Oscar-nominated Writing With Fire misses path to Dalit liberation

By ignoring ​​methods of caste annihilation, the award-nominated Indian documentary offers mostly surface Dalit representation.

Posters for Summer of Soul and Writing With Fire
Posters for 2022 Oscar-nominated films, Summer of Soul and Writing With Fire [AP Photo]

As a Bahujan (representing the majority class) woman, and a filmmaker who comes from a legacy of the anti-caste movement in India, I watched the Academy Award-nominated documentary feature, Writing With Fire, with the gaze of a sceptic.

The film documents the lives of three brave Dalit (a member of the lowest class in India’s traditional caste system) journalists at Khabar Lahariya, a women-led grassroots newspaper transitioning into the digital space. It follows chief reporter Meera, who with an MA in political science, a BEd, and a nose for news, leads the paper’s reporting; Shyamkali, who learns the value of education and overcomes her shyness, taking baby steps into operating a smartphone for the first time and finding her voice through her work; and Suneeta, a former mine labourer who becomes a fearless journalist reporting on illegal mining despite receiving death threats.

Set in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the newspaper’s heartland and also where Dalits comprise about 20 percent of the population, Writing With Fire finds an eager audience for this story that deals with identity and Dalit representation from an aspirational point of view. But does it offer any more than surface representation?

The inescapable nature of caste – like that of race – plays through the three women’s lives as they cover everything from broken roads and a lack of medicine, water and electricity, to illegal mining, political rallies, and cases of rape and murder. Thanks to the power of their pen and fearless investigative journalism, they do an exceptional job reporting in a state where rates of caste-related violence are the highest in the country.

But the filmmakers, Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, do not come from the Dalit community and lack the lived experience of being positioned at the lower rung of an intergenerational caste hierarchy in Hindu society. Although they sensitively document the lives of these journalists, and materialise the passing of the mic – at least on screen – there are still things that problematise the film.

Meera, Shyamkali and Suneeta find their voice, an ability to support their families, and a space to pose daring questions as journalists. But ideologically – at least in the world of the film – they lack a social anchor to release them from the hierarchy of caste oppression in Indian society.

This could either be because, in this film, the story of Dalit representation and the problems of caste is told from an upper-caste gaze, which is removed from the real lived experience of a Dalit person, and is therefore a voyeuristic exercise in nature; or the subjects themselves have not yet engaged with the question of caste and why they are the socially excluded ones in Hindu society.

In the film, when Meera says that the oppression of caste hierarchy will continue to follow her throughout her life, despite her wanting to escape it, I immediately recognised this as the lack of a social anchor.

For me, the anchor was Bhimrao Ambedkar, champion of India’s anti-caste movement. His academic work helped me build a scientific temperament to understand caste and gender; his strategic mind about his civil rights movement – that campaigned to allow “Untouchables” to use public water tanks and have equal access to religious sites; his newspapers that he used to broadcast the struggles of this community; and his commitment to studying all religions of the world – inspired me.

All his life he urged self-representation – the annihilation of caste as a collective and establishing a society based on social equality in India. He also found ways to smash the structure of caste, class and gender through various methods, despite facing massive backlash from Hindu traditionalists, even after his death in the 1950s. Surrounded by many spineless people, Ambedkar had the spine of a dinosaur, believing that social reform has to take precedence over political and religious reform. He insisted on the reconstruction of Hindu society and breaking the caste system, and urged Hindus to admit that one caste is not fit to rule another.

To not see this perspective in Meera or in the film, I feel unsure of the filmmakers’ intention. How can we talk about caste and Dalit representation but not talk about Ambedkar, who analysed caste for the world?

The missing conversation about the social liberation of Dalit identity using Ambedkar’s methods is something I could not digest. I wondered, is it something not found in these women’s reel lives, or does it not exist in real life either?

Reporting on a crime in the film, Suneeta says, “Most violence happens on a woman’s body. Rape, murder, threats. They are the victims of society. A woman’s life is a sin.” Resigned, she shares that that is the condition of society. Suneeta has posed a brave question on the status of a woman’s life in Hindu society, but it is not specifically a Dalit woman’s question.

In the film, I see Meera and Suneeta harbouring the dream of having power and of what that can mean for the agency of a Dalit woman who suffers the institutionalised three-layered oppression of caste, class and gender in Hindu society.

Meera says, “Being a Dalit journalist is unthinkable because of the institutionalised entitlement of caste system in this profession.” She asserts, “If Dalit women have power, they can do what they want.” I truly want to believe her but I feel hopeless when I see an absence of a coherent ideology or method which can release her from her caste identity – at least in the film.

Unfortunately, this predicament is not only Meera or Suneeta’s but that of a large unorganised mass of oppressed communities of Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), Other Backward Castes (OBC) who are divided by castes and subcastes across India.

Officially designated as among the most disadvantaged socioeconomic groups in India, SCs and STs are recognised in the Constitution of India. According to the 2011 census, they comprise about 16 percent and 8 percent of India’s population respectively. OBC is a collective term used by the government to classify castes which are educationally or socially disadvantaged. According to the Mandal Commission report of 1980, the OBCs were found to comprise 55 percent of the population, who despite having found education, status, property, power, access and agency have still not found a method to annihilate caste. They are those isolated islands who are away from the organised school of thought of the Ambedkarites – or the people driven by Ambedkar’s methods towards the annihilation of caste.

The women in this film, although educated and in a powerful job that helps them find their voice, do not seem to have an understanding of the ideology of the state that merely sees Dalit people as labour and vote bank.

It could be that the women lack this perspective, or that the film itself does. Here, the camera is in the hand of an upper-caste man. The way he sees through the lens is what you see on screen. The way the film has been edited, and how meaning has been constructed, is the gaze of the voyeur, who is sometimes intimate, at times intrusive, but mostly distant, caught in his own limitation of looking at caste identity from the gaze of privilege. Merely scratching the surface.

In the film, Meera’s agency is posed against that of Satyam, the youth leader of Hindu Yuva Vahini, who sashays across the screen with a big sword and considers himself a proud protector of religion and morality. He believes there are 33 crore (330 million) Hindu deities residing in a cow and it is his utmost duty to save them. Juxtaposed as the systemic antagonist, the narrative sets his Hindu majoritarianism against Meera’s bravery, where she is seen covering the 2017 Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) election campaign. On the occasion of Ram Navami Shobha Yatra – one of the biggest and most auspicious Hindu festivals in India that marks the birth of Lord Ram in Ayodhya – the film shows women in saffron clothes holding swords. This exhibits a dangerous display of power and fundamentalism as it hearkens back to the Ramayana folk tale of Ram killing Shambuka, a Shudra (or of lower social caste), for engaging in a practice that was forbidden to his community.

When I watched Meera report on those events, I saw a Dalit journalist covering a Hindu nationalist movement – but not an anti-caste perspective. It made me wonder, was there nothing brewing in the anti-caste circles during the years of the making of the film? And why did the filmmakers choose only the Hindu perspective of the Uttar Pradesh election?

Writing with Fire is based on a common antipathy to right-wing Hindu fundamentalism and its dystopian dream of making India a Hindu rashtra (nation). But here, the characters are mere carriers of a left-wing ideology, and although they pose the question of caste, the gaze through which the narrative unfolds remains that of class.

The documentary is one of the first globally recognised films to show a different, empowered side of Dalit women, and to have reached into the Academy space. And the lived experience of Meera, Shyamkali and Suneeta does lend some authenticity. But they still remain beholden to the filmmakers’ removed gaze – a gaze which is voyeuristic, and does not fully engage with the political economy of the Dalit identity and their representation in Indian cinema.

I see the film supported and funded by some of the biggest funding bodies and patrons in the global cinema industry, including Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, SFFILM Documentary Film Fund, Tribeca Film Institute and others. That makes me wonder what kind of power relations and networks must have been involved in the production, distribution and consumption of this documentary, which is a communication resource of Dalit representation in popular culture. Especially because Dalit filmmakers are very rarely this well-supported in the telling of their own stories.

French philosopher Louis Althusser says that cinema as a cultural ideological state apparatus functions predominantly by ideology and affects people at a private level. Writing With Fire does not critique the codes of the caste system, excludes Ambedkar from the story of caste and ignores his methods to annihilate the caste system. The gaze mostly remains that of a voyeur, selling the emptiness and hopelessness of the intergenerational trauma of caste.

Politics in India today is interested in the assertion of anti-caste discourse against Hindu majoritarianism. An assertion which is historical – as when the BJP came into power in 2014, caste violence increased, and brought with it a growing resistance among the Bahujan community.

Thus, in the film, Dalit identity is used as political currency to draw more Dalit eyeballs to the screen. Audience attention is the equivalent of profit-making. So selling the identity, dignity, shame and even integrity and honour of a marginalised community, is the upper-caste gaze materialised into a film as a product of capitalism.

Writing with Fire just taps into Dalit representation but does not delve into the methods of caste annihilation and, in that way, it capitalises on an oppressed identity discourse.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.