Writing With Fire is set in the heart of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state (200 million inhabitants), which is also known for its notorious corruption, violence against women, and brutal oppression of its minorities. To make matters worse, many parts of Uttar Pradesh remain media shadow regions. Against this backdrop, we are introduced to the work of Khabar Lahariya (KL), India’s only digital news agency run by Dalit women, who belong to the lowest caste ( called “untouchables”).
32-year-old Meera, KL’s chief reporter, investigates a brutal rape case, and as the story unfolds, the endemic violence and complexities of being a Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh become apparent. Born into an impoverished Dalit family and married off at 14, Meera defied her conservative culture to study and become a journalist at KL. In its fifteenth year, the newspaper decides to increase its reach by switching to digital news. Meera is entrusted with this move and leads her team of 28 semi-educated, professionally trained reporters to transform the newspaper into a regional digital news powerhouse. As her team gets its first taste of digital democracy, their video reports on corruption, violence against women, broken roads, and inadequate public health care grow in popularity and unsettle larger, male-run news outlets. In the film, we see this journey – full of threats, dangers, hopes and sacrifices – through the eyes of our leading lady, Meera, and her struggling protégé, Suneeta.
Suneeta, 20, who grew up as a child worker in an illegal mine, brings her passion and courage directly to her work, which creates many risky situations – we see her as the only female crime reporter in the region, investigating the region’s lucrative illegal mining companies and the corrupt entanglements between the mining mafia and politicians. Her reportage is incisive, bold and impactful. Meera talks about the great potential she sees in Suneeta as KL’s next level of leadership, a hope for the organization’s future expansion plans. From a few thousand views on YouTube (when filming began in 2016), KL’s new stories soon surpassed the 150 million views mark and have made a huge impact on the ground. As the organization evolves, we witness Meera training the impetuous Suneeta into a capable leader.
On a macro level, India has seen a rapid evolution from a vibrant democracy to right-wing Hindu authoritarianism over the past six years. As a result, most mainstream media houses have engaged in self-censorship or have become pro-government lobbies. For those who have chosen to preserve their independent voice, the consequences have been drastic. As the risk around their work increases, Meera and her team face threats that are mirrored in more and more democracies around the world, from the Philippines to Turkey to Brazil, making their work even more important.
In this climate of fear, we watch as Meera begins to follow the political rise of 21-year-old Satyam, an aspiring youth leader of a popular Hindu vigilante organization. At great risk to himself, Meera gains Satyam’s trust and, through his story, begins work on a lengthy journalistic piece exploring India’s changing moral and social structure and its consequences. We see her follow him to his village, where he wields great political influence; we see her quietly engage with him as he reveals his deepest prejudices; as he deftly begins to prepare the ground for his own ambitions to contest the national elections. For Meera, Satyam’s story is as offensive as it is tragic, representing the broken dreams of India’s youth as they are drawn into a political discourse of hate and violence – a story that, again, is absent from mainstream Indian media.
Between her risky work and overcoming the editorial hurdles posed by KL’s digital growth, Meera’s personal life is constantly challenged. The inherent violence of caste, which Meera vehemently fights against through her work, is pervasive in her own life. Landlords rarely want to rent to a Dalit (“untouchable”) woman, let alone a Dalit journalist who works late into the night. How does Meera manage to overcome this systemic inequality, and what do we learn about her when we see her raising two young daughters? On the other hand, Suneeta gains reputation and becomes the first KL reporter to travel internationally to give a speech at a journalism convention. She also begins hosting her own crime series on KL’s YouTube channel, which soon becomes very popular. But at home, the pressure to get married is mounting. Suneeta knows that marriage would deal a death blow to her professional ambitions, as potential grooms don’t want a working woman. Will Suneeta fight for her dreams or compromise for her family?
With exclusive access to the personal and rapidly changing professional worlds of Meera and her journalists, we see them overcome obstacles and move ever closer to their dream of becoming a relevant independent regional news organization. But how will Meera upend the traditional mindset of a society that has never experienced the power of a Dalit woman with a smartphone? And with Suneeta on the cusp of a crucial decision, how will Meera build a new leadership team? Will KL become a model newspaper for the world, redefining the meaning of independent journalism that impacts the lives of millions?
Writing With Fire is a story of our time. It is the first time that modern Dalit women have been seen on screen, not as victims of their circumstances, but as shapers of their own destiny. With India today at a crossroads between secular ethos and radicalization, the choices we make will determine our future as a nation. Meera and her team have turned their cell phones on us, interpreting this precious moment in our history as powerful witnesses. By bringing together these different but intimately connected layers, Writing With Fire stays close to its characters while exploring the deep, complex wounds of a country – the story is how the characters deal with those wounds: with compassion and perseverance.
R. Thomas and S. Ghosh are award-winning directors and producers from India whose work has been supported by Sundance Institute, Chicken & Egg Pictures, Tribeca Institute, Doc Society, SFF Film Fund, IDFA, The Bertha Foundation, Sorfond, and the Finnish Film Foundation, among others. Rintu and Sushmit are also Sundance Fellows who enjoy producing films that can have a transformative social impact. In 2009, they founded Black Ticket Films, a production company that focuses on the power of non-fiction storytelling. Black Ticket Films’ award-winning films, which focus on social justice stories, are used by institutions around the world as a means of advocacy, outreach and education. Rintu and Sushmit were awarded the President’s Medal, the highest honor for filmmakers in India, for their cinematic work in 2012. Writing With Fire is their first documentary film, which they worked on for five years.
They have been married for six years, live between New Delhi and the mountains, and enjoy exploring fancy bookstores in their spare time.