I watched Writing with Fire with an open mind even after Khabar Lahariya had released a statement disavowing their portrayal as an organisation in the film. "It is a story which captures a part of ours, and part stories have a way of distorting the whole sometimes," the statement said.
I've been following Khabar Lahariya for the past few years. I have a deep professional respect for them and have looked to their coverage, methods, and sheer imagination for inspiration for most of my career. News media is in a state of crisis globally. In this context, the sustained yet always precarious rise of Khabar Lahariya is a true beacon of hope, but one grounded in reality. So I watched this film with an open mind but with high expectations. And I have to say, mine were dashed.
While Writing with Fire is a beautiful film to watch, the use of colour and the wide panning shots of Uttar Pradesh's landscapes play beautifully onscreen, it suffers from significant tonal and thematic inconsistencies.
The first half is a gripping account of the kind of rigorous and hands-on procedural work that foregrounds all good journalism. The inclusion of the three point-of-view 'characters' family lives — Meera, Suneeta, and Shymakali — were to degrees that didn't feel contrived but integral to establishing their worlds and contexts.
Writing with Fire followed Khabar Lahariya through the tumultuous and challenging years of their transition from print to digital. Watching the Khabar Lahariya staff adjust and acclimate while still producing excellent work with a massive deficit of resources and institutional support is fascinating just from a professional standpoint. The collective way they function internally is apparent and explains the depth and breadth of their own coverage.
In the film's second half, the tone completely shifts from a relatively nuanced portrayal of what it truly takes to be the fourth pillar in India's hinterlands to a flattened David and Goliath narrative. It stops asking honestly curious questions, favouring over-wrought and leading ones.
For me, the filmmakers centered their own emotions and political opinions throughout the entire second half of the film. Their fear, despair and despondency at the electoral outcomes nationally and in Uttar Pradesh betray themselves throughout the film's second half. But these feelings are not equally shared by their sources, and trying to present events as though they were seem to be what led them astray.
Most newsrooms have specialised election coverage, but the 'regular' news never stops. The filmmakers do their audience a disservice by not showing how Khabar Lahariya navigates these cycles and instead only showing the most 'exciting' snippets. To ascribe so much power to one political party is quite an immature and ahistorical way of understanding electoral politics. Any party that wins an election, particularly in a massive landslide, owes no small part of that victory to the deeds and decisions of the parties and coalitions that preceded them.
It is difficult for me to take Writing with Fire seriously as a documentary feature. At best, it is long-form content creation because it doesn't seriously engage with the critical issues that it brings up. It is telling when someone can see issues like informal sector workers protesting egregious labour conditions in illegal mines simply as poverty porn. Or the lack of essential public resources and facilities like clean water, affordable food, secure housing, stable power supplies, etc., as narrative beats.
I don't think that people who aren't from a specific community can't tell stories about that community. However, I believe that people from dominant groups tend to lack the self-reflexivity, familiarity with context, clarity of thought, and balanced judgment required to tell stories not their own responsibly and respectfully. This lack was clear in the scene where Suneeta is efficiently conducting preliminary interviews and research for an emerging investigation into a caste-motivated rape — my favourite scene.
In contrast to Suneeta, a reporter from a bigger paper covering the story is shown to fumble and spends most of his time asking his team for a 'script' instead of reporting what's happening. It's pretty comical, but then it leads to one of my least favourite parts of the film as a whole, ironically enough.
While watching this scene, it seems to me that the filmmakers didn't seem to understand or register the significance of what they captured. Suneeta is conducting an investigation into a profoundly heinous act of gendered and casteist violence against a Dalit woman and her community. As part of her job, she asks if she can see the body. They include a clip of Suneeta shuddering after leaving the site and asking the people filming her if they "saw all the blood." This scene is presented so blithely and reeks of adventurism. For me, that's the filmmakers' immaturity and misunderstanding of Suneeta's position. Through my lens, they added this interaction to emphasise the violence of their location. But to anyone conversant in how caste operates, this emphasis isn't necessary. The violence is present in the dismissive way the oppressor caste villagers try to shoo away Suneeta and shield the perpetrators, the violence is present in the way that grief hangs heavy but resigned in the village, and the violence is pervasive in the overwhelming poverty of every single Dalit basti shown throughout the film's runtime. And it is especially present in the unflinching, shamelessly voyeuristic wide-angle lens consumption/filming of the profoundly emotional conversation between Suneeta and the victim's husband.
