Writing With Fire, the highly-acclaimed Indian film directed by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, is one of the five nominees for the Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars this year. In the five decades that India started sending submissions to the Academy Awards, only three films have made the cut before Writing With Fire: Mother India (1957), Salaam Bombay! (1988), and Lagaan (2001).
But a crucial difference sets apart Writing With Fire from the three previous Oscar contenders from India. For one, all three of these films were Hindi features: they were released in Indian theatres and starred Bollywood actors, their popularity bridging the gap between the cultural specificity of India and the West. On the other hand, Writing With Fire chronicles three Dalit journalists working for Khabar Lahariya, India’s only all-women run newspaper.
Set in rural Uttar Pradesh, the documentary, an examination of the state of Indian democracy, touches upon everything that Bollywood habitually neglects: caste, violence against women, the stronghold of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the country’s ruling right-wing party, and the male-dominated bastion of Indian journalism. It unfolds in a cinematic format that doesn’t find an instant audience in a country run on exaggerated song-and-dance sequences, make-believe universes, and rampant escapism. It’s the first time India has had a documentary representing the country at the Oscars — more crucially, the first time an Indian film that is yet to release in the country has been so unanimously embraced globally.
The film spotlights the resistance and resilience of the female journalists working at Khabar Lahariya. Armed with smartphones, the film’s three subjects — chief reporter Meera and her two colleagues — confront domestic patriarchy, societal inequality, and poverty to report on the kind of injustices that get trampled over by legacy media houses. In doing so, Writing With Fire expertly records what it really means for Dalit women — often the victims of brutal upper-class violence — to claim their place in society and what it means to demand accountability as a citizen of the country. It’s a powerful, inspiring account that eschews going down the road of sympathy or poverty porn and instead trains its gaze on redefining female agency. Over the years, Hindi cinema has made women so dispensable in its narratives that seeing a film populated entirely by women feels like a course correction.
According to Thomas, one-half of the directing and editing team, the Oscar shortlist for Writing With Fire is “not just a big moment for India,” but also a “big moment for Indian women.”
In India, the cinematic appetite considers feature films — across languages — its staple diet. Documentaries have always been an afterthought. Much of it is because the country doesn’t really have a movie-watching culture as much as it just has people who watch movies. That is to say, Indians watch movies to escape from reality. They’re swayed by the swagger of male superstars like Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar jumping off buildings and saving the world. Movies are more a vehicle for entertainment than a medium to reflect uncomfortable truths about reality. It’s precisely why documentaries in India rarely manage a theatrical run or even the same billing as any feature-length film. The uninterrupted monopoly that the Hindi film industry has on the public consciousness has now spilt over to streaming platforms as well. Instead of prioritising documentaries, independent and experimental films, they continue to play safe and act primarily as a dumping ground for commercial cinema. That makes Writing With Fire a risky proposition to begin with. And yet, the documentary — rewarding, exhilarating, and urgent — is the closest India has come to boasting a potential Oscar winner.
After premiering at Sundance Film Festival last year, where it picked up two awards, Writing With Fire has travelled to a dozen film festivals and earned almost 30 awards. It’s been screened in every country possible besides India. In some ways, it feels poetic — the whole world rallying behind a film whose genre is shunned in its country of origin. More than anything, it pries open and lays bare the gaps in the Indian film industry where movies are judged by their box-office appeal and not as an art form.
That no Indian submission has won the Oscar since 1957 is telling of exactly where Indian cinema stands on a global platform. Even competent movies that become commercial successes (Gully Boy) or garner critical acclaim (Newton) in the country can barely pass muster when compared to their global counterparts. The writing has been on the wall: we’re not as technically proficient or emotionally resonant to become a universal sensation and it will take decades before our films can even catch up. After all, a fictional universe is only as arresting as the “quality” of the make-believe.
That’s not a problem for documentaries, though. Any documentary — meant to be a record of a moment in time — is as good as its access to its subject. Unlike fiction, this is a cinematic format that doesn’t hinge on a display of money; instead, it is defined by its commitment to telling a story. Writing With Fire delivers on that promise. That alone puts the film on the same footing as its competitors: Flee, an exhilarating refugee origin story, or Summer of Soul (... or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), a full-throttled celebration of Black history.
Writing With Fire is an unadulterated paean to the integrity of journalism in a country where journalists continue to be co-opted in the state machinery, or worse killed. In a country that remains allergic to dissent then, the film is a fiery act of protest. Maybe there’s a reason why there’s no Indian documentary that made it to the Oscars in all these years — because Writing With Fire was destined to be written in stone.
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the official statement released by Khabar Lahariya after this article was written. Amongst other things, it addresses Writing With Fire as ‘… a story which captures a part of ours, and part stories have a way of distorting the whole sometimes’.
The statement is an essential reminder that the complexities of confronting existing power structures on the ground for two decades cannot be as neatly packaged into 1 hour 34 minutes without losing some crucial parts of a larger whole. While we at TheVibe are always rooting for Indian documentaries telling authentic and compelling stories, it’s also necessary to acknowledge that the stories themselves are as important as the people who tell them.
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Image courtesy: Official website of Writing With Fire