Toronto, Canada – Indian filmmaker Vinay Shukla could not help but notice that some of his friends had either completely stopped watching news television or were trying actively to cut themselves off from it.
“They said that it made them scared, it made them feel hopeless. It shut them down,” he told Al Jazeera.
Many Indian viewers say they have become wary of TV news these days, as dissemination of facts and information is replaced by propaganda peddled with an in-your-face bluster, and divisive debates that tend to eschew nuance and insight for sound and fury and theatrics.
Shukla wondered if people making news in India also felt the same increasing isolation that he and his friends were experiencing as consumers of news.
He found that loner in Ravish Kumar, the popular face at India’s NDTV network and someone who was contemplating if he was still relevant in a changing world, especially in the embattled landscape of news.
“He was asking those questions out loud at nine o’clock every night in his show. He was a tired hero. He was a hero who had seen better and who was now beginning to wonder if he still belonged,” says 36-year-old Shukla.
That was the starting point for his new documentary, While We Watched, which premiered last week at the Toronto International Film Festival. It also won the festival’s Canada Goose Amplify Voices Award on Sunday.
“While We Watched is a compelling, urgent film that collapses our differences. It is a wake-up call to how perilous and fragile the relationship between a free press and democracy is everywhere,” said the jury statement.
In his acceptance speech, Shukla said: “All of us believe at some point in our life that we can be something that is bigger than ourselves and then we spend a lot of time being very lonely in the pursuit of that ambition… I hope my film gives you hope on the days when you need it.”
This is the second Indian documentary on journalism in the recent past that has caught the world’s eye. Last year, Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s Writing With Fire, about journalists Meera Devi, Suneeta Prajapati and Shyamkali Devi of the only Dalit women-led Indian newspaper Khabar Lahariya, became the country’s first-ever nominee in the Best Documentary Feature category at the Oscars.
A lone soldier
India found itself at its lowest rank ever – 150 out of 180 countries – in this year’s World Press Freedom Index, released by Paris-based media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
While We Watched captures 48-year-old Kumar as a lone soldier in decline amid dwindling Television Rating Points (TRPs), budget cuts and layoffs and “lack of intellectual capital in the newsrooms,” as he puts it in the film. TRP is a tool to find out which channels or TV programmes are watched the most.
Simultaneously, the documentary shows the larger world of news where the journalistic spirit of questioning and inquiry is being forced out by misinformation, propaganda, bigotry, and hate politics – all in the garb of nationalism by sundry TV news anchors.
Journalists like Kumar, on the other hand, are being dubbed traitors, anti-national, and enemies of the state; they are abused and threatened, striking fear in the hearts of their friends and family. Despite that, they continue with news breaks and sting operations that attract blocked signals and frozen broadcasts, official as well as unofficial censorship.
One such instance, shown in the film, is the backlash after a 2018 story when NDTV reporters, posing as researchers, conducted a sting operation on the accused in some cow lynching cases, catching them bragging on camera about the crimes they had otherwise claimed innocence for.
Debasish Roy Chowdhury, co-author of To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism, wrote in Time magazine on May 3, 2021, about the taming of Indian media with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rise to power in 2014.
Chowdhury calls it the time when “watchdogs became poodles”, when the liberal vision of the previous crop of senior editors started making way for the Hindu nationalist worldview of the new news leaders.
He also refers to the derisive term “godi media” (godi is a lap in Hindi, a play on the word lapdog media) coined by Kumar himself to describe the journalists supporting the ruling dispensation and suppressing any calls for accountability as anti-national.
‘Angry letter to journalism’
Shukla’s film shows the curtailment of dissent and the media deliberately moving away from issues that matter to ceaseless, pointless noisemaking.
We see Kumar in the film, telling people to try and stay as far away from TV news as possible, even as he keeps wondering about his own relevance within a broadcast media and an audience that have changed entirely and expects to co-opt him, expectations he won’t meet.
The documentary also comes at a time when NDTV, one of the rare Indian TV news outfits to not always toe the official line, faces the threat of a hostile takeover by billionaire Gautam Adani, known to be close to Modi.
Shukla calls While We Watched the story of loneliness that people who fight against the mainstream always feel. It is about the despair, despondency and resilience in being alone against the world, he says.
“Whenever you’re going against the current, you do wonder on certain nights when you’re back at home if you should be doing this any more. This film will hold the hand of the people who feel the isolation and loneliness as a rebel,” he told Al Jazeera.
His previous film, An Insignificant Man, which he wrote, directed and shot along with Khushboo Ranka, chronicled the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party and civil servant-turned-activist and politician Arvind Kejriwal, currently the chief minister of Delhi.
AAP, formed in November 2012, traces its roots to a 2011 anti-corruption movement during the previous Congress-led government. It posited itself as a political alternative, pledging allegiance to and claiming to fight for the interests of the “aam aadmi” (common man).
It was a rare documentary that found a theatrical release in India, ran for several weeks and became a sleeper hit of the year. “My previous film was a love letter to idealism. While We Watched is an angry letter to journalism,” says Shukla.
