Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s documentary, Writing With Fire (2021), chronicles the courageous journey of a group of women journalists in India, who oversee the transition of the only women-led newspaper, Khabar Lahariya, from print to digital. Challenging patriarchal and caste traditions, chief reporter Meera Devi and her team of journalists face intimidation as they report stories about caste and gender violence, police corruption, and environmental injustices, in an area prone to violence against women. The transition to digital media also presents its challenges, but the determined spirit of the journalists is unfettered as they continue with their work while challenging the image of “woman” in Indian society.
In conversation with PopMatters, co-director Rintu Thomas talks about the need for hope and courage, and how she and Ghosh seek solutions that can bring dignity and justice to everyone.
What would you say to audiences if you were introducing this film?
This is the story of India’s only newspaper run entirely by women, and the men who belong to the so-called low caste community. The film meets them as they begin the transition from print to digital journalism. The special thing about them is that most of these women have never touched a smartphone, and the film follows them on this journey. At the heart of it is a story about courage and hope and women who are there to change the world in their own interesting way.
How do you find themes and ideas to build your film around, whether it be documentary or narrative?
It’s about responding to our times. We live in a fractured and cynical world, and as filmmakers, we’re responding to these times. When we say we’re telling a story, we’re actually deconstructing the reality around us by asking questions.
It’s rare to come across people who look at the world and instead of seeing problems, they see a solution. It’s not the sugar-coated or vanilla sense of optimism and hope, it’s about reframing the narrative for people that have been historically marginalised. We have those in every society, where the class structures are against them. They exist on the margins and they’re challenging it in their own beautiful and powerful ways.
When Sushmit and I meet such people, we want to align with them because their view of the world and ours match. We want to sometimes share with them and amplify their story. The world always needs the hope that emerges from the feeling that things can be better.
We often find ourselves identifying as being optimistic or cynical when it’s not about being one or the other. Life is difficult and we’re all trying to overcome challenges.
We’ve started understanding the world around us in extremes. What’s special about people that are driven by the idea of a better world, is they believe in the possibility of a better future, but their everyday lives look very ordinary [laughs]. There’s nothing phenomenal about their everyday life, it’s their spirit.
In the case of the women that are represented in our film, they are working in a landscape that is dominated by strong caste men. They’re going into spaces that aren’t welcoming and are alienating, and yet they’re fighting patriarchy in their own ways – inside their homes and in their workspaces. They do it in ordinary ways, by engaging with people who don’t agree with them, and that’s relatable to all of us.
We all live in our echo chambers now and something we can learn from these women is, can we agree to disagree? Can we accept the other person even though we might not share their worldview? It starts from that space of compassion and it’s easy to say it, but it’s hard to do.
When I say hope and optimism, it’s actually coming from a place of wanting to understand another person. I want to understand their worldview, and because we both live in the same world, I want to find solutions that can bring dignity and justice to everyone. As journalists, their role of doing that is with a pen, or in this case, a smartphone.
How much of a double-edged blade is technology, that enables freedom of speech and expression, but with it there must be dangers?
They work in a region that is known for a high number of violent incidents against women. Working in that environment is incredibly risky. These women could be kidnapped when they step out of their homes and made invisible in a matter of seconds. It’s the risk they take every day because being a journalist has usually been associated with upper-class men. Women have always been absent from the space of journalism. In rural India, it’s different from the urban cities, but they deal with it. There’s a sense of mission and purpose in what they’re doing.
I always love to say about the internet, that it’s a caste system on one side, which these women are chipping away at. It’s a centuries-old system of oppression. They have the internet as their armoury, whose unfettered power has given birth to digital democracy and has democratised people’s voices. There are now people in rural parts of India who are telling their own stories through TikTok and Instagram. It has been transformational for them, but there’s a dark side to this technology.
The more popular the women at the Khabar Lahariya newspaper have become, there has been more trolling. More people disagree with them and want them to pull down their stories, and snatch away their phones. This is the reality that co-exists. So it’s bittersweet, but the women have been able to reach a population they would have never reached if they hadn’t pivoted from print to digital.
Thinking about the concept of “eternal recurrence”, could the narrative of the struggle for gender equality be one of the things that will continue to define human civilisation?
It’s a double-edged sword. The more we move forward, we’re also taking steps backward. From the perspective of this film and the women we worked with, Meera, the central protagonist was married at the age of 14. She fought with her family and the family she was married into, to continue her education. For that, she needed financial independence.
She didn’t set out to become a journalist, she just needed a job. When she became associated with Khabar Lahariya, it gave her a sense of identity, a voice, and the financial independence to decide the course of her own life, her daughter’s, and family.
Women don’t usually have the agency to make decisions, they’re service providers. This work has transformed her life. As a result, Meera has four sisters, and all of them have continued to study because they saw her as an example. One of her younger sisters is studying to be an engineer. She’s 28-years-old, beyond the expiry date of the marriage market here. There’s a lot of pressure on parents to marry their daughters if they’re around 20 years old.
In the larger scheme of things, has the caste system been dismantled? No. Have we become a stronger democracy? No. Quite the opposite. But you have these smaller victories that are changing society from within. It requires a longer commitment because you don’t easily see the results.
Khabar Lahariya has been around for 19 years and they’ve been working from inside the system. They’ve given a model for men to look at their wives, sisters, and mothers differently – that’s phenomenal.
How do you change someone’s mind? Can it be done in the lifetime of one person? Maybe, but we’ve seen ourselves change for the worse. I believe we can change for the better and that gives me hope about where we are headed.
We tend to focus on change in the course of our own lifetime, but often it’s a slow process, happening across the generations. It’s about chipping away at beliefs slowly, taking solace in the small victories, and embracing adversity as a means of empowerment.
My grandparents were not literate, they were farmers. They came from small villages, but my grandfather insisted that all his children, including his girls, were educated. My father and my mother were educated, and so they were able to dream of upward mobility. My sister and I were educated, and now I’m a filmmaker.
Nobody in my family tree has made films. Girls look at me and think, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’ All of us in our lifetimes are making a dent and I believe it all adds up. It might not be so evident at its face value, but we are doing our bit.
We’ve generations of people whose shoulders we stand on today because they decided there was another possibility out of their current set of circumstances. The circumstances keep repeating themselves, and it’s people that respond to it differently who shape our futures. We’re all a part of it, and life without adversity would be damn boring [laughs]. It would be very vanilla.
Has the process of making Writing With Fire changed you?
The process of making this film, putting it out in the world, and being with these women, has been an exercise of believing. I generally don’t allow myself to be affected by things around me. Everything can be stimuli, but after this process of five long years, I feel there are many ways of responding to a situation.
We struggled to get this film funded and to have our own editorial voice. Putting the film out there during the pandemic and keeping it safe has taught me that if you surround yourself with people who believe in you, and if you keep believing there’s a purpose and a message to your work when people watch the film, they’ll be inspired to look at their own lives and to think about them differently. My job is done then.
Believing in both the process of making this film and the goodness of people has fundamentally shifted inside of me. It’s about believing.