Writing with Fire

“(En)Gendering Digital India “

Anirban Baishya (University of Wisconsin- Madison)

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary in 2022, Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s Writing with Fire (WwF) follows Khabar Lahariya (KL), a team of women journalists working in the northern-Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The film’s narrative focuses on three primary figures—Meera, Suneeta, and Shyamkali—who struggle against multiple hierarchies of caste, gender, and class while fulfilling KL’s mission of feminist rural journalism, reporting on issues such as corruption, lack of civic facilities, illegal mining, and caste-motivated violence and sexual assault. The film portrays KL as a bastion of Dalit women’s resilience with one family proclaiming that KL is their “only hope.” Yet, the journalists also face suspicion and condescension, both at home and beyond. We see this, for instance, in the domestic scenes at Meera’s house, where her husband is ambivalent about her work; or in Suneeta’s reportage on illegal mining, where she is challenged both by onlookers, who record her on their cellphones as she reports, and male journalists who treat her as an amateur and give her unsolicited advice as she interviews a police official. Such vignettes offer us a glimpse of the world that KL inhabits and foreground the intersections of caste affiliations, patriarchy, and the law.

Contemporary India’s digital landscape informs WwF’s narrative, as we see the women learn the ropes of digital journalism and grapple with the affordances of cellphones, social media, and video-hosting platforms. YouTube’s interface becomes a recurrent visual motif in the film, and we are often shown footage of KL reports playing on the platform. Recurrent intertitles inform us about increases in KL YouTube channel views—from 100,000, to 10 million, to 150 million throughout the course of the film. In one sequence showing a promotional video about KL’s impact, we see the number of subscriptions increase from 760 to 791 during the runtime of the video (that number changes to 52425 by the end of the film). Such on-screen notation not only tracks time (the five years that it took to make the film), but also acts as a reminder of the organization’s reliance on digital technology. Other formal strategies supplement this—for example, magnifying and highlighting YouTube comments for the viewer or simulating the cellphone interface in some shots by visualizing a red record button and a duration counter. In this way, WwF gives us a different picture of “Digital India” in which cellphones and internet technology become tools in the hands of those opposing hegemonic power.

Yet, digital technologies can be deployed for a range of political ends. While the official rhetoric of “Digital India” can be seen at work in macro-level initiatives such as “Make in India” and the controversial biometric identification system
Aadhar, its unofficial resonances can also be seen in the formation of IT cells by major political parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and in the many instances of organized trolling faced by women journalists in the country. Thus, WwF reveals the dark underbelly of the official discourse of Digital India which has inaugurated new arrangements of gender and power in neoliberal India, and not necessarily in favor of women using technology. Key here, is a sequence in which Meera is shown interviewing a Hindu right-wing activist, which serves to showcase the obverse of KL’s gender politics: a surge in aggressive, masculine mobilization in the Hindu right. The same young man reappears (though not as a central focus) in a rally later, where we see cellphones being mobilized by not just the KL reporters, but also the crowd of supporters as they record videos and click selfies. Though not explicitly stated in the film, digital tools and platforms in contemporary India have also emerged as a form of right-wing technocultural assemblage.

Thus, WwF frames an argument about digital technology, gender and power that eludes the picture postcard imagination of Digital India. Not everyone in the KL team is equally conversant with smartphone-based digital practices. We see this in the initial scenes where the team brainstorms about why the digital transition is necessary, as well as in discussions around journalistic performance. Given the diverse experiences and backgrounds of the reporters, and their varying familiarity with English and digital devices, Meera is forced to use transliteration to train the women in using the smartphone’s interface and functionalities. Such scenes demonstrate the local realities that mark KL’s digital turn. The transition to “Digital India” is not as seamless as official narratives would have us believe, but rather includes a series of calibrations and improvisations. The potentiality of this other, counter-hegemonic digital India emerges from a collective energy that goes against the assumed individualization that digitality engenders. A good example is the sequence documenting the production of the “Kavita Show” using a mobile phone, where Meera learns from her friend and colleague Kavita. Such examples also highlight how journalism for these women is not just about reporting, but about creating spaces of solidarity that offer up tools for questioning structures of power.

But perhaps there is also something to be said about the different resonances that the digital has for KL and the filmmakers—something implicit in KL’s own critiques of WwF. Clearly, digital media presence has brought greater visibility for KL. While recognition through international film circuits adds to this visibility, it can also adversely impact the working environment of reporters, especially in a country where any critique of the Hindu right wing can translate into allegations of anti-nationalism. Thus, KL’s assertion that the film presents them as “an organisation with a particular and consuming focus of reporting on one party” (despite working since before the ruling BJP came to power) reveals the jeopardies of the journalistic profession in India. This is something the film and KL themselves acknowledge in a reference to the infamous assassination of journalist Gauri Lankesh. Thus, while the film highlights the important work that KL does, that visibility itself can be a door to vulnerability in a nation where journalism can be a deadly profession.

