Writing With Fire’s Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature wasn’t just a huge achievement for directors Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas. It was a triumph for all of India.
The married couple became the first Indian filmmakers to earn a nomination in that category.
“The fact that this was the first Indian documentary feature to be nominated became just such big news. It was everywhere,” Thomas tells Deadline. “A billion people sort of erupted in joy because we’re a film-loving nation. We produce a lot of films in the year, but for a documentary — nobody remembers when was the last time the whole country got so excited… The next two days [after the nomination announcement] the phone sort of melted, with in-boxes imploding and everyone wanting a bite, and it was just crazy.”
Thomas says it took a while for the gravity of the nomination to sink in.
“The Academy sent us an e-mail… and it said, ‘Welcome, you’re now a part of history,’” Thomas recalls. “So when I opened that email, I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s pretty powerful.’”
The film has been an underdog in the Oscar race, without the backing of a big streamer or other major platform (Music Box Films released the film in domestic theaters). And it tells a story of underdogs – the all-female staff of the newspaper Khabar Lahariya, based in Uttar Pradesh, who despite predictions they would fail have instead turned their operation into a major success in print and online. What’s even more remarkable is the founders are Dalit women, members of India’s lowest caste.
“In India, more than 90 percent of all editorial positions in broadsheets as well as broadcast are anchored by people from positions of privilege or who are upper caste, and primarily men,” Ghosh notes. “So when you have a news organization that is led primarily by Dalit women, the nature of news making completely changes.”
The film shows KL reporters taking on stories other outlets won’t investigate, like mining operations controlled by organized crime, or sexual assault cases that have been ignored by police.
The husband of one rape victim tells Meera Devi, KL’s managing editor and a main subject of the film, “Khabar Lahariya is our only hope.”
The staff, including Devi and journalist Suneeta Prajapati, put their lives in danger to report in the field where they could be subjected to violence. Tense moments in the documentary show Prajapati trying to gather news in the midst of crowds of men who either distrust her as a journalist or show her contempt as a woman.
“My work comes at great personal risk,” Prajapati tells the filmmakers.
The intrepid work of KL reporters could serve as inspiration to journalists everywhere and a reminder of what is at stake for the fourth estate. As Devi notes in the film, “I believe journalism is the essence of democracy.”
Ghosh and Thomas see their documentary as upholding similar values.
“This is a film that is pro-democracy, [exploring] what a democracy should look like,” Thomas comments. “And who is actually telling us that narrative? The people that democracy fails the most.”
The documentary work of Ghosh and Thomas has focused largely on social justice issues; their 2011 short Dilli, for example, centers on inhabitants of a Delhi slum who were driven from their homes in the midst of a beautification program. A summary written by an anonymous IMDb contributor says, “Dilli holds up a mirror not only to India, but to every nation around the world, whose poor live forgotten under bridges, children go hungry, and fathers work thousands of miles from their families to provide.”
“Most, if not all, of our independent work in India has been political,” Ghosh observes, “whether that be questioning ideas around development or the ideas around public health or refugee rights.”
The couple spent six years working on Writing With Fire, encountering numerous obstacles along the way, including financing. There’s a lot of money in Bollywood, but it’s a different story for documentary, the filmmakers note.
“There isn’t any infrastructure. Like, if you were to apply for, say, a development grant to just work on a project, there’s nothing,” Ghosh comments. “And that’s the irony because we’re one of the largest film-producing countries in the world and it’s not just Hindi cinema, it’s also regional cinema.”
Writing With Fire was accepted into the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the audience award for World Cinema Documentary and a Special Jury Prize for Impact and Change. From there the film was off and running.
“Then through the year, what started happening was within the U.S. and outside the film started doing really well on the festival circuit and picked up a bunch of audience awards eventually,” Ghosh says. “That kind of told us the film was speaking to people right from the U.S., to Nigeria, all the way through to Japan.”
Audiences have connected with the film in part because it’s a hopeful story of women succeeding despite powerful odds against them.
“People fall in love with the women. They always start identifying with one of the three [main subjects],” Thomas notes. “They sort of have a personal connection, ‘Oh, I love Meera because…’”
Thomas and Ghosh had to cobble together an Oscar campaign, not having much to go by in terms of role models, or funds.
“We were undernourished in terms of resources. We didn’t have that machinery, we didn’t have the experience,” Thomas says. “So we would talk to a lot of people, a lot of filmmakers who had done these guerrilla campaigns with shoestring budgets, done everything themselves. So that really helped because those guys would tell us things that worked, things that didn’t work, and we would make copious notes.”
The directors put in a lot of effort to get the word out to awards voters in time zones behind India.
“We were like this cottage industry of doing everything, social media assets, doing Q&As,” Thomas recalls. “And although you think you’re 13 hours ahead of time, you’re always catching up with Pacific and East Coast. So it was just getting into a cycle of doing India-based work through the day, taking an afternoon nap and then 6 p.m. onwards, until like 3 a.m., figuring out what [more to do].”
They were not given a good shot at earning an Oscar nomination.
“All the predictions, we were nowhere, there was nothing in the trades about us,” Thomas says.
“When I look back now, that’s the joy of it,” Ghosh laughs. “No one could predict it.”
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