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Arts

A win for this Indian documentary would make Oscars history

'Writing With Fire' chronicles how a group of Dalit women became investigative reporters

"We love asking questions to ourselves, to each other, and to go into a set of facts with an open mind and allow it to evolve into a story," Sushmit Ghosh, left, and Rintu Thomas told Nikkei Asia.

NEW DELHI -- These women journalists have not attended elite schools or colleges, and nor are they attired in smart designer wear like female peers working in India's big media houses. Their jobs come without the glamour and perks too, where accomplishing routine tasks means diligently traversing a network of roadblocks.

If being a woman in a male-dominated society was not enough of a disadvantage, then being a Dalit -- the lowest rung in India's caste hierarchy -- is another hurdle these women have had to scale to claim their rightful space.

Meet the reporters at a unique Indian newspaper Khabar Lahariya (Waves of News), the subject of the award-winning documentary "Writing With Fire," directed by husband and wife team Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh that has cruised through film festivals around the world over the past year after premiering 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

It is also one of five films nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary Feature at this year's Academy Awards which will be presented on Sunday evening in Los Angeles (Monday morning in Asia).

Filmed over five years "Writing With Fire" follows three Khabar Lahariya reporters -- Meera, Shyamkali, and Suneeta -- as they navigate the difficult terrain of their various news beats, but the dangerous ground that has them questioning centuries of patriarchy and caste prejudices.

Khabar Lahariya, India's first rural news network managed solely by women, was founded in 2002 in Bundelkhand (Uttar Pradesh) as a project of Delhi-based gender rights group Nirantar.

The initial idea was to train rural women to produce a local newsletter, and from a four-page broadsheet called Mahila Dakiya (Woman Postman), by the end of the year it had evolved into the fortnightly newspaper Khabar Lahariya. Going fully digital in 2017, today KL boasts 549,000 subscribers on its YouTube channel.

The first feature film directed by Thomas and Ghosh, "Writing with Fire" was produced by Black Ticket Films, the film production agency they founded in 2009.

Top: Suneeta and Meera, right, conducting an interview. As a ten-year-old working as a miner, Suneeta had no inkling that 12 years later she would be reporting on illegal mining practices as a KL journalist. Bottom: Married at fourteen, Meera pursued her studies at the same time as learning how to be a mother. Able to attend a school near her home, when her baby cried, her mother-in-law would call out to her. Meera went on to complete a Bachelor of Education and then a Masters degree.

"Preproduction for us is like sugar for ants," said Ghosh who met Thomas while pursuing a Masters in Mass Communication from AJK MCRC, in Jamia Milia University in Delhi, who said the idea for the film came when a photo essay featuring a woman distributing a newspaper in rural Uttar Pradesh -- India's most populated state -- caught the couple's attention.

"We love asking questions to ourselves, to each other, and to go into a set of facts with an open mind and allow it to evolve into a story," Ghosh told Nikkei Asia. "The premise was exciting: Dalit women using the power of their voice to transform their lives and the lives of others. But to craft that into a story that resonates-a story that works at the intersection of caste, gender, the role of media is the work we did during preproduction."

For her part, Thomas recalls being most interested in exploring what happens when women reclaim the spaces that are designed to exclude them, and then what that world that they re-imagine looks like.

"On one hand, are rural Dalit women chipping away at one of the cruel systemic discriminations in the world that are created to silence them," Thomas said. "On the other hand, is digital technology that by its very nature is unfettered."

"I was drawn to the coming together of two unique forces. In our popular culture, we are not used to seeing Dalit women in positions of power -- as leaders, colleagues, risk-takers, and bosses. In taking an intimate, observational approach to our process of filming, we knew we had the opportunity to locate the story in this rare, dynamic space that the world has not experienced so far."

"Writing With Fire" follows Meera, Suneeta, and Shyamkali as they uncover stories of rape, and question mining mafia goons, political leaders, and police officers, highlighting rural issues that are often pushed under the carpet by the mainstream media.

"The three women with different personalities and personal histories are united in their vision for a more just world through their journalism, but they approach it with their unique lens and voice," Thomas added.

Shunning the stereotypical image of Dalit women as victims of oppression, Thomas and Ghosh framed them as confident women whose personalities, personal histories, and dreams are explored in the film, thus making them relatable characters.

