With the recent announcement that former president Donald Trump will be campaigning to become president in 2024, fact-checkers and fact-based journalists in the US are undoubtedly on alert. The worry of fanatical nationalism that led to the chaos at the Capitol building prior to the current president’s inauguration is still part of the national dialogue as investigations continue. The problem of nationalism and the proliferation and embracing of fake news isn’t just something happening in the United States. The documentary “While We Watched” shows that similar problems are present in India but director Vinay Shukla documentary is not a comprehensive look at the media in India. Rather, he takes a personal look, one focusing on an Indian award-winning journalist, veteran reporter Ravish Kumar of India’s NDTV.
NDTV stands for New Delphi TV. The station was founded in 1988 and is a 24-hour Hindi news channel. According to the NDTV website, Ravish Kumar is the Senior Executive Editor.
Ravish has been with NDTV for over 15 years and currently hosts Prime Time on week nights. Born in Bihar and brought up in Delhi, he speaks both Bhojpuri and Hindi. This multi-talented journalist is an avid blogger with his own blog site ‘naisadak.blogspot.com’, he is a ‘tukbandi kavi’, a story teller, author of a book ‘Dekhte Rahiye’, writes a column, is a film critic and still finds time do sensitive reporting on ordinary issues, reflecting his love of meeting the man on the street. Ravish can be contacted on his tweet @ravishndtv.
The film begins as a man, Kumar, enters building that has been destroyed. We’ll learn more about this building later in the documentary. Looking like a distinguished elder statesman of journalism with his silver hair and glasses, he asks philosophical questions: “When you find yourself all alone, who do you listen to?” But he also makes some statements about the troubling nature of the political landscape of India:
When your government labels you a ‘Communist’ and comes after you, it’s time for you to realize that you are losing your rights. Pune police have made multiple arrests all over the country today. Activists, journalists, lawyer and poets have been arrested. There has been no press conference. Neither any official record of what’s happening. Nor any official confirmation of the arrests made.
The battle lines are draw between “anti-Nationals” who are “enemies of the state.” On the television a reporter declares, “Being a nationalist is a prerequisite to being a journalist.” Contrast that with Kumar who says, “Our job it to ask the most difficult questions to those in power.”
This call to a civil war should be familiar to people in the US. It wasn’t too long ago that journalists were being labeled “enemies of the people” by then-President Trump and that factual evidence that contradicted then-President Trump’s assurances were deemed to be “fake news.”
Director Shukla contrasts the disquieting rise of nationalism and Kumar’s somber visage, with Kumar’s joy in his personal life with his wife and two daughters.
TIFF called this documentary “While We Watched is essential viewing for anyone interested in how television journalism is under threat. Although the film is rooted in India, its depiction of misinformation eroding fact-based news could apply to any number of countries from Russia to the United States.” For four long years in the US, it wasn’t just television journalism that was under threat and, remember, and that threat went beyond words.
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Kumar himself says, “I believe good things never get old. They live forever and that’s why we should continue despite abuses and threats. I mean, what more can I say about this? Keep speaking and keep writing. It can get scary but keep conquering your fears with practice.”
Even when he’s been given an award, Kumar doesn’t give up the battle, saying, “Someday in the future, someone will dig through the depths of YouTube to investigate the role of Indian media. They’ll discover that there was an NDTV which stood against the mob.” Before the 6 January 2021 riot, people in the US might have thought that mob actions and standing against the angry crowds were problems associated with minorities or something that happens in other countries, but in 2021, we saw a riot in the Capitol that was allegedly encouraged by then-president Trump and some of his supporters. This documentary shows the personal pressures that standing against the mob entails and how people in India are standing up to nationalism. Kumar shows that one man, one person can make a difference, but the price of doing so isn’t cheap. Moreover, the problem of nationalism isn’t just something arising from the US culture, but instead there are universals that lead to its rise and perhaps to prevent it, we need to understand those cross-cultural elements.
Last year, the husband-and-wife team Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas brought an inspiring documentary about journalism in India: “Writing with Fire.” It won an Audience Award and a Special Jury Award in the World Cinema Documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival. That film was the story of Dalit women bringing their 14-year-old newspaper into the digital world using smartphones. “Writing with Fire became the first Indian feature documentary to be nominated for an Academy Award. That film was passionate and the stories the women covered much more viscerally emotional than “While We Watched.” The problems that Kumar faces may seem more abstract but we have seen the effects of the press being vilified as the “enemy of the people” here in the US. We have seen mobs on both sides of the political spectrum in recent years and that should give us pause. When there are mobs, are we listening to the right people? Perhaps we should be looking for the lone voice or learn what it takes to be that lone voice against a mob.
“While We Watched” made its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. “While We Watched” won the Busan Cinephile Award at the 2022 Busan International Film Festival and, at TIFF, it was given the Amplify Voices Award. In Hindi and English, with English subtitles.