Delhi-based Malayali woman’s documentary inching towards Oscars

Delhi-based Malayali Rintu Thomas' documentary 'Writing with Fire' is barely a few steps away from scripting history at the Oscars. The film, produced by Rintu and Sushmit Gosh, has been shortlisted for the Oscar race as one of the top 15 films in the documentary feature category. The glimmer of hope comes at a time when Tamil feature film 'Koozhangal' which was India's official entry for the 94th Academy awards has been voted out of competition. It is only a matter of a few weeks to wait and watch if Rintu and Sushmit would take the nation's pride to greater heights when the awards would be announced in Los Angeles in March.

'Writing with Fire' is the story of an all-women-run digital newspaper operating in the Banda district on the fringes of UP-Madhya Pradesh border, situated around 620 kilometres away from Delhi. The docu-film chronicles the journey of a weekly rural newspaper called 'Khabar Lahariya' started by Dalit women - Kavitha Devi and Meera Jadev. It was published in different dialects of Hindi. The term 'Khabar Lahariya' is loosely translated as 'waves of news'. 'Writing with Fire' portrays a village where a set of women from marginalized communities is creating waves in the world of journalism through active news reporting. Started in 2002, 'Khabar Lahariya' had eight editions and could boast of a readership of around 80,000. The film also explores the publication's transition from print to digital medium. Director Rintu Thomas shares with Onmanorama her thoughts on 'Writing with Fire', her production company Black Ticket Films and the film's journey to the Oscar race.

Five years of hardwork

Sushmit and I had come across 'Khabar Lahariya' from a newspaper when we were scouting for new story ideas for a documentary. Soon we travelled all the way to the village in 2016, at a time when the newspaper was making a shift from print to the online platform. The majority of the crew has not seen a smartphone in their lives, and some of the women were excited to run their fingers on the gadget. We knew that we had a hectic task ahead as the project required more travels with the women journalists. By December 2020 we could complete the shoot, the editing and the post-production work.

Grand start at Sundance fest

The documentary was first screened at Sundance Film Festival in January 2021. The selection for the festival turns out to be special as Sundance which normally screens 12 docu films had to cut short the number to 10 that year after it switched over to virtual mode due to Covid restrictions. The festival was a turning point as 'Writing with Fire' won the special jury award and audience award. From then there was no looking back. The documentary was selected for a number of festivals and grabbed as many as 28 international awards. The journey to the Oscar began after the film got the opportunity for a release in the United States last October. As soon as I arrived in Delhi from the United States, I received an SMS from a colleague at Black Ticket Films, saying that the film has been shortlisted for the Oscars.

Walking the dream

My parents are Kottayam natives Raju Thomas and Shiju Raju. I completed my studies in Delhi - BA Honours degree from Lady Shri Ram College and post-graduation in Mass Communication from Jamia Millia Islamia. The selection to Jamia university imparted a sense of achievement as I have had a deep passion for journalism. Actually, the institute gave me exposure to documentary filmmaking. After completing studies I assisted in documentary and feature film making for a year. I used to spend time with Sushmit, my classmate, discussing new ideas, which in fact kindled the dream to embark on an independent project. Though my target was filmmaking, I soon got inclined to documentary films that opened the scope of compelling story-telling through pictures.

So, I invested all my earnings to float a production house called Black Ticket Films in 2009. The plan was to wind up the company if there wasn't any work in one year. Those days were really hard. People were keen to know about my experience, who my boss was and the like. It was tough to convince them that I was the boss to myself. In those struggling days I received a grant from British Council which was given to young filmmakers. The money was used to produce the documentary 'Miracle Water Village' that was televised through the National Geographic channel.

Hurdles aplenty

In 13 years Black Ticket Films could produce only very few documentaries. Time has a crucial role to play. Before setting out on any new story, we were precisely aware of the total working hours that we have to invest in the project. It took one whole year to complete an 18-minute documentary called 'Dilli'; eight months for the 27-minute-long 'Timbaktu' (which won the National Film Award in 2012). It was followed by ‘Writing with Fire’.

The shoot of ‘Writing with Fire’ was done between 2016 and ‘19. The toughest part was to procure funds for the shoot. Yet, we were not ready to make any compromise. The women journalists of Banda were in the phase of transition from print to digital media. So right from the start, we knew the deadline would get extended. Sushmit and I did most of the editing work. We wrote the script and directed the film together. Sushmit managed its cinematography, while I did the onsite recording. We had a concrete idea about the post-production technicians to work on our project (for instance, Tajdhar Junaid was already fixed to do the music). The technicians in Mumbai charge exorbitant fees. Their expenses were met through the commissioned works of Black Ticket Films.

The distribution crisis

The increasing viewership for the documentaries being screened in OTT platforms such as Netflix underscores the fact that India is a super good avenue for quality documentary films. However, the distribution aspect is a deterrent to documentaries hitting the big screens. People often feel there would be hardly any audience for documentaries in theatres. However, people have flocked to theatres in large numbers when documentaries such as 'Insignificant Man’ was screened. Social media was not that vibrant when Black Ticket Films was launched. But today they offer a range of possibilities, especially in marketing. OTT platforms can also be utilised in a big way.

Oscar entry was unexpected

Most of the film festivals had switched over to the virtual mode due Covid-induced restrictions. Yet 'Writing with Fire' was able to make a strong presence in these festivals, with audience giving rave reviews - a fact that helped the  film gain a release in the United States. I travelled to the US when the curbs on international travel were lifted. I never had the faintest thought that my film would even figure among the 130 films in the first round of Oscar nominations. Now it adds a great sense of accomplishment to get selected among the final 15 in Oscar race. At this point, I don't have high expectations or dreams, for we are competing with big production houses such as Netflix, Hulu, that have an exemplary marketing base. Till now we have not been able to release the film in India. Talks are underway and hopefully, we expect to see the green light by summer.

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