Issue 002  |  Spring 2021 | Review


Tides of Change



by Imran Siddiquee 








Writing with Fire (2021). Film still courtesy of Autlook Filmsales.




At the heart of Writing With Fire (2021) are three Dalit women who work at Khabar Lahariya—the rural Uttar Pradesh-based newspaper. The journalists are often filmed from behind as they walk forward in pursuit of a story, conveying the weight of their vulnerability and power. Directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh frame their subjects stepping purposefully into danger again and again, keeping pace as reporters Meera, Suneeta, and Shyamkali move through a society that presents imminent threats to Dalit women. Whether seen walking against traffic or down an empty country road, past dangerous mines or across vast farmland surrounded by leering eyes, we are ever aware that women just like these journalists are being brutalized all around them.




Perhaps more than the upper caste reporters around them, [Meera, Suneeta, and Shyamkali] understand what’s at stake if they don’t push on. 


The film’s epigraph explains the precarious position of Dalit women within (or outside of) India’s centuries-old caste system and describes Khabar Lahariya (Waves of News) as the country’s only newspaper run entirely by women.1 Meera, a leader within the organization, later describes her choice of profession as “unthinkable” for her caste and gender. And throughout the film, Dalit women who are not journalists explain the precarity of their lives directly. The fear and anger that they express further underlines the risk and promise of the paper’s work. Thomas and Ghosh capture Khabar Lahariya just as the publication moves from print to digital. Their subject matter recalls 2011’s Page One: Inside the New York Times, which followed (and lionized) three white men working at the world’s most famous newspaper as it made a similar transition. Yet, the similarities end there. The women in Writing With Fire use their tools to cover stories—their stories—that exist beyond the frame of that other film, or that of most mainstream journalism itself.     


The film opens on Meera holding a smartphone; she’s recording the story of a woman who has been raped repeatedly by a group of men. This woman was subsequently abused by the local police to whom she and her husband reported the violence. We watch Meera watch her explain that these men can do “whatever they want, even kill both of us.” After ending the recording, Meera calmly asks for the paperwork the family has gathered about the horrific attacks. It’s not that she’s without fear or oblivious to the odds stacked against them. Rather, Meera understands what can be done. After speaking with the survivor, we see her in a police station, questioning the police chief about the department’s inactions regarding the case. They avoid both her gaze and their responsibility. Afterwards, while seated on a train, Meera explains, “This is how one fights for justice in a democracy, and journalists must use this power responsibly.” Meanwhile, at home, her own husband demeans her choice to work as she prepares dinner, cares for her daughter, and checks in on her ailing mother.
  





Writing with Fire
(2021). Film still courtesy of Autlook Filmsales.




Shyamkali and Suneeta have no disillusions about the reality of the Brahmanical capitalist patriarchal system they are up against either. Shyamkali, who has survived an abusive partner, struggles with the paper’s transition to digital due to her inability to read the English lettering on her new phone. Similarly, Suneeta is pressured by her family to choose an acceptable marriage over her career, regardless of her own needs. Yet, perhaps more than the upper caste reporters around them, the women understand what’s at stake if they don’t push on.

Writing With Fire has received great praise in the United States, where a Washington Post headline described it as “The most inspiring journalism movie—maybe ever.” The film won an audience award at Sundance this year, mirroring in some ways the success of 2004’s Born Into Brothels, another Sundance-winning documentary about vulnerable Indians using cameras to imagine a better world (in that case, the children of sex workers in Calcutta). Thomas and Ghosh, though, unlike the directors of Born Into Brothels or Page One, are not white and do not position themselves or anyone else as saviors. As they told Filmmaker Magazine earlier this year, “It was very important to us that the authenticity of the story is not compromised in the pursuit of making it a film that can be accessed by an international audience.”2 It is a distinctive choice then that we never learn who is funding Khabar Lahariya, nor do we understand in a pivotal scene where the smartphones that arrive in the mail are coming from.


By keeping certain things unexplained and certain machinations of the operation offscreen, the film keeps Dalit women and their work at its center.




By keeping certain things unexplained and certain machinations of the operation off-screen, the film keeps Dalit women and their work at its center. Yet in other ways the choice not to name all the power structures at play in the paper’s likely expensive shift to online video reporting raises some attendant questions in a film fundamentally about power.3 What were the power dynamics in the production, and how did caste and class play a role in its own making? The importance of who sits behind the camera—who gets to edit, frame, and share a piece of media—is a fact that the film itself reminds us of repeatedly.

