A newsroom of women journalists from India’s Dalit community called Khabar Lahariya is getting worldwide attention thanks to the Oscar-nominated documentary Writing with Fire.
Airing Monday night on PBS’s Independent Lens, Writing with Fire was nominated for best documentary feature at this year’s Academy Awards. Though Questlove’s Summer of Soul ultimately took home the prize, Writing with Fire won the Audience Award and Special Jury Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Writing with Fire spotlights the women journalists of Khabar Lahariya as it transitions from a print-only newspaper to a hybrid print and digital platform reporting on marginalized communities and media-dark villages in India.
Sushmit Ghosh, who co-directed Writing with Fire with his partner Rintu Thomas, appeared on an episode of the Factual America podcast, which you can listen to above, on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or right here:
“Writing with Fire is the story of Khabar Lahariya, which literally translates into ‘waves of news’, which is a newsroom that is run entirely by women, and most of them women from the Dalit community. And we caught them at a time where they were transitioning from 14 years of print to digital. And we were drawn to the story essentially because we were curious to see how they were going to make this transition, fundamentally because they were operating in a region that is known for notorious levels of violence against the Dalit community, against women,” said Ghosh, who also served as producer, editor, and cinematographer.
“Just to be a Dalit woman journalist in these parts of India operating in media-dark spaces, was a story that was just waiting to be told. And the film essentially follows three reporters in the newsroom, and Meera [Devi], who’s the central protagonist of the film, and two journalists that she’s essentially mentoring. And over the course of five years that we put this film together, we see not only them transition in their personal lives, but also in their professional lives, we see the growth of Khabar Lahariya as essentially a force in the news making space in India. And we also see India in an interesting way transition as a democracy. So, it’s telling a lot of stories in an interconnected way.”
Ghosh also explained how Khabar Lahariya helps to combat the lingering effects of India’s caste system, which has been around for thousands of years.
“According to the Hindu scriptures, basically, humans can be divided into four key castes, and it’s sort of like a pyramid hierarchy. And each of these four castes have multiple sub-castes. And the Dalit community is considered, quote-unquote, so impure that they have historically always been kept out of the caste system, and essentially have borne the brunt of, or the legacy, or essentially the violence of what it means being outsiders to the caste system,” Ghosh said.
“While India gained independence, caste-based practices were banned constitutionally. But it’s sometimes difficult to get rid of a social structure that has been around for nearly 3,000 years. And so, if you’re from the Dalit community, you would be someone who has historically always been marginalized, always been oppressed, would not necessarily have access to resources that most other Indians would have, whether that be education or healthcare. And you see a lot of that in the film, as these reporters go into these media-dark villages, spaces that are not covered by the mainstream, where people don’t have access to clean drinking water, or toilets, healthcare facilities, schools, electricity, and the work that these women are doing is essentially ensuring equity and justice for people across the spectrum in the country.”
Writing with Fire premieres on Monday, March 28 on PBS’s Independent Lens (check your local listings) and will also be available to stream afterward on the PBS video app. Here are the timestamps from the Factual America interview:
00:00 – Clip from Writing with Fire, showing Meera on a reporting assignment.
02:40 – How the filmmakers reacted to the Academy Awards shortlist.
04:30 – What the film is about.
06:20 – The background of the Dalit community and their position in India.
13:34 – What it’s like for the film protagonist Meera to live the life of a journalist.
17:15 – Who the other two main subjects of the film are.
22:18 – Second clip: Meera teaches Shyamkali how to use smartphone for her work.
24:35 – Where Writing with Fire can be seen.
29:31 – Whether Sushmit ever felt he and Rintu were endangered while filming.
33:10 – Political changes that have happened during the four years of filming.
36:43 – How Sushmit and Rintu got the idea for making this film.
41:25 – Reception to the film on the festival circuit and how it inspired people to take action.
47:30 – What’s next for Sushmit and Rintu.
Factual America uses documentary filmmaking to examine the American experience as well as universal topics that affect all Americans. Guests include Academy Award, Emmy and Grammy-winning filmmakers and producers, their subjects, as well as experts on the American experience. We discuss true crime, music, burning social and political topics, history and arts with the creators of the latest and upcoming documentary films in theatres and on the most popular digital platforms. This podcast is produced by Alamo Pictures, a London- and Austin-based production company that makes documentaries about the US from a European perspective for international audiences.
Main Image: Still from Writing With Fire courtesy of Factual America
This story was originally published on Feb. 14 and has been updated.