Suneeta turns on her phone camera and tries to convince the husband to speak to her gently but firmly. He is actively covering his face and moaning and crying. Among other things, she tells him, "bhaiya, I know how you feel." And he slowly stops sobbing and shows his entire face to her camera. He starts to speak quietly but clearly.
Watching this interaction, not merely from kilometres but from years away, I burst into tears.
Grassroots movements are said to be power-building because power is the application of agency with force. Getting legal succour, monetary reparations, or even social remorse is not under Khabar Lahariya’s control or in the victim's family. Even if any or all of those results come to be, they won't bring back the precious life lost or undo the suffering. But, there would be a record written accurately by someone who has professional pride in their work and a personal stake. And while this report did result in the arrest of the perpetrators, even if it hadn't, Suneeta's work that day and every day would still be bigger than her. This scene runs deeper than representation. This was an act of witness. This was genuine empathy and it was an expression of power.
The same cannot be said of the makers of Writing with Fire or the film itself, particularly that scene. Because the only thing I could think of after I'd wiped away my tears was that there was no reason for me to have seen that. I might recognise the deep significance of what I just saw, but the way it was filmed did not seem to reflect a similar understanding from the people behind the camera.
Trusted access, even to your own community, is a sacred responsibility. It informs your work, complicates it and often means that the scrutiny it'll face is just that much higher. It can also be harrowing, and the attendant responsibility really overwhelming. If the filmmakers had addressed this further, delved deeper and tried to engage with its complexities, even that might have gone some way in justifying the liberties they took. Instead, it is incredibly voyeuristic, debatably consensual, and ends up as a particularly blatant display of the savarna gaze in a film rife with it and built on it.
The overbearing imagery that riddles the film's second half stands out because it is so clumsily presented. The constant juxtaposition of Hindutva and cow politics with Khabar Lahariya’s election coverage doesn't make the statement that the filmmakers thought.
They failed when they stopped trying to tell the story they came to tell and instead got carried away by the political agendas around them. They keep trying to portray Hindutva as an overwhelmingly masculine force emphasising the 'all-male' Hindu Yuva, zooming in on the men in the last few scenes of the election parade and festival celebrations. They make much of a set of shots that show a few women watching the seemingly all-male procession from behind barred windows. But they quickly pass over shots of women dressed up in saffron saris and sunglasses, dancing and celebrating the electoral victory. To gloss over this reality might make the story more palatable and relatable but less accurate and ultimately less impactful.
Khabar Lahariya is so exponentially successful, while still entirely precarious financially and socially. Portraying the inner mechanics of Khabar Lahariya, how they do their work, how they fund it, how they sustain it, how they self-govern, train, and equip reporters etc., would have been the hook that made the film genuinely relatable. Because despite the severe deficits with which they operate, Khabar Lahariya reporters were going through the same shift from print to digital that all newsrooms had to contend with or adapt to. Their story is already universal.
Journalism is a trade profession, more craft than art or science, so the procedure, how we work — that's the best place to look if you want to explore why we do it. The film was at its most truthful when showing the magnitude of Khabar Lahariya’s work, not just in subscribers or views but in the real-world localised impact of their journalism. This magnitude is equally, if not more, reflected in the success of being able to gainfully employ and equip larger and larger numbers of women from diverse perspectives and backgrounds in some of the most remote areas of the cow belt.
Rather than painting a story about exceptionalism, the filmmakers could have just portrayed Khabar Lahariya as what it is consistently — reporters facing tremendous odds. Because what they're doing is excellent journalism, and I think the film loses sight of how crucial that is. Not just for Dalits and not just in Uttar Pradesh, but everywhere and everyone. Journalists everywhere can, and do, learn from how Khabar Lahariya does their work. The filmmakers chose to call their project Writing with Fire. They should have focused more on the writing.