At this point, even the most casual global news consumer is at least tangentially aware of certain social issues inherent to India. The perpetuation of the caste system, second-class citizenship for women and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s far-right Hindu nationalism are perhaps the most consistently covered facets of India’s injustices in mainstream media—yet the daily plights of average Indian citizens go largely undocumented and without justice. Whether it be mass power shortages, public infrastructure sabotaged by local mafiosos or lack of police accountability in arresting rapists, many of India’s most vulnerable are left without any semblance of governmental or community support. Luckily, locals of Uttar Pradesh—India’s most populous (and arguably most corrupt) state—can uniquely count on the Khabar Lahariya newspaper to bring these injustices to light. Distinct in that it’s run by women of the Dalit caste (often colloquially referred to as “untouchables”), the paper’s writers, reporters and on-air correspondents are well-aware of what it feels like to have their struggles minimized.
In chronicling Khabar Lahariya’s 2016 pivot from print to digital and the heightened reach of the newsroom’s reporting, Writing with Fire also follows reporters as they break the very stories that make the paper’s transition so effective. At the center of this effort is Geeta, Khabar Lahariya’s chief reporter, who ushers the paper into the digital age by supplying each reporter with a smartphone and establishing an official YouTube channel. Though most of the writers initially express anxiety over the decision to go digital—English keyboard characters and finicky touch screens appearing to hinder more than help—these fears are subdued when Geeta plainly states to her staff that this shift will surely bring in much-needed money and resources. Sure enough, funds to buy previously unthinkable newsroom luxuries such as lapel mics, tripods and passports begin to trickle in.
Writing with Fire marks co-directors (and spouses) Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s first feature film, and as such the standard, studied approach they employ in their documentary feels both appropriate and somewhat masterful. All of the elements for a stellar narrative feature are present: Compelling characters, staggering stakes, topical commentary on a subject that’s still sadly under-explored. As such, it’s smart of the directors to stick to the bare-bones necessities of documentary, for it also highlights the fact that journalism does not need to be flashy or ostentatious in order to be effective. As long as it’s challenging systems of power and advocating for those that might otherwise be voiceless, it is acting as a necessary appendage of democracy.
Yet Writing with Fire still finds ways to assert that it is not simply a dry, socially sobering film—above all, it is a character study, platforming the individual struggles and perspectives of the women it follows. Even more than the devastating news they report, the viewer is invested in the women’s ability to successfully pursue this line of work in spite of the overlapping limits imposed upon them. Though Geeta was a child bride and pregnant with her first child while still in high school, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. 20-year-old Suneeta currently thrives as a reporter despite her caste and rural background, but the looming dread of having to marry to preserve her family’s dignity is a strain on her future career prospects. Though both women have personal predicaments to navigate, their focus on lessening the hardship of others in similar positions—such as other Dalits who do not have access to toilets, or women who report their rapists to police to no avail—ultimately helps in changing the material circumstances of their own communities.
One of the first stories Khabar Lahariya reports via their newfound YouTube channel concerns an accident that kills a group of miners. These miners were forced to work in an illegal, mafia-owned operation, and as a result their deaths were without recompense or remorse. Geeta interviews villagers who bravely step forward despite explicit death threats from the mafia (who conveniently also have local police in their pocket), and Suneeta recalls that she was once a child laborer in this very mine. Though the disenfranchised villagers and Dalit women who report the story are without the built-in social protections afforded to higher-caste individuals, the story miraculously succeeds in having administrative entities respond to the issue—even if it largely results in a road, destroyed by the mafia in retaliation, being re-paved.
Concise and crucial, Writing with Fire adeptly and urgently conveys the necessity of journalism—especially in places that actively try to suppress its reach. Yet it is also delicate in its interrogation of caste, gender and nationalism in broader Indian society, allowing the stories that the paper reports to speak for themselves. Though puzzling in its paradox of urging the press to withhold certain sentiments when the women at Khabar Lahariya would surely balk at the request themselves, this demand does imbue the film with a veritable pertinence. It is in no way attempting to manipulate the mechanisms of journalism, but rather presenting the very warped reality of what journalists are allowed to do, say or simply be in contemporary India.
Directors: Rintu Thomas, Sushmit Ghosh
Release Date: November 26, 2021 (Music Box Films)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan