Director Vinay Shukla's vital documentary hones in on NDTV news anchor Ravish Kumar as he faces pro-Modi nationalist hysteria
The struggle with any documentary dealing with the issues of the day is how to split the difference between pressing home the urgency of the cause and putting together the facts in a nuanced, eloquent way. While We Watched certainly makes for thrilling, angry viewing, an electric account of what it means to be in the eye of a raging storm as an independent voice.
The voice in question is Navish Kumar, the head news anchor of NDTV in Delhi, India; his appears to be the sole voice of reason on Indian news television, as the other channels resort to Fox News-style hysteria and patriotic screaming in the lead-up to ultra-nationalist Narendra Modi’s re-election as Prime Minister in 2019. It’s a field where xenophobia and fear-mongering about Pakistani Muslims regularly seem to triumph over level-headed, reasoned analysis and factually-based reporting.
Since While We Watched has been completed, NDTV has been bought out by an ally of Modi, aligning it with India’s other news channels; Kumar has since resigned and now produces his own news show on YouTube, a valuable voice of hard news and genuine reporting shut out of mainstream media. It feels all too depressingly familiar, as analytical voices are increasingly shut out in favour of big business and mafioso politics.
It’s personally familiar to me as well – my grandfather, a TV journalist in the former Yugoslavia, was forced offscreen in the 1990s over his refusal to toe the genocidal, pro-Milošević editorial line (the then-President of Serbia). The Modi strategy is remarkably and depressingly familiar. Both Milošević and Modi made sure their dogsbodies were in place in as many major news networks as possible, and both encouraged hysterical, emotive “debates,” where panel members were judged to be unpatriotic enemies of the state, instead of serious reporting.
They also refused to engage with critical voices, and actively sought to silence them or terrify them into subjugation. As politicians, both had essentially genocidal aims, as is the root belief of all nationalist politics, so it is particularly chilling to hear Indian news anchors proclaim, after the 2019 Pulwama attack that “for every Indian killed, we will kill 100 Pakistanis.” Swap Indians and Pakistanis with Serbs and Muslims, and it is word-for-word what Aleksandar Vučić, current President of Serbia and a minister for Milošević in the ‘90s, spoke of thirty years ago.
It’s a playbook that’s replicated everywhere nationalists gain or attempt to gain power, be that Russia, Brazil, the USA or the UK, to varying degrees of success, and it’s a playbook that I, about as hardcore and rabid an anti-nationalist as it’s possible to get, am primed to respond to on a deeply emotional level. Watching this play out is captivating, aggravating, and nerve-shredding as Kumar receives death threats and faces loss of staff week after week, while good employees find themselves unable to cope with the pressure.
Director Vinay Shukla allows time to focus on the personal cost to Kumar and the impact it has on his wife and daughter. The collection of TV footage, comparing Kumar’s reportage to the screaming matches elsewhere, is terrifying to watch. But I wonder if focusing so exclusively on Kumar’s story obfuscates the fact that what we’re seeing is a process that affects 1 billion-plus Indians, as well as the country’s neighbours? Can cinema capture that wide-ranging mass societal shift?
It can: the trick is to think beyond individualised stories, which abstract us from each other, no matter how emotive or effective they are, but to think on a macro, collective level, focused on the puppet strings of ideology that bind such politics. While We Watched is an excellent account of one man’s journey… but to blow down the doors of nationalism requires a much stronger tonic.
While We Watched is released in UK cinemas on 14 July.Where to watch