Courtesy Black Ticket Films

The need for diverse voices in journalism has never been more pressing, yet many challenges remain in providing access. Locally, nationally, and internationally, diverse journalists from all disciplines grapple with issues of access and inclusion. The film Writing with Fire, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021, winning the Audience Award and the Special Jury Award: Impact for Change, crystallizes this challenge, telling the story of the Khabar Laharyia newspaper in India’s Uttar Pradesh. The paper is operated by a team of Dalit women who radically disrupt the caste system that traditionally designated them to menial labor. In doing so, they set a new standard for Dalit women—and for journalism. Nominated for an Academy Award in a competitive field, the film is an underdog for the win, yet was described by Jason Rezaian in the Washington Post as, “The most inspiring journalism movie—maybe ever.” 

Filmmakers Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh find themselves drawn to creating movies about the disenfranchised. In an interview during Sundance, Thomas said, “There’s a lot in this world that is not right. We just feel it’s our responsibility as storytellers to offer another perspective. Most of our characters have been people with no resources or clout, mostly semi-literate or illiterate, so (we enjoy filming) when these folks can have a vision and inspire people around them to rally a change.”

The movie follows three women, Meera, Suneeta, and Shyamkali, on the eve of Khabar Laharyia’s launch from print to digital. This transition is further complicated by the fact that many of the women journalists are not only illiterate, but have never used a cell phone before. The women quickly master not only the learning curve of technology, but the art of reporting, while also juggling the wifely demands of maintaining a traditional household. Meera’s husband struggles with her choice in the film, saying, “When there’s a man at home, how can a wife work?” Meera’s father astutely notes, “Everyone wants to marry an educated girl, but won’t let her work after marriage, so why marry her?” 

The women usually wake up at 5 AM, and by 5:30 they are out of the house, walking an average of three hours a day in very hot temperatures, which forced the filmmakers to shed their bulky camera gear in favor of more lightweight options. This streamlined choice proved to be especially useful in covering hard-hitting news like contentious political candidates, workers’ rights, crime, and police misconduct. At one point when they entered an illegal mine, Thomas and Ghosh were warned, “Don’t take your camera, the mafia’s watching.” They mounted a phone onto a stick and were able to get the footage stealthily. 

The cameras capture some truly amazing moments of the journalists confronting story subjects in tense and sometimes downright hostile situations, including one scene where the tenacious Meera confronts the local police department about neglecting a rape case. Despite the looming threat of reprisal, Meera remains strong in her conviction to expose the truth. She says, “I believe journalism is the essence of democracy.” Ghosh stated firmly, “They have found their way to work within a system that’s designed to exclude them.”

Despite many truly harrowing moments, the women are constantly laughing and filled with joy, and the film contains many lighthearted scenes. Thomas said, “It was impossible to tell the story without their wit and vivacity shining through on the screen.” Thomas and Ghosh were dedicated to portraying a layered and nuanced view of the women, rather than presenting a simple picture of them as victims or icons for praise. They want people to realize that they are just normal women doing extraordinary things. Said Ghosh, “For us, Neeta, Meera, and Shyamkali are really prototypes of what modern Indian women are and it doesn’t get showcased in the mainstream, so how do we find that space in our storytelling to do that?”

Ghosh said he is honored to have been nominated for an Oscar, but just feels happy that Writing with Fire will “be able to open up conversations around what is happening in India, our journalists . . . and also about how far independent documentaries can go . . . and the dreams that can be had!”

Viewers will have a chance to screen the film on March 28 on WTTW PBS, the night after the Academy Awards.