“Maintaining a Respectful Distance”: DPs Sushmit Ghosh and Karan Thapliyal on Writing With Fire
Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s feature debut Writing With Fire painstakingly follows Khabar Lahariya, India’s only all-female news network, as they transition from print to digital and challenge the caste system every step of the way. Ghosh acts as co-DP alongside Karan Thlapliyal on the film. The two discuss maintaining a respectul distance from their subjects and the inclement climate conditions of their filming.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Ghosh: When my codirector Rintu and I decided to follow the story of Khabar Lahariya, India’s only newspaper run entirely by Dalit (low caste) women, we knew that it had to be told through an intimate and respectful lens. As a cinematographer, the films I’ve enjoyed working on the most are about ordinary people with extraordinary resilience. Picking up the camera for Writing With Fire was a very natural and instinctive choice for me.
Thapliyal: I became part of this project because of my long association with both the directors. We’ve traveled and worked on many projects, filming all over India—there was always a mutual admiration for each other’s work. Having worked with them for so many years, we’ve built a rapport and intuitively, we know what we wanted from each other, which really helped us in while filming Writing With Fire.
Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?
Ghosh: The guiding principle of cinematography for this film has been of mindfulness. The popular imagination about Dalit women has always portrayed them as victims of oppression. We decided to frame them as confident women whose personalities, personal histories and dreams are explored in the film, making them relatable and inspiring characters. This meant that our crew had to be lean and unobtrusive as we travelled with them into media-dark villages as well as their own personal lives and homes. After a few initial interviews, we decided to discard the interview style entirely and film in long, observational takes where facets of the characters’ inner and outer worlds unraveled quite naturally. And this steered the element of authenticity to the story, which was a critical goal for us.
We wanted Writing With Fire to be a visceral visual experience. The cultural landscape of Uttar Pradesh was as important for us as the physical geography in which this story is set. How do we visually set up ideas of caste, patriarchy, sexism and violence without having our characters speak to the camera about them? How do you build an atmosphere of risk, without showing a single image of violence? We chose three distinct characters—Meera is a natural leader, Suneeta is young and ambitious, Shyamkali is silently fierce. Our camera always stayed close to them as they travelled on foot, buses and autos to experience their world through their eyes, while maintaining a respectful distance when observing them navigate their complex personal realities.
Thapliyal: The major part of this film revolves around these journalists working in the field and reporting on different stories from the rural heartland of India. So our biggest challenge was to capture these moments unfolding in front of the camera as naturally as possible. For that, our major goal was to become part of that setting and become invisible. The cinematography of the film is very observational and instinctual. As a cinematographer, you have to be ready for all kind of possibilities and outcomes as our characters carried on with their jobs.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Ghosh: Karan and I are big film buffs and spend a lot of time discussing and discovering films. But you realize high art goes down the drain when you have to work in temperatures that hover over 40 degrees, a dusty landscape that pushes your gear to the edge and sensitive situations where you just can’t pull out a boom mic and know that the only audio you’ll get is the one being recorded on the mic jammed into your camera. The cinematography in this film was about setting your own ground rules and then adapting, adapting… and adapting some more.
Thapliyal: I think when we started filming we didn’t know which direction this story would take. So we didn’t go with any visual references. The only thing we were very conscious of was to allow the story to unfold organically; that we should never dilute or influence those moments with our presence. The whole landscape, people and the rhythm of life very much dictated and influenced the way we started filming the story.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Ghosh: The biggest challenge was in filming with our characters, who were mostly working in extremely hostile spaces—reporting from illegal mines run by powerful mafia, in police stations where rolling a camera is almost impossible, in meetings with politicians who are reluctant to be questioned by women with a camera… And also in spaces of deep grief—homes of rape survivors, families of murder victims and survivors of domestic violence. We knew we had to have a quiet presence, with equipment that was almost invisible so that we didn’t interrupt the work of our characters and also maintained the sanctity of the moments that were unfolding between them and the people they were interacting with. We decided to strip down the crew to three—myself, my codirector and Karan. My original camera of choice was the FS7 but we decided to strip down the film kit to two DSLRs, prime lenses and a zoom lens. The sound equipment had to be compact too as we couldn’t call attention to ourselves with boom rods so all location sound recording had to be done on RF mics and a H6 zoom recorder. This initially felt like a less-than-ideal way of working but as we filmed in Uttar Pradesh through its hot summers, monsoons and bitter winters, jostling for space on rickety buses and overcrowded rickshaws, we chose to make the most of this arsenal. Karan and I developed a discreet sign language as we shifted fluidly between angles and characters and lenses, both in the chaos and deep silences of the area. We innovated and multitasked to create a cinematic landscape that is very, very close to how we had imagined it from the outset.
