WRITING WITH FIRE is a triumph for many reasons. It’s not merely because it’s a documentation of Khabar Lahariya, a newspaper started 20 years ago in Bundelkhand by three Dalit women against all odds. But also because it celebrates independent journalism at a time when it is under attack globally, and at a time when diversity is being championed across the world, especially at the Oscars, where it has been nominated in the “Best Documentary” category for 2022.
The story has been told with care and compassion by two young filmmakers Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh who met while studying Mass Communications at Jamia Millia Islamia University. Graduating in 2008, they set up Black Ticket Films in 2009 to make documentary films, or as Thomas says, DIY films where they had to source both audiences and funding. They spent five years of their lives winning Team Khabar Lahariya’s trust and chronicling the challenges they faced while negotiating a world full of upper caste men. Armed with smartphones and smart brains, these women led by Meera Jataw tell the stories of their region their way, holding the people in power accountable for their actions. It could be a road that needs to be built or illegal mining that needs to be stopped or abductions that are not resolved, they ask the right questions, refusing to be intimidated by power. They are highlighting new narratives that are now being consumed by women as well since they went digital in 2016. These are conversations around menstruation, premarital sex, sexual harassment, subjects that have been taboo so far in a language that can be understood by everyone. Social media is the fire that is lighting their dark world.
Their story has been told before. They have been much appreciated too, with journalism awards across the spectrum. So, what makes this documentary different? Thomas and Ghosh take us right into the heart of their struggle, their daily negotiation with domestic duties and workplace expectations. Financial freedom has given them the confidence to assert their individuality, and their charm is as infectious as is their joy in getting the story out. Since going digital, their reach has been amplified and shown the world the impact of technology when it is backed by education and a growing sense of self.
The women are smart, doing whatever it takes to get their story out, standing their ground when told about paid media, and refusing to be apologetic about not doing enough housework. Their humour shines through as does their courage in taking on police officers, even as they often roll their eyes in disbelief. For Thomas and Ghosh, who are partners at work and in real life as well, it was a compelling story about social justice, which has run like a thread through their career, whether it is Miracle Water Village (2010), Dilli (2011) or Timbaktu (2012).
Their career shows that it is possible to tell stories that were hitherto invisible if you do it with enough commitment. And as the premiere at the Sundance Film Festival showed, there is a world out there that is waiting to watch global stories of inspiration and aspiration. Dividing their time between Delhi and Himachal Pradesh, the two took a leap of faith with the Team Khabar Lahariya. They focused on Meera who led the digital transformation, and now wants to take the digital newspaper to other states as well. Their audience is now on Facebook or YouTube, and they are redefining what power means. As Ghosh said in a recent interview with Angelika Koop: “News has become more about perception, less about truth; they’re fighting for justice and equity not just for themselves but for other marginalised communities. These are not victims.” What keeps Team Khabar Lahariya going? Thomas believes it is a sense of purpose. “If Meera is not telling the story from her nuanced lens, no one else will. We have seen them in hostile and unwelcoming spaces. People are tired of mainstream media which mostly means upper caste men who represent corruption and collusion,” says Thomas.
As Ghosh told Michelle Meow: “These women have taken a chair to the table and told the media this is what our news looks like, feels like.”