“While We Watched”, a new documentary on veteran journalist Ravish Kumar, attests to the challenges of independent news reporting in India today. Death threats, signal cuts and financial pressures are par for the course at his TV news station, NDTV. Now a recent hostile takeover bid has renewed fears over media freedom. 

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A little girl in pink pyjamas and cheerfully striped socks is snuggling on a couch with her father, an eminent TV news anchor, in their New Delhi apartment. Little Tipu wants to show her father, Ravish Kumar, a music video on his phone. But her dad is not thrilled with the idea. 

“No, sing something for me. I don’t like this phone,” says her father.

Tipu prefers her entertainment on a mobile device, however, and tries to grab the phone. A tussle between father and daughter follows until the girl wins. Kumar relents and Tipu proceeds to play the clip for her dad.  

But not for long. The song is interrupted by an incoming phone call. 

Kumar swipes the red “Decline” button; the song resumes. Only to be interrupted again. The caller is persistent. 

The impish smile on little Tipu’s face is now completely wiped out. A mix of sadness, fear and resignation sets in as she rests her head on her father’s shoulder. Nothing is said and nothing need be said.

Tipu’s father, an award-winning journalist, has been receiving death threats from callers for years. When his phone rings, Kumar’s wife and daughter tend to stop what they’re doing and pay close attention before deciding whether to monitor or ignore the latest call.

The scene in the Kumar household unfolds in the documentary, “While We Watched”, set to premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, September 11.

"While We Watched" will be premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.
“While We Watched” will be premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. © Handout

The 94-minute documentary follows Kumar, a senior executive editor at NDTV – one of the few remaining Indian news stations viewed as independent – over a two-year period from 2018 to early 2020.

The result is as gripping as a Hollywood newsroom thriller – except it’s real and presents a damning indictment of the perilous state of broadcast journalism in India and, inevitably, the state of its democracy.

Kumar is one of the most outspoken critics of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist administration in a country where most TV news stations have turned into unquestioning government mouthpieces. It was Kumar who coined the term “Godi media” (“godi” means “lap” in Hindi) and the term is now short for “lapdog media”. 

He also happens to be the lead anchor on NDTV’s Hindi-language channel, which receives less international attention than its English counterpart. But with an estimated 44% of India’s 1.3-billion-strong population identified as Hindi speakers, the national language reaches a massive audience – which can, in turn, attract scrutiny and threats. 

“Most Hindi TV stations are extremely pro-government. The channels are a sort of Fox News on steroids. They praise Modi to the moon and they keep up a hyper-communal rhetoric with dog-whistle targeting of Muslims,” explained Manisha Pande, a media critic and executive editor of Newslaundry, a media monitoring site. “NDTV Hindi especially plays an important role in questioning the government.”

So, when news broke late last month of a hostile takeover bid of NDTV launched by the Adani Group, led by Gautam Adani – Asia’s richest man and a Modi ally – it made world headlines and sparked panic in journalism circles.

‘Enemies of the state’ memes

The film begins with a trademark opening line familiar to millions of NDTV Hindi viewers. “Namaskar, mein Ravish Kumar,” (Hello, I’m Ravish Kumar) says the clean-shaven anchor with salt-and-pepper hair.

And with that, the documentary plunges right in, aided by an audio track of Kumar’s scripts, among the best in Hindi-language TV. “When your government labels you a Communist and comes after you, it’s time for you to realise you’re losing your rights,” the anchor says to the camera before the visual switches to shots of journalists, activists, poets and lawyers getting arrested in yet another crackdown on dissent.

Since Modi came to power in 2014, Indian civil society has faced continued crackdowns. Human rights defenders, journalists, academics and writers face arrest and long detentions under repressive sedition and terrorism laws.

Country reports for India by international human rights groups in recent years have recorded a terrifying number of arrests of “activists, academics, student leaders and others” in “politically motivated cases, including under severe sedition and terrorism laws, against critics of the government”. 

While international human rights and media groups offer condemnations and critical coverage, most Indian TV stations simply stick to the government line. Kumar, however, can cut to the chase with his masterful scripting.

Noting the opacity surrounding the arrests, he states: “The Godi media has already labelled these people as ‘anti-nationals’. Soon enough,” he informs his viewers, “your phones will be flooded with memes of how these people are ‘enemies of the state’. Your problems will now be overshadowed by such propaganda, so criticism can be crushed and a climate of fear reigns.”

The other TV stations, meanwhile, are peddling a mix of fear and loathing. “Now you be quiet! Now you be quiet!” screams Arnab Goswami, anchor on pro-government Republic TV, shouting over his six guests, all reduced to little squares on a crowded screen. “Someone’s going to name you an anti-national. And I’m naming you as anti-national tonight,” the anchor informs a student activist.

Republis TV's Arnab Goswami hosts a TV debate.
Republis TV’s Arnab Goswami hosts a TV debate. © Screengrab ‘While We Watched’

Building trust, capturing personal moments

The labelling is often followed by targeting, a sequence taken up by overzealous “defenders” of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism. India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been “developing an army of millions of trolls called ‘yoddhas’” (warriors) by Modi.

