The Tussle for Representation

The controversy over India’s first Oscar-nominated documentary

For its first half, the film shows the journalists learning to incorporate mobile phones in their reporting. They are seen covering a range of issues, from violence against Dalits, attending press briefings and making multiple trips to police stations. Courtesy Black Ticket Films
30 April, 2022

Notwithstanding the now infamous slap, the 2022 Academy Awards had many firsts. Among the catalogue of correctives to presumably make up for their decades of rewarding mostly cis-white male creatives—Troy Kotsur became the first deaf male actor to win an Oscar, while Ariana DeBose became the first openly queer woman of colour to win an acting award—there was also the first ever nomination for an Indian documentary: Writing with Fire, a film about Khabar Lahariya, a rural media outlet led by Dalit women. Following months of relentless buzz, a Sundance Award and multiple global accolades, the Oscar nomination came as no surprise to anyone who had been following the documentary since its global release.

In an early conversation I had with the director couple Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh following the nomination, they told me the film’s protagonists were already picking which saris they would wear to the ceremony. Except, on the day of the ceremony, Thomas and Ghosh would walk the famed red carpet alone. None of the journalists from Khabar Lahariya had accompanied them to Los Angeles.

Earlier that week, Khabar Lahariya’s team had released a statement declaring that the documentary, which had taken close to five years to finish, inaccurately represented their journalism. While they acknowledged that the film was a “moving and powerful document,” they asserted that the film had misrepresented them as focussing on just “one political party,” the Bharatiya Janata Party. “We recognise the prerogative of independent filmmakers to present the story that they choose to, but we would like to say that this eclipses the kind of work and the kind of local journalism we have done for twenty years, the reason we are different from other mainstream media of our times,” the statement read. “It is a story which captures a part of ours, and part stories have a way of distorting the whole sometimes.”

In close to ninety minutes, Writing with Fire follows the lives and work of Meera Devi, Shyamkali and Suneeta, who report on local news in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The film opens with Meera speaking to a rape survivor who describes the sexual violence and terror she is subjected to by her dominant-caste rapists. In a moving sequence that lasts a little over two minutes, we learn of the immense trust the survivor’s family shares with Meera. The subsequent shots of Meera questioning the police about their failure to file a first-information report, or describing what this work means to her, firmly establish the narrative of hard-working journalists doing honest-to-god reporting. This narrative is cemented further as we meet Suneeta, a former child miner, reporting on the illegal mining mafia that is responsible for the deaths of its workers and the ensuing silence around it. As she stands among a sea of men, confronting the dismissive mine “manager” and taking her rightful space as an equal, it is hard not to feel a rush of pride, admiration and terror.