The rising tide of nationalism is not a unique event in the global marketplace. In Greece, the Golden Dawn rose to power at an alarming rate. In the United States, the MAGA movement and Trumpism have created deep political rifts. For India, the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has become its own hot button issue. Like in these other nations, a loud, far-right extremist core has sucked up the oxygen in the room. The fight between nationalists and journalists attempting to report on Modi’s shortcomings has fueled the fire of anti-journalistic practices. Director Vinay Shukla explores this phenomenon in While We Watched while embedding with Ravish Kumar’s news team. Watching the fight between legitimate news and extremist propaganda unfold becomes a harrowing story, one that should worry any American viewers in the process.
As Modi rose to power in India, a troubling trend began to emerge. While there were once many legitimate news stations in India, more extremist opinionated programs drew viewers away. These battlegrounds directly confronted Indian culture wars, and began to disseminate disinformation. Shukla uses these troubling trends through Kumar’s fight and belief in the Indian people. Kumar seeks to dispel disinformation and build a legitimately independent news source. As a result, While We Watched gives audiences a behind the scenes look at the stress and chaos of NDTV’s newsroom.
The embedded nature of the documentary allows Shulka to capture extremely personal footage of Kumar. We are privy to the chaos of trying to run a news room. Seeing despair wash over producers and journalists feels defeating. A constant stream of meetings between Kumar and his advertising executives makes it clear this type of journalism does not pay. Instead, he fights for his own existence as a media personality every day. As fewer journalists showcase stories that question the government, the feeling of hopelessness creeps into the atmosphere.
Using Kumar as the avatar for truth in journalism becomes essential as the film progresses. The famed journalist maintains his moral compass, even when bending seems to be more profitable. We listen to death threats and angry viewers wishing the worst on Kumar. Yet he attempts to engage through practical discussion, and when that fails, even breaks into song. Kumar certainly brings the air of a fighter to the film, and despite the chaos around him, provides a moral compass for the industry.
Shulka’s most effective footage creates links between the disinformation and real world politics. Kumar ventures outside the news studio to deliver lectures and speeches. When this happens, he often experiences harassment by self-proclaimed nationalists. Shulka plays us a clip of the disinformation, only to immediately show us a real world example of the rhetoric being parroted by a Modi supporter. The side by side comparisons become a worrying trend, but remain necessary. There is not more compelling evidence to highlight the implicit danger of misinformation.
While We Watched develops a rhythm and a tight knit purpose as the film progresses. At times it gets a little repetitive, but it also brings out the importance of the work. Simulating the grind of being a journalist and repeating the same tasks day after day hits hard. At the same time, the documentary functions as a warning to counties that are facing the same journalistic perils. This can happen anywhere, and it’s up those who can teach media literacy to ensure they pass these skills to as many people as possible. Without that basic skill, we are doomed to repeat serious harm to democracy.
An unwavering portrait of journalist integrity, While We Watched makes for a compelling perspective on Indias evolving media ecosystem. Yet the same issues that plague India’s media, affect European and American journalists too. To ignore the similarities would be folly. Kumar may be a leader in India, but we need more journalists like Kumar to ensure the survival of a free press.