Amid a male-dominated news landscape, reporters with Khabar Lahariya, India’s only all-female news network, are covering their country’s inequities with undaunted determination.

Writing With Fire from Independent Lens tells the story of three journalists, all from the “lowest caste” in India. The film takes an unflinching look at the caste system, the country’s extremist leadership, rape culture and rampant corruption that victimizes those without voice or power.

Nominated for a 2022 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, the film follows the women at home and at work. Armed with only smartphones, they confront local police, listen to victims of caste and gender violence, and investigate the dangers of abandoned mines taken over and run by gangs. Not only are the reporters breaking gender and class roles, but they also face considerable personal risk—more than 50 journalists have been killed in India since 2014.

Their exposés frequently prompt long-overdue official action—abandoned canals once again flow with water, impassable roads get repaired, crime reports are investigated and medicines arrive at hospitals.

Suneeta, one of the reporters, said the work is much more than a job.

“Being a journalist gives me the power to fight for justice, and that’s what I want to be remembered for,” she said.

“As we made this film, a lot of unlearning happened for both of us,” said Rintu Thomas who directed and produced the film with her business partner and husband Sushmit Ghosh. “We were bearing witness to a master class in the art of negotiation, as these women navigated exceptionally hostile situations to create tectonic social shifts through their work,” she said.

“The reporters are chipping away at one of the cruelest power structures of social
segregation,” said Ghosh. “We began filming in 2016, when they were shifting from
print to digital. We were very interested in what happens when these two forces—a 3,000-year-old social hierarchy and the unfettered power of the internet—collide.”

Producing short documentaries since 2009, Ghosh and Thomas had always been drawn to stories of outliers who were redefining systems they were in, creating transformative change. So the work of the journalists naturally captured their interest.

“What immediately drew us to the story was that women at the bottom of India’s caste hierarchy were essentially flipping the social pyramid and redefining the meaning of power—this infused us with hope,” said Ghosh.

“I’m a lot less cynical after making this film,” added Thomas. “We live in a fractured world and it was important for us to tell a story about people who are looking at the same reality but creating a different story.”

She said the film also challenges assumptions about rural India. “We both grew up in the city and the information we had about rural India was very unidimensional. The women in the film demonstrated a much more nuanced and accurate understanding.”

Khabar Lahariya (which means Waves of News), now 20 years old, recently topped 160 million views on YouTube. As the award-winning film has resonated with viewers at festivals around the world, Ghosh and Thomas said they hope it also tells a new story about filmmakers from the Global South.

“India has a rich tradition of storytelling, so we wanted to have a predominantly Indian crew to maintain the documentary’s editorial integrity,” said Thomas. “To have a film from the Global South nominated for an Oscar opens doors for more independent filmmakers from our part of the world to imagine the possibilities of their own stories.”

Watch the trailer here.