News and other battles: Vinay Shukla on ‘While We Watched’

A still from ‘While We Watched’
A still from ‘While We Watched’


Vinay Shukla tells us about his documentary on journalist Ravish Kumar, an unsparing picture of TV news in India today

“You have to make your voice strong enough." Ravish Kumar’s daughter is assessing his singing, and she isn’t impressed. It’s a light-hearted scene in Vinay Shukla’s documentary on the journalist and newscaster, though the words carry a larger resonance. Kumar’s voice—dry, measured, yet also impassioned—was a staple of night-time news in India not long ago. Since then, he has retired from TV but not from the news: he does his trademark reports on YouTube now.

While We Watched, which premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and won International Competition at DocPoint Helsinki 2023, follows Kumar between 2018 and 2020 at NDTV, a time when the channel and he were under fire from the government. It’s a thorough vérité document, rough around the edges, rather different from Shukla’s previous documentary, An Insignificant Man(2016), which tracked the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party. The buoyancy of that film is replaced by bleakness and pessimism, with Kumar targeted by right-wing trolls and seeing one colleague after another depart. We spoke to Shukla over video call about the process of filming, the decline of primetime news, and the streaming release of the film on MUBI. Edited excerpts:

Was it difficult to get Ravish to come on board?

He didn’t take too much convincing. But your relationship is tentative throughout. Very often people use the word trust, but I don’t think trust applies fully.

It takes time. On certain days you have phenomenal access and on other days you have none. Every day is a dance. Some days you know you shouldn’t be shooting what you’re seeing.

When I met Ravish, he said, you convince the NDTV management, then we’ll talk. NDTV had never given anyone permission; they were a legacy news network who’d never allow a camera to roam freely on their floor. Full credit to them, though, they gave me access very quickly. I went to Ravish and told him, they agreed, what do you say? From there onwards, there was some figuring out before we could start: who all are involved, how much time…

We see Ravish interact with his colleagues, family and strangers, but he isn’t interviewed by you.

It’s not a format I like. There are some people who do great interviews. I haven’t mastered that art yet.

I grew up the quiet one amongst my friends and family. I think I’ve taken that to my films: get in a room, get access, then sit quietly, try and allow my camera and audience to observe what I am observing. My ambition is to make the audience feel everything I am feeling. I don’t have anything against the interview format—my craft just didn’t develop in that direction.

The film reminded me of the paranoid thrillers of 70s New Hollywood, films like ‘Three Days of the Condor’ and ‘All The President’s Men’, in how it pits a lone seeker against mysterious sinister forces.

The newsroom drama is such a classic genre, people hunched around a desk, trying to figure which way society should be heading. The films that I really like were the ones that make uncomfortable about journalism. I didn’t want to make a film that makes you think it's a noble profession every day. It's mutated into something very different today.

I loved the Jake Gyllenhaal film Nightcrawler. There was a madness to Jake in that. I loved Uncut Gems too. [Makes a jackhammersound] it felt like this when I was watching. And a lot of people have told me that While We Watched reminded them on Uncut Gems. I like films that make you a little shifty about the protagonist. Some of the people have seem my film and said, I'm not sure if Ravish was in a good place, or doing the right thing. I wanted to build discomfort in the film.

‘An Insignificant Man’ was a buoyant film, full of resolve and energy. ‘While We Watched’, on the other hand, is bleak almost from start to end.

I agree. I take that as a compliment. I remember talking to my team in the NDTV parking lot one day, saying, “This institution is falling apart, we're seeing the demise of dreams."So far in my life I had only seen things come together. I realised the film was going to be about standing witness to loss. This film is like Titanic, except it isn't about Jack and Rose, it's about the musicians who stayed back and played their violins.

Ravish says in the film that it’s difficult not to be personally affected by the stories one reports. How personally did you approach your material?

The larger storytelling choices are always guided by your cinematic ambitions, tastes and personal ethics. Honestly, your personal involvement is more on some days. On most other days, you're too caught up in getting the craft right. I might be in this emotional situation, people quitting... but the filmmaker in me is like, I need to shoot this cake cutting really well.

There’s a fascinating scene where Ravish is arguing with an abusive caller and starts singing ‘Saare Jahan Se Accha’. It feels in that moment that there’s a part of him that can’t break his connection with the viewer, no matter how unpleasant they are.

It completely took us by surprise. In the film it's a one-and-a-half-minute scene, but it played out for a couple of hours in front of us. After a point you're wondering, is he doing okay, are you shooting somebody's breakdown?

Never forget that Ravish started out at NDTV as the guy who used to sort mail. He'd deliver letters at the reporters' desks. He has risen through the ranks following a certain ethic, talking to people, engaging in dialogue. I may choose to switch off. But his thing is, if I stop taking phone calls, I won't get my stories. That's why he makes a great character. He's on that call, he sings.

The soundtrack is mostly diegetic—electronic pings, buzzes, beeps. At one point, we see the reflection of the sound recordist. Was there a conscious effort not to smooth things over?

The sound design is that way because for me that's the rhythm of journalism. It's a lot of Whatsapp sounds, a lot of notifications. The audience is always looking for an experience. If the experience is not being broken, the audience is very forgiving.

How did the film take shape during the edit?

(Editor) Abhinav (Tyagi) and I had worked on our last film. While we were shooting this, he started editing certain scenes, to just try and understand the rhythm. We did a lot of work on the story, spent time during the pandemic on structure exercises. We tried to understand, in the archetypes of cinema, where do our characters belong?

I was trying to build the film linearly, but it wasn't falling in place. You have the ideas, the footage, but it's not working, only 2-minute, 5-minute bits. The film didn't work... until it did.

A lot of the screenings have been outside India. Were viewers surprised at this glimpse of our TV news?

People were surprised, but you know what's more surprising? People here were equally surprised. The number of people who have switched off from what's happening on TV is phenomenal. Logon ne dekhna hi band diya hai. So when they experience this over 90 minutes, they're like, oh god I didn't realise.

People abroad were like, things are bad here but not this bad. Unfortunately, that's the reputation Indian news is getting the world over.

You fought for a theatrical release for ‘An Insignificant Man’. Was there a push to try and get this film into cinemas?

Let me say, I'm very happy at the reception the film has received. I have received congratulatory messages from owners of many studios. But the fact of the matter is I haven't received a contract. All the big shots in the industry have spoken to me with love, but there have been no offers [to release the film in theatres]. Even before I say anything, they are like, we can't do anything. It's all done very politely.With An Insignificant Man we had a theatrical partner. I knew I couldn’t bring this one out by myself in India.

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