India’s caste system dates back to 1500 BC and might be the world’s longest surviving form of social hierarchy. Though the system is no longer practiced—at least from a legal standpoint—it still permeates Indian society and politics much in the same way the specter of slavery and segregation haunts contemporary America. And the people who suffer the most under this stratification are those at the bottom: Dalits, particularly Dalit women. As one of the subjects in the documentary Writing With Fire says, “Women face the greatest injustice everywhere.”
She is a reporter for Khabar Lahariya (Wave of News), India’s only newspaper run entirely by women. I won’t reveal her name because the directors of Writing With Fire sent a letter to critics and journalists asking reviewers to help minimize the risk to the journalists still working in Uttar Pradesh amidst the recent “clamp-down on freedom of speech in India, with journalists and artists being specifically targeted by the Indian government.” As one of the movie’s closing title cards reads, “Over 40 journalists have been killed since 2014, making India one of the deadliest countries to practice journalism in.”
Produced and directed by Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas, Writing With Fire follows three reporters for Khabar Lahariya—created in Uttar Pradesh in 2002 as a response to the endemic levels of violence against women and Dalits—from 2016 to 2019 as the reporters transition from a weekly print newspaper to a digital blog and YouTube channel amid the run-up to India’s general election. Ghosh and Thomas stick close to their subjects as they learn to work smartphones and discover how to tell engaging stories visually. The reporters are fast learners, and soon they’re producing high-quality news segments without the help of a TV crew—just a smartphone, a tripod, and the need to tell the truth.
The Dalits Khabar Lahariya interview feel the same way. One interviewee treats the camera as a last will and testament. “I’m giving you this interview today because God knows what will happen tonight,” she says.
She fears retaliation from the government, from the right-wing, and from the mafia that controls the mines. The digital revolution has allowed Khabar Lahariya greater access to people and places and a greater ability to reach readers and viewers. But visibility cuts both ways, and it’s equally easy to track down both the whistleblowers and the reporters.
It’s daunting work, but the women of Khabar Lahariya are up to the task. And Ghosh and Thomas are up to sticking with them. Without relying on saccharine movie practices, Ghosh and Thomas let the reporters and the subjects speak for themselves. Side interviews to Ghosh and Thomas’ camera help fill in the reporters’ personal lives, but when Writing With Fire is at its best, Gosh and Thomas simply observe these reporters at work.
Writing With Fire (2021)
Produced and Directed by Sushmit Ghosh, Rintu Thomas
Music Box Films, Not rated, Running time 92 minutes, Opens Dec. 3, 2021, in select theaters.