Popular Indian journalist Ravish Kumar stood leaning against the wall by a restaurant entrance across the street from Astor Place in lower Manhattan. Dressed in a yellow button down shirt tucked into jeans, he wore a despondent look, one familiar for those who have seen “While We Watched.” When I went up and introduced myself he shook my hand warmly and immediately expressed dismay at the conflict that was taking place in Manipur, touching on the latest bit of news to go viral around India. He said he wanted to scream out his anguish on the streets. This was my initiation to the gentle but steely, down to earth but clear eyed journalist who was in New York City promoting a documentary film that features him and his work.
“While We Watched” is a newsroom documentary that follows the personal and professional life of Kumar over a period of two years. Fighting against an environment of fake news and divisive communal agendas, Kumar battles on, speaking truth to power as his world crumbles around him. You can learn more about the film and the context around it in our review.
Epicenter-NYC’s Hari Adivarekar interviewed Ravish Kumar and director Vinay Shukla right before the first of a series of screenings at the IFC in New York City, which run through to July 27.
The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Epicenter-NYC: Can you define the crisis in Indian journalism?
Ravish Kumar: All over the world the collapse or destruction of the media is a big story. The destruction and collapse in Indian media has some similarities but the nature of this crisis is different. There is just one kind of media in India and it has become a machine to spread hatred. There are more than a 100 channels, including regional ones, that are constantly propagating communal propaganda while spreading hatred and falsehoods. Look at the sheer scale of Indian media. Such an anti-people, anti-minority, anti-opposition media in this scale doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. Such an unfair media has cut out the tongue of our journalism.
Epicenter-NYC:Do you see any solutions to pull Indian journalism out of this crisis.
Ravish Kumar: There is no problem in the world that doesn’t have a solution. There are very few actual journalists left in our newsrooms. Most have had an ideological conversion where they feel that they have to work for the ruling party. The whole mainstream media has been corrupted. This is something that can’t be solved easily. Lots of work and thought will have to go into it. The Indian diaspora also needs to speak about this with honesty.
Epicenter-NYC: How do you deal with the threats and abuse, especially when they impact your family?
Ravish Kumar: These aren’t random trolls that are after you. They have achieved political legitimacy. They are representatives of power. If they identify you, then the political system gets activated against you. A lawyer will slap a case on you and the police will come to your home. In this way you get disenfranchised.
Indian journalists are living in professional exile because no one will give them a job. These are people with 20 years of experience in the field but find it hard to make a living as journalists. We speak about death threats but not about the right to livelihood, which is also at stake.
My family has suffered a lot because in the early days we weren’t as aware of the effects on our mental health. And if something affects my mental health, that will affect the mental health of my near ones. We have had to limit our outside movements, and like many journalists, we live in paranoia.
Epicenter-NYC: How do you see “While We Watched” within the context of Indian media?
Ravish Kumar: It’s important that when large scale destruction of Indian media is taking place, we see how a newsroom operates, individually and institutionally, in the middle of such a crisis. You see a lot of stories in this film, not just mine. Vinay keeps emphasizing that one person can’t do anything. If we don’t transform this into everyone’s fight, we won’t be able to continue.
It’s very important to plant this aspiration in the hearts of small town journalists because they are very talented. If they realize that if they guard their profession right now they will slowly be able to practice it properly again. If we reclaim our profession only then we can draw benefits from it, for our livelihood and professional expression.
Epicenter-NYC: The production of this film feels very intimate and embedded. Could you tell us about how it was produced?
Vinay Shukla: When I approached Ravish it seemed like a very unlikely film. Because I’d have to convince Ravish, who’s a journalist. I’d have to convince his newsroom and NDTV themselves, who are a media organization. To his surprise and to mine, I got permission.
From there onwards, it was a process of patience. There was a lot that was happening within the NDTV newsroom where everybody knew the power of the camera. It took me a long time to build trust. Access on this film was built with great care and respect.
What was also extraordinarily difficult was shooting with Ravish’s family, who have led a very private life. And that’s why we had to shoot for two years, to be able to sculpt out the narrative that you see now.
Epicenter-NYC: What was it like, on the editing table, pulling in so much information from two years of footage?
Vinay Shukla: We knew the story we were going to tell, but we were very clear that we wanted to have a cinematic experience. I’m a very greedy filmmaker. For me, the experience of the film comes first, before the politics or the social concerns. The layering shouldn’t be seen, similar to good tailoring. The audience should be able to walk out of the film without realizing how much craft has gone into it.
I was very clear that I didn’t want it to be an issue based film around press freedom. For me, the film is a father and daughter story. It’s a story about how expensive hope has become for idealists. It’s a story about trauma and how people cope and struggle with it.
The only brief that I’d given my team is that the film was going to be like the Titanic, but it’s not going to be about Jack and Rose. It’s going to be about the musicians who decided to stay back and continue playing their violins as the ship sank. So we were chasing a certain spirit.
Epicenter-NYC: Will you release the film in India?
Vinay Shukla: I have received a lot of love from people but I don’t have a distribution offer so far, to put it very simply. My ambition is to get the film out in India and I will continue to try because that’s my job.