Delhi-Based Malayali Woman’s Documentary Headed to Oscars | entertainment interview

Delhi-based Malayali Rintu Thomas’ documentary “Writing with Fire” is a step away from Oscar-winning screenplay history. The film, produced by Rintu and Sushmit Gosh, was shortlisted for the Oscar race as one of the top 15 films in the documentary category. The silver lining comes at a time when Tamil feature film ‘Koozhangal’, which was India’s official entry for the 94th Academy Awards, was rejected from competition. It’s only a matter of a few weeks to wait and see if Rintu and Sushmit will take the nation’s pride to greater heights when the awards are announced in Los Angeles in March.

“Writing with Fire” is the story of an all-female digital newspaper operating in Banda district, bordering the UP-Madhya Pradesh border, located about 620 kilometers 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 has been published in different dialects of Hindi. The term ‘Khabar Lahariya’ is loosely translated as ‘waves of news’. “Writing with Fire” depicts a village where a group of women from marginalized communities are creating waves in the world of journalism through active reporting. Launched in 2002, ‘Khabar Lahariya’ had eight editions and boasted a readership of around 80,000 readers. The film also explores the transition of publishing from print to digital. Director Rintu Thomas shares with Onmanorama her thoughts on “Writing with Fire,” her production company Black Ticket Films, and the film’s journey towards the Oscar race.

Five years of hard work

Sushmit and I had come across ‘Khabar Lahariya’ in a newspaper while researching new story ideas for a documentary. Soon we traveled to the village in 2016, at a time when the newspaper was moving from print to the online platform. The majority of the crew haven’t seen a smartphone in their life, and some of the women were thrilled to run their fingers over the gadget. We knew we had a tough task ahead of us as the project required more travel with the female journalists. By December 2020, we could complete filming, editing and post-production work.

Big start at the Sundance festival

The documentary was first screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2021. The selection for the festival proves special as Sundance, which normally screens 12 docu-films, had to reduce the number to 10 that year after its switch to virtual mode due to Covid Restrictions. The festival marked a turning point as ‘Writing with Fire’ won the Special Jury Prize and the Audience Prize. From there, there was no turning back. The documentary was selected at numerous festivals and won no less than 28 international awards. The journey to the Oscars began after the film got the chance for a US release 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 had been shortlisted for the Oscars.

walk the dream

My parents are Raju Thomas and Shiju Raju from Kottayam. I have completed my education in Delhi – BA Honors from Lady Shri Ram College and Post Graduation in Mass Communication from Jamia Millia Islamia. Selecting Jamia University gave me a sense of accomplishment as I had a deep passion for journalism. In fact, the institute introduced me to documentary cinema. After finishing my studies, I participated in the production of documentaries and feature films for a year. I used to hang out with Sushmit, my classmate, discussing new ideas, which actually sparked the dream of starting a freelance project. Although my focus was cinema, I quickly turned to documentary films which opened up the field of captivating storytelling through images.

So I invested all my earnings to start a production house called Black Ticket Films in 2009. The plan was to liquidate the company if there was no work in a year. Those days were really hard. People were eager to hear about my background, who my boss was, etc. It was hard to convince them that I was the boss for myself. In these difficult days, I received a scholarship from the British Council which was granted to young filmmakers. The money was used to produce the documentary ‘Miracle Water Village’ which was televised on the National Geographic Channel.

Obstacles galore

In 13 years, Black Ticket Films has been able to produce very few documentaries. Time has a crucial role to play. Before embarking on a new story, we were precisely aware of the total number of man-hours that we had to invest in the project. It took an entire year to complete an 18-minute documentary titled “Dilli”; eight months for the 27-minute long “Timbaktu” (which won the National Film Award in 2012). It was followed by “Writing with Fire”.

Filming for ‘Writing with Fire’ took place between 2016 and ’19. The hardest part was finding funding for the shoot. Yet we were not ready to make any compromises. Banda’s female journalists were in the transition phase from print to digital media. So from the beginning, we knew that the deadline would be extended. Sushmit and I did most of the editing work. We wrote the screenplay and directed the film together. Sushmit handled his cinematography, while I did the recording on location. We had a concrete idea of ​​post-production technicians to work on our project (for example, Tajdhar Junaid was already set to do the music). Mumbai technicians charge exorbitant fees. Their expenses were covered by works commissioned by Black Ticket Films.

The distribution crisis

The growing audience of documentaries screened on OTT platforms such as Netflix underscores the fact that India is a very good avenue for quality documentary films. However, the distribution aspect is a deterrent to documentaries hitting the big screens. People often have the impression that there would be practically no audience for documentaries in theaters. However, people flocked to theaters in large numbers when documentaries such as “Insignificant Man” were shown. Social media wasn’t that vibrant when Black Ticket Films launched. But today they offer a range of possibilities, particularly in terms of marketing. OTT platforms can also be widely used.

Entering the Oscars was unexpected

Most film festivals had switched to virtual mode due to Covid-induced restrictions. Still, “Writing with Fire” was able to carve out a place at these festivals, to rave reviews from audiences – a fact that helped the film get released in the United States. I traveled to the United States when restrictions on international travel were lifted. I never thought my movie would even make it to the top 130 films in the first round of Oscar nominations. Now it adds a great sense of accomplishment to be selected in the final 15 in the Oscar race. At this point, I don’t have high expectations or dreams as we are competing with big production houses like Netflix, Hulu who have an exemplary marketing base. So far we have not been able to release the film in India. Talks are ongoing and we hope to see the green light by summer.