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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  A film that’s worthy of an Oscar even if its subject has misgivings
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A film that’s worthy of an Oscar even if its subject has misgivings

The documentary ‘Writing With Fire’ reveals much about media ideals and power equations in UP

Fimmaker Rintu Thomas’s Writing With FirePremium
Fimmaker Rintu Thomas’s Writing With Fire

This weekend, Writing With Fire may win an Academy Award in the category of documentaries and become the first Indian film to win this honour at the Oscars. Individuals, such as Satyajit Ray (for lifetime achievement), and Bhanu Athaiya, Resool Pookutty, Gulzar and A.R. Rahman (for specific films), have won the golden statue, but no Indian film has won yet.

Writing With Fire is a powerful account of how a group of marginalized women in Uttar Pradesh came together to create an internet platform called Khabar Lahariya that provided authentic grassroot reports on issues that affect most Indians, in Hindi as it’s spoken and understood by real people, and was far removed from ‘the news’ that’s shown on loud and incomprehensible national networks which compete over TV rating points and seem to believe that their anchor is worth something only if he (occasionally she) abuses some of the guests and doesn’t let them speak.

Writing With Fire’s makers, Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, have focused on three of Khabar Lahariya’s reporters—Meera Devi, Shyamkali Devi, and Sunita Prajapati—and turned them into heroes. These women, like others on that portal, do what journalists are supposed to do: witness life and hold the powerful to account. Armed with cellphones and access to the internet, these women tell stories, and we see their confidence and professionalism grow.

Writing With Fire has been acclaimed by critics and journalists around the world. Khabar Lahariya’s staff have welcomed the attention too: they have shared articles praising the film on social media and some have participated in web-based panel discussions.

And yet, early this week, Khabar Lahariya issued an intriguing statement, which appreciated the film but also aimed to distance the portal from it. The platform said the film inaccurately portrayed its work, as though it had ‘a particular and consuming focus of reporting on one party.’ It seems as if its management is upset because the film-makers showed it doing what it was doing—holding the government to account. The timing of the press release too is peculiar, coming as it does a week before the awards ceremony and two weeks after the state assembly election results in Uttar Pradesh (UP). The film portrays a part of its story, Khabar Lahariya says, and “part stories have a way of distorting the whole sometimes," which sounds exactly like something a critic of the platform’s reporting might say about its journalism.

Khabar Lahariya’s contention is that the portal does not have a partisan agenda but the film suggests it does. While the film focuses on several of its specific stories, including one about a clownish and yet dangerous Hindutva activist, it also shows interviews with Bharatiya Janata Party leaders over other injustices. And it shows its intrepid reporters boldly covering illegal mining and challenging the police over human rights abuses. These women run their households while operating in a dangerous field, redrawing power equations within their families and the broader society. In this, the film offers insights into the changing dynamics of gender relations.

True, you don’t see Khabar Lahariya reporters challenging the Congress party, but that’s understandable; the party hardly matters in UP. The news platform has said the portal has good relations with all political parties, which is unnecessary. Journalists should not view their professional relationships with any newsmaker—a politician, business executive or a celebrity—as friendship, because once the relationship gets personal, the political is no longer possible and the professional takes a backseat.

That said, it is strange that the film has not yet been shown in India. Are the filmmakers worried about crank lawsuits, unrest in theatres, or problems with the central board of film certification? We don’t know. Any controversy would only make the film more attractive. So those in India who’d like to defend it on principle cannot, since they haven’t seen it; and those who’d not want it to be seen are happy, because it isn’t released yet. Most peculiar.

The film also raises other larger questions. Who owns the story? The journalist or the subject? Every honest reporter strives to write accurately what she has found and cross-checks data, going as far as facts take her. And yet interviewees often feel short-changed. Khabar Lahariya’s reporters know this. Now the portal is the subject and has qualms about what it sees, even though it’s flattering, since the depiction has political consequences. But that’s how it goes.

No journalist can be true to her vocation if she writes only to please the subject of an interview. She must be true to what she has learnt. Khabar Lahariya’s reporters do that admirably. Ghosh and Thomas have placed its reporters in a specific context, which may make them uncomfortable. Rather than worry about how they’re perceived, they should focus on the stories, and on facts.

Nobody who is truly interested in India, journalism, gender empowerment or power who emerges from the auditorium will think less of the portal’s courageous reporters. May its women reporters go far. And may the Academy hand over that golden statue to this film that shows India as it is.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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Published: 23 Mar 2022, 10:19 PM IST
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