Sitting in his New Delhi office, scrolling through his Facebook feed five years ago, Sushmit Ghosh came across a photo essay about a newspaper being distributed by a woman in Uttar Pradesh, India’s fourth-largest and most populous state. The images of the woman dressed in a colourful sari, walking across the arid landscape, captured the filmmaker’s attention.
“The photo essay essentially talked about a newspaper run by these women in Bundelkhand that was produced, edited and distributed entirely by them,” says Ghosh in a phone interview from New York. Ghosh immediately turned to his filmmaking partner and wife Rintu Thomas. “I said, ‘You have to look at this.’”
“It was a beautifully done piece, and we looked at it and marvelled at our own ignorance of not knowing about Khabar Lahariya being in the media landscape, and they have been around for 14 years as a paper,” says Thomas.
The woman in the photo essay was handing out copies of the eight-page weekly newspaper Khabar Lahariya (News Waves), India’s only women-run rural news organization that’s now expanded to digital platforms including Facebook and WhatsApp. Its team of 30 female reporters and stringers in 13 districts of Uttar Pradesh and the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh belong to marginalized communities such as Dalit, tribal, Muslim and backward castes, and covers news with their distinctly feminist lens.
Khabar Lahariya, and the women behind it, are the focus of Ghosh and Thomas’ new documentary Writing With Fire, which opens in Vancouver Dec. 6 and will be available via the digital TIFF Lightbox starting Dec. 21. The Hindi language documentary, with English subtitles, is part of The Impact Series – an original film, podcast and speaker series focused on global social and environmental issues.
As the co-founders of Black Ticket Films, a media house that produces branded content, social impact films as well as fiction and non-fiction series for multiple platforms, Ghosh and Thomas are always on the lookout for stories about outliers from the fringes who are working to create transformative impact in their communities.
So they reached out to Khabar Lahariya, and were invited to attend an editorial meeting. Ghosh and Thomas, along with their colleague Karan Thapliyal, went in with cameras rolling. Writing With Fire trains its lens on three women in particular: Meera Devi, Suneeta Prajapati and Shyamkali Devi.
“The first scene in the film, where Meera is making a pitch to the entire team to shift from print to digital, that was our first day of filming. Immediately, in that moment in the attic, we knew we had a story we couldn’t walk away from,” says Ghosh.
“Three thousand years of caste oppression is going to collide with something as new and unfettered as the internet. And in the middle of this are talented women who are essentially journalists working in a region not known for independent journalism.”
Several other women, including Meera’s childhood friend Kavita, whose delightfully direct witticisms provide moments of levity, are seen playing pivotal parts, too, during Khabar Lahariya’s transition to a digital-first news gathering approach. (The women prefer using their first names, as Indian surnames can be indicative of a person’s caste.)
Sitting around in a circle, sharing constructive feedback, there’s an easy camaraderie between all the women as they discuss the merits of reaching a larger female audience through social media, and ways of overcoming personal trepidations and challenges in using smartphones for their reportage. Many women on the team had never handled a mobile phone before.
“I immediately got sucked into the meeting because it wasn’t anything like we were expecting. It felt like being in any of these NYT or Washington Post newsrooms, except this was happening in an attic in a building in Banda [a district in Uttar Pradesh],” says Ghosh. “What struck us immediately was the vision these women had. How Meera and Kavita were making the pitch, the clarity of why they needed to make this transition to break literacy barriers because women were not getting access to the newspapers. Their readership was male-dominated.”
Although Khabar Lahariya’s news coverage today includes a wide range of topics, including local news, politics, coronavirus updates, entertainment and sports, Writing With Fire focuses on its mainstay topics such as violence against women, illegal mining and regional elections.
Each woman brings her own personality to the reporting, while negotiating spaces rife with patriarchy and caste politics – from Meera’s equanimity in profiling Satyam, a sword-brandishing leader with religious youth group Hindu Yuva Vahini, to Shyamkali’s gentle prodding of a grieving father and Suneeta’s unflappable charm in dealing with a group of protesters, an obfuscating police official or mansplaining colleagues. The stakes are high. If these women don’t tell these stories, no one else will.
Following the women for more than four years, Ghosh and Thomas became like an extension of the Khabar Lahariya team. They quickly understood they couldn’t interfere in the women’s interviewing process, and decided to go small. Their equipment – mainly high-definition DSLR cameras – fit into a backpack, says Thomas.
“I doubled up as a sound person, which was a challenge for me because it’s a specialized technical role that I’d never done before,” she says. “We were travelling in buses and autorickshaws, which are designed for four people but 15 will be jammed in. … The visual imagery of staying with them through these travels was very important because it’s really hard work. And you’re trying to create a counternarrative also – the idiom is that ‘this is not a woman’s job’ because it’s physical and intellectual. … The whole film is shot handheld, except for two interviews at the end.”
Even as the women of Khabar Lahariya are learning how to better tell their stories, others can learn from this team of intrepid and fearless reporters. Legacy media struggling with issues such as diversity in the newsroom, local news coverage and developing an authentic voice on social media can look to the example set by this rural news organization from India that’s now expanding its team to other adjoining states.
“Because our experience this year on the festival circuit was virtual, we found opportunities for Meera, Suneeta and Shyamkali to be on the panels. And Meera did a – what I would call – masterclass with the current graduating batch of [New York’s] Columbia Journalism School,” says Ghosh.
“I’ve been given lessons in how to make memes from these women journalists, and how to use Slack,” adds Thomas, laughing. “Like, I still suck at it, and their whole workflow is WeTransfer, Google and Slack.”
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