Oscar-nominated doc puts a spotlight on Khabar Lahariya

When the winners are announced at the 94th edition of the Academy Awards on 27 March, make sure that you root for India’s entry in the Best Documentary Feature category — Writing with Fire by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh. It’s not just a tremendous achievement that an India documentary has managed to clinch a nomination at the prestigious Oscar, it also highlights the struggles and successes of a journalism movement — Khabar Lahariya. A vibrant community newspaper in multiple dialects, Bundeli, Avadhi and Bajjika, Khabar Lahariya is run by women from marginalised communities in Bihar's Sitamarhi district and UP's Banda district.

09 Mar 2022 | By PrintWeek Team

The film has been nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category

Hailed by The Washington Post as the “most inspiring journalism movie" and The New York Times as “nothing short of galvanising", Writing with Fire traces the journey of the newspaper from the print to the digital medium, with the women leading it becoming daring smartphone journalists. The documentary was shot over five years, following the paths of the newspaper's chief reporter, Meera Jatav, who has been with the newspaper since it started in 2002, and the crime reporter, as they negotiate what can at times be a difficult and dangerous world for women like them.

The film offers a window into the life and work of the Dalit women who run Khabar Lahariya, and the obstacles they overcome — from unhappy husbands and unfriendly crowds to lack of funds and inexperience with technology — as they report on issues that matter the most to the communities they serve.

Khabar Lahariya was started by Nirantar, a New Delhi-based non-government organisation which focuses on gender and education. Initially seen as a women-only publication, it now covers local political news, local crime reports, social issues and entertainment, all reported from a feminist perspective.

The newspaper is written, edited, produced, distributed and marketed entirely by rural women from backward communities. Matching strides with the changing times, Khabar Lahariya successfully shifted digital-first pivot in 2016, as it continues to wage a constant battle with the prejudices of caste and gender to pursue and bring to light stories of administrative neglect, crimes against women, without the women journalists constantly putting their lives in danger for the sake of truth and justice.

The first issue of the paper was published in May 2002 from Karwi in Uttar Pradesh, in the local Bundeli dialect. In 2012, the newspaper launched editions from Mahoba, Lucknow and Varanasi in Bundeli, Awadhi and Bhojpuri dialects respectively. The newspaper also has an edition published from the Sitamarhi district of Bihar in Bajjikka dialect, and from Banda, Uttar Pradesh, in the Bundeli dialect.

Before shifting to digital-first approach, according to a September 2012 data, the newspaper’s total print-run was around 6,000 copies sold in about 600 villages in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, with an estimated readership of 80,000.

From 2016, the newspaper has shifted to a digital format launching a video channel and creating news in video clips. It also has an active Facebook page, as well as a YouTube channel (10 million views and counting).