‘A tired hero questioning his own relevance’: Vinay Shukla on Ravish Kumar

The documentary While We Watched chronicles a period of dejection in the Indian media.

Published : Sep 24, 2022 18:36 IST

A still from While We Watched.

A still from While We Watched. | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Vinay Shukla’s new documentary, While We Watched, recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where it won the Amplify Voices Award. It chronicles a period of dejection—which seems be getting worse every day—in the Indian media by getting up close and personal with NDTV India’s Senior Executive Editor, journalist and anchor Ravish Kumar, his immediate colleagues and family. Shukla has previously co-directed with Khushboo Ranka An Insignificant Man, which charts the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party and Arvind Kejriwal.

These days, press freedom is under severe threat with private ownership and corporate sponsors working hand in glove with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, budgetary cuts, media toeing the government’s line with propaganda and hate speech (the term “godi media” was coined by Ravish Kumar) and more importantly, the threat of incarceration, with more and more journalists and activists getting arrested under provisions like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. While We Watched is a searing look at what it takes to deliver news and talk truth to power —not just its political side but also its solitary, frustrating part. Edited interview with Vinay Shukla at TIFF.

To start with the obvious, how and why Ravish Kumar? A lot of journalists—independent and otherwise—do great work in India in different media, be it print or visual.

That’s a good question. I have stopped watching news and when I talk to my friends in India and other parts of the world, they say the same. I did this to protect my mental health. I asked myself—what do people behind media and news enterprises feel? Do they feel the same loneliness I feel consuming the news? Ravish Kumar is very articulate. And his programmes go against the current news culture in India.

He is the only one engaging in fair criticism not only of newsmakers and politicians but also of the audience. He was telling the audience what and how to think about what was happening in the country. I found this contrast interesting. Ravish’s thinking went, “even though nobody is watching, nobody is listening, let me tell you what I feel”. It’s a vulnerable thing to say. And a harsh thing to say. And he spoke in Hindi, which reached a wider audience than English. I wanted to understand what’s happening in that stratum of society.

(L-R) Amaan Shaikh, Vinay Shukla and Luke W. Moody of While We Watched at Toronto

(L-R) Amaan Shaikh, Vinay Shukla and Luke W. Moody of While We Watched at Toronto | Photo Credit: AFP

The first 30-40 minutes of the film move very fast. The editing is quick, scenes and locations transition fast from Kumar’s office to NDTV India’s office to his home and family. Did you want it to reflect today’s news cycle?

Yes. Also, I am an impatient person. With my films, I like to move fast between things. I don’t want anything to be told. One must be able to build a picture in their head gradually. I like letting the audience know that they must keep up. It doesn’t work for some but that’s okay. 

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I was wondering about that. I am from India, I have the context, don’t need subtitles. What about others?

I completely understand. It’s a choice to bring a certain breathlessness into my narratives. I am not here to make sure every person who watches the film likes it. I am okay if some people don’t understand some parts. You won’t see random shots of streets and people in my film giving a sense of what India looks like. Everybody knows that. I like to get to the point quickly.

Cinema is not about complete comprehension of every detail… If the experience resonates, if the emotional truth of the film resonates, everything is fine. Here in the festival, we watch films from across the world.  There will be parts of a film specific to a culture that we may not fully understand. I think that’s great. It means the filmmaker stayed authentic to what’s happening in their country.

One of the differences between An Insignificant Man and While We Watched, according to me, is that the earlier film seemed optimistic while this one is more pessimistic about the future. 

I would disagree. I think the film is even more optimistic than An Insignificant Man. Optimism is not cheap, right? If it wasn’t optimistic, I wouldn’t have made the film.

An Insignificant Man was about people starting up, being told that they cannot achieve something and then going ahead and doing just that. This one is about a tired hero, a person who’s seen it all, who’s seen better times and is questioning his own relevance. It reflects the realities for Ravish. I could have made a hunky-dory happy film about journalism in India, but most journalists would disagree. People are finding it harder to go against organisational diktats, and not just in journalism. It’s difficult to work against the entire room you are in.

There is this beautiful film by Les Blank, Burden of Dreams, on the making of a Werner Herzog film. Every time there is a dream of India as a fantastic country—with better rights, fair representation, a better system—somebody must carry the burden of that dream. My film is about the cost of that dream. There is hope in this person, and in others like him. That hope is not cheap.

I was surprised by that scene when the editor of a local newspaper calls up Kumar for advice on how to operate during these difficult times. Kumar has no advice, he says he shares the disillusionment and is asking the same question himself. That’s brutally honest and vulnerable.