Thapliyal: The biggest challenge and advantage of the production was that we were just a three member crew. The locations where we followed our characters to were always 40 to 60 kilometers away from our base; and this journey was done by using public transport which included buses, shared auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws and then eventually walking a few hours. It took us some time to get accustomed to this daily routine with all our camera gear. There were many instances when we were filming our characters inside a crammed auto and an important conversation starts, but I couldn’t move an inch to get closer or change my angle to film. I’d say this was a physically challenging film to shoot, but being there in the summers was especially taxing! The landscape is arid and dusty, so we had to be constantly checking and cleaning the cameras and lenses. We’d walk for hours in the heat, with all our gear and just a bottle of water to share between all of us, because there was just no other way to get to the villages our characters were reporting their stories from.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Ghosh: We shot this entire film on the Canon 5D Mark III. One of the main reasons for using this camera was its rugged form factor and the amazing battery life. Considering we’d started filming in 2016, this was a camera that could operate fairly well in low light situations. It was the ideal camera to film unobtrusively.
The lenses were Canon L series, in which the 24-70 mm has always been my go-to lens for filming documentaries. We also had couple of faster lenses in the Canon 50mm (f1.4) and the 28mm (f1.8).
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Ghosh: We went with natural lighting throughout the four years we filmed. We tried to plan our shoots in a way where we were maximizing the best light situations in the day—early mornings and evenings. But most of the time, it was just all about going with flow and adapting. We have decided not to use a single artificial light because that changes the dynamics of a situation, especially when shooting in remote villages and towns, where things can take a dramatic turn anytime.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Thapliyal: I remember once I was following Suneeta as she was going to report on a story about illegal mining and how that had badly affected the road connectivity to a village. It had rained the previous night so the road was actually a slippery slush. Following her with the DSLR got quite shaky so I quickly switched to an Osmo, which allowed me to film her smoothly. Once we reached the outskirts of the village, men from the village gathered around us and the atmosphere began to get quite tense, eventually hostile. The Osmo’s sound quality is patchy so I switched back to the DSLR. There was a mistrust around the media and a group of agitated men started shouting and trying to intimidate her. I thought the situation was getting out of hand but Suneeta stood her ground and I continued to film her navigating this hostile space and eventually she got the same men to give her bites. This situation needed me to stay close to Suneeta and at the same time, stepping back to capture the atmosphere of the whole scene with a wall of men surrounding her. And to do this while being in a space that feels unwelcoming is quite a challenge. This went on to become a pivotal scene in the film, a testimony to the courage and conviction of Suneeta and I’m happy that I followed my gut. A picture of my shoes caked in dry slush is a souvenir I cherish.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Ghosh: As we sometimes joked—God was lighting the way for us—metaphorically and sometimes literally. India is a colorful country and that’s the visual integrity we wanted to maintain in the final look. This meant that we were also filming inside homes with colorful walls—fuchsia pink, mustard yellow or parrot green—that would bounce a soft cast into the faces of our characters and affect their skin tone. Our colorist, Sid Meer, pointed this out and having been married to these images for five years, it was a revelation looking at the same material on his high-end grade monitors. Our brief to him was to be faithful to the original colors and go as close to the original material we were filming, not necessarily bake a look for the film in the DI; Sid then painted his magic into the film.
Film Title: Writing With Fire
Camera: Canon 5D Mark III & DJI Osmo
Lenses: Canon L-series
Lighting: Natural, available light
Color Grading: Da Vinci Resolve