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‘Evidence of What Happened at NDTV’: Notes From ‘While We Watched’ in New York

For Indians watching, it indicated a permanent state of corruption in media ethics that left many feeling helpless.

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South Asians
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“I’m here for two reasons. One is that I’m British, and when an Indian asks you to do something, you do it,” British-American comedian and political commentator, John Oliver (Last Week Tonight) says, sitting next to Indian journalist Ravish Kumar and filmmaker Vinay Shukla, up on stage at the famous IFC center in New York City, to a captivated audience. “And second, I absolutely love this documentary, I’ve seen it twice.”

Oliver is moderating the Q&A segment of While We Watched, an Indian documentary chronicling two years in the life of Ravish Kumar, as he struggles to report on issues affecting the common population in a broadcast media environment increasingly embracing sensationalist, nationalist rhetoric.

While We Watched is currently doing a theatrical run at the IFC center until July 27, drawing crowds on its opening weekend that one of the ushers of the theater says is the biggest he has seen in his time at the venue.

For Indians watching, it indicated a permanent state of corruption in media ethics that left many feeling helpless.
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Indians lined up in lower Manhattan to watch the film, some excited to be in Ravish Kumar’s company and hoping to be inspired, others seizing the opportunity to re-immerse themselves in Indian news after drifting away from the homeland into their diasporic lives.

For Indians watching, it indicated a permanent state of corruption in media ethics that left many feeling helpless.

While We Watched watches like a newsroom drama — intimately shot with fast-paced editing that manages to squeeze two years of ups and (mostly) downs of Ravish Kumar at NDTV in a tight hour and 34 minutes.

“There are not a lot of political documentaries based in India about Indian politics that show things as they are...There’s a lot of right wing extremism that’s come into play in the last several years and seeing While We Watched is refreshing. And you’re hooked every second.”
Varunavi Newar, 29, about to watch the film for the second time.

We watch Kumar as he loses his team to other channels and professions (punctuated by the ubiquitous farewell chocolate cake), as his viewers are replaced by right-wingers leaving him death threats, while he struggles to juggle resilience with helplessness.

We “see a newsroom suffer death by a thousand cuts, or a thousand goodbye cakes,” John Oliver says in the post-screening Q&A. “You did the impossible, you made chocolate cake depressing,” he adds, as the room erupts in laughter.

For Indians watching, it indicated a permanent state of corruption in media ethics that left many feeling helpless.

“What you have is a 2-year evidence of what happened. You have a data set of what was happening at NDTV at the time. It’s on the record now,” Oliver says.

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And it’s how Shukla has created the film. While We Watched reflects the journalistic style of its protagonist, Ravish Kumar — a deftly-crafted narrative brand of storytelling that has its roots in keen, prolonged observation, culminating in tender verité moments that punctuate a vast breadth of archival that depicts the reality of Indian broadcast media today.

As Ravish Kumar puts it to Oliver, “It’s not only that they are spreading falsehoods. This media has become a weapon,” commenting on the nationalist practices of the likes of Arnab Goswami. “I realized that this media is a henchman of someone else.

For Indians watching, it indicated a permanent state of corruption in media ethics that left many feeling helpless.

That isolated me in the profession.” When Oliver asks Kumar where he is now, Kumar responds, “I am on the road. I am nowhere. I have been sentenced to professional exile in my own country.”

Kumar says he decided to leave after Adani bought NDTV and added:

“In India, you have ’n’ number of industrialists who have huge amounts of money but I know they don’t have the guts to give me a job.”

Kumar now runs his own YouTube channel, and says he is grateful for his viewers, who he says are his “lifeline.”

Shukla then asks Oliver the size of his team. Sheepishly, Oliver says “80.” In contrast, Shukla says he was surprised to see Ravish operating at his scale with a barebones crew, three to four people who are all featured in the documentary. “This is a common occurrence in newsrooms,” Shukla adds.

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This is where While We Watched hits especially hard — when the decline happening around Kumar at NDTV focuses on the young journalists who quit, disillusioned with the lack of institutional support associated with Kumar’s brand of grassroots journalism speaking truth to power.

For Indians in the audience, it indicated more than just what was on screen; it portended a larger, more ominous and permanent state of corruption in media ethics that left many feeling helpless.

“I’m very apprehensive. That call [Kumar] receives in the film, where a young journalist is asking, ‘should we give up hope?’ is what I ask myself every day...The kind of stories I want to tell, the kind of films I want to make, will I have to screen them outside of India?”
Samarth Khanna, 27

“If it’s in India, it’s going to get banned,” Pankti Dalal, 27, says, grateful for the privilege of being able to watch it in New York City.

“You feel really guilty being away from home but also you don’t feel like going back because what can you do as a young person," Dalal, with experience in public policy in India, adds. “I can’t be burned out at such a young age. But the guilt doesn’t go away.”
Pankti Dalal

Despite presenting the deep-rooted, systemic challenges to Indian journalism and democracy, While We Watched ends on a hopeful note of perseverance, which movie-goers like Dalal deemed inspiring. “It takes courage to do what [Kumar] did. That’s something we have to build.”

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“It’s how [Kumar] said in the film,” Khanna says, as they recall the speech Kumar gave upon accepting the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2019, as included in the film:

“Not all battles are fought for victory. Some are fought simply to tell the world that someone was there on the battlefield."

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  NDTV   Ravish Kumar 

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