On a sultry summer morning in 2016, Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh left Delhi for the heartland district of Banda on the eastern fringes of Uttar Pradesh, with a mission. The previous year, they had come across the story of a weekly rural newspaper run almost exclusively by Dalit women in this part of arid Bundelkhand. They were on their way to meet some of these journalists.
They arrived at a pivotal moment for the newspaper. Khabar Lahariya (Hindi for News Waves), launched in 2002, had grown into an eight-edition, multilingual publication with a readership of about 80,000. But it was now facing rising headwinds as digital storytelling transformed newsrooms across the country.
When they reached Banda, the director-producer duo was invited to attend a meeting on the future of the publication. The meeting was held in the attic of a shop. For four hours, Thomas and Ghosh listened transfixed as sari-clad rural women, most of whom did not yet own smartphones, weighed the benefits and risks of going digital.
“To see Dalit women journalists passionately argue and passionately discuss their lives and careers… was an ordinary moment but also extraordinary. It felt historic,” says Thomas, 35.
For the next five years, Thomas and Ghosh, 38, would shadow three of these women, following them with two handheld cameras as they jumped into buses and onto bullock carts, walked miles to get to villages, stood up to local authorities, strongmen and the mafia, and challenged caste biases and patriarchal girdles at every step.
From this project sprouted Writing with Fire, a feature-length documentary that has won a raft of awards at festivals around the world, including an Audience Award and a Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021. In December, the film made it to the 2022 Oscars shortlist, in the Best Documentary Feature category.
For Thomas and Ghosh, it has been a long journey, interrupted by the pandemic, but with the thrilling result that Writing with Fire has brought recognition not just to them and their studio, Black Ticket Films, but to the journalists in their film. They feel lucky, they say, that they set out on precisely that summer morning. “That 2016 meeting was what set up the film,” says Ghosh.
Three characters immediately stood out. Chief reporter Meera Devi, 35; 20-something Suneeta Prajapati, one of the paper’s youngest journalists; and Shyamkali Devi, a fledgling reporter in her 30s, wary of the digital transformation.
At the meeting, Meera Devi calmed the floor and held forth on the need to go digital. “We knew she was our protagonist,” says Thomas. Prajapati was her counterfoil, passionate, ambitious, outspoken. Shyamkali Devi, who hadn’t finished school but was among the sharpest journalists on the team, represented the many people in the room with deep emotional ties to the eight-page broadsheet.
As the women did indeed begin to tell their stories through their smartphones (as well as on the page), the directors knew the film needed to be about the journalism and the reporters: their strong sense of justice, their challenges and dilemmas, how they navigated reporting on communities they belonged to.
Filming in Bundelkhand, a dry, hot region often in the news for political violence and hate crimes, was gruelling, particularly with a skeletal crew and small budget. In addition to directing, Thomas doubled as sound recorder; Ghosh shot the film alongside cinematographer Karan Thapliyal.
Each day began at 5 am. Following the journalists on assignment meant taking rickety buses or crammed shared autorickshaws to destinations that might be anything from 10 minutes to two hours away. “All our equipment needed to fit in a backpack,” says Ghosh. “We didn’t want to draw attention. Wanted to be at the table but invisible. It was a bit of choreography for body and mind.”
It was exciting and daunting, adds Thomas. “We weren’t carrying artificial light, and never knew where the day’s schedule would take us.” They were determined to capture the sense of being on the ground. “The core principle for us was that the viewer should feel like they were standing next to Meera.”
Thomas and Ghosh met while studying filmmaking at the Jamia Millia Islamia university in Delhi, and worked together on their graduation project in 2008, a film on the LGBT activist and photographer Sunil Gupta. The following year, they co-founded Black Ticket Films together.
In life, their tastes sometimes differ. Ghosh loves the mountains, Thomas the sea. But their interests have converged, they say, since they married in 2015. One passion that unites them is telling true stories in ways that engage and, yes, entertain.
“For me, the thumb rule is, will my grandmother enjoy this,” says Ghosh. “We made the decision early to do work that resonates and never compromise on the dignity of our subjects. That’s our core ethos,” adds Thomas.
The duo works on independent projects between commissioned work, which is the bread-and-butter of their company. Their last independent film, Timbaktu, was a documentary on the intimate relationship between farmers and their land in rural Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh; it won the National Award for Best Environment Film in 2013.
They’re sensitive to the power dynamics of shooting a documentary. “We are constantly working on how to make that relationship one of dignity, and make people relatable,” says Thomas. It’s been rewarding to have viewers at screenings around the world walk up to them and tell them how the story of Writing with Fire resonated. “Injustice resonates around the world,” says Thomas.
What also worked, say Thomas and Ghosh, was the unique story of these women — bosses, colleagues, reporters, friends, vanguards, entrepreneurs. “They do serious work, but also carry a sense of levity and lightness,” Thomas says. “They make the film human. They prove that life is hard but also beautiful.”
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