Sundance Documentary ‘Writing With Fire’ Smashes Indian Patriarchy, Exposes Caste System

Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s debut feature “Writing With Fire,” the only Indian film in the Sundance world cinema documentary competition, shines a light on a unique, women-only news collective in small-town northern India.

The documentary follows the women behind news organization Khabar Lahariya as they make the transition from print to digital, shooting stories on their mobile phones and disseminating via their YouTube channel. The three women the film primarily follows – chief reporter Meera and reporters Suneeta and Shyamkali – needed no empowerment from the filmmakers. The journalists are from the Dalit community, a so-called ‘lower’ caste in India’s millenia old and entrenched caste system, a barrier that they triumphantly surmounted along with their sex in a deeply sexist part of the world.

Shot over five years, the documentary charts the rise of Khabar Lahariya as their audience grows from thousands to millions, and the women overcome numerous obstacles in their paths. En route it takes in the rise of militant Hindu nationalism, India’s endemic rape culture and numerous other burning issues, without editorializing, but using Khabar Lahariya as a meta structure. It also avoids the trap of portraying the women as victims.

“This cannot be a victim story because whenever you hear ‘Dalit,’ more often than not, it’s either going to be a caricature or a victim,” Ghosh tells Variety. “And for us, Meera and all the journalists, they embody a sense of power that Indians and the world need to witness. Because I believe that they’re showing us new ways of looking at an old world.”

“How do they tell their stories? How is it different from the other mainstream, ‘upper’ caste, male dominated media? How are they navigating these relationships?,” were among the questions the filmmakers asked while approaching the subject, Thomas tells Variety. “It was out of deep respect and curiosity that we approached, because these are in modern Indian women that we’ve not encountered in such a setting. So to tell that story, to become like a film that can amplify that voice, was the guiding light for us.”

Funding for the project came from around the world. It won a grant from Canada’s Fondation AlterCine in 2015 during the development phase and generated buzz when pitched at DocedgeKolkata in 2016. Support also came from the IDFA Bertha fund, Tribeca and Sundance. Pitches at the U.K.’s Sheffield Meet Market and the IDFA Forum led to support from Chicken & Egg Pictures in the U.S., U.K.- and U.S.-based Doc Society and Norway’s Sorfond. Thomas and Ghosh were invited to the Talent Forum at Sundance in 2019 to present the film, and in 2020, while in post, support arrived from the SFFILM Documentary Film Fund in the U.S.

Thomas and Ghosh made it a priority to show the subjects of the documentary the film, before a wider audience watched it. Earlier this week, the filmmakers set up a screening in a little hut in a quiet part of town in Uttar Pradesh, where the film is set.

“After the screening, there was clapping, hugging and some tears,” say Thomas and Ghosh. “Everyone loved the film and said we’d documented a critical moment in their history. We’re very glad that we could squeeze in this screening – showing them the film before the world sees it was important for us. Their response made it even more special.”

Autlook Filmsales is handling international rights sales for “Writing With Fire,” while Submarine is in charge of U.S. sales.

The Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 28-Feb. 3.

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