu of settling completely for marriage and domesticity. Some parts of the documentary show these tensions between the personal and professional lives of the journalists vividly, in scenes where the women are learning the ropes of digital literacy by day, and cooking and tending to their families after they return home.

However, we get very little sense of their struggles to educate themselves and build a career, while managing the pressures of marriage and motherhood. The film also gives us no insight into the inter-caste tensions that animate village dynamics, the structure and hierarchies at Khabar Lahariya and so on.

Whether intentional or not, the references to caste are very muted. Instead, the filmmakers appear to put more emphasis on the gender of the journalists as the factor that primarily determines their choices. Going by the reviews of the film and the reaction of the audience abroad where the documentary is being widely screened, the references to gender also appear to be more ‘relatable’ to the viewers.

The references to caste, on the other hand, were met with awe and confusion. Dalits who are vocal about their experiences would also know how these conversations can get alienating as the ‘upper’ castes in India tend to be more ‘secularised’, and oblivious to various forms of casteism. It is difficult to have these conversations even with the most sympathetic caste Hindu well-wishers without inciting feelings of guilt and discomfort in them. In any case, it is not clear why the engagement with caste feels less intimate in the documentary in comparison to gender. It also begs the question; is there absolutely no way to engage with caste creatively without outing the identities of those involved? 

To be fair to the film-makers, they did manage to capture a few nuances of the Dalit experience. For instance, the documentary shows Meera, the chief reporter at Khabar Lahariya, giving ‘the talk’ to her children to be upfront about their caste identities, after they were outed as Dalits in the school list. This is an incident that will resonate with most Dalits who similarly receive such ‘talks’ from elders who – despite not having enough education – know enough about the stigma and bullying that follow once caste identities are outed.

Those who enter higher secondary know the trauma and dread associated with being segregated in different caste-based queues from their friends while filling up college applications. The mere fact that one is in the stigmatised ‘SC/ST/NT’ queue, is enough to be characterised as a ‘quota student’, and thus ‘unmeritorious’.

Although unspoken, one of the key calculations that Dalit students and their families are forced to make is the cost-benefit analysis of being outed and risking social ostracism versus passing, that involves living with the perpetual fear of being outed.

In another instance, the documentary shows Meera emphasising the clean homes of Dalits. This is significant for Dalits in terms of finding acceptance in an intensely hierarchical society that rigidly adheres to casteist notions of purity and pollution. The documentary does not delve sufficiently into these subtleties that tell us so much about our social world. What we get instead is Kavita, another founder-member of Khabar Lahariya, speaking angrily about why there is a ‘Mata’ in ‘Bharat’ or how marriage was the worst thing that happened to the ebullient Suneeta, whose sad face in her wedding attire seemed almost contrived for the cameras.

A still from ‘Writing With Fire’. Photo: writingwithfire.in.

Rise of Hindutva and the depoliticisation of Dalits

The documentary does well when it focuses on the extensive reportage of Khabar Lahariya. From mine-workers strikes, atrocities against Dalits, bureaucratic apathy to spread of tuberculosis in hospital-starved villages, bad roads, lack of electricity, and most pivotal moment of all – the UP assembly elections of 2017 after which Yogi Adityanath became the chief minister of India’s most populous state.

This is the second narrative that piggybacks on the first, the rise of the underdog. The Dalit women of Khabar Lahariya are framed as guards against the right-wing resurgence, a singular focus they have objected to. Apart from the fact that Writing with Fire‘s framing is in stark contradiction with the recent UP elections, where the BJP managed to consolidate non-Jatav Dalit voters, especially women, the directors have clearly missed the significance of the plurality of interactions that journalists form while pursuing their stories. Indeed,  Khabar Lahariya’s statement on the documentary illustrates the challenges of journalism aptly when they attribute their success to

“20 years of forging complex friendships and relationships in the field, in villages, anganwadis, schools, in dingy district press clubs, in administrative blocks – in the panchayat bhavan, in the block office, in the district magistrate’s office; in the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress, the Peace Party, the Ambedkar Samaj Party, the Bundelkhand Mukti Morcha, the Swatantra Janta Party, the Rashtriya Lok Dal, the Jan Adhikar Party, the Bhim Army; and with all sorts of journalists.”

The documentary is also guilty of marginalising caste violence in its efforts to double down on the threat of Hindutva fascism. A lot of this comes at the cost of ignoring the inner dynamics of the Dalit community, and by rendering them apolitical. There is a moment in the film where one of the journalists, Shyamkali, is covering the rape of a Dalit woman in the hinterlands of UP whose family is seeking to suppress the news to protect the family honour. The manner in which the documentary generalises the “family honour” cliché betrays the many instances where Dalit communities have mobilised to seek justice for rape victims. The most recent incident is the Hathras case in UP, where the ghastly rape and murder of a 19-year-old Dalit woman became a national issue after the uproar caused by the immediate kin and community of the victim.

The erasure of Dalit political assertion is one of the most glaring and egregious omissions in the film, since that is precisely what makes Dalits more vulnerable to caste-based violence in recent times. Khabar Lahariya also expressed dismay that the documentary revealed the identities of rape survivors callously, which would certainly undermine their efforts to seek justice in their already extremely hostile environments.

Should the documentary be ‘cancelled’?

One of the biggest issues with the documentary is its misleading promotional strategy that claims it is based on a news organisation run entirely by Dalit women, when it is evidently not. These claims, therefore, feel duplicitous and exploitative, given that the filmmakers have secured high-profile contracts on the basis of it.

The other big issue is that the makers attempt to superimpose their agenda over their subjects without being sensitive to their realities and concerns, as illuminated in the statement by Khabar Lahariya, to which the filmmakers have so far offered a tepid response.

All of this is also complicated by the fact that the film is still unavailable in India.

At an immediate level, the filmmakers should certainly take greater accountability for their lapses, and offer correctives wherever possible. For the audience, it would perhaps be more productive to view the film as part of the shifting cultural zeitgeist where there is genuine interest and concern over oppression, particularly within the universities and intellectual spaces. So no, the documentary doesn’t deserve to be ‘cancelled’ as per the current trend on the internet. Yet, the documentary must also serve as an uncomfortable reminder of how ill-equipped we are to deal with the complex material realities of oppressed communities, especially when they implicate us at a fundamental level.

Komal Mohite, Doctoral Candidate, Department of History and Classical Studies, McGill University. 

The author would like to thank Dolores Chew and Cinema Politica at Concordia University for facilitating the screening and discussion of the documentary.