“Their job is to use social media sites to attack journalists on the BJP hit list,” notes Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders.

“While We Watched” provides a penetrating peek into how the omnipresent peril plays out in the Kumar household.

At a party in their New Delhi home, the couple is asked how they handle the threats. “We try not to talk about it at home,” says Kumar’s wife, a history professor at a Delhi university. “But we later discovered that our daughter would wake up panicking in the middle of the night, terrified, vividly imagining that something bad will happen to her father. She has internalised this fear. So, we had to deal with that,” she concludes stoically.

For his part, the filmmaker had to deal with the delicate business of capturing the intimate moments of a prominent TV personality’s private life. “Access is never easy, the trust has to be built over a long period,” said Shukla in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from Toronto days before the film premiere.

“I spent almost two years with Ravish and his family. I was able to build trust slowly, especially with Tipu – it takes time,” Shukla explained. “It’s kind of weird witnessing extremely personal moments between Ravish and his daughter, for instance. We’re there recording with a three-person crew – it’s also about building an equation with people off-camera.”

‘Send the tax police’

Some of the most nail-biting moments though are captured not in the home but in the NDTV offices, where the drama provides a granular view of how democracy dies in the darkness of a leading media organisation being asphyxiated by political pressure.

In 2017, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) – the Indian equivalent of the FBI – raided the homes of NDTV’s founders, former journalists Pranoy and Radhika Roy, over a multi-million-dollar loan. The media organisation released documents proving the loan was repaid and alleging “concerted harassment” based on “false accusations”.

The CBI said the raid had no link with NDTV’s editorial coverage. But media experts noted a pattern of state targeting that mirrored the press clampdowns in Russia and Turkey. “Set legal traps, citing anti-terrorist legislation. Send the tax police to carry out endless inspections of a recalcitrant broadcaster or their business associates, denying that political views have anything to do with the investigation. Don’t kill them, just maim them,” explained Russia expert Jill Dougherty in US monthly The Atlantic.

“While We Watched” records the constant pressure in the newsroom in a narrative that unfolds like a psychological thriller. As Kumar is presenting an exposé on a Hindutva supporter admitting to lynching a Muslim man, for instance, the channel suddenly has a broadcast signal problem.

The next few minutes in the newsroom are charged. As technicians scramble, the company CEO promises a detailed analysis of what happened after a meeting with the distribution department. She urges Kumar to keep telling the story.

But that’s getting increasingly difficult, which is evidenced by the number of “cake gatherings” in the newsroom.

Trauma of ‘cake-cutting scenes’

As the financial pressures start to pinch, Kumar is constantly leaving his glass cabin to join colleagues cutting a cake for yet another departing staffer.

It was the cake leitmotif, Shukla confesses, that convinced him to make a documentary on the NDTV star journalist.

Back in 2018, the documentary filmmaker contacted Kumar to ask if he could spend a day or two shooting at the NDTV offices.

“On the very first day, I witnessed a cake-cutting scene. I could feel the trauma in the air. It was a heavy tension, a longing for the past. I realised there’s something here. I was pursuing that feeling in the film,” said Shukla.

With tax raids, falling ad revenues and banks refusing to provide loans, NDTV’s financial situation has been getting more vulnerable by the day. But when the Adani Group last month launched a corporate raid to acquire NDTV last month, it raised alarm bells in journalism circles.

‘Rigging democracy’

The Adani Group has come under intense media scrutiny, particularly in Australia, where it has major mining interests. While the group’s head, Gautam Adani, denies any improper relationship with Modi, financial journalists have noted how the two men’s fortunes have risen in tandem.

NDTV has so far managed to block the transfer of shares due to the Adani Group by exploiting a temporary regulatory clause. But corporate lawyers say it’s only a matter of time – probably by the end of the year – before the businessman and Modi ally takes over India’s flagship news station from its journalist owners.

The takeover bid, barely two years before India’s critical 2024 general elections, has raised fears of a concerted strategy to dominate the media discourse in favour of Modi’s BJP.

While Pande, the media critic, is careful to note it’s too early to say what an Adani takeover could mean for NDTV’s independence and editorial integrity, she’s not sanguine about a billionaire businessman taking over yet another Indian media company.

“When big business gets into the news media, it’s not because they love journalism,” she noted.

The prospect of NDTV losing its editorial independence would have a detrimental effect on the state of democracy in India, according to Pandey. “Democracy does not stop at conducting elections,” noted the Newslaundry executive editor. “A credible media is needed for voters to make a choice. If you rig that information, in a way it’s rigging democracy.”

When news of the hostile takeover broke, it wasn’t long before some Indian media began publishing unconfirmed reports of Kumar’s resignation.

The veteran journalist, however, was quick to deny the reports. In a tongue-in-cheek tweet posted on August 24, Kumar noted: “Honourable people, the talk about my resignation is a rumour, just like the rumour about Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreeing to give me an interview.”

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