Reel Life: Making News, Breaking News Her Own Way
‘Writing With Fire’ does have all that it takes to bring home the Oscar to India, the country’s first ever nominee in the Best Documentary Feature category
It feels entirely appropriate to be penning down my thoughts about a seminal film on three intrepid Dalit women journalists from Uttar Pradesh on March 8. It’s international women’s day; the exit poll predictions of the state legislative assembly elections in Goa, Manipur, Punjab, Uttarakhand and, especially UP, have come in, results are just a couple of days away; Indian journalism, by and large, looks impossible to be rescued from its state of ludicrousness and the dark clouds of caste-based discrimination in India are unlikely to blow away from the horizon soon.
Above all, Academy Awards are two weekends away, and the tale of Meera Devi, Suneeta Prajapati and Shyamkali Devi— Writing With Fire—does have all that it takes to bring home the Oscar to India, the country’s first ever nominee in the Best Documentary Feature category.
Electoral, caste and gender politics permeate the Rintu Thomas-Sushmit Ghosh documentary, on the only Dalit women-led Indian newspaper Khabar Lahariya’s journalists. But what struck the deepest chord is its take on the Indian media. Spread over the time between 2016 when the UP-based grassroots paper was transitioning to digital and the 2019 general elections, the film is bookended by its protagonists’ heartening views on their own calling.
Somewhere at the beginning Meera Devi talks of journalism as the “essence of democracy”, how it is the voice of people and that the journalists need to use their power responsibly to fight for the rights of and ensure justice for the masses.
As the film ends with vignettes of polarisation and the rise of the militant Hindutva in UP, we have it questioning, through its central figures, what the media was doing when the country was changing so perilously? Was it playing the role of the voice of the masses? Was it mirroring the societal churn? Was it seeking accountability from the powers that be? Was it speaking truth to power? Was it being the fourth pillar of democracy?
In coming this full circle Writing With Fire leaves a lot for us to introspect and rue. The reproach of the co-opted mainstream media is implicit in the doggedness and commitment of Meera, Suneeta and Shyamkali. They are the admirable mirrors that the film holds to the Indian media at large.
Thomas and Ghosh set things up by introducing Meera (then chief reporter who later became the bureau chief) to us with her back to the camera and make us follow her as she goes about piecing together the story of a rape. Be it speaking to the survivor who talks—mechanically yet chilling to the bone— about being violated on “January 16, 8, 19, 2, 3, 10” or questioning the cops on refusing to register the case, it’s all about seeing the harsh on-ground reality getting captured through her mobile camera.
Like her, we see Suneeta take us on a ride into the world of illegal mining, of dust-laden, abandoned villages, stones flying in the blasts and stories of people buried in the rubble. Or revealing the truth behind the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan—the lack of basic toilet facilities for the Dalits living on the edge of the villages. The country might have progressed leaps and bounds on several parameters but still stays backward on the issue of caste.
As we track the ladies on field, their individual achievements and those of Khabar Lahariya get interspersed all along the narrative, like mileposts on a long, onward, continuing journey. The steadily increasing number of views on YouTube (1 to 150 million), the new formats and shows, FB Live session on Gauri Lankesh and the actual impact of their stories—mining becoming national news, roads getting built, irrigation canals revived, rape accused arrested and doctors made to travel to remote villages to set up healthcare centres for TB. Empowerment that comes at a considerable personal risk, having a voice also renders these women vulnerable.
The most important coverage is during the elections. The three of them stay steady raising issues of significance, questioning candidates and party agendas, especially the rise of the militant Hindutva. There’s Meera recording the sword wielding gaurakshak and Hindu Yuva Vahini vigilante. The entire documentation is done dispassionately, without losing cool in the face of majoritarian hatred and aggression. In effect it subtly underscores the irony of caste hierarchy and also shows how Meera has got to overcome it by being a recorder of this moment in history.
It’s a profession dominated by upper cast males in which Meera, Suneeta and Shyamkali are like lone warriors on field, often given patronizing tips by their colleagues on how to get past the egotistical male officers. They must clear the misconceptions like one can bribe one’s way to become news on the front page. Or that journalists are doled out cars by their companies to chase stories while the ladies have to take trains, crowded public buses and autos and walk long distances through uneven terrain to arduously arrive at their articles.
Thomas and Ghosh frame them with a sense of distance yet an intimacy and allow time and space for each of their own personal stories to unfold at ease, in all possible dimensions.
The struggle is visible on every front, domestic most so. Especially in trying to strike the right work-home balance, worrying about the daughters’ marks in exams and cooking dinner straight after reaching home. There’s Meera’s sceptical husband Shivabaran, her recollections of how she was married at 14 years of age, had her first child in 12th standard and was teased in school for having to rush in between classes to feed her new-born. Yet she went on to do MA in political science and a B.Ed.
Shyamkali has filed domestic violence case against her husband and has her own subversive tactic of getting around the thorny issue of caste: when someone asks her the caste she belongs to, she counter questions them. If they say they are brahmin, she says she is as well.
Writing With Fire is not just an empathetic look at women who are breaking the barriers yet are circumscribed by social circumstances and the monster of caste. It isn’t just an indirect indictment of the polity that has rendered journalists toothless for its own gains. It is also a masterclass for aspiring young journalists, a refresher course for the seniors and a much-needed shot of inspiration for the weary and cynical brigade.
Meera, Suneeta and Shyamkali lead by setting a brave example that we would do well to follow.
(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)