India at the Oscars: Makers of Writing with Fire on documenting Khabar Lahariya journos

‘Writing with Fire’ took five long years of shooting in the heartlands of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, doggedly following the all-women Dalit journalist collective, Khabhar Lahariya.
A still from Writing with Fire
A still from Writing with Fire
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In the centre of a room with a group clustered around a TV set on which the Academy Award nominations 2022 are being announced is filmmaker Rintu Thomas, excitement and tension are palpable on her face, while her partner, filmmaker Sushmit Ghosh stands against a wall for support. Only five names for the nominations for feature documentary, but it seems like eternity and just when the moment may slip by, Writing with Fire is announced. There is a stunned second and then a whoop of joy from Rintu. The filmmakers share a collective hug for becoming the first Indian documentary feature nominated for the Academy Awards.

A phone recording of this moment has been passing around on group messages bringing smiles and the feeling of belonging to that collective hug. When Sushmit says, “It takes a tribe to make a film,” the words especially resonate with documentary filmmakers whose stories are often lesser known and even less celebrated. A feature documentary project involves embarking on a long and arduous journey in terrains that are far beyond the comfort of homes, with shoe-string budgets, and small guerilla filmmaking teams dedicated to crafting factual stories over many years. 

“This feels like a surreal moment talking to you,” Rintu said with a laugh the last time she had called me was because they were simply not landing any funding support. Writing with Fire has taken five long years of shooting in the heartlands of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, doggedly following the all-women Dalit journalist collective, Khabhar Lahariya. Inspired by the courage and tenacity of the only all-women media outlet in the country who report on stories that we never see in mainstream press, the filmmakers relentlessly capture a gripping narrative about journalism. A small filmmaking crew heads out into the unknown, waking up at the break of dawn, with basic equipment, discarding even the tripod to be able to carry enough water in some blistering shoot schedules. They follow the protagonists as they board trains and buses, constantly navigating volatile situations. They would return to a tiny lodge late at night. Sometimes, there would be no electricity and no way to charge the camera batteries for the next day’s shoot. 

So, when this team of guerilla filmmakers makes it to the Academy Award spotlight, “it is a watershed moment for the community,” says Rintu.  “I mean when was the last time this happened for any Indian film?” asks Sushmit. I can only remember the hoopla when Lagaan accomplished the same feat and that was one of the biggest productions coming out of the biggest film producing nation in the world. It is this paradox that is striking. In a country with strong film making infrastructure, resources and investment, the documentary genre has never been given industry backing despite a new breed of Indian documentary filmmaker having their films opening to thunderous response in some of the most prestigious festivals in the world. As a committed documentary filmmaker myself, I can’t help but wonder if Writing with Fire could blaze a new trail for this genre of factual cinema in India.

Rintu and Sushmit were classmates in their Masters course at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre in Jamia Milia University, New Delhi. When they graduated, they began the production house Black Ticket Films to tell factual stories, which has been functional for the past 12 years. After Dilli and Timbaktu, both acclaimed shorts, they were looking for a subject to make a feature documentary. That moment of inspiration came to them from the internet when they found an image of a lone reporter with a newspaper amidst a barren landscape. This is how they discovered the Dalit women journalists at Khabar Lahariya. “We had a sense we were capturing history” from the very first meeting in a room, packed with young women, the filmmakers say. 

Filmmakers Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas

It was the day that Editor-in-Chief Meera Devi held up a small sleek phone explaining to her team of Dalit journalists that it was time for them to use digital technology to cover news. A wave of mixed emotions passes through the room: excitement and admiration for the new gadgets, and nervousness of using a new technology. The filmmaker duo sensed they were at the cusp of a new chapter for Khabar Lahariya. It felt like a good beginning to shape a compelling narrative about feisty women journalists using phones to step into a digital era of storytelling amidst a vast rural landscape. They spent a week with the group and discovered their three protagonists. Meera Devi, Editor in chief was an obvious choice with her soft yet, firm manner, drawing the collective energy of the group. Crime reporter Suneeta was also easy to pick says Rintu as she always had the most questions. Shyampakali was the third choice as she was the most nervous reporter in the group and her vulnerability adds a new layer to the narrative as she discovers her own strength and unique voice. 

