The transition from print to digital at Khabar Lahariya, a Hindi news portal staffed entirely by women in rural north India, has hit an unexpected roadblock. Shyamkali, one of the less experienced reporters, confesses she is still struggling to understand the keypad on her new smartphone because it requires email addresses be typed in English. Meera, chief reporter, looks momentarily exasperated but then leads the team through a one-hour class on the alphabet. “It is the letter with the stick and a bindi [the dot worn above the eyebrows],” says Meera. She is explaining the letter i.
Later in Writing with Fire, one of five contenders for this year’s Oscar for Best Documentary and the first Indian-made film to be nominated, Shyamkali has become an accomplished reporter. (The film took five years to make.) Along the way, she has coped with the travails of an abusive husband who pockets her earnings and questions why she comes home from work late. She files a domestic violence case and leaves him, a path unimaginably difficult in India’s villages.
The genius of Delhi-based directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh is to alternate between the women on their often dangerous and difficult reporting beats — murders by illegal mining mafia; interviews with victims of rape — and at home, where they negotiate the expectations of a patriarchal society. “[The women] you see on screen become more than just courageous journalists,” says Thomas.
In one scene, Meera, who has degrees in education and political science, returns home from a fulfilling day at work to face her nagging spouse. She asks him what he would do if he had to manage home and work. He would concentrate on housework, comes the pat reply, but the camera pans to show him unable to look her in the eye. Meera has already won the argument. The single scene captures the deep-rooted reluctance to allow women to work in much of north India. It also partly explains why the country has just one-fifth of women working outside the home, among the lowest labour participation rates in the developing world.
Writing with Fire is thus a film about much more than journalism. Having started as a Hindi newspaper funded by a Delhi-based NGO in 2002, Khabar Lahariya is now primarily a YouTube channel with more than 550,000 subscribers and 10mn page views a month. The portal is funded via subscriptions and commissioned content it sells to news organisations in India and overseas. Although many do not use a last name because it is often a marker of caste, the staff are mostly from the lowest tier of India’s complex caste system and are known as Dalits. Shyamkali admits with a laugh that if someone she is interviewing says they are Brahmin, she bluffs and says she is Brahmin too.
The film-makers Thomas, 35, and Ghosh, 39, met in film school in New Delhi and formed Black Ticket Films more than a decade ago to make documentaries, even though the genre receives no state support. Tellingly, their new film is yet to make it into cinemas in India or even on to Netflix or Amazon Prime, whose list of Hindi-language offerings is of decidedly variable quality. Thomas says there has been no interest from digital streaming platforms in India. This is not unusual for documentaries in Bollywood-obsessed India, but still seems bizarre given that Writing with Fire has won several international awards, including at the Sundance Film Festival, and is now an Oscar contender.
Ghosh says that Writing with Fire was their first attempt at an “observational documentary”. This meant filming for four years so that the twists and turns in the characters’ lives tell the story. They navigate the complexities of a society deformed by patriarchy, caste and class inequalities without the use of voice-overs or even conventional talking heads. “We decided we will try and not do sit-down interviews, we will try and not do explainers,” says Ghosh. “And how do you explain something as complex as caste, not just to an Indian audience but also to an international audience?”
One vignette shows a reporter, Suneeta, battling with the chauvinism of men in a village while reporting on the region’s powerful mining mafia. They initially refuse to talk to her because she has not arrived in a TV van but are eventually won over by her pluck. Later at a press conference when she, the lone woman reporter, is the only one to ask the police about why they are slow to act against the mafia, a male reporter patronisingly tells her that she should start with flattery when speaking to government officials. Suneeta briskly replies that the male reporters had done enough of that already.
Such scenes were not easy to come by. Thomas and Ghosh returned every quarter to follow the women for weeks at a time. The film-making relied on what Ghosh describes as “a choreography of patience. The less you pull out your camera, the more people will trust you. It allows life to play out.” Filming the journalists had to be a two-way process, explains Thomas: “We needed to spend time for them to ask us questions.”
The film focuses on the local reporting done by the organisation in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest province with a population of more than 240mn, and spends relatively little time on the region’s polarised politics. Even so, this week Khabar Lahariya issued a puzzling statement distancing itself from the film and asserting that in the past two decades it had reported on all political parties and their shortcomings with equal vigour.
Violence and even murders of reporters covering the mining mafia are not uncommon, but thankfully the women in the film were not attacked over the years that the cameras followed them. Suneeta faced threats and was offered bribes for her reporting. Meera interviewed a young militant Hindu while he unsheathed his sword for the camera, but she displays such sensitivity and craft that the viewer ends up feeling momentarily sorry for him.
Nevertheless, Writing with Fire is permeated with a palpable sense of menace, such as when the women return home on dark roads or interview the victims of mafia brutality. It begins with a deeply unsettling scene in which a woman recounts being repeatedly raped by a group of village men. Her husband, a picture of mute desolation, has tried to report the attacks to the police only to be rebuffed with beatings. Meera’s newspaper is their only hope for justice. The courage of Khabar Lahariya’s sorority is immense. “The real danger is what could happen,” says Thomas. “How do you function . . . in that ambience of a lack of personal security?”
Writing with Fire is a genre-defying masterpiece, one moment reminiscent of a dogged detective movie, the next recalling the great surround-sound reportage of Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion in the 1960s. As Wolfe wrote: “Only through the most searching forms of reporting was it possible in non-fiction to use whole scenes, extended dialogue, point-of-view and interior monologue. Eventually, I and others would be accused of ‘entering people’s minds’.” More than half a century on, Thomas and Ghosh’s empathy and patience achieve just that kind of effect.
On BBC iPlayer in the UK now and premieres on PBS in the US on March 28. The Oscars are on March 27