A poster for “While We Watched.” Image Courtesy: Cinetic Marketing

“The sweet scent of nationalism has masked the stench of our reality”

Indian journalism is in a state of deep crisis. Almost every national and local television news network is either owned or controlled by the ruling political class or ] crony capitalists, turning these outlets into mouthpieces for the spread of nationalist and communal propaganda. There are exceptions in digital and print media (Scroll, The Wire, Alt News, Caravan, Article 18, Newsminute, News Laundry, Telegraph, and Deccan Herald among a few others) but the landscape of Indian media is flooded with the murky waters of fake news, extreme sycophancy and hatemongering. The ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) has cracked down on dissent and critique, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has eschewed any sort of interviews or press interactions, preferring instead to broadcast from within the controlled confines of the BJP’s own social media accounts.  

In this era of skewed national discourse, only one TV journalist has stood up with consistent courage and eloquence against the might of the right-wing juggernaut. Ravish Kumar is a veteran journalist and news anchor, and until 2022 served as the senior executive editor at NDTV (New Delhi Television Network). Kumar would deliver his monologues in shuddh (pure) Hindi without the hyperbole and extremism of other TV news networks. Think Democracy Now in a sea of Fox News-style networks. For this, he constantly drew from his extensive hyper-local networks in India to report on the issues that mattered to regular Indian citizens, including those of food insecurity, water access and unemployment. His unblinking critiques of the BJP and Narendra Modi drew plenty of retribution from the so-called Godi (lapdog) media, as well as trolls who would regularly issue death threats to him and his family.

“Whenever we keep quiet is costs us the truth”

In this tumultuous environment, filmmaker Vinay Shukla embedded himself in the life of Ravish Kumar from 2018, at the peak of BJP’s first term at the helm of the country, when their followers flouted their majoritarian power unchecked. From the very start, While We Watched sets a brisk pace of storytelling combined with a fly-on-the-wall intimacy that plunges you straight into the heart of the tale. Deft camera work and editing makes the watching an immersive experience. 

This intimacy is most evident in the many sequences shot in Kumar’s car as he drives around by himself, or with his wife (history professor Nayana Dasgupta), or his colleagues or his daughter. At times the filmmakers make you forget the presence of the camera, as unfiltered conversations are carried out in a cinematic fashion. The car scenes are coupled with the sequences and conversations filmed at the offices of the NDTV. Kumar and his colleagues take us through the vagaries of network television hemmed in by the duress of target rating points, external pressures and constant threats of violence, both physical and economical. 

“The newsroom keeps getting emptier everyday” 

Sometimes the anguish is visceral, writ large on the faces and body language of the protagonists. Producer Sushil Mohapatra, constantly in the eye of the maelstrom with Kumar, is seen picking up some anti-anxiety pills at a pharmacy, and meditating with an eye open. Others pop in and out of the narrative with pleas or terse interactions with Kumar about a range of issues, from blocked satellite signals to team members being sacked without notice. Shukla adds a clever touch on the issue of employee churn by putting in clips of goodbye cakes being shared with colleagues as they exit one by one. As the film rolls on, you can see Kumar getting more and more despondent with every cake cutting and the loss of trusted colleagues. In the background of this human drama, advertisers and promoters start to jump ship, fearing retribution from the ruling BJP party and their cronies. 

“The age of lies is upon us”

The lapdog media, antagonists in “While We Watched,” are brought to the fore in clips pulled from their divisive reports on their own TV networks. From baying for the blood of Pakistanis after a terrorist attack on an Indian paramilitary contingent left 40 soldiers dead, to the branding of student leader, Umar Khalid, as an anti-nationalist (he is still in prison three years later, although innocent of his charges), these news anchors make Tucker Carlson and Bill O’Riley seem tame in comparison. The film’s research team deserves sincere plaudits for scouring some seriously hate-filled news content for clips that perfectly blend into the narrative, at times driving it forward, while providing much-needed context. 

Ravish Kumar in a still from the documentary film “While We Watched”. Courtesy: Cinetic Marketing

“No fight comes without a cost”

The most disturbing parts are those when Kumar answers calls from those threatening to harm him or his family, rife with abusive language. While these illustrate a more obvious form of violence, the scenes when he playfully interacts with his daughter or drives around New Delhi without protection are the most ominous, making you fear for their safety. 

In one scene, the cameraman filming Kumar informs him that he is being followed by two men on a motorcycle, as they drive on an overpass. A possible incident is averted when he takes a last second exit ramp. There is a chilling parallel between this moment and the tragic assassination of Gauri Lankesh, a beloved journalist and well-known critic of Hindutva, who was shot by two right-wing foot soldiers on a bike, outside her home in Bengaluru in 2017. 

As the walls seem to close in on Kumar through the course of the film, he seems more and more isolated and stressed. He finally breaks his usually calm demeanor while scolding his producers for a mistake during a live broadcast that left him stranded on camera without a teleprompter. 

“Keep conquering your fears with practice”

This is high-stakes documentary filmmaking at its finest, unflinching in its honesty and unblinking in the face of unthinkable odds. Although “While We Watched” ends on a slight upswing of hope, the writing seems deeply etched on the wall. Kumar’s world is being attacked on all sides and is slowly crumbling as he struggles to keep the ship afloat, at times operating solely on the fumes of an eternal idealist with an abiding love for his country folk.

“While We Watched” will stand in Indian media history as a document of its most tumultuous period, a time when majoritarian and communal politics ruled the national conscience and thrust India into a violent reckoning. Whether this era is a mere blip in the soul of India or an untreatable malaise that will corrode it irrevocably remains to be seen. Either way, Shukla and his team can be proud to have been among those who stood against the current of hate in an attempt to stem its flow. 

All quotes in this review are from Ravish Kumar, spoken during the course of the documentary. 

There will be multiple screenings of “While We Watched” in New York City and live discussions with Ravish Kumar and Vinay Shukla until July 27 at the IFC Center in Manhattan. View the trailer here

We have a limited amount of tickets available for our members to attend a screening and a live Q&A session with Kumar as well as filmmaker Vinay Shukla on Saturday, July 22, at 3 p.m. and 7:35 p.m., Sunday, July 23, at 3 p.m. and 7:35 p.m. and Monday, July 24, at 7:35 p.m. Monday’s session will be moderated by Epicenter’s publisher, S. Mitra Kalita.

Hari Adivarekar is an independent photographer, film director/producer, journalist, podcaster, yoga practitioner, urban explorer, and in a different life, a singer in a rock and roll band. His work has...

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