“Local Complexities”

Rahul Mukherjee (University of Pennsylvania)

Writing with Fire (Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, 2021) is a documentary about the lives of journalists associated with Khabar Lahariya (“News Waves” in the Bundeli language), a women-led rural reporting collective in the Bundelkhand region of the state of Uttar Pradesh. Over the last two decades, Khabar Lahariya journalists have chronicled stories about sanitation, irregular water supply, patriarchal abuse, and women farmers, and in doing so have been providing much needed hyperlocal coverage of rural issues, which are rarely discussed by the mainstream media in India. Led by a team of mostly Dalit, Muslim, and tribal women (who are assisted by Other Backward Caste and upper-caste women), Khabar Lahariya is an exceptional example of alternative media in the Indian news landscape, both in terms of the issues they cover as well as their organizational structure and reporting practices.

In a mode reminiscent of observational documentary, Thomas and Ghosh follow three Dalit women journalists—Meera Devi, Suneeta, and Shyamkali—as they go about investigating news stories. The camera follows them as they walk on the street or take a bus, when they interview the various stakeholders associated with a particular issue (affected community members, police, administrators, politicians, etc.), or as they collect evidentiary documents. The film offers not only a representation of the journalistic practices of these three reporters but also an intimate portrayal of their personal lives: we see Meera return home after a day’s work in the evening, inquire about her daughter’s homework for school, and then peel potatoes as her husband drinks tea. In this way, the documentarians emphasize the importance of the personal and the domestic in thinking about the relations between caste, gender, and occupation, and thereby argue for an expanded notion of the political beyond the so-called public sphere. This has been a key aspect of independent feminist filmmaking in India.

An example of how the documentarians fuse the personal and the professional story is the case of Suneeta. She takes the filmmakers around the illegal sand mines near where she grew up in Kabrai, Mahoba and relates to them the troubles miners face, from the sound of mining blasts to the quarry dust that pervades the air, seeping into nearby homes, settling into people’s clothes. Audiences watch Suneeta as she engages in filming and recording interviews with people affected by the poor condition of roads destroyed by the mining trucks. She tries to reassure them that their issues will be given space in her newspaper/news site, all the while pushing back as some men––drawing on stereotypes—question her competence as a reporter. Meera interviews an up-and-coming leader of Hindu Yuva Vahini (Hindu Youth Brigade), interrogating him in subtle ways—just how exactly can cow protection (“gau rakhsa”) measures benefit the country’s human population?—as the Hindutva leader’s answers sound increasingly unconvincing. Moments of encounter like these, wherein Khabar Lahariya journalists are engaged in conversations with various news sources help audiences understand the tact, curiosity, and insight with which these women pursue their investigations: gathering information, navigating corridors of institutional power, and negotiating patriarchal prejudice. These are affective encounters, where gestures matter as much as words, and where what is said and what is left unsaid are both crucial to consider as documentary audiences grapple with the complexity of the local dynamics of interaction.

Filmmaking began when Khabar Lahariya was undergoing digital transition, and we see journalists navigating the challenges of such a transition, especially how mobile phones are used in local journalistic practices. While discussing digital news, the documentary mentions the social media landscape of “fake news,” but does not rigorously track the circulation process through WhatsApp groups, something that Khabar Lahariya journalists have elaborated elsewhere.

The Khabar Lahariya team while praising Writing with Fire for being a “moving and powerful document,” has also criticized the film for depicting Khabar Lahariya as a mediahouse with a “consuming focus of reporting on one party and the mobilisation around this.” The “party” implied here is the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The reporting collective felt that the documentary’s focus on a select five years of its work (especially with the high-voltage divisive 2017 Uttar Pradesh state elections) does not do justice to the variety of stories they have covered throughout their history. While the twenty-year storyline of Khabar Lahariya could not fit into the documentary, the film could have included some historical context about the inception of Khabar Lahariya and how it went about recruiting women journalists and building solidarity networks. Some critics have wondered why documentarians making a film about the lifeworlds of Dailt women journalists fail to mention or depict Mayawati (an iconic Dalit politician from the same state of Uttar Pradesh as the journalists), or the Bhim Army and other Ambedkarite organizations (following the principles of Dalit leader BR Ambedkar) as a way to provide the context for Dalit political assertion in India.

Some of the selections – from not providing enough socio-historical context to some issues covered in limited complexity – could be construed as an attempt to make the documentary legible to audiences outside India, particularly those who attend international film festivals. While the documentary’s legibility has helped it garner wide international audience and spread word about Khabar Lahariya’s remarkable journalistic achievements, it needs to be stressed that local experiences and knowledges cannot always be easily grasped by elites and documentary audiences. As a documentary viewer, my own caste-and-class privileges might shape my analysis of the documentary, which needs to be acknowledged. In interviews, Thomas and Ghosh have discussed their concerted effort to try to level the playing field with their documentary subjects, even though they know inequities of caste and class remain. Post-screening interviews suggest that filmmakers possess this self-awareness, but within the film there is no meta-narrative nor any significant moments where the filmmakers reflect upon their own learning or interrogate their authorial roles and speaking positions in the world of their filmed subjects. This tension between complexities of representation and modes of circulation is something that future documentaries on such subjects will have to navigate.

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