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'Writing With Fire' Captures the Khabar Lahariya Story but Has a Troubling Gaze

The documentary enters the personal world of the journalists, but sometimes we wonder if it is getting too personal.

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4 min read
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"I told him I will leave you but not my job," Shyamkali Devi says about her husband in the documentary film Writing With Fire.

The film, which has been nominated for the Oscars under the Best Documentary (Feature) category, chronicles the story of Uttar Pradesh-based media organisation Khabar Lahariya through the individual stories of three of its dashing reporters – Meera Devi, Shyamkali Devi, and Suneeta.

The film starts with the scene where we meet Meera Devi while she is on field covering a rather difficult story of a gang rape. In the rest of the film, we see more such scenes of Khabar Lahariya reporters going to remote villages, mines, police stations, political rallies, and so on to gather information and shoot video footage, sound bites, and photographs for their stories.

"I believe journalism is the essence of democracy," says Meera Devi, the managing editor and also the face of the news organisation, in the film.

We realise this when we see her doggedly pursuing a story of a Hindu nationalist youth who works for the Hindu Yuva Vahini.

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The Story of Khabar Lahariya

Khabar Lahariya began as an experimental project in 2002 when a Delhi-based NGO trained a few barely-literate Dalit women in Chitrakoot district of Uttar Pradesh to start their own newspaper, in their own language – Bundeli. The publication now boasts a thriving digital presence in the form of a website, a YouTube channel (with half a million subscribers and growing), and accounts on all major social media platforms.

The directors of the Oscar-nominated documentary – Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh – started working with the Khabar Lahariya team when it was transitioning from print to a digital venture.

However, the film manages to capture much more. The particular subjectivities of their staff meant that they had to battle on multiple fronts – from caste to class to gender and also the particular political atmosphere of the time.

The documentary takes us to the reporters’ intimate world where we meet their not-always supportive husbands, bantering fathers, and school going children.

We also do not fail to notice the small brick houses that declare the precarious existence of their occupants at the outset. We are forced to compare the upper class lifestyle of metro reporters working in mainstream media – with their six-figure salaries, press club memberships, and restaurant outings – with these rural reporters who barely manage to eke out a living.

We enter their personal world, but sometimes wonder if it is getting too personal.

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Power Imbalance Cannot Be Overlooked

As video reporters, Khabar Lahariya journalists have to always wield a camera, which they direct towards the subjects of their stories. For the documentary film, someone else is wielding a camera and the journalists become the subjects.

However, the power imbalance between the filmmakers and the subjects of the documentary cannot be overlooked. When the camera enters the intimate corners of a reporter’s home or shines on a relative’s face, it does feel invasive.

The Khabar Lahariya team is careful to not reveal the identity of sexual assault survivors and their kin, but the same care has not been shown by the makers of the documentary. The first scene itself starts with the interview of a rape survivor, without masking their face.

In another scene, where the father of a rape survivor is being interviewed, the camera doesn’t flinch even when the father is clearly feeling vulnerable. We feel a certain empathy towards him and wonder why his privacy is not being respected.

Also, while it was necessary to talk about the caste identity of reporters and the struggles that emanate from that identity, one is not sure whether their children should have been featured in the film.

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The official statement by Khabar Lahariya, which was published recently, expresses some of these anxieties:

"We have not, as the film would have one believe, been able to carry our caste identities on our sleeves, with bravado and humour. We have had to be discreet, often fearful. And even if we have written and reported from our particular caste identities, we have upheld the right to protect our families’ privacy, especially our children’s, who will come into these battles in their own ways."
Khabar Lahariya Statement

Despite the Flaws...

The film spends considerable time documenting the Hindu nationalist movement in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The directors might have had a certain narrative in mind for their film while making this choice, but it doesn’t add much to the story of Khabar Lahariya.

We are suddenly shown the speeches of Yogi Adityanath from 2007 and other similar footage but are left wondering how it enriches the core themes of the film.

However, even though it has its problems, especially with respect to the camera gaze, Writing With Fire largely succeeds in presenting the story of the newsroom as a grassroots media organisation whose staff can truly be called ‘organic’ journalists, on the lines of Antonio Gramsci’s idea of an organic intellectual.

Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh have managed to present a story that holds your attention from the start to the end. As you keep watching the film, your admiration for the Khabar Lahariya team keeps on growing.

The film succeeds in presenting the fierceness, courage, and perseverance against all odds of the women journalists of Khabar Lahariya, whose work should serve as an inspiration.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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