Behind ‘Writing with Fire’: Three women and their thirst for truth in the 2022 Oscars entry

As ‘Writing with Fire’ competes for the Oscars, filmmakers Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh reflect on why they decided to follow three Dalit journalists for five years

As ‘Writing with Fire’ competes for the Oscars, filmmakers Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh reflect on why they decided to follow three Dalit journalists for five years

Six years ago, when New Delhi filmmakers Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh attended a meeting at Khabar Lahariya office in Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh, they had no idea how deeply involved they would soon be in the lives and work of female journalists there.

And they certainly wouldn’t have guessed that the narrative they were about to weave into a documentary would one day premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where it would win two awards – followed by similar accolades at several other festivals. – and would ultimately receive an Oscar. nomination in the Best Documentary category. This is a first for a feature-length documentary produced and directed by Indian filmmakers.

  Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh

Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh | Photo credit: special arrangement

Thomas and Ghosh movie, write with fireis the remarkable story of Khabar Lahariya (Waves of News), India’s only Dalit women-led media organization – operating in small towns and rural areas of the Hindi Belt, where patriarchy reigns – as they attempt to transition from print to digital journalism. Filmed over five years, it is the story of determined journalists, some mothers and others single, and their commitment to freedom of the press.

“Journalism is the essence of democracy,” says Meera Devi, one of the film’s protagonists. She is also the first Khabar Lahariya journalist who caught Thomas, 35, and Ghosh, 39, when they observed the women at the meeting six years ago. “When citizens claim their rights, it is we, the journalists, who can assert their demands with the government. Journalists must use this power responsibly. Otherwise, the media will become like any other business.

Watching the film, you realize that Meera and her colleagues never shy away from a story, not even when it comes to investigating a project like Swachh Bharat Mission in 2014, which promised every household in the country access to a toilet. While one woman they interview reveals the shame of still having to relieve herself outside, another calls the claim made in 2019 – that rural India is free of open defecation – “false “.

Suneeta Prajapati

Suneta Prajapati | Photo credit: Black Ticket Films

This is not a victim story

Meera is a natural leader, says Thomas. She and Ghosh were also fascinated by the energy of Suneeta Prajapati, who is in love with print and reluctant to go digital. A former underage child turned reporter, she questions everything and takes nothing literally. Shyamkali Devi, a survivor of domestic abuse, is the third reporter they focus on – a shy woman who is much calmer than her peers.

After a week at Khabar Lahariya office, the directing duo recalls the women being curious about how long they would be filmed and what the story would be. “We knew straight away that it wasn’t going to be a short because the story needed more time to marinate,” says Ghosh. “So we told them it might take a few years.”

Thomas adds: “We also knew it wouldn’t be a victim or female empowerment story – the superhero kind of story because it dehumanizes people. We told Meera, Suneeta and Shyamkali that our film would focus on them, who they were and their spirit.

Meera in the field

Meera on the pitch | Photo credit: Black Ticket Films

Their minds can’t be intimidated

write with fire follows the three women as they learn, then train their teammates on the digital switchover – scenes show them struggling to operate the video cameras on their new smartphones and to edit. The film follows them juggling national responsibilities and pressures, while traveling long distances to cover stories of illegal mining, rapes, murders and interviewing police and politicians when Uttar Pradesh went to the polls in 2017.

The Writing with Fire and Meera team in Amsterdam

the write with fire team and Meera in Amsterdam | Photo credit: Black Ticket Films

Women have grown up in violence and discrimination because of who they are. When they go into the field, they mostly encounter upper caste men, who seem to tolerate them. But they often come up against real hostility. “You should speak within your limits,” says one of the upper caste men in the film. The harassing phone calls the women receive also spice up the narrative, reminding viewers of the dangers they face on the job.

One would have thought that the presence of filmmakers from the city would make a difference, but that was not the case. “At the IDFA [International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam] screening, the audience asked Meera if our presence had emboldened them. And she said, “The first year, I was really scared for those three [the filmmakers and cinematographer Karan Thapliyal] because we are not used to townspeople walking into illegal mines or police stations,” Ghosh says.

Thomas adds, “We were city kids, so to speak. We would stand out. Most people there have come to know that a movie was being shot on Khabar Lahariya. And they often wondered: “But why? Often the politicians or the police would say, ‘Oh, are you back?’ »

Meera Devi

Meera Devi | Photo credit: Black Ticket Films

Now to get the Academy’s attention

As the filmmakers worked on the film, raised funds and did post-production, they were clear on one thing: they wanted the lead producer’s credit to be with them, to ensure they “owned” the film. and could make editorial decisions about what the story was going to be.

“What does India look like, this question often comes up in the West,” says Ghosh. “Our answer is that we have our problems, but we also have this beautiful kind of heritage. It’s the best that India has to offer. It was important for us to restructure and rewire the way the ‘West thinks about what the Global South can do and can imagine. I think the fact that we made the Oscar nomination broke so many paradigms about who can make a run at the Academy, because it didn’t happen. never produced before.

Shyamkali Devi

Shyamkali Devi | Photo credit: Black Ticket Films

For the post-nomination promotional campaign, the filmmakers hired a US-based publicist, as several films seek to attract the limited attention of Academy members. What was perhaps a small initial budget to cover filming in Uttar Pradesh and post-production work in Manali would have increased significantly during the final phase of promotions leading up to the Oscars on March 27. (The filmmakers, however, didn’t want to put a number.)

Along the way, to build momentum for write with fire, they also enlisted the help of a few well-known names that would give the project greater exposure in international festivals and awards circuits. One of those people — who came on board as the film’s executive producer — is Patty Quillin. She lent her name to projects such as the famous documentary The truffle hunter (2020) and the feature film Mughal Mowgli (2020), with Riz Ahmed. Quillin is married to Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings, but that’s a profile she doesn’t like to brag about.

Meera traveling for a story

Meera on a journey for a story | Photo credit: Black Ticket Films

When can we watch it?

In the post-Oscar scenario, the filmmakers hope to share the film with Indian audiences. But they still don’t have clarity — it will be a difficult road for write with fire, given that there is not much tradition of documentaries being released in theaters. “We don’t have any streamer distribution deals in India yet,” Ghosh says.

“Patty walks away like the plague from the Netflix conversation. That’s the trap she falls into too,” Thomas says. trust.’ And that’s all. It was great to have someone like that invested in the film and the process.

As Thomas and Ghosh prepare to attend the Academy Awards in Los Angeles, they hope to take Meera with them. “It would be something to see her walk the red carpet,” Thomas says. “That would be a statement.”

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