While We Watched is Vinay Shukla’s second fly-on-the-wall documentary. While his previous film, An Insignificant Man, on the rise of Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party, explored the establishment of an alternate vision of power pursued by an ambitious yet flawed man, this one is a meditation on what happens when a majoritarian upsurge eclipses dissenting voices. Centred around Ravish Kumar, who for decades had his own show with trademark sermonising on issues that are unlikely to be given a place in primetime, the documentary shows Kumar’s constant efforts to warn his audiences diminishing in impact until 2019 over the course of over two years of filming.
Within Kumar’s office, NDTV deals with crumbling finances and layoffs, casting a pall over his producers and crew’s mood. Some leave for greener pastures. Tax investigations into the company ensue after 2019. Outside, the country slips out of his viewership due to a combination of India’s rightward-shifting mainstream viewers’ leanings and disruptions to his program by cable TV operators who cut off the channel’s signal when his segment airs.
While We Watched (Hindi with English Subtitles)
Director: Vinay Shukla
Runtime: 94 minutes
Storyline: Ravish Kumar goes up against an increasingly rightward-moving media ecosystem, and emerges as a lone voice of dissent on primetime, even as the mainstream shifts to populism.
“That was a horror film,” one foreign diplomat quipped on the way out of a recent screening. While We Watched appears unlikely to ever be on Netflix in India, and seems even less likely to find a theatrical distributor, if at all it passes muster with the censors. Its depiction of a radicalising media ecosystem and the power that enabled it are a bitter pill for Indian money to swallow. Audiences in the US can, for the moment, stream the playback of a version edited down for an 80-minute broadcast slot on PBS.
Shukla spoke of wanting the film to be a ‘trauma capsule,’ and to a certain extent, he has accomplished this. The film curates disturbing encounters between Kumar and common citizens and other networks’ anchors gloat on their rise, and the stakes gradually become overwhelming, even as Kumar clings on to his idealism at each turn. The lens hangs on to that idealism in these dire circumstances, focusing on hopes that there will be a reckoning at some point. Even as NDTV struggles for its own independence, and Kumar stubbornly fights for his voice, the transformation of news channels gradually emerges in the background, showing us glimpses of how we got here today.
Every news media ecosystem buckles under the toxic combination of harvesting primetime viewers and proximity to power. Sometimes, those failings lead to horror, like when cable networks in the United States unquestioningly parroted misinformation about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, justifying the coalition forces’ invasion of Iraq. A failure of the media can lead to horror when power finds an external enemy. And when the enemy is internal, what unfolds is tragedy.
Atrocities against Muslims and undermining of dissenting voices feature prominently in the film. It is difficult to look away, as clips of other channels’ news anchors test the limits their rhetoric can reach in chilling sequences where they demonise minorities and activists. While the film does a good job at exhibiting the growing distress Kumar and the media confront, its hands are somewhat tied when it comes to exploring the nuances of why the situation was degrading the way it was.
As it stands, While We Watched claims its own voice as an unapologetically ambitious exploration of a persuasive rhetorician’s struggle against a political tsunami that threatens to upend his shrinking space in the mainstream. On demand, Mr Kumar has found his space — on YouTube, he has already amassed over 7 million subscribers. As pointed out by Newslaundy’s co-founder Abhinandan Sekhri after a recent screening, that is nearly half the number of daily viewers Kumar had each night towards the end of his time at NDTV.
One disappointment looms large — the film’s subtitles, credited to one of its co-writers, falter enormously. Non-Hindi-speaking audiences may not capture the flavour of the dialogue no matter how competent the translations are, but the stiff English renderings and their middling lengths underestimate viewers and do a cultural disservice to audiences who will actually get to watch the film. While We Watched’s otherwise technically excellent craft saves it from this gaping flaw.
What pierces through the entire film is Kumar’s perseverance through what must have discouraged and demoralised anyone else in his shoes, even as he shows genuine sympathy and a full range of emotion to all the events unfolding around him. Of course, a key driver of this perseverance may well be that Kumar knows that he’s not in it to prevail — as he said in his Ramon Magsaysay award acceptance speech, some battles are fought to show that someone was on the battlefield.
But Kumar also knew, well before NDTV was acquired by the Adani group and he resigned (events not depicted in the documentary, as they unfolded after it finished shooting), that this would be something he would have to be in for the long haul. “This result has changed India,” Kumar says in an election day special after the 2019 Lok Sabha poll results were announced. “Please welcome this new India, the India in whose search you restlessly wandered, the India you have been desperate to bring out. Today, you got this India.”
While We Watched is available on PBS in the United States.