At the NDTV news office where veteran journalists Ravish Kumar works, it is customary to have cake when someone is leaving the team. As one observes in Vinay Shukla’s riveting documentary While We Watched, there has been a whole lot of cake recently.
In a time when misinformation and stoking division generates big ratings, a station like India’s NDTV is finding it tough to compete. For years the station and its star anchor Kumar were a beacon of information and integrity. While Kumar still strives to maintain these ideals, the fact of the matter is that viewership is rapidly declining. Audiences are tuning into rival stations where pundits scream at each other, and opinions are presented as facts.
These stations have become mouthpieces for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and label anyone who opposes his regime, or the show’s host for that matter, as “Anti-National” or “traitors.” Worst of all, the misinformation they are pedalling is having serious off-air consequences. Emboldened by the rhetoric, individuals are not only violently attacking those who have been publicly labelled as enemies of the state, but openly issuing death threats to those like Kumar who refuse to fall in line.
What makes all this even more troubling is the possibility that Modi’s government and cable operators may be working together to make life difficult for stations like NDTV, who frequently use facts to dispel false narratives. This includes having their cable signal randomly cut during Kumar’s show or turning the once free channel into a paid subscription in certain areas where customers are unable to afford it. The frustrating thing is that Kumar and team know that higher-ups are involved but cannot prove it.
Despite the obvious interference coming from people in power, Kumar refuses to give up on his job or his faith in journalism in general. Taking viewers into the frantic and constantly shifting pressure cooker that is the newsroom, Shukla’s film is equally energetic and disheartening. One immediately identifies with what is occurring in Indian media as it mirrors what is happening globally. When a rival host goes on a tirade about the “pseudo-Liberal elites,” one can immediately recognize the playbook that is utilized.
Kumar may not be afraid to call out these media figures striking ratings gold by mining for zirconia, but one can see the fight is taking its toll. In one intriguing moment Kumar confronts a group of individuals, who have long parroted these toxic media figures’ lies, that want him to do a story on something that they deem as pressing. Pointing out the hypocrisy of the group, the veteran reporter states “during elections you vote on the basis of religion and caste” rather than the issues, like the one they want him to cover, that impact their daily lives.
Noting that society is becoming more desensitized, Kumar openly ponders how facts-based media will be able to reach a society whose ideologies have changes. This sense of weariness begins to creep in as tensions increase at the office. Though Kumar believes it is a journalist’s job to “ask the most difficult questions to those in power,” the fact of the matter is that they no longer have enough correspondents to cover the breaking news. Furthermore, while these reporters must take time to verify the facts, the competition has already hit the airwaves with their speculation and narratives that exploit tragedies for their own ratings gains.
Although the wide spread of misinformation, especially by those claiming to be legitimate news outlets, makes one saddened for the state of world, Shukla presents a ray of hope thanks to individuals like Kumar. A riveting work that will have you mourning the slow death of journalism, While We Watched is an urgent reminder that we all have much to lose if we can no longer tell fact from fiction.
While We Watched screens as part of TIFF 2022, which runs from September 8 to 18. Head here for more from the festival.