Writing with Fire is a story of courageous women working in a very hostile environment to operate a journalism enterprise in Uttar Pradesh, India. Here are three of their stories:
Suneeta: As a child she carried stones in a basket on top of her head to fill up a trolley car. She earned about 2.50 rupees/day, the equivalent of 3 cents in today’s dollars. After the mines were shut down, the mining mafia continued to operate them. Suneeta, now in her 20s, went back into the mines to expose the illegal and dangerous operation. Her reporting eventually stirred the national press in India to pick up the story and the mines were shut down. Meanwhile, her father insisted that she stop working for the newspaper because he couldn’t pay the dowry demanded by potential husbands who would allow her to continue working. She did quit work and got married, but only a month later, returned to the newspaper.
Shyamkali: She was one of the younger recruits and her hesitance at participating is obvious. As the group wants to transition to all “digital” capture and display of the news, she is at a severe disadvantage. She has never handled a phone or any other device, is unnerved by the buttons on the phone being in English, and, because she has no electricity in her home, cannot charge the phone that is given to her. Despite these odds, she is richly supported by the older women in the group and, despite being married with children, continues her work reporting on problems in her community.
Meera: One of the older women in the group, she was among the original founders of the newspaper in 2002 and was a key figure in the move to digitize in 2016. She was only 14 when she got married and had her first child not too long after. She was allowed by her enlightened in-laws to get an education and, in fact, earned three degrees including a master’s. Meera’s husband, even years later, does not believe that her journalism efforts will prove successful and openly tells her and the filmmakers such. Meanwhile, Meera, working as both a reporter and a mentor for all these women, works very long days, often to the neglect of her children. She is, clearly, the leader and the guiding force for all of these women.
Writing with Fire tells the stories of these three women all involved in the journalism venture, Khabar Larahiya. Against all odds, they have been operating for more than 20 years. Based in Uttar Pradesh, the violence against women there is one of the most severe in India — rapes and even murders are more than common and often not even investigated because women are considered more like property than human beings. Add to that the overwhelming condition that they are all Dalits, or more commonly known (in the West) as “untouchables”. In the Indian caste system, which has operated for more than a thousand years, the men occupying this bottom rung in Indian society are typically involved in sanitation work.
Women “untouchables” are rarely seen outside of the home.Writing with Fire tells their story objectively and yet manages to display the humanity of these women in sometimes touching ways. This isn’t a great documentary, but is, perhaps, an essential one and anyone interested in the struggles of local journalism, oppressed people, and women in particular, will experience wonder in Writing with Fire. (3.5*)
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