On July 20, 2023, the film directed by Vinay Shukla, While We Watched was previewed at the IFC Center in New York City. There was a long queue outside the theatre and the subject of the film, Magsaysay award winning journalist Ravish Kumar stood there surrounded by fans who were chatting with him and taking selfies. He insisted on shaking hands warmly with every single person in the queue and was overheard saying “Agar ye sab log line mein mere liye khade hue hain, toh main itna toh kar hi sakta hoon (If these people are standing in line for me, it’s the least I can do).”
The show was sold out and was followed by a discussion between Kumar, Shukla and ‘Democracy Now’ anchor Amy Goodman. All of us in the audience felt stunned and teary eyed as the film ended. A thunderous applause and a standing ovation for the director and Kumar followed as they walked in.
The next day’s premiere of the film was moderated by John Oliver, another icon for US and global audiences, who tweeted that “I watched the film twice and I loved it twice and. It is going to be one of the most important films of the year.”
As the first couple of shows became sold out, more shows were quickly added, often followed by conversations with the subject and the director, which felt both unusual and yet somehow right. The film has undoubtedly created a furore in NYC and before that in London. The New York Times rightly called it a “wake up call for India” while the Guardian described it as “tense, essential film-making”
Despite all this attention and the film being released first in September 2022, Shukla has repeatedly mentioned that he has not yet had a single offer to distribute the film in India. And while global viewership is crucial to let people know what’s happening in India, it is precisely in India that the film must be seen to understand the current state of the world’s ‘largest democracy’ through the experience of one of its most popular TV anchors.
A large part of the film was shot in the NDTV newsroom where Kumar worked on his daily Hindi language show ‘Prime Time with Ravish Kumar’. The camera followed him closely while he bounced off daily news ideas with his colleagues, drafted his evening read out, reacted to dramatic news as they unfolded, and listened patiently to his team members as they pondered over their career options in the face of a changing media landscape.
What emerges from those newsroom shots is a beleaguered Ravish Kumar trying to find a way to explain to his audience the onslaught on democracy unleashed by the Hindu nationalist government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Issues ranged from jingoism and war-mongering against Pakistan, targeting and lynching of Muslim youth, incarceration of human rights activists, professors, lawyers, and students, and silencing of newspapers and journalists who dared to question the government policies. It was gradually a bare-bones newsroom at the disposal of Ravish Kumar that was responding to these unparalleled daily developments.
What the film does brilliantly is to situate Kumar, his prime-time show, and NDTV in the context of a media ecosystem – particularly television news – that was openly spewing hatred, spreading misinformation, and goading crowds to take matters into their own hands.
Multiple media channels, both Hindi and English, indulged in defining an exclusionary meaning of patriotism and delivered their unadulterated hate messages to millions of homes every day. Kumar completely rejected the dominant format of other prime-time anchors that relied on sensational and high-decibel debate among talking heads that allowed them to distribute hatred as news. The show became Kumar’s attempt to create an alternative explanation of what was unfolding every day and done through his sheer power of storytelling – sometimes long monologues that tried to break through the fog. Being a very popular anchor on NDTV for multiple years, people flocked to his show to hear his views on the pressing issues of the day.
Shukla has mentioned in interviews that he liked Kumar’s persuasive storytelling alongside his connection with the audience that allowed the anchor to often even chide them for watching other channels in the name of news. But really what he ends up doing is to tell us a larger story of attempted decimation: of the news network that Kumar was a part of-NDTV, of the reporters, support staff, distribution, viewership, and above all what hurt Kumar the most- his audience.
Without giving away too much from the film, one can only note the poignant ways in which the film captures this gradual decline in the media network and Ravish Kumar’s own show then slowly creeping into his life as his family starts feeling the pressure of the hostility and trolling around them. The film offers you a glimpse of what happens when your phone number is circulated in the media and you dare to listen and occasionally respond to those who abuse you with death threats merely makes one both horrified and truly terrified. Yet, Kumar often speaks back with patience, laughs, and believe it or not, sings. It’s an incredulous moment that just tells you something about his faith that if only he could communicate with his audience more, he can maybe make a difference.
A Varieties of Democracy report – the largest dataset from 202 countries on measuring democracy – noted in 2021 that the share of the population under autocracies increased from 48% in 2010 to 68% in 2020. India is among the top 10 on this list. The report noted that the largest democracy is now an “electoral autocracy” and the continued decline is mentioned in the 2023 report. As far as media freedom is concerned, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in 2023 noted that India has declined from 150 to 161 in their world ranking and journalists continued to be detained and censored.
Journalist Siddique Kappan spent more than two years in jail for daring to report on the gangrape and murder of a Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras. While rankings reflect general trends and there can be debates on the actual terminology of electoral autocracy, While We Watched translates what these figures mean in the everyday Indian experience when it comes to lack of press freedom and rights in general.
We know how Ravish Kumar’s stint at NDTV ended – the film does not show that. But it shows – through different moments in Kumar’s life, some very tender and some harsh – that he was not willing to fall in line and compromise even as the resources at his disposal were depleting fast and the infrastructure literally collapsing.
The film also depicts how Kumar starts realising that a section of the audience that doted on him was slowly getting persuaded by the frenzy and the hatred espoused by other channels and the world around him. The film beautifully captures a deeply complex Kumar who acknowledges the changes that Indian society and politics is undergoing but also exudes an unfaltering faith in his ability to level with his audience. That is Ravish Kumar and that’s his calling.
The article was first published by The Wire and written by Jinee Lokaneeta and Sangay Mishra
Jinee Lokaneeta and Sangay Mishra teach Political Science at Drew University, New Jersey.