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Oscar-nominated 'Writing With Fire' tells the story of India's only women-led news outlet

Meera and Suneeta in "Writing with Fire." (Courtesy of Music Box Films)
Meera and Suneeta in "Writing with Fire." (Courtesy of Music Box Films)

Editor’s note: This story was rebroadcast on Feb. 10, 2022. Find that audio here.

“Writing with Fire” will be released everywhere on demand on March 1. Find it on iTunes. It’s also back in theaters for a limited run.

Khabar Lahariya, or “Waves of News,” is India’s only women-led news outlet.

Since its founding as a newspaper in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh back in 2002, Khabar Lahariya has grown exponentially. Its Youtube channel has nearly half a million subscribers. Now, the women journalists are the focus of the new documentary “Writing with Fire,” a Hindi-language film that won two awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

The women journalists face unbounded fears yet choose to do the work anyway. Despite all the odds against them in a region “riddled with risks,” Khabar Lahariya journalists courageously report stories of corruption and violence against women, says Rintu Thomas, one of the filmmakers.

Watch on YouTube.

The threats are compounded since the journalists are members of the Dalit caste, also known as the untouchables, a bottom tier of society. In Hindu scriptures, society is divided into a pyramid-like social structure caste system, filmmaker Sushmit Ghosh says.

For thousands of years, the Dalit caste was seen as “impure,” he says. The practice of caste-based discrimination is illegal in India, however Ghosh says abidance of these age-old heirecharies often remains.

“Dalit women have historically been some of the most oppressed demographics in India, so to be a Dalit woman journalist in itself is … revolutionary in what the women are doing,” he says.

The opening scene of “Writing with Fire” features Meera, chief reporter for the news outlet and a main character throughout, interviewing a woman who tried to file a police report after she had been raped multiple times. The woman and her husband were turned away by the police — and tell Meera that her news outlet will be their only hope. The couple believes the press coverage could elicit a public outcry in the community.

For Dalit women, “violence is not new,” Thomas says. The women are expected to remain hush about sexual abuse against them, she says. Many times, Thomas says the only people Dalit women would trust with their stories were Khabar Lahariya reporters.

Viewers see Meera at a time in her life when she’s already a very experienced reporter. The film then shows her life behind the scenes: married at 14, mother to three children, a husband who isn’t entirely supportive of her career. She balances all of this while undertaking a crucial but perilous job and defying traditional expectations on women — especially Dalit women.

It’s one of the complexities Ghosh says the filmmakers wanted to explore in “Writing with Fire.” Meera is calm but firm, someone who thinks deeply about the future and how she navigates the world. Both filmmakers were drawn to her dynamic and compelling nature, he says.

In one scene, she’s putting some really tough questions to a police official at a news conference. Afterward, a male reporter takes her aside, tells her she’s doing her job wrong and says she should have asked easy questions or even flattering questions first.

His delivery is patronizing, but soon after, Meera adopts parts of his strategy when she’s interviewing the leader of a vigilante group. She begins by remarking that the group is being taken much more seriously than it has in the past — and that seems to get the conversation flowing.

Meera and the other Khabar Lahariya journalists have remarkably thick skins and constantly navigate “the oppressive nature of patriarchy,” Thomas says. They’re able to pick up tips and lessons even from people who don’t treat them with respect.

They are also incredibly savvy and have evolved with the times. In 2016, they decided to take their reporting online alongside the print newspaper that they published every two weeks. The women reporters struggled at first since many did not have smartphones to begin with, but they knew that pivoting their efforts to digital would attract a wider audience over time.

“It was such a smart move because India, after China, has the largest mobile phone penetration in the world, one of the largest mobile phone markets,” Ghosh says.

Readers of the print edition were mostly men, but when they shifted to digital, more and more women started consuming the news, Ghosh explains. Plus, there was a desire for the type of authentic newsmaking that Khabar Lahariya was publishing, he notes.

The filmmakers often followed the journalists into dicey situations. Thomas says she and Ghosh wanted to communicate “the climate of fear” in which these women worked through every day “because that’s when their courage becomes special.”

“Writing with Fire” captures a period in their reporting before COVID-19 hit. Ghosh says since then, Khabar Lahariya has boomed beyond expectations and managed to carry on during the pandemic in ways that other mainstream outlets couldn’t.

“They’ve witnessed more growth, more traffic on this site and a bigger team,” he says. “They’re only doing well.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris BentleySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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