Vinay Shukla’s documentary on Ravish Kumar, While We Watched, makes for instructive, if somewhat depressing, viewing. As observational documentaries go, Shukla’s roughly 90-minute-long film works with a fairly restricted palette: the television journalist-anchor is on the screen most of the time as we follow him from his NDTV office and newsroom to his car, to his home; a motif is set in place when Kumar starts his evening programme with the greeting, “Namaste, main Ravish Kumar”; occasionally, we see him outside, doing pieces to camera, or giving a speech at some institution; intercut with these sequences are the news events of the period as covered (or ignored) by the competing anchors of what is now widely known as the ‘godi media’, the prominent front faces of the TV channels that have become relentless propaganda delivery vehicles for Narendra Modi’s government and the sangh parivar in general.
If one were to quibble on aesthetic terms, Shukla’s film is neither scintillatingly shot, nor does it achieve anything formally innovative while sticking to the well-trodden, straight, ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary mode. In terms of docu-dynamics, one of my requisites for this kind of film is completely missing: who is the film-maker who’s showing us these things? What is his relationship to the main character/subject of the film? Not once does Kumar address the camera directly or have any kind of conversation with the man behind it and yet, clearly, the film-maker has long-term, intimate access to Kumar, not only in his working environment but also at home with his family. Furthermore, Kumar, being a veteran TV journalist, is always acutely aware of the rolling camera, even though he might not let it get in the way of what he’s doing or push him into any obvious performative mode. However, somehow, none of these things takes anything away from one of the most powerful recent documentaries one has seen about today’s India.
In fact, it is precisely this lack of finesse or overt deftness that gives the film its charge. For almost 90 minutes, you are watching a team of TV journalists, led by one of the bravest Indians alive, trying to counter the repeating car-crash that is Indian news television today. Across this period, Kumar cracks a smile maybe about four times. For the rest of the time, what we see is bad news followed by worse news followed by outrage, all of it playing out on the anchor’s careworn, stoic face.
The film is time-stamped by the deliberate disasters and the brazen assaults on democracy in the time of Narendra Modi as seen from Kumar’s newsroom at NDTV. The news breaks that someone has opened fire on Umar Khalid in the centre of Delhi; we see the earlier clips from the godi channels that incited the attempted murder — a parading peacock of an anchor thundering in his pompous English at Khalid on a TV show: “I’m naming you as anti-national tonight!” while a Hindi channel does a voice-over about the deshdrohi with a graphic of animated red arrows pincering the figure of Khalid on video footage. Even as Kumar tries to counter this on air, warning against “messages that will now start coming inyour Whatsapp saying that such and such people are enemies of the nation”, his own phone keeps buzzing with people calling him up to threaten him with broken bones and death “for being a traitor”.
A bit later, a Muslim man is lynched and an NDTV journalist gets the main perpetrator to boast about the crime on camera; even as the story starts to go out, calls start coming in saying that the channel is being blocked in different parts of the country while all other channels are running smoothly. Shortly after this, there is the terror attack in Pulwama, with the peacock anchor now demanding “a final strike, not against Pakistan but against anti-nationals!” Such has been the tsunami of administration-made tragedies in our country of late that it takes a while to figure out the timeline of the film, which ends soon after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Across this time, we keep returning to Ravish’s team under the grim tubelights at NDTV, being denuded by salary cuts and lay-offs, people leaving one by one, with another repeat-marker — chocolate cake being cut at one sad farewell party after another. Parallel to this runs the strutting and the preening of the godi channels, with one of their anchors shamelessly purloining Gandhian terms to praise his own work of lies and lynch-graphics: “hamne desh drohi shaktiyon ke saamne satyagraha kiya hai... krantikari badlaav kiya hai...”
As the film progresses, you see more and more clearly the almost impossible task Kumar has set himself in this double fight: to bring out the facts around real issues, such as unemployment, the failing economy and maladministration, and, simultaneously, to educate and warn people about the mass cataract the godi media is pasting over their eyes.
As we now know, seemingly inexorable ‘market forces’ have, indeed, seen to it that Ravish Kumar’s news show has been amputated from national television; Kumar continues his work the best he can by other means. At one point in the film, while receiving a national TV award for his team, Kumar says, “I don’t want to ruin the general happiness but you channelwallas have really destroyed Hindustan’s happiness. Today or tomorrow, maybe ten years later, when someone goes searching into the depths of YouTube to see what exactly these people [of the Indian media] were doing then they will discover that there was NDTV as well, which stood apart from the mob.”
Even as this film works as a moving depiction of Ravish Kumar and a courageous period of television journalism at a dire time, it makes an equally accurate identikit picture of the real traitors who, every evening, assiduously set about their highly profitable work, that of killing democracy in India. After the 2019 Lok Sabha results, in one telling clip, the peacock anchor releases more invectives at journalists critical of Modi and his RSS-BJP regime: “What will this lobby now do? Will they continue in this mad fashion for another five years? In which case their index of madness will increase every month. Will they do that or will they now swallow the reality of this country?”
It may take this leader of the Swallowing Lobby more than five years to realise this but thanks to people like Ravish Kumar and many other brave reporters, when a proper assessment of this dark time is made, the Index of Madness will forever be associated with these cheerleaders of swallowing and not with those who fearlessly spoke truth to grotesquely oppressive power.