Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog may be leading this year’s Academy Awards with 12 nominations, but India is in thrall over a story of its own underdogs, vying for an Oscar in the documentary feature category.
Writing with Fire tells the extraordinary story of the feisty women of Khabar Lahariya – an all-women news service run mostly by editors and reporters from the most marginalised Dalit, Muslim and tribal communities.
The film, which premiered last year at the Sundance Film Festival where it won two awards, is yet to be shown in India.
But the Oscar nomination and the rave reviews from critics abroad – The Washington Post called it “the most inspiring journalism movie, maybe ever” – have piqued interest at home.
Born as a single-sheet newspaper 20 years ago in the economically deprived Bundelkhand region of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Khabar Lahariya – which translates to Waves of News – is now fully digital, with more than half a million subscribers on YouTube and 10 million average monthly views.
The documentary captures this transition from print to digital while following managing editor and star of the film Meera Devi and two of her reporters as they unbox their new smartphones, learn to use technology and challenge tradition within their homes and in the community.
Produced in the local rural dialects of Hindi, Khabar Lahariya reports on rural development, farmer suicides, corruption, crimes against women and crippling water shortages – issues that matter locally but find little space in mainstream media.
Among its journalists are a former child miner, several child brides, survivors of abuse and domestic violence – all local women who’ve faced, and continue to live with, class, gender and caste discrimination. And the stories they tell are often informed by their lived experiences.
Coming at a time when journalism is in flux in India with many high-profile journalists unquestioningly toeing the government line, the Oscar-nomination for Writing with Fire has put the spotlight on these women daring to speak truth to power, asking uncomfortable questions of police and patriarchal satraps.
But just a week before the award ceremony in Los Angeles on 27 March, the media group distanced itself from the documentary, accusing the filmmakers of “distorting” its story – a charge the filmmakers have denied.
In a statement on their site, Khabar Lahariya said the film inaccurately showed their journalists focusing on the hardline Hindutva politics practised by the state’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party and insisted that over two decades, they had reported on many parties and “shown them all the mirror when they have not done what they said”.
Srishti Mehra from Khabar Lahariya’s communications team told the BBC that “the film captures a crucial time in our 20-year journey and the Oscars is a big stage and it has brought us global attention”.
“But it’s only a small part of our journey. And part stories have a way of distorting the whole sometimes.”
Away from the limelight of the Oscars, Ms Mehra said “it’s business as usual” for the Khabar Lahariya reporters who are busy doing what they do best – shoe-leather journalism.
Last week, I accompanied Meera and senior reporter Nazni Rizvi as they travelled to a village about 50km (31 miles) from their office in Banda, a riverside town 200km from the state capital, Lucknow, to investigate complaints of frequent power outages.
Two days ago, Meera had received a call from one of the villagers complaining about a breakdown. She tweeted and, within minutes, authorities responded, even though it took 24 hours to restore electricity.
But the power’s out again so the team is going there to find out what causes these frequent cuts.
Temperatures are hovering around 37 Celsius and when Meera and Nazni arrive in the village, they are surrounded by anxious residents, wondering how they would cope without power during summer.
Lala Ram, who had called Meera, says he did it “because officials don’t listen to us” and “no other media ever comes to talk to us”.
But for Meera and Nazni, these are important stories that must be told.
“We also live in villages and face the same issues. But our problems are considered too trivial by the mainstream media,” says Meera, adding that “we speak for ourselves because no-one else does”.
Meera, who was hired in 2006, and Nazni, a year later, say they “stumbled into journalism” not driven by some lofty ideals to set the world right but as a means to earn a living, to gain a bit of freedom – and in Nazni’s case, to escape a violent husband and feed her small children.
But their jobs came with their own set of problems. Both child brides, who were “married at 13-14”, they had to fight their families and society to be taken seriously.
“Bundelkhand is a place where women are not even allowed to talk to men so people, including our families, couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that we kept such irregular hours and sometimes worked during the night,” Meera says.
And when they went out to interview people, “they wouldn’t take us seriously, they wouldn’t treat us as reporters”.
“Some men would pass lewd remarks, they’d ask if we were married and had children. Sometimes, they’d ask us to return at night. Some officials would tell us that we’d be better off if we instead sold poppadum and pickles,” Nazni adds.
Their caste and religious identities also played a part – Meera is Dalit. Formerly known as “untouchables”, the community has languished for centuries at the bottom of an unforgiving Hindu caste hierarchy. Nazni is from the minority Muslim community which is being increasingly marginalised in India since the rise of Hindu nationalists in government.
But over the years, they say, their “troubles have eased” – and, grudgingly, their families have become more accepting of their work. They have also won several prestigious national and international awards. which have brought them recognition and respectability and turned Meera and her colleagues into role models for the younger generation.
“Now girls say they want to emulate us,” Meera says. “A job at Khabar Lahariya is now much sought-after. Earlier, families would try to discourage their daughters from joining us, but now they ask us when a vacancy would come up next.”
And what about the officials who earlier advised them to sell pickles?
“Now they try to avoid us because we have a reputation – they know we’ll be asking them tough questions,” she says, laughing.