Writing with Fire interweaves the stories of the three protagonists on their daily journalistic assignments through observational field footage. More often than not we see a woman reporter in new and often hostile situations asking tough questions about corruption and violence and being questioned in turn about their caste, gender and motivations. These gritty moments make the core of the film. However, the beauty of Writing with Fire is equally in its softer moments. Women returning to homes without electricity, sharing battery packs, looking into the needs of a child, staving off marriage proposals and sharing work tips. This is a unique sisterhood of reporters and the filmmakers straddle the personal and professional realms to construct arcs of resistance to define what freedom really means for the Indian woman. This is the spark that illuminates every character to show the audience what Meera Devi means when she says that Khabar Lahariya is a glimpse of what happens when Dalit women have power.

Rintu and Sushmit feel vindicated that their film is winning international acclaim with over 28 top awards. When the duo first pitched their work in progress at Docedge, Kolkata, a prestigious Asian platform for documentary filmmakers one, of the international commissioning editors thumped the table and said they would support the film to make “the next India’s daughters”, referring to the documentary about the Delhi gangrape case. Both Sushmit and Rintu on the other hand felt they wanted to do exactly the opposite with Writing with Fire. They wanted to tell an empowering story. “Aren’t we a bit tired of a white extractive lens? Why can’t we tell our own stories?” asks Sushmit. 

The fact is that there is little to no support in India to support Indian-made creative documentary. Government funding is limited and while it has launched many a first-time filmmaker through modest bursaries and the PSBT initiative, the program can not envisage a canvas like Writing with Fire, with bigger budgets that sustain the filmmakers and crew for over five years. International film funds and pitching forums became the route to finance Writing with Fire. A small Canadian grant Alter Cine was their first lucky break, but Rintu reminds Sushmit: “Let’s not forget the rejections. With every rejection came so much self-doubt.” There are so many assumptions that the minute one is chosen for a forum like Docedge or the International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA), the international funding lands in one’s lap. More often than not though, it is only the beginning of a conversation. The filmmakers share that only a few of these conversations materialize into commitments, sometimes 18 months later. “Some of our finances are yet to come in even six years later,” the filmmakers say. 

Chief reporter Meera Devi travelling to a village to report on an illegal mine. Writing With Fire/Still

I ask them about the assumption that if one takes international money then one gives up ones editorial freedom. Rintu replies that they returned money or turned down swanky editing options “because we always wondered who would be sitting beside us in the edit room? And besides the two of us we could not see a third chair.” They did, however, work with internationally-acclaimed supervising editor Anna Fabini because they greatly respect her work. She, in turn, understood their material and was able to bring precision in drawing out the 90 minute story out of years of material. This is the tightrope that the Indian documentary filmmaker walks today, to hold on to editorial integrity and independence while finding international collaborations. The filmmakers feel there has been a change of guard with many more women of colour helming large film organisations in USA - “diversity” and “inclusivity” have become buzzwords as old gatekeepers are changing. 

The Academy Award selection seems to reflect this diversity in the other four films nominated along with Writing with Fire in the feature documentary category. Flee is the story of an Afghan refugee confronting his past; Ascension is about pursuing the Chinese dream in a modern society; Summer of Soul is about the Harlem cultural festival of 1969; and Attica about the prison uprising in New York state. It is interesting to also note that Flee has been nominated in three categories including international feature, best animation and best documentary highlighting the spectrum of genres the creative documentary can now encompass.

For Sushmit, who stayed up with his father as a boy to catch the Oscars being awarded live every year, it is unbelievable to think he will be there with Rintu to represent their film this year. The team never dreamt they would get this far when they kickstarted their publicity campaign for the Academy Awards only in October 2022; whereas most films begin publicity alongside their festival premier at Sundance in January. It has been new, exciting and a steep learning curve. 

Meanwhile, Meera Devi and her team at Khabar Lahariya have been using their social media handles to publicise the film and its nomination as they expand their news network into three new states. It makes the film’s team really happy that the women of Khabar Lahariya feel a sense of ownership of the film and this moment. This, to them, is their biggest reward. At other times, they confess they feel completely exhilarated and equally overwhelmed by all they have to get done.

Miriam Chandy Menacherry is an award-winning documentary filmmaker. She is the recipient of the Global Media Makers Film Fellowship for 2019-20 by Film Independent and the US State Department for her documentary on child sex trafficking.

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