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‘Writing With Fire,’ a Documentary Chronicling India’s Only Dalit Women-run Newspaper Wins Oscar Nomination

‘Writing With Fire,’ a Documentary Chronicling India’s Only Dalit Women-run Newspaper Wins Oscar Nomination

  • Directed by debutantes Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, it tells the story of the rise of Khabar Lahariya, and follows an ambitious group of wonder women – led by their chief reporter, Meera – as the team switches from print to digital to stay relevant.

The documentary feature “Writing With Fire,” which tells the story of Khabar Lahariya, India’s only newspaper run by Dalit women, has been nominated for the 94th Academy Awards in the Best Documentary Feature category. Directed, edited and produced by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, both debutants, “Writing With Fire” follows this ambitious group of Dalit wonder women – led by their chief reporter, Meera – as the team switches from print to digital to stay relevant. “Armed with smartphones and the courage and conviction one must be born with, they investigate the incompetence of the local police force, listen to and stand by victims of caste and gender violence, and challenge long-standing, harmful practices that lead to injustice and intimidation,” the film’s synopsis reads. 

Last year, the documentary won two awards at the Sundance Film Festival — Audience Award in World Cinema Documentary as well as the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Impact for Change. It premiered in the World Cinema Documentary Competition segment at the festival.

“Writing With Fire” will compete with “Ascension,” by Jessica Kingdon, Kira Simon-Kennedy and Nathan Truesdell; “Attica” by Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry; “Flee” by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Monica Hellström, Signe Byrge Sørensen and Charlotte De La Gournerie; and “Summer of Soul (… Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Joseph Patel, Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein. 

The filmmaking team of ‘Writing With Fire’ —Karan Thapliyal, Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh with protagonists Shyamkali, Meera and Suntan. Courtesy Top photo, a still from “Writing With Fire.”

Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, the husband-wife duo have been making short films together for 10 years with a focus on social advocacy and education, having had their work exhibited in spaces such as the United Nations Climate Change Conference and the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts.

In an interview with Filmmaker magazine, Thomas and Ghosh said “Writing With Fire” was “steeped in its immediate culture, geography and history.” Noting that it was “very important” to them “that the authenticity of the story is not compromised in the pursuit of making it a film that can be accessed by an international audience.” Adding that it was “a very delicate balance,” they admitted that there was “a temptation in the earlier drafts of the film to explain certain contexts, character motivations.” 

Throughout the process of making the film over five years, they said they “never allowed ourselves to have footage fatigue. So every time we went back to the footage, there was something new hiding in there, which we had ignored earlier or thought was not relevant enough. The footage remains the same; you’re just asking a different question every time. So with every edit pass, we experienced the narrative finding its own voice and the need to “explain” started diminishing. Now that the film is ready, we can see very clearly what edit decisions led to a story that’s unique yet universal.”

Stating that the characters in the film are “Dalit women journalists who are chipping away at one of the cruelest systems of social hierarchy and exclusion.,” they said: “So when these women empower themselves to become the voice of those who are voiceless, they do so by belonging to the same reality of the people whose lives they are reporting on. Our key goal was to make this connection between the personal and the professional, the micro and the macro picture omnipresent throughout the film.” 

Another goal was “to keep the lens of the story intimate and one of dignity. The representation of Dalit women in our popular culture is that of oppression and victimhood. The image of a thinking, articulate Dalit woman with an agency is completely missing. We wanted the film to tell the story of modern Dalit women as colleagues, bosses, leaders and risk-takers. Our characters articulate a bold vision for the future and we knew very early on that this had to be an underscore for the edit.

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In its review, Variety said the three women featured in the documentary — chief reporter Meera and reporters Suneeta and Shyamkali — “needed no empowerment from the filmmakers. The journalists are from the Dalit community, a so-called ‘lower’ caste in India’s old and entrenched caste system, a barrier that they triumphantly surmounted along with their sex in a deeply sexist part of the world.” 

In its review, IndieWire wrote that “Writing With Fire” “follows the brave journalists of India’s only women-run newspaper, blending the personal and professional with a deft touch.”

Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog”, a gothic Western starring Benedict Cumberbatch, leads this year’s Oscar nominations with 12. It is closely followed by “Dune”, with 10, and “Belfast” and “West Side Story,” which have seven each.

The ceremony will be televised on March 27.

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