Although India law bans the discriminatory practice of the caste system, it’s still practiced in many parts of the nation. So imagine people’s surprise when women who are at the very bottom of the nation’s hierarchy — the Dalits or “untouchables” — start their own newspaper and make the transition to digital media, using their cellphones, social media and YouTube to tell their stories.
That’s the setup for the new documentary “Writing With Fire,” from Rintu Thomas and her husband Sushmit Ghosh.
At the center of the story is Meera, who leads the staff of “Khabar Lahariya,” which is based in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. Although a Dalit, Meera has no qualms about asking a local police chief why he has repeatedly refused to bring charges against an accused rapist.
She and her team also interview Dalit people about the lack of toilets and electricity, even though the Indian government maintains such amenities are available to all. They also talk to mining directors, who fail to report deaths of mining workers because of careless practices. And they do all this is a country where the literacy rate is still low — but access to the internet and social media is relatively high.
That’s why the transition to digital becomes so important to “Khabar Lahariya.” The women journalists, some of whom are semi-literate, are able to reach an audience that might not be able to read but is more than eager to watch a YouTube videos about someone unexpectedly questioning government officials on their behalf.
Meera and her team, which also includes 20-year-old Suneeta, a former child laborer in and illegal mine, begin to change the media landscape in Uttar Pradesh, where stories have long been told by the upper-caste men in more established news organizations. It’s as if they’re bringing a different lens to viewing Indian society. And it’s done as violence against Dalit women is always a risk.
The story also plays out amid a growing conservative movement in India, which once was a vibrant democracy but is moving toward right-wing Hindu authoritarianism. But Meera and her team do not shy away from covering the conservative movement. Instead, Meera starts following the political rise of 21-year-old Satyam, a member of a Hindu vigilante organization. She engages Satyam when he reveals deep prejudices and ignores her questions about what he will do for the people.
And then there are the families of Meera and her team. Meera’s husband is not a fan of her work, and Suneeta, who isn’t married, is facing pressure from her family to quit journalism and get married.
“Writing With Fire” has been a hit on the festival circuit. It won two awards at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival — the audience award and a special jury award: impact for change.
It opened Friday in Austin at the Austin Film Society cinemas. Anyone who believes in journalism will be heartened by the story of Meera and her team.