The Oscar-Nominated Film That Offers a Master Class in Journalism
The stars of the documentary Writing With Fire are a group of newspaper reporters working to create a revolution in Indian media.
About an hour into the Oscar-nominated documentary Writing With Fire, a young man—slim, bearded, dressed in a saffron-colored pajama set—flicks his hair and smiles. Then he unsheathes a sword, a metallic echo lingering several seconds after it is drawn. Meera, the bureau chief for India’s Khabar Lahariya newspaper, is recording the young man on her phone. His name is Satyam, and he’s a rising leader in Hindu Yuva Vahini, the local youth-led vigilante group committed to spreading Hindu nationalism across an India that is rapidly losing its secular roots. Many of his days include strolls around his village in Uttar Pradesh with his sword displayed menacingly at his waist; he tells Meera that he keeps it with him “24 hours” a day.
As a journalist, Meera is known for stories that demand accountability from state politicians and police. She is also Dalit, the self-chosen identity for people formerly known as “untouchables” who face significant discrimination under the Hindu caste system. It took her a year to get Satyam to agree to an on-camera interview with her; his organization, she says, is full of “men who don’t trust the media. If they sense any criticism, they are ready to do anything.”
In the scene in the documentary, Meera is physically small but possesses a measured quietude as she faces Satyam. Sitting on a cot in a bare-bones room, he tells her that if Indian youth “focus on following Hinduism, the country will prosper on its own.” The unbearably tense sequence, which lasts just over four minutes (and ends, much to the viewers’ relief, with a still-safe Meera), is a master class in interviewing a hostile subject with genuine curiosity, interest, and even empathy. In a later exchange, Satyam confides in Meera about how the death of his farmer father by suicide—a distressing reminder of India’s ongoing agrarian crisis—changed him as a person.
Writing With Fire, which follows the staffers of Khabar Lahariya over five years, is full of such scenes—in which each journalist delivers a university-level crash course in reporting from vulnerable and dangerous areas, such as the remote districts of rural northern India. Along with Meera, who is the only female journalist we see at every political rally she covers in the documentary, we meet Suneeta, a former child miner turned reporter, and Shyamkali, a domestic-abuse survivor whose husband often took her earnings and eventually forced her to choose between him and her job. (She left him.) Released at Sundance last year and streaming on PBS in March, Writing With Fire has received sweeping praise. Given its recent Oscar nomination, it could be the first documentary by Indian filmmakers on an Indian subject to win an Academy Award.
Meera, Suneeta, Shyamkali, and Kavita—the editor in chief and a co-founder of Khabar Lahariya whom we sometimes see on-screen—have all experienced violence and systemic exclusion because of who they are. For their whole life, they’ve grappled with discrimination along the lines of class, gender, geography, and, perhaps most crucially in Indian societies, caste. All of these women are Dalit and often choose not to use their last names, which are direct markers of caste in Indian communities. Most of the paper’s journalists were forced to drop out of school early, and several scenes show them struggling to use smartphones. Many stories about marginalized individuals in the global South frame trauma as a defining part of their subjects’ identity and capability. When such stories are aimed at U.S. audiences, they sometimes take a hackneyed and patronizing approach, turning their characters into heroes who deserve to be celebrated simply for overcoming the odds.
Writing With Fire is different. Each scene attests to the journalists’ grit and resilience, as well as their unmistakable excellence and sophisticated skill—without condescension. The particularities of their background aside, the women at Khabar Lahariya (which means “Waves of News” in Hindi) are damn good journalists who, through their relentless reporting, are not only changing their own life but also ushering a quiet revolution in the life of nearly every subject they come across. And it’s a credit to the dexterous storytelling of the filmmakers Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, a couple from New Delhi who are not Dalit, that viewers are able to witness that.
The film foregrounds caste in powerful ways, even though its directors aren’t particularly attuned to the nuances of casteism. (Ghosh admitted to me on a Zoom call that he did not realize the extent to which caste discrimination existed in the inner districts of Uttar Pradesh until he started making the movie.) Rather, the journalists of Khabar Lahariya themselves are the ones deliberately drawing attention to the structural inequalities they face as a result of their “lower” caste. “Which newsroom will give space to us? … Media doesn’t want us. Dalit, Adivasi [the indigenous people of the Indian subcontinent], Muslim, semiliterate women all have a place at Khabar Lahariya,” the editor in chief, Kavita, told me in Hindi on an early-morning phone call. “Dalit women face untouchability when they use the common water pump [in dominant-caste colonies]. Only they know how much it hurts you inside,” she said.
The documentary compellingly depicts the seamless connection between the journalists’ lived experience and the kinds of stories they tell. Their background informs their skillful and empathetic negotiations with sources, and helps them earn trust from the communities they cover. For almost every story they report, Shyamkali and Suneeta interview their subjects while crouching on the ground right next to them. And much of the film follows Meera as she investigates the current Indian administration’s expensive and headline-grabbing initiatives, such as one campaign that promised access to a toilet for every household in India (and for which the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation presented Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the prestigious Global Gatekeeper Award). Meera interviews an elderly Dalit woman who bursts into tears from the shame of having to go into the woods to relieve herself, and speaks with another who responds to the government’s claim that it has achieved its goal of providing universal sanitation by simply saying: “It’s a lie.”
The risks of accountability journalism, which aims to expose the failures of an administration that is changing India from a secular democracy to a largely Hindu nation, are a crucial plot point. By punctuating the main reporting sequences with footage of lewd and harassing phone calls that attempt to intimidate these women, and with references to ongoing violent attacks on Indian journalists, the filmmakers remind the viewer of the dangers hanging over their subjects.
In the context of the brutal press censorship in India, where media outlets that openly criticize the current administration can be either penalized or forced to go off air, the work of Khabar Lahariya is shockingly defiant. “We are ready to take a bullet from a gun, we are ready for abuses, but we are going to bring a transformation. We are going to tell you what Dalit women can do,” Kavita told me when I asked if they are afraid. As a Dalit woman journalist myself, I told her that I know there are frightening moments when you’re forced to confront the consequences of expressing dissent. She responded that, whereas I am alone in the U.S., she and her team have strength in numbers; many journalists at Khabar Lahariya are scared, if not for themselves, then for their daughters, who they fear will be retaliated against with sexual violence. But Kavita tells the journalists that they have to be ready for anything—to be assaulted, beaten, raped, abducted, and even killed. At the same time, she continued, that could happen to them in their own homes; a lot of these women come from backgrounds of immense violence and abuse, and they know that if they don’t speak for themselves, no one will.
It’s hard to miss the quiet desperation that often slips into Meera’s voice early in the documentary. “Success toh hona hi hai,” she says, in a tone familiar to anyone who has learned to speak up after being silenced for so long. “We have to succeed.” Some viewers might not understand how these Dalit journalists of little to no means find the courage to interrogate powerful local officials and demand answers, often at real cost to their own safety. For these women, perpetual outsiders, undermined and underestimated at every turn, told they’d be better off making pickles than doing journalism, it’s not just their job; it’s survival.