The Media Today

Q&A: A new documentary tells the story of India’s news crisis

July 19, 2023
Ravish Kumar delivers a lecture on the "Power of Citizen's Journalism to Advance Democracy" Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, in Manila, Philippines. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

In 2018, Vinay Shukla, an Indian documentary filmmaker, approached Ravish Kumar, a high-profile TV personality in the country, to be a part of his latest film, While We Watched. Shukla, who is known for his observational documentaries, had grown disturbed by India’s polarized media landscape. An ardent fan of newsroom dramas, he wanted to set up his cameras in the offices of NDTV, a network, where Kumar worked, that was known for maintaining high journalistic standards in a country where many media outlets were turning into mouthpieces for the government of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP.

Shukla had noticed that Kumar was a rare anchor in India not to have fallen in line with Modi’s political agenda. Instead, he was almost “chastising” his audience and urging them to question Modi’s tactics, Shukla said. His film ended up chronicling Kumar’s work and family life as he navigated a spiraling world of disinformation; Shukla shot it over two years, a process that was not without risks given that Kumar had faced threats linked to his work. (Additionally, Modi’s government has turned the screw on independent filmmaking, a trend that I explored in Fadeout, a short film that I made for CJR’s recent Authoritarianism Issue.) Late last year, Kumar resigned from his position as a primetime anchor after twenty-seven years, following the takeover of NDTV by Gautam Adani, a billionaire who is believed to have close ties to Modi.

While We Watched has been on the festival circuit for the past year and has won various major documentary awards. The team behind the film recently released it in the UK and Ireland, and is now gearing up for its US theatrical release on Friday at the IFC Center, an independent film space in New York City. Earlier this week, I spoke with Kumar and Shukla about the threats to journalism in India, the scrutiny facing media professionals under the Modi government, and what it’s like to continue to fight for the truth. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity (and my exchanges with Kumar have been translated from Hindi).

ZS:  Ravish, what was your motivation in agreeing to let Vinay follow you over the course of two years?

RK: Vinay felt that it was important to record what was going on inside our newsroom. I did not take part in the planning of how the film should be made. I just said yes. It didn’t bother me much that a camera was following me the entire time. That’s because I didn’t really have anything to hide. All I did the entire day was work. 

I knew that I was going through a tough time professionally. We were sliding backwards every day [as a newsroom]. And I knew I wouldn’t surrender so easily and that I would try until the very end to do something. There were times when Vinay said to me that this channel [NDTV] could be shut down at any moment; investigative agencies could enter the channel at any time. He wanted to be there, ready to witness it when that happened. This was the thought process that led to the film. 

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Vinay, why did you think that Ravish would be the best person through which to tell this story? 

VS: Ravish says that it’s the job of journalists to ask questions of those in power. I could see that Ravish was doing that very actively. And I could also see that he was also going through a phase of vulnerability, doubt, and introspection. I would see his broadcast, and very often, instead of praising the audience—which a lot of prime-time news anchors [do in India]; they tell their audience we are only here to serve you—Ravish was actually reprimanding them, saying that they shouldn’t be watching TV. I saw somebody who was going through a vulnerable phase, who had clearly seen a better time and who was disagreeing with the mainstream around him. And for me that was a good starting point.

Ravish, the film deals with the themes of misinformation and disinformation. How does a journalist cope in a world in which misinformation travels faster than facts?

RK: I don’t think this film deals only with the misinformation environment. This wasn’t the only crisis. Indian newsrooms were being demolished and everyone who stood in the way—I am not just talking about NDTV here—[the BJP] made sure that they don’t have the strength or freedom to gather real news. The media was prepared, ideologically and psychologically, to serve the government and were told that the way they could do it was by [helping to divide society along communal lines]. Many members of the media joined the bandwagon very happily. The media stopped playing its role of a watchdog and instead was weaponized for [the BJP’s] benefit. So you can’t call this a media, no matter in what light you see it. It became a weapon, a dagger with which they wanted to kill anyone who would ask questions; to brand them as anti-national, pro-Pakistani, and pro-Muslim. And the beneficiary of all of this has been the ruling party. 

How do you deal with a government that is actively trying to stop you from doing your job?

RK: We no longer have the space where you can single-handedly do the job of a journalist. All you are allowed to do or can do is propaganda. If there are floods in Delhi, you can go to the site with your crew, and you can describe the water and its levels, but you cannot criticize the government of the day. You cannot ask for accountability from the central government. It simply does not exist. You are allowed to have a job; you will get a salary at the end of the month. But journalism no longer exists. The list of things you cannot do has gotten very long.

Vinay, did you feel that it was important for your audience to know that this story transcends NDTV and could be the experience of any Indian news outlet? Or did you prefer to tell the story through one man trying to challenge the system?

VS: The film is also a father and daughter story. The film is also a story about Ravish and his colleagues, the people who are not as famous. So you see a lot of faces within the film; while Ravish is a vessel for the story to move forward, he is not the story. When people watch the film, very often they have a very strong response to their own feelings as viewers. They’re able to identify how they themselves have been complicit in where we are.

