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The initial segment of Writing With Fire, nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 94th Academy Awards, is filled with one word: “patrakarikta” (journalism). It makes perfect sense, for this is a movie about journalists – specifically, a group of rural reporters in Uttar Pradesh – and, consequently, journalism itself.
A film about journalists in 2022 – an “idea whose time has come” – is centred on a profession that, in the age of fake news, grovelling ‘reporting’ and authoritarian leaders, is facing an existential crisis. This movie, then, is also about a fight; a fight to foreground the voiceless; a fight to be heard; a fight to illuminate a world that the world doesn’t think exists.
The perception of journalists has taken a severe hit over the last many years, both in India and abroad, and thus, the documentary’s protagonists crave, besides professional respect, something more elemental: personal dignity.
They crave this dignity more so because the protagonists of Writing With Fire are three Dalit women reporters whose social status, due to the country’s vile caste system, makes them among the most marginalised and vulnerable. Their identities are central to this film because in India, journalism, like many other spheres, has been cornered by upper-caste men.
Meera, Suneeta, and Shyamkali work for Khabar Lahariya, a rural newspaper employing Dalit, Muslim, and tribal women who report on local issues in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh with a sharp feminist gaze. It was formed in 2002, but directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh make it clear, quite early, that their film focuses on a sliver of that story: Khabar Lahariya going digital in 2016, before the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections.
A much-awaited event, elections in Uttar Pradesh often predict the national electoral mood. In 2017, these elections took on even greater significance since Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath, respected and reviled for his communal speeches, was a chief minister candidate.
This is a distilled but solid story, providing the makers with narrative focus and clarity. But before the documentary dives deep into the hinterland politics – and the politics of storytelling itself – it introduces the key characters.
It opens with Meera documenting her routine; her doggedness to pursue a story; her ingenuity in connecting the dots; her equanimity while dealing with condescending upper-caste officers. Despite being a married woman with a Master’s degree in political science and a Bachelor’s degree in education, Meera isn’t sure if she’ll succeed in the digital landscape. Her husband, who disapproves of her job, escalates her doubts: “I don’t think they’ll last for long.”
Like Meera, Shyamkali faces her first hurdle at home: an unsupportive husband who objects to her late-night work (She had also filed a case of domestic abuse against him.) Suneeta is unmarried – for the moment – but the demands and pressures of domesticity soon start to weigh on her, too.
Unlike many Indian reporters, whose real challenge begins from their newsrooms, the Khabar Lahariya journalists struggle to reach the newsroom. But even when they’ve stacked-up an impressive body of work, roadblocks follow them like shadows. Their phones lack adequate memory; they don’t have power banks to keep them charged – the lack of electricity is a constant problem, so is their unfamiliarity with the new technology.
Writing With Fire has enough smarts and intellectual curiosity to not get constrained by one line of thought. It cares for its protagonists in the best way possible: by caring for their work. We see the toil, troubles and exasperations of news-making: the reporters taking long bus rides, asking difficult questions, enduring taunts, smiling when they crack a lead.
So, the movie is also about young women following their calling, ideally appealing to anyone, anywhere, who has ever tried to live their dreams. It stays with the main reporters, highlighting their rigour and attention to detail; that they don’t just care for the nuts and bolts of journalism, but also for its craft.
Meera talks about what makes a “good shot”; how clips can be used as “inserts”, even explaining the mechanics of filming to a hostile local leader. In another scene, she explains to Shyamkali the difference between promoting and interrogating someone (while elaborating on why a recent piece of hers didn’t work).
By following these reporters, Writing With Fire teases out the landscape of transgressions in Uttar Pradesh, providing a peek into its socio-political realities: sexual violence, shady godmen, Hindu fundamentalism, illegal mining (spotlighting the nexus between the police, administration, and mafia) and so on. Sometimes, political commentary pops up in the most unexpected places, vanquishing class divides with respect to the media’s role in the country, for instance, when a villager asks, “Why not write something positive?”
But the movie is particularly memorable while framing the conversations between the political figures – such as a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or a Hindu Yuva Vahini – and their ‘antagonists’; the Khabar Lahariya reporters. In these scenes, the power differential between the two parties is distinctly disconcerting, with the leaders lording over the reporters, encapsulating the ‘new India’ in concise and terrifying detail.
Like the protagonists, filmmakers Thomas and Ghosh care about their craft. It’s quite evident that they want their film to be both important and compelling. Take its background score, for instance, which follows its own three-act structure, leaping from playful to triumphant, superbly matching the success of Khabar Lahariya’s new avatar, as its YouTube channel grows from having one million to 10 million to 20 million views.
Their storytelling is admirably economical, crunching important political context into a few title cards; capturing the reporters’ personal and professional lives with humane yet intense focus. Sometimes tonal variation doubles up as aesthetic and political statements. At one point, the reporters travel to Kashmir for an offsite visit. They play in the snow and chat; one of them peers out from the aeroplane window and smiles. When was the last time we saw marginalised women –cutting across class, caste, and faiths – being themselves in the movies?
This kind of filmmaking certainly does not glorify a few key figures while keeping mum about institutional change. It’s neither sensational nor simplistic – nor does it solely strive for a crowd-pleasing, ‘inspirational’ effect. But sometimes, the makers hurt their own movie, especially in the third act, by fixating on narrative finality.
We get self-evident truisms that belong to a different, less confident piece: “Sometimes I feel it’s a sin to be born as a woman”; “I want a life with no constraints”. (There’s even one bit where a rape survivor’s face isn’t blurred.) The scenes exploring Meera’s kids’ academic performance, too, smack of reverse engineering; trying hard to close a narrative loose end.
But these are needles in a haystack of brilliance; a brilliance that dignifies the true spirit of rural journalism – of stories we don’t consider stories – and Indian non-fiction filmmaking which, over the last few years, has produced some stunning gems. Their achievements are even more remarkable when compared with Bollywood’s overall cowardice.
If the real history of Hindi cinema is ever written, the industry’s moneyed elites will be tongue-tied about their complicity, but Indian documentary filmmakers will be able to say this with pride: “We were here, we were there – fighting with fire, filming with fire.”