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Writing With Fire: Dalit women preserve India's dying journalism

Khabar Lahariya’s fearless reporting holds the powerful accountable


India’s first Oscar-nominated documentary film, Writing With Fire, has been making waves worldwide since its release in 2021. When the documentary finally landed on Melbourne’s shores at the 2022 Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, I had to watch it, and importantly, review it for our readers. With a steady and languorous camera gaze, the documentary introduces us to Khabar Lahariya, a newspaper run solely by Dalit women in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The newspaper began its operations in 2002 and has continued to thrive, along with an active digital presence through its Facebook page and YouTube channel with 170 million views and counting.


Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, the duo behind Writing With Fire, have been making documentaries, commercials and video shorts on themes ranging from the environment, agriculture, food security, access to healthcare and sanitation to child rights since 2009. A hallmark of their oeuvre has been to focus on individual stories of ordinary people and juxtaposing those stories against socio-economic and political realities. For instance, their media graduation project Flying Inside My Body in 2008 was a biography of photographer Sunil Gupta, who is gay and HIV positive, against the backdrop of a raging debate on decriminalising homosexuality under the British colonial penal code Section 377 in India.

 

Close-up of reporter Shyamkali | Source: Writing With Fire's website


In 2010, for In Search of a Home, the two filmmakers focused their lens on a Burmese and Afghan refugee in India, and the short documentaries Notes from a Beautiful City and Dilli investigated the idea of development and gentrification in urban cities. However, it was their 2012 documentary Timbaktu, a story of farmers in Andhra Pradesh who switched from chemical to organic agriculture that brought home the Indian National Award for them. The duo gained further limelight when their story on Edible Cutlery by social entrepreneur Narayana Peesapathy from Karnataka became viral online. Given the repertoire of Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh's works, it is perhaps not surprising that they decided to highlight the work of the Dalit women reporters of Khabar Lahariya


At the outset, Writing with Fire foregrounds the Dalit caste identity of the women who constitute Khabar Lahariya. The women reporters are not only fighting class, patriarchy and the changing landscape of journalism, but also casteism. The audience is invited to either become the camera and follow Meera, Shyamkali and Suneeta, view them as silent spectators or see what they see, through their smartphone recordings. The women conduct on-ground reportage of issues affecting their community- unsafe living and working conditions, political corruption and rape and violence, particularly against the Dalit population. 


An aspect that the documentary has managed to capture incisively is the shift from analog to digital technology in journalism. The reporters undergo several training sessions on how to use a smartphone and record videos. We see Shyamkali’s journey, from a shy, hesitant reporter who struggled to understand the English alphabet on her smartphone to gaining confidence in reporting and filming. There are doses of humour as the women try to learn the ropes of camera rolling, sound and action, but there is something commanding about them as they fearlessly thrust their smartphones in front of powerful men. And this is where caste becomes significant because it is not only about women standing up against men in their reporting, but Dalit women questioning institutions run by upper-caste men. The documentary mentions it took Meera a year to gain the confidence of a Hindu religious youth vigilante group by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Hindu Yuva Vahini’s president for an interview. It must have been a herculean task given that Hindutva politics supports the status quo of upper-caste Hindus.

 

Reporter Suneeta in the field | Source: Writing With Fire's website

Caste thus becomes extremely significant while discussing Khabar Lahariya, like the post-screening panel at Human Rights Arts and Film Festival in Melbourne noted, the majority of India’s population belongs to the Scheduled Caste, Other Backward Caste and Dalits, who are underrepresented in all professional spheres. Much like the conversation around inadequate representation and discrimination against the BIPOC community in Australian media, the same can be noted about Dalit representation in Indian mainstream media. The panel also included Dr Vikrant Kishore, Dr Rupali Bhamre ad Asmita Mahire-Singh, and was moderated by Dr Shweta Kishore.


But perhaps here lies a small caveat in the documentary. Because the filmmakers belong to the upper caste community, and as Dilpreet Kaur Taggar, South Asian Today’s founder, poignantly noted in the panel, just like the white or male gaze cannot be completely eliminated, neither can the upper caste gaze. So despite underscoring the history of caste in the beginning, the women’s caste identity dissolves into the background at some point in the documentary. Perhaps unintended, but in the last 15-20 minutes, the journey of Khabar Lahariya evolves into a story of triumphant journalism against all odds, especially in the context of rising Hindutva politics in Uttar Pradesh. 

 

Khabar Lahariya too issued a formal statement on their website stating that the documentary’s depiction of them “as an organisation with a particular and consuming focus of reporting on one party and the mobilisation around this, is inaccurate”, and that theirs “has not just been the easy-to-digest, heartwarming story of the small figure talking back to the big powers in a time of political change”. Importantly, they note that “We have not, as the film would have one believe, been able to carry our caste identities on our sleeves, with bravado and humour. We have had to be discreet, often fearful.”


The filmmakers filmed from 2016 to 2019, and in the documentary, the audience gets a peek into the journey of three Dalit women reporters and the perilous, precarious work of Khabar Lahariya. Their reporting often transcends professional journalistic standards, as we see via Shyamkali, who also comforts the father of a rape victim as he cries copious tears. But then, the reporters of Khabar Lahariya work in unconventional environs, where even a regular supply of electricity is not guaranteed. Meera says she believes journalism is the essence of democracy, and as the documentary ended, I was transported back to my 18-year-old self pursuing a journalism degree, hopeful and idealistic about the fourth pillar, and that is where perhaps lies Writing With Fire’s victory - to create hope in such polarising times.


Note: The writer was a film student of the filmmakers from 2009-10.


Anubhanama is a monthly Film & TV column by Anubha Sarkar who unpacks popular culture through a social, political and historical lens. If you have any suggestions for her, you can write them to us on contact@southasiantoday.com.au


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About the author

When not overdoing on her caffeine dose, Anubha Sarkar can be found furiously typing her PhD on Bollywood and Soft Power. With a stint in the Netherlands, she moved to the unpredictable pastures of Melbourne for her PhD and likes to dabble in films, art, books and pole dancing. She is South Asian Today's in-house Film & TV expert and writes a monthly column, Anubhanama. Instagram: @anubhanama  

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