'Writing With Fire' is up for an Oscar. But its subjects say they're misrepresented
It's been a month of highs – and controversies – for Writing With Fire, a documentary from India about Khabar Lahariya, the country's only major news outlet run by women from marginalized communities. The journalists focus on rural reporting through a feminist lens and are led by chief reporter Meera Devi.
The movie is one of five nominees in the Oscar category of best documentary (feature). But the reporters themselves are now expressing dissatisfaction with the way they are portrayed.
The documentary opens in a mud-walled house in northern India with Meera Devi sitting across from a woman who recounts how four men broke into her house and raped her.
"They [people in positions of political power or of a higher caste] can do anything. They can even kill us," the woman tells Meera, who's recording the interview on her smartphone. The woman's husband sits on the floor on the side, listening to the interview with a pained expression. He later says, "We don't trust anyone except Lahariya."
Directed by Indian filmmakers Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, the film has earned several honors and accolades, including at the Sundance Festival last year. If they win on Sunday, Thomas and Ghosh will become the first Indian directors to win an Oscar for their work. The duo told NPR via email that the nomination came as a surprise to them because theirs is a "small, independently produced film, without any streamers or studios backing it."
The documentary charts the print to digital transformation of the semi-literate newsroom — most of the reporters have had some but not a great deal of education — and documents their struggles with the basics of the English language (which they need to know to operate the smartphones they use when reporting). It follows Meera and two other colleagues as they find workarounds to challenges like power outages while reporting, interviewing unyielding, patronizing elected officials. And all the while, many of the reporters' families are pressuring them to marry because that is what is expected for many women in India.
When the Oscar nominees were announced in early February, the collective's co-founder Kavita Devi said on Twitter that the staff members are proud that their rural reporting and hard work was "being appreciated and loved by a global audience."
But after the entire organization saw the full movie last month, Khabar Lahariya released a statement this week saying that the film misrepresented their work and that their story was "a much more complex story than the one going to the Oscars."
"It is a story which captures a part of ours, and part stories have a way of distorting the whole sometimes," the reporters said, objecting to the film's portrayal of Khabar Lahariya's "consuming focus of reporting on one party," India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The reporters say they have questioned politicians and held them accountable irrespective of their political party.
The film is "not an accurate representation of our unbiased-feminist reporting, which sets us apart from the clouds of fake news on social media, and even from other mainstream media - which tends to be highly polarized," Srishti Mehra, outreach manager at Chambal Media, which manages Khabar Lahariya, told NPR over email.
This misrepresentation could "risk the reputation and survival of a credible local news organization, as well as our team who take care to be perceived as objective, principled reporters," Mehra adds.
In a prepared statement shared with NPR, the filmmakers said they were deeply disappointed by the response from Khabar Lahariya. "We respect that this may not be the film that they would have made about themselves but we stand by this portrayal," the directors said, adding that they would remain committed supporters of the journalists' mission. Mehra, speaking for the collective, says the Khabar Lahariya team wishes the filmmakers the very best for the Oscars.
There's more to the criticism from the reporters than the matter of whom they focus on in their reporting.
Khabar Lahariya began as a small Hindi language newspaper in 2002 in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Many of its reporters are Dalits, formally called "untouchables" — people at the very bottom of India's ancient 4-level caste system, who are sometimes considered by higher castes to be so impure they should not be touched. The reporters say they often have to be discreet about their caste identity on the field. "We have not, as the film would have one believe, been able to carry our caste identities on our sleeves with bravado and humor," they say.
The Indian constitution bans discrimination on the basis of caste but it still persists. Two-thirds of rural women and about half of rural men follow the custom of untouchability themselves or had a family member who did, according to a 2016 survey of non-Dalit Hindu adults in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and the Indian nonprofit Research Institute for Compassionate Economics. That could mean they refuse to eat with lower caste people or don't let them enter their kitchen, which is considered a sacred place in Hindu households. Untouchability is more common in rural India, where Meera and her colleagues live and report.
Lower caste Indians are routinely beaten up and even killed by members of dominant castes for marrying outside their caste. And on average, 10 Dalit women or girls are raped every day across India, according to a 2020 report by the international rights group Equality Now and Dalit rights organization Swabhiman Society.
Attacks against Muslims and other minorities, including Dalits, have been rising since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party came to power in 2014, Human Rights Watch said in a 2019 report.
This is the environment in which Khabar Lahariya's journalists reported on the brutal murder of a woman, profiled a young Hindu nationalist leader and interviewed fellow Dalits about discrimination, as the documentary shows.
As the record-shattering documentary about them makes a splash at the Oscars, what aspects of their story would the reporters like to highlight? Their whole story, in the reporters' own words, involves forging complex friendships in the field, having tea with police officers who are hand in glove with criminals, hustling for the local mundane story — all while not knowing whether their newsroom would survive another year.
"As we unexpectedly make ourselves known all over the world...we would like to talk more about what makes women-led, independent rural media possible – which is a much more complex story than the one going to the Oscars," the reporters say in their statement.
And they plan to keep going. In the ending scene of the documentary, reporter Meera says, "When future generations ask us, 'What were you doing when the country was changing and the media was being silenced?' Khabar Lahariya will be able to say proudly that we were holding the powerful to account."
Writing With Fire is available to buy or rent in select countries on Vudu, Apple TV, Google Play and more. See here for a full list of viewing options.
Sushmita Pathak is a freelance radio and print journalist based in India with a focus on politics, development and health. You can find her on Twitter @sushmitza
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