Indian directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh won two Sundance awards for WRITING WITH FIRE – Mythily Ramachandran interviews

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Debutant directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh received two awards-Audience award and Special Jury award at Sundance Film Festival 2021 for their documentary Writing With Fire, chronicling the rise of ‘Khabar Lahariya’ (Waves of news), India’s only newspaper run by Dalit (considered untouchables) women and which recently went digital. WWF is produced by Black Ticket Films, a production company cofounded by Thomas and Ghosh and recognized for its award winning shorts including Timbaktu that received the Indian national award in 2012 as Best Environmental film. Mythily Ramachandran talks to the duo on the making of this documentary.

Mythily Ramachandran: What was the unanimous opinion about Writing With Fire at the Sundance festival?

Rintu Thomas: We didn’t know what to expect from the virtual avatar of the festival. After the world premiere of our film- from a school teacher in Montana to a police officer in Colorado- viewers were tweeting, instagram-ing and emailing us about how inspired they felt after watching WWF. The second screening was sold out right after the first! Winning the Audience Award has a deep meaning for us as it reflects that our film resonated deeply with its audience.

MR: What triggered this story on Khabar Lahariya?

RT: We met our characters first in 2016. I was drawn to the coming together of two unique forces. On one hand are rural Dalit women chipping away at one of the most cruel systemic discriminations in the world created to silence them. On the other hand is digital technology that by its very nature is unfettered. I was interested in exploring what happens when women reclaim the spaces that are designed to exclude them. What does the world that they re-imagine look like? The film’s three main characters are women with different personalities and personal histories. United in their vision for a just world through journalism, they approach it with their unique lens, voice – and chutzpah!

MR: How did it grow into a film?

Sushmit Ghosh: When we saw a photo story of a woman distributing newspapers in rural Uttar Pradesh, it led us to ‘Khabar Lahariya.’ Our focus has always been to make films that are engaging, entertaining and easy to access for a global audience. We were waiting for a right story for a feature. Dalit women using the power of their voice to transform their lives and of others was an exciting premise. But to craft that into a story that works at the intersection of caste, gender, role of media is the work we did during pre-production.
As we began our shoots, we felt that a powerful story was in the making. We would come back from a schedule and edit small scenes to understand the relationship between what we were filming and what meaning was emerging as the footage began speaking back to us. At the editing stage we had a four hour assembly to chip away and arrive at the essence of our story.

MR: Sushmit, you doubled as DOP along with cameraman Karan Thapliyal. What was your vision for this documentary?

SG: When we chose the story of Khabar Lahariya, we knew that it had to be told through an intimate and respectful lens. As a cinematographer, the films I’ve enjoyed working on are about ordinary people with extraordinary resilience. Picking up the camera for ‘WWF’ was a natural choice. Karan became part of this project because of his long association with us. We share a rapport and that helped while filming Writing With Fire.
The guiding principle of cinematography for this film has been of mindfulness. Dalit women have been portrayed as victims of oppression. We decided to frame them as confident women whose personalities, personal histories and dreams are explored in the film. We wanted ‘WWF’ to be a visceral visual experience. We chose three characters – Meera a natural leader; Suneeta, young and ambitious and Shyamkali who is silently fierce. Our camera stayed close to them as they travelled on foot, buses and autos to experience their world through their eyes, while maintaining a respectful distance. It was just Rintu, myself and Karan making up the crew. After few initial interviews, we decided to discard the interview style entirely and film in long, observational takes. And, this steered the element of authenticity to the story.

MR: What were the challenges?

SG: The biggest challenge was in filming with our characters, who were mostly working in extremely hostile spaces – reporting from illegal mines run by powerful mafia; in police stations where rolling a camera is almost impossible; in meetings with politicians who are reluctant to be questioned by women with a camera and also in spaces of deep grief – homes of rape survivors, families of murder victims and survivors of domestic violence.
We had to have a quiet presence, with equipment that was almost invisible so that we didn’t interrupt the work of our characters and also maintained the sanctity of the moments that were unfolding between them and the people they were interacting with.

We filmed in Uttar Pradesh-a drought prone region- through its hot summers, monsoons and bitter winters, often jostling for space on rickety buses, overcrowded rickshaws and even walking for a few hours. And, in the dusty landscape we had to constantly clean the cameras and lenses.

MR: Being a home production, you were free from outside influences. Did that make it easy?

SG: India doesn’t have a culture of long-term institutional support for documentary filmmaking. Directing and producing our own feature meant we were donning many hats at the same time. It can be extremely exhausting at times, especially since you don’t really see a tangible ‘result’ on the horizon most of the times. I think to have the editorial control over what the story is, how it is woven together and how it unravels its different complex layers is a definitely liberating process. We were fortunate to find collaborators along the way who brought in wisdom and experience.

MR: What’s next?

RT: We are developing a story that we think could tilt either into fiction or a documentary. And, there’s an exciting body of commissioned pieces-a series of shorts on women who are leading their village councils and transforming their economies and ecologies. We also love taking time out to teach cinema studies because it’s such a great way to reconnect with books and update.

mithilyMythily Ramachandran,Mythily Ramachandran is an independent journalist from Chennai, India with over two decades of reporting experience in leading Indian and international publications, including Gulf News, (UAE), South Morning China Post, Lifestyle Asia and Another Gaze (UK). When this crazy film buff is not watching films, she is snooping around for those little-known stories of human interest, which eventually find a place in well known publications.

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