That’s the challenge of sticking to the profession. Everyone wonders, is it worth it? Is what you are doing right? Ravish motors on. And the film speaks to that spirit. That’s why it is optimistic. 

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The film is full of scenes where people cut cakes to mark a farewell or somebody getting a new job. Is this deliberate? 

It is a bittersweet thing, this cake-cutting. Another person has left the system because it’s unsustainable and Ravish understands that. It’s like the Titanic: there were those musicians who continued to play the violin as the ship was sinking. The cake is reflective of that.

While We Watched gives the feel of a newsroom where different people, with different ideologies and beliefs, work together. Social media will have us believe that everything is black and white, but in the real world, adjustments and compromises have to be made. The film gets into the heart of that.

You are right. I tried to do that with the film. The newsroom is more diverse than the news would have you believe. How do we make sure diverse voices are contributing to the newsroom? News organisations need to talk about it. 

Not just the newsroom. I think the film industry is one more place where people need to work together in these polarising times.

Exactly. The film is my effort to humanise journalists. They disagree with each other. They are scared and they are also inspired. They are figuring it out. Is our news reflective of who we are, is a question I ask constantly. 

That brings us again to the issue of people moving to other channels, which might be specialising in propaganda. Is it a self-serving move or do they not have a choice? 

People leave for so many reasons, sometimes they are forced. If you are not getting paid well enough, how do you continue? Or if the medium doesn’t value you anymore? Those are doubts everybody lives with.

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Kumar himself shows that disillusionment. How did you bring that conversation with him into the film?

He is one individual who lets that disillusionment show when a lot of people hide it because they have public personas. I did not have to bring that conversation into the film because he was having that conversation with the audience anyway. One day I was filming him, and he said this on air—“I am going to tell you something, you don’t care about it but write it on a piece of paper and put it in your wallet. Someday somebody will steal your wallet and they’ll read it and their life will be better.” This is such an indictment of your own audience! I got an insight into his process by filming him quietly. And then I edited the film for two years. 

What was the editing process likehow did you decide on whatto carry and what to discard, especially regarding footage of other news channels? 

It was a nerve-racking edit, which was made during the pandemic. A shout-out to my editor Abhinav Tyagi and his team. I wanted to find moments that reveal more about Ravish than the news does. So, I let my camera linger in places you don’t see, capturing offhand moments.

Like his assistants under stress doing yoga or buying medicines?

Yes! Those moments are revelatory of what people were going through in their job. My story department was handled by Reshma Ramachandran, without her and Tyagi this wouldn’t have been possible. They worked very hard on a narrative on paper and the film slowly got there. It reveals itself to you slowly. I didn’t want to use much footage of other channels at first but then it looked like Ravish is worried about nothing. So based on fair use policy, I added the other news footage to give some context to how speech was spread in India.

ALSO READ: Market, Morals and the Media

What was the level of your access? I am sure it took some time to build.

It took a long time. For the first few months I only shot inside Ravish’s office. I spent almost two years with him, his immediate colleagues and family. 

And he has quite a modest office!

Yes. That’s the thing that strikes you—his office or home doesn’t seem as elaborate as you thought it would be. He drives himself, as you saw. He’s not in some fancy house in GK. That’s also the truth of Hindi journalism. It’s not as money-laden or glamorous as English journalism. That’s another thing to think about. How much do English journalists get compared to regional journalists or people who don’t write in English?

That reminds me. In the film we see Sreenivasan Jain and other NDTV faces in the background. Were you ever tempted to pull them in? Or did you always want Kumar to be the focus?

I wanted to maintain a respectful distance from people whose stories I don’t have complete visibility on. They probably deserve their own film; it would be unfair to barge into their office and say, I want to film you. 

Indian documentaries have made waves in recent international festivals but the Indian public doesn’t get to watch these films in theatres or on streaming platform. Films like A Night of Knowing Nothing, All That Breathes and Writing with Fire are politically sharper than most fiction features, as isWhile We Watched. Will the public get to watch it?

In recent times, non-fiction films have made more relevant social commentary compared to mainstream Hindi films (though some fiction features from the South do talk about socio-political issues). Yet fiction films have a bigger market and wield power over people’s imagination while documentaries get reduced to their politics or social cause. Even if we don’t like it, we end up watching at least two bad films in the theatre every month. But how many of us will show up for a documentary?

But you will release this film for the public?

I will definitely apply for a censor certificate for While We Watched. My last film got rejected, then we went to the tribunal, then it came out and ran for nine weeks. 

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