“Writing With Fire” captures Khabar Lahariya (Hindi for “news waves”) at a specific moment in his two decades of business: an early scene depicts a 2016 meeting about the organization’s shift from print to digital. But the emphasis is more on the method than on the medium.
The film follows journalists from Khabar Lahariya for four years as they report on a range of issues in their home state of Uttar Pradesh. Chief Reporter Meera investigates the government’s claim that every household has access to a toilet. Suneeta, a former child miner, reports on the damage caused by illegal mining. Shyamkali, a survivor of domestic violence, seeks information from the police about a rape case.
At every turn, women not only navigate the challenges familiar to many journalists — evasive authority figures, media skepticism, weak camera batteries — but also the additional hurdles that come with being women in a patriarchal society dominated by the “upper” castes. The way they handle precarious situations is a demonstration of their journalistic prowess. They get by among the rowdy men and convince them to be heard. They interview survivors of sexual assault with sensitivity and show empathy for religious extremists without leaving their positions unchallenged.
CNN spoke to Thomas and Ghosh about making “Writing With Fire” and the lessons they learned from Khabar Lahariya reporters. At a time when press freedom and democracy around the world are under threat, Ghosh said the film is a testament to the impact a “fiercely and stubbornly independent press institution can have”.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to focus on Khabar Lahariya?
Thomas: A photographer had done a photo report on Khabar Lahariya, and this is the first time that we have seen their work. They had been around for 14 years as a printed newspaper at the time.
When we met them [in 2016] and read about their work, they told us that they are having this meeting where they are going to discuss this pivot to digital. That scene you saw in the movie where Meera pitches is really the first time we meet them. We were lucky to have our cameras with us. Seeing an organization run entirely by women – women from marginalized communities who are mostly invisible in the media landscape – telling their own stories, with their own agency, really spoke to us.
How did you get the staff to open up to you?
Thomas: They were curious to know why we wanted to tell their story. They had been the subject of other documentaries before, so they knew what the process was. It helped them understand the power of being in front of and behind the camera themselves.
We didn’t know what the story was going to be, but we knew we didn’t want it to be the story of female victims. We also didn’t want it to be a story about female superheroes saving the day. They were very ordinary women with an extraordinary spirit. We really wanted to understand: Where did they get this spirit from? When they build something together, what does it look like?
How did the journalists of Khabar Lahariya get through the delicate situations in which they often found themselves?
gosh: We entered this story in their fourteenth year, so they already had a body of work and also a deep understanding of how to move through spaces of deep trauma and spaces that are clearly hostile. While we were filming, there were many occasions where they were heckled or torn down or misrepresented [to]but they found exceptional ways to negotiate their way out.
Thomas: There is also a lot of confidence for them – what I would call street credibility. They are reporters from the communities they are reporting on — not a reporter who comes from a city, reports and leaves. They understand the dynamics of space very intimately, so when they show up, people are usually inclined to talk to them. It was beautiful to watch in an environment where the media is increasingly distrustful.
What were some of the obstacles the women of Khabar Lahariya faced?
Thomas: In the region where they work, women – especially Dalit women – have never been seen as journalists. It was once the forte of men of the dominant caste.
In the film, you see a lot of men in public spaces staring, because it’s quite unusual to have smart, articulate women asking relevant questions. So it starts from there: The disbelief that men or people in positions of power have towards a woman who comes to ask the question. Yet over the years, we’ve seen how that rejection turned into muted respect. This testifies to the power of the work done by Khabar Lahariya.
For example, if there is an accident on a road, many media would cover it as breaking news. The interest of Khabar Lahariya is to know why this road continues to have these accidents. Let’s look at the budget allocated to this road in this fiscal year. Once we figure that out, let’s look at how much has been spent, what’s left unspent, and what happened in the middle. This is where you not only become better journalists, but you also create better consumers.
gosh: It answers this larger question of what happens when you diversify the newsroom: who controls the news and who ends up telling whose stories? Most newsrooms have traditionally been controlled by middle-aged men, and India has been no different. [Khabar Lahariya’s approach to journalism] this whole narrative turns around, and you see the effects: roads are built, health care, education, last mile delivery of basic rights enshrined in the constitution are provided to every citizen.
Did making this film force you to struggle with your own caste privilege?
Thomas: I immediately recognize that there is a difference of class and caste. How that translates to us in the process of making a film is that we don’t become the voice of the people we represent. We want to create a story where they tell their own story.
At the heart of it, what they stood for and what we stood for merged and we took off from there. Their idea of what a just society is and our idea of what a world run by women would look like merged. You try not to become their voice and that’s where the difference lies.
Was there a time when these differences were particularly stark?
Thomas: The scene in the movie where Suneeta encounters a very aggressive mob as she relates a story on a rough road was pretty powerful for me personally. When she got there, it quickly turned into something different and aggressive. She stays and keeps filming and really turns up the heat [down] in this situation with such flair and professionalism.
Then I asked him, “What was it about?” It got so aggressive. And she said, “To you it’s new, but to us it’s everyday.” I’ve been in some pretty tough jobs, but that still doesn’t equate to being a female rural journalist in those areas where you have to do that over and over again on a daily basis. At the same time, I was amazed by the sense of compassion she had [for the people she was reporting on].
What lessons have you learned from Khabar Lahariya journalists?
Thomas: The art of agreeing to disagree. It’s hard to practice on a daily basis, but they’ve been seen doing it at home, in professional spaces with their male peers, in interviews with people in positions of power. Doing this in a way that isn’t aggressive or confrontational but gets the job done takes a certain amount of courage.
Courage itself has many contours. Sometimes it’s about standing up for what you believe in. And sometimes it’s about holding back and weathering the storm and redefining the strategy.
What do you hope viewers take away from the film?
gosh: You must work actively to create a fairer and more equitable society. We live in a world where we are hammered with issues where you feel microscopic. But it’s about coming back to who you are as an individual, your place in the world, and what you’re doing to become an active agent of change.
That’s what “Writing With Fire” is essentially about: Hope comes from the neighborhoods where you least expect it. And if it can come from there, what stops us with all our privilege?
Thomas: That cool women should be in positions of power. This film is a testament to what happens when women are in leadership positions. In Khabar Lahariya, they elevate each other. It’s tough. There is a lot of responsibility, but there is also sweetness. We don’t see that much in our culture. If we can look at the spaces we find ourselves in and say, “Where are the women? And who is my boss? I think the world would be a different place.