Several times in the documentary “Writing with Fire,” we see female reporters standing alone in a crowd of men – police officers, miners, political protesters – and asking soft but hard questions. The tenacity of women in the face of perceived hostility is impressive, and is even stronger when you learn that they are in Uttar Pradesh, an Indian province known for its crimes against women, and that they are Dalits, or members of a community called the untouchable caste.
These are the reporters for Khabar Lahariya, India’s only newspaper headed by women. In Essay With Fire, directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh follow the channel’s shift towards digital coverage ahead of the 2019 general election. Many women have never used smartphones or cameras, and throughout most of the film, reporters educate each other and exchange feedback in an inspiring solidarity.
Scenes from the reporters’ home life highlight how trivial these technical problems seem compared to those at home. Mira, a veteran avid journalist, married at 14 and earned three degrees while raising children; the feisty Sunita cannot get married because her parents cannot afford the dowry charged by men to enable her to work.
But Thomas and Ghosh focus on arcs of resistance rather than repression, tracking how, as Khabar Lahariya’s YouTube channel quickly gains subscribers, his stories reach real results: an abandoned city receives medical attention; the rapist is held accountable. If the film’s harsh narrative sometimes presents these victories as too easily won, it is a necessary correction to the skepticism women still face (“They are destined to lose,” Mira’s husband grins).
And at a time when the profession is facing growing dangers in India, the film’s belief in the power of mass journalism is nothing short of an inspiring force.
Writing with fire
Not rated. In Hindi with subtitles. The duration of the performance is 1 hour 32 minutes. In theaters.