What Meera, Suneeta, and Shyamkali see through their cameras, how they understand and choose to describe an event, is linked in the film to Khabar Lahariya’s success on YouTube—where they have now amassed over 150 million views, covering everything from the economic impact of COVID-19 on the trans community to the risks of surveillance online for Dalits and other marginalized groups.4 At the same time, we learn that their fiercest competition may be from the very power structure their work seeks to expose, as supporters of Narendra Modi are also using social media messaging to spread their own fire. 



Still from the film "Writing With Fire" shows a woman traveling in an open-air vehicle. She looks down at her phone while also writing in a notebook.



Writing With Fire (2021). Film still courtesy of Autlook Filmsales.


The importance of perspective is emphasized across two separate interviews that Meera does near the end of the documentary with an up-and-coming leader of Hindu Yuva Vahini, a Hindutva organization described as being “all male.” The first is done after Yogi Adityanath, a Modi devotee and member of Hindu Yuva Vahini, is elected chief of Uttar Pradesh, bringing new energy to the far-right movement. Here the camera captures Meera’s careful approach: through a smile she asks him, “What is your vision for the youth of our country?” as she pushes him to consider the responsibility the organization has in shaping the country’s future. He answers, “My absolute priority is to protect our holy cows,” and references Muslims as a group that they need protection from. This is followed by a series of near-comic takes of the man unsheathing his sword, which he carries with him at all times. The absurdity of the hypermasculine spectacle contrasts with the terror of what he just said; we understand the gravity of the moment and why Meera needs to get this shot right. 


Still from the film "Writing With Fire" depicts a group of people sitting inside a house. One person holds up a smartphone to record an interview as the others look towards the individual speaking.

Writing with Fire
(2021). Film still courtesy of Autlook Filmsales.



When she returns for another conversation, the man is eagerly building two cow shelters and preparing to enter politics himself. That earlier question about the country’s future, of Hindu nationalism’s influence on young people, implicitly returns as he stands on a ladder against the backdrop of a passing train. The imposition of the railway system, always a fraught symbol in cinema of and about South Asia—of colonialism, of capitalism, of “progress”—provides an ominous answer. Yet we know Meera uses the railway too, often traveling to do her reporting. When she reappears onscreen in Writing With Fire, the train has passed and she continues questioning the man building a world that seeks to dominate her and those most vulnerable in her communities. Meera asserts her viewpoint nevertheless.  


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Imran Siddiquee (they/them; @imransiddiquee) is a writer and filmmaker challenging systems of domination. Their writing on race, gender, and popular media has been published by The Atlantic, Bitch Magazine, Buzzfeed, Literary Hub, Longreads, and others. They are the communications director for BlackStar Projects, home of the BlackStar Film Festival, and a co-creator of the South Asian American Digital Archive’s Revolution Remix Walking Tour, which they lead in Philadelphia.


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FOOTNOTES

1. The caste system in India is one of “religiously codified exclusion that was established in Hindu scripture” where at birth children inherit a social status (and associated level of “spiritual purity”) from their ancestors. At the very top of this system are Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants)—or upper castes—and at the bottom are Shudras, or peasants. Outside or below this structure altogether are Dalits (branded as “untouchables” and often forced in slave and bonded agricultural labor) and Adivasis, or the Indigenous peoples of South Asia. Source: Equality Labs, 2018, Caste in the United States, https://www.equalitylabs.org/castesurvey/#what-is-caste.

2. Filmmaker staff, “‘Dalit Women as Colleagues, Bosses, Leaders and Risktakers’: Editors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh on Writing With Fire,” Filmmaker, January 30, 2021, https://filmmakermagazine.com/111008-dalit-women-as-colleagues-bosses-leaders-and-risktakers-editors-rintu-thomas-and-sushmit-ghosh-on-writing-with-fire/#.YEeJUxNKhH0.

3.  The paper was founded in 2002 by nonprofit Nirantar (https://www.reuters.com/article/india-women-dalit/report-like-a-dalit-girl-one-indian-publication-shows-how-idINKBN1581E4/), and the United Nations Democracy Fund is among its funders (https://www.un.org/democracyfund/news/how-undef-funded-award-winning-local-newspaper-empowers-rural-women-india).

4. Statistics as of April 2021; source: https://www.youtube.com/c/KhabarLahariyaDigital.