‘Writing with Fire’ documentary review

We first meet journalist Meera, as she is grilling an officer at a police station following a meeting with the local victim of a brutal rape.

“Sir, I want to discuss a case.”

The police officer is visibly nervous, eyeing the cameras pointed on him and wringing his hands as he speaks. 

“Which case?”

Meera persists, as the officer’s attempts to feign ignorance are brushed aside - she has a victim to protect. She insists the officer must be aware of the crime she is referring to. 

“I am not pointing a finger at you,” she calmly explains. “But I am shocked your police station has no clue.”

Meera’s tone is easy, but firm. She is unruffled by the head of the station, irrespective of his social standing. 

Meera is a journalist first, Dalit woman second. And she will not be deterred by anyone in her fierce investigative reporting – whether that be her own husband, a politician, the local mafia, or a police officer in one of the most violent states in India. 

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Meera is Chief Reporter for a weekly paper in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, called Khabar Lahariya (“News Wave”). The paper produces print and digital content, is distributed in 600 villages and has a readership of about 80,000 per week. As of today, their YouTube channel has over 170 million views. 

This is not even the most remarkable fact about this small publication. Nor is their team of 40 female investigative journalists. Khabar Lahariya is run exclusively by Dalit women, the lowest and most oppressed group of people in the Indian caste system.

The fearless reporting of this 18-year-old publication is the subject of a 2021 documentary, Writing with Fire, screened for this year’s Human Rights Arts and Film Festival in Melbourne. The documentary has been showered with public and critical acclaim and was nominated for the Academy Award this year for Best Documentary Feature. It was the first Indian feature documentary to be nominated.

The film dives headfirst into deeply polarizing and sensitive topics – religion, politics, gender, rape, corruption, and caste. It is in this sense that the film mirrors the courage of the Khabar Lahariya journalists, such as crime reporter Suneeta, who reports on villages uprooted for illegal mining, and the local mafia who run these mines. Or novice reporter Shyamkali, determined to learn how to navigate the English letters in an iPhone, her ticket to the digital world of journalism, and ultimately a wider audience for her work.

Despite these challenges, the Khabar Lahariya reporters want to be taken seriously for their work. They confidently address powerful people with conviction and tough questioning. They are determined to tell their victims stories, despite being victims themselves of India’s 3000-year-old caste system. Their caste and gender are peripheral to their reporting and fight for justice. Their intersecting disadvantage is a surmountable barrier to their true goal: speaking truth to power  

Filmmakers Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas are aware of the power in the women they are documenting. For this reason, they choose to spotlight Dalit women in an intimate way throughout the documentary. The framing of the women is close and deliberate, centring them in their own stories. This humanises them in a way that their caste will not allow. 

“When Dalit women succeed, we can redefine what it means to be powerful.” Meera proclaims confidently, within earshot of her two young daughters. 

The film follows the women as they are met with the next challenge to their reporting: the necessity of occupying digital spaces to increase their reach on a national and international level. Paradoxically, Khabar Lahariya’s foray into digital spaces such as YouTube, Facebook and Whatsapp both elevates their voices, and invites further backlash and threats of violence. Comments on their YouTube videos that report on the rise of Hindu conservatism within the state are met with threats of rape in the comments section. 

The threat to the safety of these journalists, though, is very real. Between 2014-2019, at least 40 journalists in India were killed. And Dalit journalists must protect themselves against the barrage of hatred that they can be subjected to both online and in person because of their caste. According to a recent Oxfam study, people from India’s upper caste currently hold 87.5% of roles in Hindi newspapers and 84.2% of roles in digital media. Dalits are barely present in the country’s newsrooms, if at all. 

Women exist on the edges of their caste, religion and communities in India. But the caste system threatens to infiltrate South Asian communities across the world. 

“Casteism is a global threat,” says Dr Rupali Bhamare, a researcher and academic at Monash University. Dr Rupali’s topics of interest include women’s economic participation, gender discrimination and the traditional role of women in contemporary India. 

 “25 percent of India’s population identity as Dalit, and we make up a sixth of the world's population – when Indians migrate, they travel with the baggage of caste and bring it with them.”

“For women, their caste and gender is a double-edged sword.” says Asmita Mahire-Singh, a Human Resource Information System Specialist and a passionate advocate against caste discrimination. She believes Australia must work to enshrine protections against caste discrimination in our anti-discrimination Acts. Many South Asian countries have already outlawed caste-based discrimination, and caste discrimination is informally recognised in the UK under its Equality Act. Reporting from ABC News found that South Asians are still impacted by castism in Australia when they migrate, and many change their surname when they arrive to avoid further discrimination. 

It is speculated that as many as one million Australians with South Asian origins may have ties to the caste system and are at risk of facing caste descrimination– it is for this reason that policy makers are urged to take notice. 

 

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Despite these challenges, if there is one message to take away from the screening of this documentary, it is one of hope. It’s impossible to not become deeply invested in the fearlessness of the Khabar Lahariya reporters, and to watch on in admiration as they approach the most hopeless of stories in their community with grace, wit and determination. It is in this sense that their caste and gender are perhaps assets – it permits them to move through dangerous spaces largely ignored and certainly underestimated.

“Being a journalist gives me the power to fight for justice,” Suneeta confidently proclaims. “…and that’s what I want to be remembered for.”


The Human Rights Arts and Film Festival is in its 15th year, and their 2022 program continues until this Saturday, 7 May. You can explore the full festival program on their website. ‘Writing with Fire’ is currently not available to screen in Australia. It will be available to purchase through Google Play, iTunes and Amazon Prime later this year.

Jess Mathew is currently studying her Master of Communication at RMIT University and is a passionate advocate for multicultural communities in Victoria, Australia. You can connect with her via LinkedIn.