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Why I Felt Fear and Hope While Watching Documentary on Ravish Kumar

The documentary 'While We Watched' follows journalist Ravish Kumar as he quests to hold onto the old-world of news.

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This is not a review. This is a thank you letter to Ravish Kumar and Vinay Shukla from a young journalist (Well, it’s been five years in the industry but I hope I can still call myself that. Sigh). 

A "thank you" for making a film that serves as a reminder to the dangers a democracy's fourth estate stares at in times of religious polarisation and dogmatic nationalism.

(Spoilers ahead)

In ‘While We Watched’, filmmaker Shukla follows journalist and popular TV news anchor Ravish Kumar as he grapples to hold on to the old-world principles of news. Against the backdrop of a crumbling newsroom (quite literally, more on that later), he wonders whether his journalism is still relevant.

Speaking to The Quint, Shukla said, "Some of my friends used to tell me that they have stopped watching news and that news made them very very anxious. So I thought it would be good to start off as a point of enquiry as to what is happening in the minds and hearts of those who work in the news business."

Indeed, my mind and heart went through a lot during the private screening of the documentary in Delhi - the city at the heart of journalism landscape in India. I walked out with smiles, tears, hope, hopelessness, adrenaline, and numbness.

I didn’t think a documentary on a subject I know and read so much about will affect me the way it did. After all, we have all been there, reading, listening, and watching while all of it happened.
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We Were There, Watching While it Happened

From arrests of activists in the Bhima Koregaon case over flimsy evidence to TV news channels labeling student protestors as "urban naxals", to news anchors regurgitating a “them vs us” narrative, to "fringe elements" actually pulling the trigger on a student leader outside Constitution Club, to issues of unemployment and hunger taking a backseat over religious polarisation, to newsrooms being raided and journalists being arrested, threatened and murdered…we have all watched while it happened.

In one of the scenes of the documentary, “an editor of a small newspaper” calls Ravish and asks, "Should we accept this as our future and already compromise on our principles?”

Ravish sighs: "I have done this for 26 years. And the dilemma that you are in, I am having the same dilemma."

This film is about that dilemma and about a dark reality that plagues Indian journalism and its newsrooms today – fear. Of layoffs, of shutdowns, of stagnation, of death threats and them turning real, and of having to compromise on the ideals that drove so many of us to this profession. 
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After a brief pause in the same scene, you see dejection turn into resolve as Ravish asserts: “No, we will not do what the government wants us to do.”

“And sometimes, that could also mean that we will have to choose between journalism and keeping our jobs. No fight comes without a cost.”
Ravish Kumar in While We Watched
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Unfortunately, that cost is too high for a lot of journalists to bear. A Lokniti-CSDS report shows that at least 90 percent of those working in media suffer from mental health issues because of job-related stress, political bias in media houses, or job insecurities.

Every ten minutes in Shukla’s film, there is a cake being cut and a goodbye being shared. And with each cake, you see a more and more downhearted Ravish. The one that hurt the most, both me and also Ravish in the film is the resignation of his senior producer, Swarolipi.
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Brain Drain is the Saddest Reality of Our Newsrooms Today

Very early in the film, we see Swarolipi sharing her anxieties with Ravish about layoffs in various departments in NDTV. Yet, she goes about researching, voicing, and producing his prime-time show with gusto.

Swarolipi shared Ravish's fight, love and vision for journalism.

Throughout the film, we see departments being shut down and talented reporters seeking out better opportunities. And then we see a numb, tired Ravish accepting Swarolipi’s resignation with a cold smile and a lasting pause.

We see a channel that once bubbled with energy and resolve cut down on resources, let go of an entire floor of the office building. The grief of this loss is represented at the onset of the documentary when Ravish scans through a deconstructed office floor with his phone torch and asks, "When you find yourself all alone in a room, whose voice do you listen to?"

Ravish says he is concerned that newsrooms are being drained out of intellectual capital. And that’s the saddest reality of our newsrooms today.

Speaking to The Quint, filmmaker Vinay Shukla says:

"I would feel dejected whenever I saw people quit the organisation. Because some people have worked in the organisation for 25-30 years and they are probably in their mid-50s and to be asked to then quit and find a new job is really difficult. People come from different socio-economic backgrounds. People have EMIs to pay. I wanted to keep the cake-cutting as a recurring theme to remind people that this is what happens… this is how the titanic goes down.”
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Why Journalists Are Looking For an Alternative

Despite a poor pay and occupational hazard, many of my classmates, seniors, colleagues, friends have dreamed of becoming a journalist for long. Many of us saw journalism as an act of public service. The political and economic crises that cripple our newsrooms today has led many journalists to look for either an alternative profession or an alternative way of doing the journalism they always wanted to do. 

Many popular TV anchors who were snubbed out of their newsrooms have taken to YouTube – the platform that’s driving the changing landscape of news today. This list includes Ravish but the film ends before he decided to make that shift.

Throughout the documentary, we see Ravish wondering whether he should quit the profession. He tells his wife that even his regular viewers are not sending any feedback. When his contemporaries snub him at award shows over low TRPs, he takes it head on but he keeps telling his audience to do its job.

"Ravish wasn’t just a conventional TV news anchor. Most anchors praise audience. He was actively scolding his audiences and telling them that they are not doing the right thing. Here is a news person who is not only criticising the State government but also his audience."
Vinay Shukla
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Is it An 'Us Vs Them' Battle in Journalism Today?

Ravish, who has spent decades in television journalism tells his audience to stop watching TV news in the documentary. He fears that the audience is blindsided as to how television channels have poisoned and polarised their minds.

In a discussion with a reporter of his channel, he laments, “We are becoming irrelevant now...People's ideologies have changed so much. How do we reach them?”

A thought that has often lingered on my mind as well.

Are we being able to tell the story in a way so that it reaches the masses? Is the old-way of doing journalism still relevant at a time when they are having to compete even with influencers? Are we preaching to our choir and “they” are preaching to theirs? Has truth become subjective to our ideologies then?

Shukla says his film has had a successful run in the United States and United Kingdom and he was expecting to get offers from Indian broadcasters but hasn’t so far.

He says, “While the film was being watched in USA, many people drew comparisons with CNN vs Fox debate but almost everyone was shocked at how monolithic reportage has become in India. There were similarities yet significant distinctions in the way our institutions function.”

Vinay Shukla’s previous film chronicling the rise of India’s opposition leader Arvind Kejriwal from a social activist to the chief minister of Delhi had faced several challenges and opposition but was able to secure a theatre release. When asked about how he thinks the audience will take his film in this political climate if he secures a release, he said, “My job is to make the film, to make people aware of what is happening in the news business and how it is changing in India. The rest is up to the audience.”

(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:  Documentary   Ravish Kumar 

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