Jaya Padmanabhan is a journalist, author and director of programs at Ethnic Media Services.
For the first time in its history, an Indian film was up for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Writing with Fire follows low-income, low-caste (Dalit), self-trained journalists at a rural, women-only news publication called Khabar Lahariya. Having begun in 2002—its name means “news waves”—it showcases the complexities of pursuing news that incriminates the corrupt and influential at a time when power in India seems to have few limits.
Of course, The Slap is practically all that anyone remembers from this year’s awards. But perhaps the saddest unacknowledged consequence of Will Smith assaulting Chris Rock was that he did so just as Rock was about to read out the winner of the very category for which Writing with Fire was nominated.
Women’s stories often fail to pass through the narrow gateway controlled by the Oscar elite, whether intentionally or otherwise. So the fact that a few women-centric projects (The Queen of Basketball, Writing with Fire) made it to the awards show this year was a feat of extraordinary proportions.
Or, as the night’s hosts remarked, “After years of Hollywood ignoring women’s stories, this year we finally got a movie about the incredible Williams sisters’ … dad.” As a joke, it hit its target. Their zinger referred to King Richard, the movie for which Will Smith won his Oscar.
Writing with Fire opens with the investigation of a woman who was repeatedly gang-raped in January 2016. Chief reporter, Meera Devi, interviewed the survivor and later, at the police station, confronted the officers who expressed no knowledge of the crime. According to the survivor’s testimony, her husband was threatened and locked up when he attempted to file the complaint. “These men can do anything,” she stated, staring at the camera dully. Of course, she meant men of privilege. It was a powerful moment of vulnerability that established the movie’s social relevance, catapulting it to the Oscars’ stage.
Bay Area filmmaker Saila Kariat met Writing with Fire co-director Rintu Thomas on a virtual panel. She says it was evident Thomas “felt galvanized” by the Dalit women journalists whom she and her co-director Sushmit Ghosh followed over the course of five years.
To Kariat, one of the most compelling aspects of the film is how the subjects inhabit their womanhood and their work. In the film, Suneeta, a journalist, remarks that it is considered a curse to be born a woman (“first you are a burden to your family and then a slave to your husband.”)
“Thomas and Ghosh’s beautifully crafted documentary shows how Suneeta and her fellow journalists shatter this view,” Kariat says.
Indeed, the viewer gets invested in some of the reported stories, horrifying and heartwarming in equal parts: An illegal mine that devastates a community, villages without water and electricity, women not having toilets despite government assurances to build them. In one instance, a group of interested observers mansplains to a journalist that she should be more conciliatory in the questions she asks of those in positions of authority.
From the very start of the awards ceremony, I was eagerly awaiting the documentary features announcement. I knew the film was unlikely to win, given the other more familiar stories of oppression, perhaps even more adeptly told. Yet I felt a sense of awe and pride that these remarkable Dalit women journalists were now on the world stage, competing for recognition.
Like many others, I initially assumed that the sequence of events between Smith and Rock was staged. It was only when the audio was cut off that it dawned on me that this was not part of the performance but a display of toxic masculinity between two powerful men.
Immediately after The Slap, a visibly shaken Rock read out the names of the documentary feature nominees and announced the winner (Questlove’s Summer of Soul about the Harlem Cultural Festival) with little to no fanfare. It was evident that the audience was still processing what had just happened, and the category’s nominees had their moment stolen from them—Questlove included.
It’s not surprising that Smith later won, but his tear-filled, ingratiating Oscar-winning speech cast the whole event in an even more unsavory light. He used words that could well have been extracted from a domestic violence abuser’s playbook. “Love makes us do crazy things,” Smith said, a chilling phrase that aligns with how abusers rationalize their behaviors: “It’s only because I love you.”
Earlier on in Writing with Fire, Devi remarks that there was a clear understanding that journalism fell within the realm of privileged men.
“A Dalit woman journalist was unthinkable,” she says. “Over the last 14 years, we’ve changed that perception.”
A few years ago, the Khabar Lahariya news team made the leap from print to digital, despite little awareness of online technology. The raw honesty of their reporting widened their reach. Their YouTube channel has upwards of 550,000 subscribers.
Yet towards the end of the movie, there’s a look of exhaustion on Devi’s face as she says that along with her work as a journalist, she is fighting to transform society: “But when you don’t see that change happen, it’s very concerning.”
Having come this far, from rural India to urban California, this spunky documentary should have been made more visible to the Oscars’ audience.
Writing with Fire is available for streaming on Apple TV, Amazon Prime and other streaming platforms.
Follow Jaya on Twitter at @jayapadmanabhan