"After a few initial interviews, we decided to discard the interview style entirely and film in long, observational takes where facets of the character's inner and outer worlds unraveled naturally," explained Ghosh. "This steered the element of authenticity to the story, which was a critical goal for us. It meant that our crew had to be lean and unobtrusive as we traveled with them into villages as well as their homes."

There was no shortage of challenges, chief among them the fact that the film's main characters were mostly working in extremely hostile spaces -- reporting from illegal mines run by powerful mafia, or in police stations where rolling a camera is virtually unheard, or in meetings with politicians who are reluctant to be questioned by women holding a camera -- and in spaces of deep grief in the homes of rape survivors, the families of murder victims and survivors of domestic violence.

"Every day was a challenge," said Ghosh. "We had to have a quiet presence, with equipment that was almost invisible so that we didn't interrupt the work of our characters and also maintained the sanctity of the moments that were unfolding between them and the people they were interacting with. The biggest challenge was continuing to frame both our protagonist and the situation playing out in front in a manner that did justice to the moment."

Several questions nagged the filmmakers: How to visually set up ideas of caste, patriarchy, sexism, and violence without having our characters speak to the camera about them? How do you build an atmosphere of risk, without showing a single image of violence?

"It had to be told through an intimate and respectful lens," said Ghosh who doubled up as director of photography along with cameraman Karan Thapliyal. "As a cinematographer, the films I've enjoyed working on are about ordinary people with extraordinary resilience."

Picking up the camera for "Writing With Fire" was a natural choice for Ghosh who quit a corporate career in 2005 to motor bike across the mountains of northern India, filming en route using a home-video camera. Returning home to Delhi, Ghosh turned the rushes of his adventure into a 30-minute documentary "Bullets and Butterflies" which did well on the festival circuit.

The guiding principle of cinematography for "Writing With Fire" was mindfulness, said Ghosh, explaining how the sound equipment had to be compact so as not to call attention to ourselves with boom rods. "This initially felt like a less-than-ideal way of working but as we filmed in Uttar Pradesh through hot summers, monsoons, and bitter winters, jostling for space on rickety buses and overcrowded rickshaws, we chose to make the most of this arsenal," said Ghosh.

Top: Meera, center, conducting a digital training course with Dalit women. Bottom: Sushmit Ghosh, left, and his wife and creative partner Rintu Thomas, right. Kavita, center, is the founder of Kahabar Lahariya. Managing it for the past sixteen years, Kavita has been instrumental in turning women from marginalized communities into full-fledged reporters.

Having worked earlier with Thapliyal, Ghosh said the two developed a discreet sign language as they shifted between angles, characters and lenses, to create a cinematic landscape that was very close to how they had imagined it from the outset.

"This was a deeply intersectional story that talked about gender, caste, technology, the Fourth Estate, and democracy and the rise of populism, themes as peculiar to India and universal," said Ghosh. "We wanted to stitch a narrative that spoke of the Indian experience but was also relevant in any other geography. Everything was anchored through the eyes of a single protagonist, be it Meera, Suneeta, or Shyamkali. This film is deeply personal as it is political."

One character that was left on the cutting room floor was Suneeta's father. "He is a true blue feminist who believed in his daughter's dreams," said Ghosh. "A lot of the banter you see in the film between the father and daughter speaks of the beautiful relation they shared."

The first Indian film to make it to the Academy's Best Documentary Feature shortlist, much of the five years Thomas and Ghosh spent making the film was spent trying to find the money to keep production on track.

"It was a surprise. With practically no marketing budgets, we are on unchartered waters -- small fishes swimming in the big ocean with big guys -- but we are swimming with all our might and doing everything so that the film is watched," said Thomas.

For Ghosh, her work with the Khabar Lahariya team helped them bond as professionals and as friends who trusted each other. "Those days were special," said Thomas.

Perhaps her proudest moment was celebrating with them when Khabar Lahariya's YouTube hit its first million views. "There is a strong sense of sisterhood in this organization and along with discipline and strict targets, there is compassion," said Thomas. "They believe in uplifting each other. It was a huge risk from having no digital presence to becoming a digital force, especially since many women had never touched a smartphone before. That was a leap of faith."

On the eve of the Oscars ceremony, Thomas and Ghosh are true believers in the power of nonfiction storytelling as a means of social transformation and thrilled that they have been able to create a film that has amplified the voices of communities too often ignored. "Our focus has been to make these films engaging, entertaining, and easy to access for a global audience."

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