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‘While We Watched’ Indian documentary explores country’s TV landscape through anchor Ravish Kumar and exposes global media issues

‘While We Watched’ Indian documentary explores country’s TV landscape through anchor Ravish Kumar and exposes global media issues

India is famous for its wild TV debates and a new documentary shows a very different type of TV journalist/anchor up close and personal…

IN MANY ways, this is a remarkable film about an outstanding and courageous Indian TV journalist called Ravish Kumar who worked for the well-known channel NDTV*.

The channel is one of India’s biggest and best known, but is reviled in some quarters for its liberal, sober, some would say middle of the road journalism – in these days of partisanship and patriotism, some have questioned its very existence and it is routinely dubbed by some as “anti-national”.

Filmmaker Vinay Shukla

There is no narration in director Vinay Shukla’s second feature documentary film – and Kumar who speaks in Hindi (with the film in English subtitles) is simply observed mostly talking to colleagues, family and the occasional friend who might cross his path. There are also several scenes of crisis.

It is an observational and intimate portrait of a journalist who goes against the grain and meets with the most horrible vitriol and opprobrium imaginable – death threats, warnings about his and family’s safety and numerous literal calls for him to stop what he is doing and just disappear – or face the consequences.

But he just goes on – despite the threats – and Shukla’s film shadows Kumar between 2018-20.

Shukla said he was not drawn to Kumar as a subject, because he is a heroic figure – to some he undoubtedly he is – but because it was a way of studying a form of TV journalism that is dying – not just in India, but in most parts of the world.

“I was always interested in news,” Shukla told us in London earlier last month. “This is my angry love letter to journalism.

“I hope that people who care about journalism, see it and feel and seen heard by my letter.”

Kumar is one of the most recognisable faces of Indian TV journalism, but he is very different to many others and his brand of truth telling does not come wrapped in a flag.

Shukla’s films shows there are many who are content to do so and demand the same loyalty of other broadcasters.

Ravish Kumar in the NDTV newsroom

Kumar in this landscape is so very different; he wants to probe, ask awkward questions, and isn’t terribly animated or excited, when he does appear in front of the camera.

Shukla remembers first seeing Kumar on TV and being fascinated by him.

“I was very surprised by what I saw. Unlike most news anchors who come and do these very loud debates, wherein panellists are pitched against each other and news anchors make it a point to tell the audience that they are there to serve the audience and that the audience is number one – Ravish’s appearances are made up of monologues and these were deeply researched, full of humour, and sarcasm and at the end of these, he was scolding his audiences and telling them to stop watching TV,” Shukla said, noting the irony and chuckling.

This difference led him to approaching Kumar and seeking access – which the journalist and senior editors granted, thinking they had very little or nothing to lose.

Ravish Kumar field reporting

“Ravish seemed vulnerable and he seemed like a protagonist who had seen a better time and India is without doubt going through a tremendous transformation right now,” argued Shukla.

The film covers a particularly tense and tumultuous time in India – especially following the Pulwama terrorist attack, which almost brought India and Pakistan into a full scale war. Forty Indian soldiers died in the terrorist attack in February 2019 – in the worst incident of its kind for many years. India blamed Pakistan and militants based there, while Pakistan said it had nothing to do the militant group that claimed responsibility.

In such an atmosphere, with emotions running understandably very high, the May 2019 General Election in India, became almost by default, an exercise in patriotism. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under leader Narendra Modi, won a resounding victory.

Kumar’s conscientious journalism rooted in communities, development and economic betterment seemed anachronistic, even if you were sympathetic.

His journalism connects with the masses and there is one point in the documentary, where he gets support and praise, even from those who might see him in not such a favourable light politically.

For Shukla, the film shows a decline in journalism standards and a shift for broadcasters in general, globally, to tow a particular line – and for some even to become the story themselves and revel in the attention.

“There is a malpractice of news cultures around the world – it’s a transmutation,” Shukla pointed out. “It’s not like it’s one country’s or one anchor’s fault, we have to build a better dialogue around news and we need to build better institutions (to protect journalism and journalists).”

Ravish Kumar

He also thinks TV everywhere has to be open to different voices.

“What we need to build is a better system that allows for a better representation of minorities, and the underrepresented,” Shukla said, pointing out also that broadcasters and journalists who communicate in regional India languages may also be doing great work but their reach cannot be the same as Kumar’s in Hindi – simply because it is a common language across the whole of North India.

Shukla’s film shows that not all is lost – but the pressures are very real with pay, family unease, and general disapproval, sometimes weighing heavily on Kumar colleagues’ shoulders.

The important postscript to this documentary – is that Kumar resigned from NDTV in December 2022, following the proposed takeover by the Adani Group, one of India’s largest conglomerates and widely considered to be close to Modi’s government.

Kumar now runs his own Youtube channel, while the channel’s original founders, husband and wife pairing, Pranoy and Radhika Roy, sold their shares, leaving the Adani Group with a majority holding.

While We Watchedfirst came to international prominence last year when it won an award following its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Shukla whose first co-directed film ‘An Insignificant Man’ screened at the London Film Festival in 2014 – is now finalising a narrative fiction film script, with co-writer and ‘While We Watched’, cinematographer Amaan Shaikh, around a hostage drama and hopes to film early next year.

“I’m very excited about writing a fiction hostage drama which is going to be non-political. I am ready to move on,” he told acv.

‘While We Watched’ is out now in cinemas in the UK and Ireland (from Friday, July 14).

(The English language NDTV is available in the UK on non-terrestrial services – this film, ‘While We Watched’ is centred around NDTV Hindi).

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture