write with fireThe Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature wasn’t just a big achievement for directors Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas. It was a triumph for all of India.
The married couple became the first Indian filmmaker to earn a nomination in this category.
“The fact that this was the first Indian feature documentary to be nominated became such big news. It was everywhere,” Thomas tells Deadline. “A billion people kind of burst into joy because we are a nation that loves cinema. We produce a lot of films in the year, but for a documentary — nobody remembers the last time the whole country got so excited… The next two days [after the nomination announcement] the phone kind of melted down, with inboxes imploding and everyone wanting a bite to eat, and it was just crazy.
Thomas says it took some time for the seriousness of the appointment to sink in.
“The Academy sent us an email…and it said, ‘Welcome, you’re now part of history,’” Thomas recalls. “So when I opened that email, I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s pretty powerful. “”
The film was an underdog in the race for the Oscars, without the backing of a major streamer or other major platform (Music Box Films released the film in domestic theaters). And it tells a story of the downtrodden – the newspaper’s all-female staff Khabar Lahariya, based in Uttar Pradesh, which, despite predictions of failure, instead turned its operation into a major print and online success. What is even more remarkable is that the founders are Dalit women, members of India’s lowest caste.
“In India, more than 90% of all editorial positions in broadsheets as well as in circulation are held by people in privileged or upper-caste positions, and mostly men,” Ghosh notes. “So when you have a news organization run mainly by Dalit women, the nature of the news changes completely.”
The movie shows KL journalists who pick up stories that other media won’t investigate, such as mining operations controlled by organized crime or sexual assault cases that have been ignored by police.
A rape victim’s husband tells Meera Devi, KLeditorial director and main subject of the film, “Khabar Lahariya is our only hope.
Staff members, including Devi and journalist Suneeta Prajapati, put their lives at risk to report from the field where they could face violence. Tense moments in the documentary show Prajapati trying to gather information amid a crowd of men who either distrust her as a journalist or despise her as a woman.
“My job involves great personal risk,” Prajapati told the filmmakers.
The intrepid work of KL reporters could serve as an inspiration to journalists around the world and recall the issues of the fourth estate. As Devi notes in the film, “I believe journalism is the essence of democracy.”
Ghosh and Thomas see their documentary as championing similar values.
“It’s a pro-democracy film, [exploring] what a democracy should look like,” comments Thomas. “And who is really telling us this story? The people that democracy fails the most.
Ghosh and Thomas’ documentary work has largely focused on issues of social justice; their 2011 short film Dilly, for example, focuses on residents of a Delhi slum who have been driven from their homes amid a beautification scheme. A summary written by an anonymous IMDb contributor says: “Dilly raises a mirror not only for India, but for all the nations of the world, whose poor live forgotten under bridges, children go hungry and fathers work thousands of miles from their families to support themselves.
“Most, if not all, of our independent work in India has been political,” observes Ghosh, “whether challenging ideas about development or ideas about public health or refugee rights. “.
The couple spent six years working on write with fire, encountering many obstacles along the way, including funding. There’s a lot of money in Bollywood, but that’s another story for the documentary, note the filmmakers.
“There is no infrastructure. For example, if you were to apply for, say, a development grant to just work on a project, there’s nothing,” comments Ghosh. “And that’s the irony because we’re one of the biggest film producing countries in the world and it’s not just Hindi cinema, it’s also regional cinema.”
write 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 launched.
“Then throughout the year what started happening in the US and outside of film started doing really well on the festival circuit and eventually won a lot of audience awards” , Ghosh said. “It kind of told us that the film spoke to people from the United States to Nigeria, all the way to Japan.”
Audiences have connected with the film in part because it’s a hopeful story of successful women despite powerful odds against them.
“People fall in love with women. They always begin to identify with one of three [main subjects]notes Thomas. “They kind of have a personal connection, ‘Oh, I love Meera because…'”
Thomas and Ghosh had to cobble together an Oscar campaign, having little to do in terms of models or funds.
“We were undernourished in terms of resources. We didn’t have that machinery, we didn’t have the experience,” says Thomas. “So we were talking to a lot of people, a lot of filmmakers who had done these guerrilla campaigns on shoestring budgets, all done themselves. So that really helped because these guys were telling us things that worked, things that didn’t work, and we took lots of notes.
The administrators have gone to great lengths to get the word out to voters about the awards in the time zones behind India.
“We were like this cottage industry that did everything, social media assets, Q&As,” Thomas recalls. “And although you think you’re 13 hours ahead, you’re still catching up to the Pacific and the East Coast. So it was just a matter of getting into a cycle of working in India throughout the day, taking a nap in the afternoon, and then from 6 p.m., until about 3 a.m., figuring out what than [more to do].”
They didn’t have a good chance of 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, it’s joy,” Ghosh laughs. “Nobody could predict it.”