Khabar Lahariya’s story is in the running for an Oscar.
Writing with Fire, which narrates the tale of a 20-year-old independent, feminist, rural publication run entirely by Dalit women, is one of the five final contenders for the best documentary feature category at the Oscars.
Made by Black Ticket Films’ Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, the film chronicles the local weekly newspaper on the cusp of going digital. The starting point is reporters unboxing smartphones. The film follows their journey over the next five years.
“We are proud that 20 years of our rural reporting and hard work is being appreciated and loved by a global audience; encouraging us to further our women-led grassroots media revolution,” Kavita Devi, co-founder of Khabar Lahariya, said in a statement. “We salute the hard work of Black Ticket Films and wish them the very best for the Oscars.”
The film that won audience and jury awards at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021 has already secured sales in over 20 countries for theatrical and TV releases. It is yet to hit Indian screens.
Khabar Lahariya’s mighty pen
The Washington Post didn’t call this feature “the most inspiring journalism movie—maybe ever” for nothing.
Khabar Lahariya, which translates to news waves, has indeed been making waves. Since its inception in Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh, in May 2002, the team has been fighting for gender parity and grassroots democracy. Operating out of two of India’s largest states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the team of 30-plus reporters, comprising members of the Kol tribe and Muslim communities, too, cover a gamut of daring stories: rape, unacknowledged deaths in illegal mines, lack of water, electricity, sanitation, medical care, missing toilets, and more.
This, while having all the odds stacked against them.
For one, India is notorious for silencing and suppressing its women. The newspaper’s staff was not immune to this culture.
In the beginning, several journalists faced resistance from their own families. “Sometimes, when we were in production, they had to stay back late. The husbands would think, how is it that women from our house are spending the night elsewhere? Or, how is it that for a woman, there is some other work that is more important than tending to household chores?” editorial coordinator Poorvi Bhargava told Dow Jones in 2014.
Others struggled to find transport. And those who made it to the job were rarely taken seriously by officials—most of whom were men.
Secondly, divides along caste and religious lines made a tough job even more difficult. Dalits, the lowest rung in India’s hierarchal caste system before untouchability was abolished in 1950, still face prejudice. Muslims, too, have been discriminated against—more so following the surge in Hindutva ideology since Narendra Modi’s election in 2014.
Khabar Lahariya goes online
The internet gave the regional newspaper a bigger reach, no doubt. The publication with a readership of 80,000 now boasts of a YouTube channel with 550,000 subscribers. But with the newfound popularity came more risks for these already disadvantaged groups: the reporters were stripped of their relative anonymity.
“Imagine being a woman in these parts of India, and then try and imagine being a journalist,” Sushmit Ghose, who co-directed the film, told Bloomberg. “As the cyber-world was colliding with caste and patriarchy, you had women from the Dalit or Muslim community, armed with a cheap Chinese-made mobile phone, shining the light on society.”