While We Watched is significant because the crisis afflicting journalism in India, which it brings alive onscreen, holds true for the world at large, the reason why it resonated with many in the eclectic audience at TIFF.
“The dynamics of a traditional news organisation losing resources, and at a time when misinformation travels faster than accurate information, are not unique to India. It is happening in the United States, Russia or anywhere else in the world,” Thom Powers, senior international programmer for TIFF Docs and director of special projects at DOC NYC, the largest documentary festival in the US, told Al Jazeera.
Shukla says the Capitol Hill riots in the US showed what disinformation can do to popular imagination and the kind of havoc that major networks of disinformation can wreck. “Not just in India, people across the world have begun to stop consuming the news. There is a great amount of course correction that the news industry needs to go through,” he says.
For Bedatri D Choudhury, former managing editor of Documentary magazine, the film speaks of the larger issue of the dangers to a journalist’s life.
“It’s a film about shrinking democracy and rights that is happening the world over, yet a few journalists are still holding on to their values,” she told Al Jazeera.
“At a TIFF interaction, American documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras talked about the journalists in the US covering national security being under threat. It’s about a similar precarity of lives of journalists.”
A Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) report dated December 9, 2021, said India that year had the highest number of journalists – four – confirmed to have been murdered in retaliation for their work. These included Avinash Jha (BNN News), Chennakeshavalu (EV5), Manish Kumar Singh (Sudarshan TV) and Sulabh Srivastava (ABP News, ABP Ganga). A fifth journalist, Raman Kashyap (Sadhna Plus TV), was cited as being killed while on a dangerous assignment.
At least seven Indian journalists are in jail, “the country’s highest number of detained journalists since at least 1992”, as per the CPJ report. These include Aasif Sultan (Kashmir Narrator), Tanveer Warsi (Prabhat Sanket) and freelancers Siddique Kappan, Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, Manan Dar and Rajeev Sharma.
In June this year, Mohammed Zubair, journalist and co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News, was arrested by Delhi Police for a satirical tweet from 2018.
For Powers, While We Watched also works purely as a gripping film about a compelling personality. “I think watching a portrait of a man, who is trying to do a job that he loves against tremendous adversity, is the subject of a very compelling film,” he told Al Jazeera.
“I think I have identified with someone deep into middle age trying to carry forward ideals that were forged when they were younger into a new age where you are buffeted by new ideas and new forces and new social dynamics. I read it as a film about trying to stay true to yourself, which is a feeling that goes even deeper than the boundaries of just talking about journalism.”
Cassidy Dimon, who works in a film non-profit in the US, thinks the film is about Kumar’s struggle to not give in. “He is a measured person, trying to be a voice rooted in facts and truth than rhetoric,” she says.
For someone not deeply steeped in Indian media, Dimon found it an “incredibly compelling and eye-opening thriller about journalism in India”.
While We Watched unfolds like an emotional, observational thriller building towards a cathartic finale, eschewing conventional documentary formats to create an engaging viewing experience.
“I hope my films speak in a language and grammar that people find accessible. I make films for my parents, for my cousins, for my friends. If you’re looking to make the world a better place, what’s the point if nobody’s listening to you?” Shukla told Al Jazeera.
The film is rooted in his own fascination with newsroom thrillers and dramas – Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, Alexander Nanau’s Collective and Aziz Mirza’s Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani.
The documentary’s biggest strength is its remarkable access to Kumar and his world. Shukla’s camera was like a fly on the wall, giving us a firsthand look without being intrusive.
According to him, the key to his filmmaking is all about spending a lot of time with people. “People tend to open to you slowly. It’s like any relationship, any friendship, any business alliance, it takes time to come together,” he says.
“Yes, it requires a fair amount of trust building. Yes, it requires a fair amount of time because it’s not just him. His entire newsroom is there, his team is there, his family is there, his support staff is there. People who are warning him, alerting him, cautioning him are there.”
Shukla spent two years shooting Kumar, every day, for eight to nine hours a day. “I was trying to capture somebody’s inner life. It was like a time capsule of his life,” he says.
He thinks now is the time to overhaul the systems of newsmaking in India and to create a democratic forum between news consumers, the government and the newsmakers where there is some dialogue between the three.
“Whenever there are clear patterns in reporting that are causing public harm, they must be called out. How is it that news channels are making claims on behalf of the public, but the people are not able to say that this is not their voice? People have no forum to go to, no way to challenge the news,” he says.
“And similarly, the government must step in and ensure regulations that make sure it’s an even playing field for all in media.”
The filmmaker says journalists themselves need to have better training and better rights, both within their organisations and outside them.
“They have terrible contracts currently within their own news organisations and terrible legal representation outside the news organisations. Until and unless you take care of your journalists, there is no way that you can have better journalism,” he told Al Jazeera.
As Ravish himself says towards the end of the film, where viewers see him delivering his Ramon Magsaysay Award acceptance speech, “Not all battles are fought for victory. Some are fought to tell the world that someone was there on the battlefield.”
For him, it is time to keep soldiering on, not yet the time to leave.