Writing With Fire follows Meera, Suneeta, and Shyamkali, reporters for Khabar Lahariya, the only newspaper in India run by Dalit women. They navigate a world which devalues them because of their caste, their gender, their perceived lack of formal education, the fact they are rural journalists documenting issues in their own communities. They do so with courage, spirit, strength, and defiant optimism.
This film does a good job of combining the seemingly small stories with these huge, even global, issues. Shyamkali talks about how her husband disagreed with her decision to become a journalist, that he beat her and stole her wages. So she got him lifted for domestic abuse. All across the country, and for generations, if you were a journalist it meant you were a high-caste man, and no one would countenance a woman from the lowest caste as a reporter. It changed because Shyamkali changed it. And when her husband tried to beat her back into her place, believing he could do so with impunity, she changed that to. And when she used her position as a journalist to challenge police indifference on the rape of a village girl, she changed that to, and the rapist was arrested and prosecuted within the week. And when the front-runner for state office spoke to her about his election campaign, expecting deference and only to advertise his candidacy, she changed that too, and challenged him on rape prosecution rates in the state, and what he planned to do to reduce rape and increase convictions. This film shows how the world is changed by women who insist on their own worth, their own rights, their own voice.
Even as they start small, their successes are hugely meaningful. A canal may not seem like much, but its repair makes the difference between a village starving or not. Challenging corruption and indifference by local authorities, to ensure that bribes are not the only way to get anything done, is how they bring democracy to life, one electricity pole, one resurfaced road at a time.
But as things progress, so too do the tides swing back. The film covers the rise of Hindu nationalism, a divisive ethno-religious fascism. The conservatism of the movement means it is not only Islamaphobic, but doubling-down on traditions of caste and gender roles. The surge to power coincides with increased violence, especially towards journalists critical of the ruling party. It’s enough to make you despair, but Meera says, “In this time when these things are happening in the county, if they ask what did you do? Khabar Lahariya made sure the fourth pillar did not fall.”
A great documentary about citizen journalists, those truly dedicated to the responsibility of journalism to safeguard democracy, people who know the high price and the fragility of it.