Writing With Fire shows Khabar Lahariya’s powerful journalism

Writing with fire
Shyamkali Devi, Meera Devi and Suneeta

On 9 February, a video of two people — screaming and beaming with happiness — went viral. Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s documentary Writing with Fire was nominated for the Oscars under the Best Documentary (Feature) category. 

Writing with Fire is a feature film documenting the invigorating journalism of Khabar Lahariya and its shift from a weekly print newspaper to a digital news organisation.

Khabar Lahariya is a collective of women journalists, hailing from various marginalised backgrounds —  Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis — speaking truth to power. Its staff consists of women from remote areas having little to no academic exposure. The organisation is based out of Bundelkhand, north Uttar Pradesh. 

The women journalists working for Khabar Lahariya show the courage to enter a field where upper caste men hold most of the power. Meera, chief reporter of Khabar Lahariya, says, “In our region, a journalist meant you are an upper caste man, a Dalit woman journalist was unthinkable. Over the last 14 years, we have changed this perception.” 

The documentary shows how these resilient women, despite living in a deeply patriarchal society that does not even allow women to study, embark on their journalistic journey on their own without any professional training. The women at Khabar Lahariya report from the remotest and dangerous corners of Uttar Pradesh, picking stories that are often missed by the big media houses. 

Writing With Fire revolves around Khabar Lahariya’s transition from print to digital. With every media house’s expansion into the digital, Meera decides it’s time for their venture to have an online presence as well. These women who have never used smartphones before, some not even familiar with English alphabets, learn to make videos, send texts, emails and everything with their personal commitment and dedication to journalism. 

The documentary follows the lives of three journalists in Khabar Lahariya — Meera, Suneeta, and Shyamkali. The three are completely different from each other in their personal and professional ways, yet alike in their perseverance and determination. Meera Devi got married at a very young age but she did not quit her studies and despite facing resistance from her in-laws and husband, decided to enter the field of journalism. With her determination and courage, she started working in a field that requires her to work even during eerie hours of the day. 

Suneeta is a senior journalist in Khabar Lahariya, daughter of a mine worker, who with her courage brings out the stories from the remote areas, and has reported on stories like illegal mining, risking her life in the face of powerful goons backed by police and political leaders. In the documentary, she says, “Being a journalist gives me the power to fight for justice and that’s what I want to be remembered for.”

Shyamkali, a domestic violence survivor, who chose her journalistic career over her husband and eventually got divorced, never went to school and is still learning the ABC’s of journalism. She can be seen being taught by Meera Devi on how to report and present a story. She is not the most refined reporter of them all, rather she is the one to whom many budding and new reporters can relate to.

These women come from marginalised backgrounds but they redefine the definition of feminism and women empowerment with presenting every story with a feminist perspective. We see Meera following stories in the far-removed villages, looking for some stories of violence, brutalisation and humiliation. One such Dalit family, living on the margins of the village owing to their caste location, speaks about the much-celebrated government scheme of Swachh Bharat and the fanfare around its ‘success.’ The woman of the family on being asked about the benefits of the scheme outrightly says, ‘Sab jhooth hai’ (It’s all lies). The woman’s eyes fill with tears talking about the humiliation they face for having to defecate in the open. 

Meera can be seen around political and election rallies too. While interviewing Satyam, a rising leader in the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a religious group founded by the current chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath, with the motive of ‘saving’ the allegedly in-danger Hindu religion, he flaunts his sword sitting on a cot and tells Meera proudly how he likes to keep it with him all the time. He talks about cow protection and building a big cowshed, and how it could be a launchpad for his political career. On being asked about the social and economic benefits of making sheds for cows, Satyam replies with how going back to the roots of Hindu religion will solve all our problems. 

The film follows the general election of 2019. Meera Devi and Suneeta can be seen covering the rallies in a crowd full of men donning saffron-coloured clothes and shouting Jai Shri Ram, a slogan praising Lord Ram, which recently has become associated with chest-thumping Hindu identity assertion.

Being independent working women does not free the Khabar Lahariya journalists from discrimination. On field, these journalists are often discriminated against on the basis of their caste and gender. However, with their grit and strength they withstand intimidation even in the face of hostile subjects. The film aptly ends with Meera saying, “Our future generations will ask us when our country was changing and the media was silenced, what were you doing? Khabar Lahariya can confidently say we have been holding the powerful to account. We didn’t let the fourth pillar fall.”

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