Writing with Fire: an inspirational fly-on-the-wall documentary about a newspaper run entirely by Dalit women

The Oscar-nominated documentary offers a lesson in good journalism, following the women of Khabar Lahariya newspaper as they get to grips with new technology, producing stories that lead to concrete local change.

Writing with Fire (2021)
Writing with Fire (2021)Courtesy of Music Box Films
  • Writing with Fire is available to stream on BBC Storyville from March 9. 

Khabar Lahariya is a newspaper with a difference. Based in Uttar Pradesh, it is India’s only female-run news outlet, staffed entirely by Dalit women from the lowest rung of the caste system. In 2016, as Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh begin to shadow the staff for this genuinely inspirational and now Oscar-nominated film, the reporters are not just publishing a weekly print newspaper abut also beginning to expand online, producing video bulletins for their YouTube channel. Expanding into digital is a media no-brainer at this point, but pivoting to video is more challenging when many of the reporters have never handled a mobile phone before, and some don’t even have electricity in their homes.

Writing with Fire follows this team of pioneering journalists as they travel across the region, often on foot, to interview women who have survived repeated rapes, or miners working in unsafe conditions in illegal quarries. As chief reporter Meera and her team stand politely behind their smartphones and ask their subjects to talk honestly, to describe offences that officials conveniently ignore, the phrase “giving a voice to the voiceless” has rarely felt so apt. Not all their calls are easy. One miner chides staff reporter Suneeta to “speak within your limits”. Her invigorating response? “Instead of patronising me why don’t you give me an interview?”

On another occasion, when leaving the police station, a male journalist offers the advice that it’s better to butter up authority figures with flattering questions before going in for the attack. That’s not the Khabar Lahariya way: calmly, yet without deference, the journalists ask evasive officials uncomfortably straight questions, which have all the more impact for being unexpected.

The reporters may not be as fearless as they appear, but they have overcome daunting obstacles. Meera had her first child as a schoolgirl, and embarked on a career in journalism while studying for two degrees, despite opposition from all directions, notably her husband, who remains unimpressed with her work, and is dubious about the future of Khabar Lahariya. He may yet eat his words.

Captions dotted throughout the film chart the YouTube channel’s growing reach, from thousands to tens of millions of views, and this reporting has real-world results. The paper’s investigation into the assault of a ‘low-caste’ girl in a village leads to an arrest, and elsewhere dispatches on TB outbreaks and broken roads spur overdue action from the authorities. The women of Khabar Lahariya are model journalists, fighting the good fight for themselves and their neighbours.

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