My ambition was to focus on just how lonely it’s becoming for idealists to continue in their professions. This film is about adult loneliness. Ravish is in journalism but people who have not been in journalism—entrepreneurs; doctors—have told me that this film perfectly applies to [their situations]. There is clearly a layer of journalism and politics in the film. But ultimately, the story is universal: The story of perseverance during extremely difficult times.

What was it like for you to cover a journalist as a protagonist as opposed to your other projects, where people perhaps might not be so aware of the camera or, shall I say, media savvy?

VS: Actually, with Ravish, it wasn’t so much of a concern because he’s very busy doing his own thing. Mostly it was a challenge shooting in the NDTV newsroom because everybody was aware of the power of the camera. It wasn’t like I was stepping into an office where nobody knew what our cameras were capable of. So it took me a long time to let them be comfortable with me; that’s why I shot this film over two years. It was also very difficult, for example, to shoot with Ravish’s family, because they aren’t really looking for public attention or a camera in their lives. It’s a very private family. And, as you see in the film, they are going through a lot. So it took me much more time to be able to silently sit within those spaces and observe them with my camera. 

Ravish, every time a journalist is targeted, they become the story. What’s that been like for you, especially with the film coming out?

RK: How is it possible for a journalist to stop themselves from becoming the story, especially when the state is repressing you and—if you are a female journalist—you are receiving rape threats? There are a lot of journalists who have been fired and had to leave [the industry]. And they are somehow trying to survive. This story needs to be covered and it needs to be talked about. In fact, if we don’t provide a platform to these journalists, then we are legitimizing the state and its effort to silence them. There is a systematic effort to dismantle the entire media, and people have been isolated. It has deeply affected their mental health. 

There are a lot of journalists who did not end up becoming the story, because they surrendered . But I think they are also a part of this larger story, and I believe that, at some point, there will be a filmmaker, a historian, who will reach out to them and ask why they remained silent. I don’t have a problem in becoming the story, and I continue to receive threats and attacks on Twitter. The entire BJP government boycotted my show. Isn’t that a story in itself?

We have seen a rise in reporters leaving their newsrooms and joining social media platforms to bring the news to their audience. You left NDTV and you have a YouTube channel now. Can you talk to me about what is happening with that?

RK: I think there is a problem with your question. These journalists are not leaving their newsrooms. They have been driven out and now they have nowhere else to go. No one is willing to employ them. 

We need to understand that the mainstream media, which has a viewership of millions, is incomparable to what we have been able to achieve through these social media platforms. It is a personal struggle for these journalists to continue working and to remain in their profession. But I don’t see this as a solution to the crisis of journalism facing India today. We need to look deeper to realize the price we had to pay. We don’t own these platforms and we are all very well aware of how easy it is to lose them. You never know when YouTube will introduce a copyright law, or when Facebook might decide to regulate a page. We have all seen it happen before. 

If YouTube did not exist today, then I would be unemployed after twenty-seven years as a journalist. In a newsroom, you have several beat reporters and you work with your team to bring out the news. Right now, I do not have a team of reporters. It’s just something that I cannot afford at this point in time. It is very challenging to single-handedly gather news and then do the analysis—and do it every single day, all by yourself. Today, I don’t have the luxury to stop and ask whether this way of producing news is giving me satisfaction or not, because my only goal is to survive in this moment and keep doing what I’m doing. 

Is there anything about journalism in India that Western media perhaps doesn’t get quite right?

RK: I don’t think that there is something I can point to that tells you that the American press has reported incorrectly or been incomplete in its coverage. However, I would say that the press here has only probably covered about 10 percent of the collapse of the Indian press and its impact. There are a lot of stories that are yet to be uncovered by the American press about what is happening in India today.

Vinay, I want to go back to the film now, particularly the way it ends, with Ravish winning a prestigious Magsaysay Award. How important was it for you to have that heroic ending? Did you ever have a different ending in mind?

VS: I mean, it’s not really a heroic ending, I disagree with you. It’s a minor consolation, if anything. I don’t think people are walking out of the film feeling everything is fine, and I don’t think people are walking out of the film looking at Ravish as a hero. If anything it’s a very vulnerable and a very delicate portrait of somebody who is struggling. Heroes: that word is usually used to describe people who change the world for the better. I don’t think this film is that. I think this film is about the cost being paid by journalists, and it’s a very big cost. Given that cost, the victory that you see Ravish have at the end of the film, it’s not substantive.

Will your film be distributed in India? And what kind of support or opposition are you expecting, given the current situation there?

VS: I have received only support and love from people, but at the same time, I have received no distribution offers from India at the moment. I currently have a financial debt. It’s very important for me to be able to release this film, or to be able to make money off the release of the film. So it’s a hardship. But I faced challenges with my last film [about an insurgent activist turned politician] as well, which we were able to release in theaters. I remain optimistic that I’ll be able to get this film out in India.

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Zainab Sultan is a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @ZainabSultan.