Underdogs triumph in Writing with Fire

India women journalists take the spotlight in a male-dominated field

A CALLING Suneeta works as a journalist

We got to see the 2021 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award and World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award winner, Writing with Fire, one of 15 feature documentaries shortlisted at the 94th Academy Awards and a New York Times Critics Pick.

Khabar Lahariya (New Wave), an alternative newspaper composed of independent female journalists Meera, Suneeta and Shyamkali, fights to empower the poor and gives voice to the hopeless.

Filmmakers Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas follow the women who are Dalits, a caste system that is so low, as they embark on the impossible, investigating and interviewing corrupt politicians, rape victims and illegal miners.

Sushmit and Rintu went to film school together. “We were really good friends, professionals, and colleagues. Then we married,” says Sushmit to the online audience who attended their masterclass with the Scottish Documentary Institute last week.

Life became “complicated” for the couple but their value systems remain intact, mirroring each other. “Our idea of what we want to do with our ability as storytellers is something that we are very clear about,” he muses. “We are equally drawn to stories from the margins, stories about people who are creating phenomenal change.”

TELLING OTHER PEOPLE'S STORY Meera, the chief reporter of Khabar Lahariya

In the documentary, the women of Khabar Lahariya are now shifting from a traditional newspaper to digital journalism. They are taught to use mobile camera phones, video editing, and the internet in their reporting. The struggle is real and the threat of danger is imminent for these strong women, trying to penetrate a male-dominated workplace.

Meera goes to the police station to follow up a rape case that was not acted upon by the authorities. She bravely questions the police chief about his inaction. But behind her inquisitive nature, Meera’s husband does not believe in her cause. “My husband also objected and tried to stop me from working,” she reveals in the 94-minute film.

CATCHING FLAMES Sushmit Ghosh shoots in Writing with Fire

Suneeta grew up as a child laborer in illegal mining. In her work, she exposes the “mafia goons,” who operate the illegal mine where men are buried alive. “Being a journalist gives me the power to fight for justice and that’s what I want to be remembered for,” she reveals.

Shyamkali is being trained as a reporter. She has improved a lot even though she has a lot of shortcomings. When the villagers and the police wouldn’t talk about a rape case, she took a photo of the police record book and got the phone number of the victim’s father. Within a week of Shyamkali’s story being published, the accused was arrested and prosecuted.

FILM CHANGEMAKERS Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh

The women’s exposés were picked up by mainstream media and their YouTube channel rose to 20 million views! Shyamkali even flew to Sri Lanka to be a resource speaker. These small victories empower the audience to be fearless.

‘While we are working as journalists, we are also fighting to transform our society. But when you don’t see that change happen, then it really troubles me.’

Meera is the most experienced among the three subjects. “While we are working as journalists, we are also fighting to transform our society,” says the new bureau chief of Khabar Lahariya. “But when you don’t see that change happen, then it really troubles me.”

DANGERS OF JOURNALISM Writing with Fire poster

How did the filmmakers choose their topic? “Why do I want to do this? If you have arrived at an answer, everything falls into place and you will know,” replies Rintu.

The joy of documentary filmmaking is instinctive for them. “As one of these Marvel films put it, ‘with great power, comes with great responsibility,’” exclaims Sushmit, a 2021 IDA Courage under Fire Award honoree. “It’s a weird thing but that is essentially how it works with filmmaking as well.”

“You need to constantly measure why you want to tell the story,” he explains. “Am I the right person to do it? If you are, you will be embraced within the community.” 

Writing with Fire is Sushmit and Rintu’s debut film and the first Indian feature documentary to be shortlisted for the Oscars. It has won 28 awards and got a 100 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes.