Courage Under Fire Award: 'Writing With Fire' Team on Finding Hope in the Unlikeliest Place
By Meera Devi
Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh are this year’s recipients of IDA’s Courage Under Fire Award. Their film Writing With Fire is the story of Khabar Lahariya (meaning, “Waves of News”), India’s only all-women news publication. Set in Bundelkhand, a rural town in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, and within a context of dwindling personal freedoms and rising Hindu nationalism, Writing With Fire follows Dalit (deemed the lowest in the Hindu hierarchy of castes) journalists Meera Devi, Suneeta Prajapati, Shyamkali Devi, and their co-workers as they take on the mining mafia, inept police force and patriarchy and the centuries-old casteism that denies Dalit women any access to the written word. In a country that is one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist, the women of Khabar Lahariya—and Thomas and Ghosh—remain unwavering in their pursuit of the truth and the stories of those who tell this truth.
Writing With Fire, the filmmaking couple’s first feature, came at a pivotal point when Khabar Lahariya was making a crucial transition to digital after being a print publication for 14 years. At the end of the film, we not only see the women come to their own but we also see, after being taken through a scary and inspiring ride, the filmmakers making a very firm landing on their feet. Fittingly enough, Rintu Thomas is also one of IDA’s 2021 Logan Elevate Grant recipients. This grant supports emerging women filmmakers of color directing feature-length documentary films that explore original, contemporary stories and integrate journalistic practice into the filmmaking process.
While Writing With Fire traveled to film festivals around the world—following its Sundance debut in 2021—its journey has mostly been virtual. Within a short window of time that was deemed safe enough, Meera Devi joined the filmmakers for the film’s run at IDFA. Assigning a journalist for this profile, therefore, became a very easy choice. Documentary was lucky enough to witness this conversation between the filmmakers and their firebrand collaborator, Meera Devi. The interview has been translated and condensed for clarity.
— Bedatri D. Choudhury, Managing Editor, Documentary magazine
Many people have wondered how we—as Dalit women journalists living in Bundelkhand—collaborated with the Writing With Fire team from Delhi. I don't blame people for being wary. We have been given these preconceived ideas about ourselves and our castes that we keep bearing as a burden. We have to break out of that. When I wanted to study as a child, my father said I couldn't study beyond the fifth grade. Even then, I knew that my father—the person—did not want my education to stop, but my father—the man who is answerable to the society and is a part of it—had to stop me from studying because that was what was expected of him. That was the culture. We have to change that, and we can change that when we interact and collaborate with other people like Rintu, Sushmit and Karan [Thapliyal, the film’s cinematographer along with Ghosh].
I was married off when I was in school, but my 28-year-old sister is unmarried and lives with my parents. Though they have to endure a lot of taunting from the neighbors, I think she is a part of a changing culture. We have to identify allies to bring changes like these forward.
People in Bundelkhand, as in the rest of the world, have very strong religious prejudices. So to see Rintu and Sushmit, each belonging to a different religion, work together and create art together was an inspiration to me. You don’t see that where I live. I was attracted to that way of working and wanted to learn how they did it. It gave me a living example of what happens when people believe in change.
My team had told the three of them, very clearly, what to wear while filming Writing With Fire. People would often stare at us because of the camera, but we weren't scared. Thanks to Khabar Lahariya, the people in Bundelkhand are used to seeing us women journalists, so having Rintu with us was alright. But I was always worried a bit about Sushmit and Karan; they dressed differently, had beards. People assumed they were Muslims and sometimes said some nasty things. I was worried about the men’s safety because everyone around us is getting blinder, and seemingly losing their ability to think for themselves. This is true of even alleged first-world countries like the USA. Like I say in the film, we are sending people to the moon, but we are so much behind when it comes to the matters of the earth.
At Khabar Lahariya we cover news, but we also often end up making news. My team and I were used to TV crews coming over and filming us. So when Rintu, Sushmit and Karan arrived from Delhi, I didn’t think much of it. Little did we know that they’d stick around for five years! They went everywhere we went (except the places we asked them not to), crammed along with 15 people in six-seater autorickshaws, and witnessed, with us, the growing hostility towards the marginalized, the rising violence—and the rise of combative, fearless hope.
Amsterdam’s Tuschinski Theater is said to be one of the most beautiful theaters in the world. And as I sat there, watching a film—about my own life, about my friends’ lives—I couldn’t stop myself from going, “Oh, wow!” and “Oh, God!” at places. When I got on stage, people were standing for five minutes—clapping, hooting, cheering. After the Q&A, they walked up to me and thanked me for my work.
This was all very surreal. Back in 2016, we made a WhatsApp group called “Shyamkali Goes to Sundance”—named after my co-worker, expressing our ambitions with the film. We did all “go” to Sundance, but only virtually. Seeing people in Amsterdam reacting to the film and responding to our story was a profound experience. After having lived and worked through the film’s journey in isolation, through a pandemic, seeing and feeling this love has been inspiring.
I hope you enjoy excerpts from my chat with Rintu and Sushmit, on a very cold Amsterdam afternoon, squeezed in between other interviews.
MEERA DEVI: How did you become filmmakers?
RINTU THOMAS: My parents are from the southern state of Kerala, but they moved to Delhi and that’s where my sister and I grew up. You know, it is a very middle-class Indian family, where our parents asked us to dream, empowered us, but we were limited in our choices in career. My mother is a teacher, so my parents wanted me to be an academic. Or the usual, a doctor or an engineer, but I scored terribly in the sciences. I was interested in social science and I wanted to write, be a print journalist. So I studied literature as an undergrad. By the time it was time for grad school, there was a digital media boom in India and there were all these new courses being introduced. I ended up attending the Mass Communication Research Centre at Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamia University, which is where I met Sushmit.
MD: What would you say were your biggest learnings there?
RT: There I studied photography and documentary filmmaking. There was a lot of very hands-on training and I was exposed to a large variety of filmmaking styles. This is where I learned how different people express themselves through the medium of art. That was a process I identified with a lot. Like I said, I met Sushmit there and we became friends. We made our student documentary together.
MD: What was that film about?
RT: It was called Flying Inside My Body, about a homosexual, HIV+ photographer who uses his body as a canvas and artistic medium. He would make self-portraits and use them to question people and ask, “What is it about my body that scares you and repels you? And who are you to question it?” That film traveled through a few student film festivals and even got included in some Gender Studies curriculum. It was a very powerful experience. I realized that I could make something that people can watch and make meaning out of. Documentary films gave me the power to talk about things people don't want to talk about, or don’t know how to talk about. That’s how I decided to be a documentary filmmaker.
MD: And what about you, Sushmit?
SUSHMIT GHOSH: I come from a similar background. Mine is a Bengali middle-class family and my parents always placed a lot of importance on doing well in school. I actually wanted to pursue an MBA, and had worked a whole year in a very big corporate company. I was traveling a lot on the company’s dime, staying in hotels, meeting corporate leaders. It was the saddest year of my life. When I told my family members that I couldn’t do it anymore, they understood.
"Documentary films gave me the power to talk about things people don't want to talk about, or don’t know how to talk about."
- Rintu Thomas, co-director of Writing With Fire
MD: And then you decided to be a filmmaker?
SG: Actually, I bought a motorbike with all the money I had saved and decided to ride it to the mountains of Himachal Pradesh. At that time, I was volunteering with an organization in Delhi that works with street children. There I made good friends with this young boy called Rajesh, who had lost both his legs in a train accident. When he heard I was making this trip, he wanted to come along. The guy who ran the organization supported this decision and we added these rigs and platforms to the bike so Rajesh could travel a little more comfortably. A friend lent me his camcorder and eight MiniDV tapes, and asked me to film the journey. So, Rajesh and I filmed the trip. We climbed trees, tied the camera to the branches with a string, and rode the bike through the mountains.
MD: What happened to that film?
SG: Rajesh and I spent around 10 days together on that trip, and when we went back to Delhi, he disappeared. No one knew where he was. That’s when I decided to look at the footage. I had no idea how to edit, so I pored over numerous YouTube videos, downloaded some pirated software, and worked on editing the film for days. That was how the 40-minute-long film Bullets And Butterflies (2007) was made. It was eventually broadcast on TV, and traveled to lots of festivals. That experience taught me the power of a story told through a visual medium. That power was infectious in the way it inspired people, touched their hearts, and moved them to action. So I decided to go to the Mass Communication Research Center and study documentary filmmaking.
MD: And what happened after grad school?
RT: I was a freelancer for a year but didn't find it fun at all. So Sushmit and I decided to work on projects together—we pooled all our savings to form a company, Black Ticket Films, in 2009. My parents were shocked; no one they knew had run a media business. My mother was worried she wouldn’t find a good husband for me, that she wouldn’t know what to say when prospective in-laws asked how much money I made! I asked them to give me a year, so I could do this and see how it goes. And I am very lucky they agreed. We got no work that whole year, but we received a fellowship at the very end of that year. That’s how we made the documentary short The Miracle Water Village (2010), about a farming community in Maharashtra’s Hiware Bazaar that had devised a water management system to combat extreme drought. That film got shown on National Geographic Channel, and with that, we started getting more work and people started trusting us to make more films.
MD: And why did you choose to make this film?
RT: I have been an independent documentary filmmaker for 10 years, and what draws me to the medium is the power of storytelling. When I came to know about Khabar Lahariya, I read some more about them and then I met everyone in the team and heard them talk about their work. I thought this was a story that could be told over a long stretch of time; there was so much to know and unpack. And that’s how we decided to make it into a feature.
SG: I saw a photo story come up on my Facebook feed. I still remember the lead image; there was a journalist going into some dark underbelly of an Uttar Pradesh town, distributing newspapers. Then I googled Khabar Lahariya and learned that they produced, edited and distributed news all by themselves. That it was an all-women run institution. It blew my mind and I found it interesting. Uttar Pradesh, as you know, is a whole strange country by itself, so we were intrigued about the work you were doing there. That’s when we decided to call the office; they said there was going to be an important meeting and that we should come over. That was our first day, back in 2016. You were pitching the shift from print to digital; that’s when we first met you.
"It’s one thing to say all these things about responsible filmmaking, but you also have to carry yourselves in ways that can be trusted."
- Sushmit Ghosh, co-director of Writing With Fire
MD: Do you remember that lead image?
SG: Of course. There was a brown road, a woman in a blue saree with newspapers in her hand. Around her, there was nothing but farmland and she was walking along this long, winding road. It immediately drew me in and I clicked on the link.
MD: What is it that drew you in?
RT: We were surprised that Khabar Lahariya was running for 14 years at that point, and we knew nothing about it. There are different, parallel universes in India’s rural areas and the cities. Even we, as media people, were so engrossed in our echo chambers that we didn’t know of these amazing Dalit women running a whole news organization. That was a very special thing. A friend connected us to the senior leadership. They asked to watch a few of our other films, and they were able to form a sense of our filmmaking politics, aesthetics and ideals. Then we met everyone and decided that this story was going to be a natural fit for us to tell. But we wanted everyone else to be comfortable with us telling it. That took a bit of time.
MD: I have always wondered how and why you chose to center Writing With Fire around Shyamkali, Suneeta and me.
SG: In that first meeting, we saw you championing that shift from print to digital. Everyone around you was nervous and skeptical and they said they can't do it. You reminded them that, 14 years ago, they had said the same thing. That they can’t be journalists. “And look where we are now,” you said. You seemed like a natural leader who would lead this transition.
RT: There is that thing about being able to move ahead with everyone along, progressing in a collective manner. We saw that quality appear very naturally in you. I remember it was a three- or four-hour meeting and not once did you feel conscious of the camera. Logistically, this level of comfort with being filmed counts for a lot. You are a good leader; you were ready to train everyone so they could join you in this collective vision that you had for Khabar Lahariya. It usually takes some time to know people and deduce the central voice of one’s film, but with you, it was easy. All three of us thought that way. Suneeta was also not afraid to put her defense of print in front of everyone. She wasn’t afraid to go against the current, and that was very attractive. We wanted to know who she was, what her story was. So you two emerged as natural choices. Shyamkali took us a bit of time.
MD: You know, you read about Bundelkhand in the news—about the violence against women, the rise in Hindu nationalism, and the poverty. Were you not scared to come here and film with us?
RT: As filmmakers, we are interested in telling stories of women in small towns. We make films highlighting their issues, their work. We had already worked with rural women across the country, so we weren't worried about working with you all. But yes, about Bundelkhand, we knew it’s a violent place, it’s a media-dark village, and no one had seen a big movie camera there. We thought a lot about how one can just go there from a city, and start working. The only way was to do it with you.
SG: We’d go everywhere with you; we never tried telling the story ourselves. People knew you, respected you. So we had to be your accomplice. We would rest that power on you. We learned how to navigate Bundelkhand by watching you all. On our part, we didn’t carry big cameras, didn’t use any boom rods for our mics, and made our filming unit as small as we could. It was just the three of us. That way, people would be less suspicious of us, less nervous, and less wary. It’s one thing to say all these things about responsible filmmaking, but you also have to carry yourselves in ways that can be trusted. I remember Suneeta was going to interview some people from the mining mafia and I was worried that I looked too much like an “outsider.” She just said, “Chew some paan [betel leaves], then your mouth will be as red as the locals!”
RT: That’s how I ended up doing the sound for the film, because there was no designated sound person. You have seen me struggle with it, how the mics kept falling. I had to attach them to your blouses with a safety pin. I was learning along with you.
MD: Were you scared?
SG: Not really, because you were the ones reporting. We were only following. But we were very shocked. In our 10-year career, we thought we had seen everything there was to see. We had worked in the interiors of Bihar, saw the pits of poverty, but we weren't prepared for the world that is Uttar Pradesh—that level of violence against women, Dalits, and other marginalized communities. Of course, now it’s all over the country, but it was just beginning to take shape then. We were watching, first hand, the building and inception of systems of oppression, from the grassroots. It was my first experience of witnessing that—seeing it grow from the seed; how those seeds were planted. Even as Indians, people who had lived there all their lives, these things were very revealing to us.
MD: Bundelkhand gets a lot of drought; the news tells you that. But no one tells you that we have these orange orchards, that there is a lot of organized farming, which is great for the farmers. What was your angle to showcase Bundelkhand, and why?
RT: There is always a question of lens and angle—like you teach Shyamkali in the film. I don't think there is any value in making a film that tells people, “Oh, look at these poor people in India, they have nothing. Please pity them.” What is the point of stealing people’s dignity from them? Of course there is violence and poverty. Every crime that can be committed against humanity exists in Uttar Pradesh, and perhaps even thrives. But there are people who dream of changing that. That, for us, is beautiful. People are still fighting for the rights of other people. Where can we find the good amidst all this despair? The aim for this film was to show that. All our films are like that. We wanted to focus on your hopes and your will to change things. You’re bringing up children; we wanted to ask what your hopes are, for their future? When we ask those questions, we see human beings on screen, not victims. That’s the lens we used for the film. We wanted the audience to ask themselves, “What do you feel when you look at these women? Do they give you hope?” And I think they'll all say yes.
RT: Now, can we ask you a question?
MD: Sure, go ahead.
RT: How long did you think this film would take to make?
MD: (Laughs) You know we had been filmed before. That stuff took two to four days, a week maximum. But you guys were in another league. It felt so weird in the beginning. You would follow us everywhere, into my kitchen, into my home.
RT: I took issue with that too. You were cooking and these guys just got into your kitchen.
MD: Of course it was all consensual. It’s a kind of talent, really. To enter these small, intimate spaces and be able to tell a story authentically. I understand it completely. Then we became friends and it didn't seem like I was opening up my world to outsiders.
Back to my job. I often lose sight of my story when I am reporting and forget what I set out to show. You worked on this film for so long. How did you manage to keep your story on track?
RT: We were interested in your story. We wanted to see and show who these women are, where they get their spirit and courage from. We all come from a context of patriarchy, and we all fight it differently. But how do you do it, personally, in your homes, and in society, professionally? We knew we didn't want to make a superhero film. We wanted the audience to see your inner and outer worlds. And while showing that, we wanted to show you negotiating your public lives with your husbands, fathers, children. That was important for us. That was our story.
SG: We didn’t know if your pivot to digital would be successful. So the biggest challenge was to do justice to your story, irrespective of whether your organization’s story was a success or not. Suneeta’s story, Shyamkali’s story—it all had to come out as triumphs, even if the transition failed. The pains you all share with perhaps all women, the guilt you have to face as a mother who has a job outside of her home, that choice between career and marriage that Suneeta has to face, Shyamkali’s decision to fight her abusive husband. We had to bring out the universality of all of that. That’s why people all around the world are attracted to his story—because of the universality of all your worlds. So bringing out your story beyond the plot of Khabar Lahariya’s journey was important to us.
"We wanted the audience to ask themselves, “What do you feel when you look at these women? Do they give you hope?” And I think they'll all say yes."
- Rintu Thomas, co-director of Writing With Fire
MD: Tell me more about the decision-making process in editing.
RT: We have so much footage from all these years. When we were editing five years worth of footage, we realized that the story we had to tell had to tie your professional and personal lives. One had to affect the other. For Shyamkali, in the rape case she covers, she brings in her experience of domestic abuse. She has lived through a similar sadness, and she believes that she has to move forward, despite her past. And that’s what she tells the father of the girl. It’s a very emotional moment.
We chose the bit where you go to Dalit homes and they tell you they don’t have toilets; it’s very similar to your struggles. You are reporting on it but somewhere down the line, it’s your story as well. So those are the stories we picked. Then we fought it out amongst ourselves, cut the film down from five to four hours, then four to three. Once we got to the two-hour mark, we found a consulting editor, Anne Fabini, who could come in with an objective eye. She’d give us notes over Zoom and we’d chip away at the film. That’s all we did through the pandemic.
MD: What would you say were your biggest challenges in making the film?
SG: For starters, we ate one meal a day. When we were out with you, there was no question of taking lunch breaks because you guys weren’t taking any. Karan and I would really find it difficult to keep working like that on some days; I don’t know how you do it. Sometimes we wouldn't even carry water because our bags would get heavy. You all walk for hours to get from one place to another for your reporting assignments. There was no way we could do that with tripods and get on buses, rickshaws and trains with them. So obviously we couldn't carry all that gear. We had to adapt very quickly. People usually film with eight or nine lenses, but we used only three, which was a challenge but also helped us develop a stylistic register for the film. We also had the challenge of making ourselves invisible around you. You were covering illegal mining, or speaking to people who are experiencing a lot of trauma. We didn't want to be intrusive filmmakers; we had to figure out how we could respectfully navigate those spaces. We were filming but we didn't want to come across as insensitive. We had these rules: like, if you all were working, we’d never stop you and ask you to redo something. We never asked you to repeat a dialogue.
RT: We also had to find a way to respectfully depict people’s sorrows and traumas while allowing them the dignity to grieve in their own pace and space. We had to show how you, as journalists, were navigating that space. Show the world as you were seeing them but still say what we want to say—that was a big challenge. We’d get so much confidence from watching you work, navigate tricky male-dominated spaces like police stations so smartly. We have never filmed inside a police station.
SG: I had never seen a police station like that, outside of films. But we'd see you go in and follow you. We’d ask you if we could come along. If you said yes, we’d be like, “OK, Meera said yes, so we can.”
MD: That’s true. I asked you to stay out a few times, I remember. Now that the film is ready, what are your plans with it?
SG: It’s been a year since the film’s premiere at Sundance (which we watched from our couch!), so the film’s festival life is mostly over. While that dries out, we want to show the film to spaces where people can benefit from learning of Khabar Lahariya, so we can create opportunities for Indian journalists like you. We want more educational institutions to host screenings, more community screenings so people can see the film and know there is still hope, that there will always be hope. We want them to think, “If Meera can do this, so can we.” We are designing an impact campaign for 2022. And, hopefully, pandemic gods willing, we’ll have more opportunities to gather together.
Meera Devi is the bureau chief at Khabar Lahariya. With 14+ years of reporting, her special reports have included lifting the curtains off the administrative apathy around the broken healthcare systems combating TB in the rural hinterland of UP. She also hosts a show on local politics, titled Rajneeti, Ras, Raay.