While We Watched: An intimate look at reporter Ravish Kumar’s lonely fight against India’s right-wing media

Vinay Shukla’s close-quarters documentary enters the newsroom with journalist Ravish Kumar, highlighting his professional solitude as he faces orchestrated online harassment and the repressive forces of the state.

12 July 2023

By Srikanth Srinivasan

While We Watched (2022)
Sight and Sound

Early in While We Watched, Vinay Shukla’s documentary on the life and work of the acclaimed Indian journalist Ravish Kumar, we see the newsman receiving compliments from a fan at a petrol station. As Ravish takes leave of his admirer, a faint smile crosses his face, only to dissolve into his trademark frown once out of the station. The smiles will be fleeting all through Shukla’s film, much like the short-lived victories that the journalist experiences at home and in his newsroom. For the most part, we witness Ravish drained, slouched in a chair, his hair dishevelled, his face buried in his palms or the crook of his elbow. 

Long affiliated with New Delhi Television (NDTV) before its hostile takeover by billionaire Gautam Adani in December 2022, Ravish Kumar came to be perceived as one of the last bastions of independent journalism in a media climate increasingly in thrall to Narendra Modi’s government. Structured around half a dozen key events from 2018-19 – including the attempted murder of student activist Umar Khalid in 2018, the 2019 general election and the attack on security personnel in Pulwama, Kashmir, in December 2021 – While We Watched offers a study in contrasts: Ravish’s sardonic, reasoned language in discussing these hot-button issues stands out against the strident demagoguery of his counterparts on other TV channels. 

It isn’t a battle of equals by any means. Vicious armies of trolls and attacks from powerful media houses (covert or otherwise) are not the only weapons ranged against Ravish. He must also contend with a malevolent state that grinds down dissident organisations by means of defamation lawsuits and income-tax raids. At one point in the film, a major scoop about an instance of cow vigilantism – attacks by Hindu nationalists ostensibly to prevent the slaughter of cattle – is thwarted by selective disruptions of the broadcast in several regions of the country. Ravish’s phone buzzes with calls from bullies and his physical safety is threatened, resulting in a police officer being assigned to escort him. 

The journalist responds to such orchestrated harassment with a resigned expression. Notwithstanding his ordeal, he remains accessible to all those reaching out to him with questions and advice, well-wishers or otherwise. While We Watched is a tribute to his conviction, but Shukla isn’t interested in telling a triumphalist tale. The film is shot through with a melancholy that reflects Ravish’s own; he registers less as an unflappable crusader demolishing ill-informed opponents (though he does get a moment or two of that) than a solitary romantic whose heart beats for a lost cause. 

While We Watched emphasises Ravish’s loneliness. He is largely seen in profile in tight close-ups, severed, as it were, from the world around him. As other television channels grow in popularity and revenue, resignations and farewell parties multiply at Ravish’s office, his trusted colleagues moving on to greener pastures. 

This solitude is redoubled by the format of Ravish’s primetime show on NDTV which, as the fan at the petrol station points out, relies on the star anchor’s persuasive monologues rather than the sensational panel discussions on other news channels. Is Ravish simply jaded? Is he too much in love with his own voice to have guests on his show? Or is it that he resists the faux neutrality of such pseudo-debates, which turn every story into an occasion for polarisation? The film doesn’t tell us. What it does make clear is that Ravish is detached from his peer group, save for some sporadic gestures of solidarity from fledgling journalists and college students. At regular intervals, we see him read his own words off a teleprompter, as though he is walled in by them, with no other voice coming in support. 

In its unwavering focus on Ravish to the exclusion of other anchors working alongside him, While We Watched risks overstating his predicament and minimising NDTV role as an institution with its own policies and imperatives. Even so, the film succeeds in giving a sense of what it takes to be a national journalist in India today, of the price to be paid for remaining upright in a world all too willing to bend down. Watching Ravish soldier on despite dwindling audiences, continuing to gather information from conscientious reporters and disgruntled youth, we come to recognise speaking truth as a worthy goal in itself, beyond its capacity for influence. As Ravish put it in his now-famous speech at the award ceremony that bookends the film: “Not all battles are fought for victory. Some are fought simply to tell the world that someone was there on the battlefield.”

While We Watched is in UK cinemas from 14 July. 

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