Editor’s Note: this is a reprint of a review originally published during the 2021 Sundance Film Festival
Boasting a population of more than one billion people, India is a complex and complicated society, one driven by a deeply ingrained, deeply patriarchal caste system, devastating income inequality and, more recently, a conservative, nationalistic government that is doing more to divide the country than unite it. In Shushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas’s inspiring Writing with Fire, women from the country’s lowest caste, the Dalits (or “untouchables”), eschew their predetermined destinies in life’s lowest circumstances in favor of education and work outside the home, specifically as journalists with Khabar Lahariya, a newspaper based in the northern province of Uttar Pradesh. Founded in 2002, the weekly newspaper is run and written entirely by Dalit women, and as the filmmakers join them in 2016, they are in the process of developing a digital presence, a process that requires not just the shift of stories from the page to the screen but educating an entire newsroom on how to use cell phones, send emails and capture video.
With dozens of women on staff, Writing with Fire focuses on only a handful in order to offer a glimpse into the noble work they do. Meera, one of the paper’s top reporters, is a wife, mother of two young girls and a woman who’s defied and exceeded every one of the limitations society placed on her given the caste she was born into. Suneeta is a protege of Meera’s, one who’s confidence grows with each reporting trip she goes on, even as she struggles with the pressure she and her family are under for her to get married and settle down (“Being single isn’t an option,” she says at one point). And new to the paper’s team is Shyamkali, a woman who left her abusive husband in order to keep her role on the paper, even if she doesn’t know yet what it means to find a story’s “angle.” They’re just three of the many women who make the paper possible, but they’re an impressive trio who inspire with their irrepressible search for the truth, their incorruptible journalistic ethics and their seemingly inherent ability to juggle their personal lives with their working.
I traveled across India for a month in 2013, and it was a transformative, unforgettable experience to say the least. I don’t share that fact to assume I’m anything close to an expert on the country or culture, but instead to contextualize how viscerally I understand the sheer wonder it is that these women are able to do their valiant work at all. I’ve been on the male-dominated trains where a woman out after dark is seen as a scandal; I’ve been approached by men trying to cajole me out of my pocketbook or swindle me out of my train ticket (telling me the train’s been cancelled and I must rent a car and driver with them to get to my next city; suffice it to say it wasn’t and I didn’t). India is the country where a woman was raped and murdered by a gang of men in public on a bus, and where, as noted in Writing with Fire, a staggering number of journalists are killed every year. To be clear, India is also home to some of the most hospitable, gentle and lovely people I’ve ever met, but the fact remains: it is dangerous to walk into a crowd of men and start asking questions about local corruption, rape accusations or other happenings the community would sooner keep under wraps.
In Thomas and Ghosh’s able hands, Meera and her colleagues are chronicled as women on a mission, determined to serve their communities in tangible, actionable ways that truly make a difference. In the film’s more produced moments (as opposed to simply following along on reporting trips and observing their work), the publication’s YouTube launch is charted through screenshots and animations that highlight its exponential audience growth, even as trolls online attempt to dissuade them from telling the truth as they report it. It’s easy to throw around clichés when a film leaves one feeling the way Writing with Fire does, but terms like “uplifting,” “impressive” and “triumphant” only scratch the surface. Meera, Suneeta, Shyamkali and their colleagues are nothing short of inspirational, women I’ll think of any time I’m scared to do the hard thing or worried about the consequences of taking a risk or speaking truth to power. If they can do it, we all can.
Writing With Fire is now playing in select theaters, including the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.
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