‘While We Watched’ Review: India on the Brink

In the opening moments of Vinay Shukla’s documentary “While We Watched,” its subject, the veteran Indian news anchor Ravish Kumar, stands in a partly demolished building and wonders, “When you find yourself all alone, whom do you listen to?”

For one of the few high-profile journalists in India who has dared to speak truth to power — undeterred by falling ratings, death threats and a government increasingly hostile to a free press — this is nothing less than an existential crisis. What, indeed, does a journalist committed to being the voice of the people do when it seems he might be talking just to himself?

“While We Watched” follows Kumar at his job at NDTV, an influential cable TV station, from 2018 to 2021 (a year before it was acquired in a hostile takeover by a billionaire). The documentary is less an inspiring tale than a sobering wake-up call. The camera stays close to Kumar’s face, which wears a crumpled look of resignation as he and his underfunded team strive to reaffirm democratic ideals amid a storm of rabble-rousing rhetoric from competing media outlets that demonize dissent and stoke Islamophobia. The movie unfolds like an episode of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom,” with brisk edits immersing us in the high-stakes, fast-paced and low-reward realm of independent news.

Kumar is the voice of reason to many Indians; to see him so vulnerable is unsettling, though it makes his persistence all the more impressive. Shukla is a little too enamored of his subject, so that political and bureaucratic details fade into a somewhat monotonous, stylized tale of man against world. Yet Kumar’s humility and eloquence ensure that the film never slips into hagiography — instead, it lingers as a lament and a battle cry.

While We Watched
Not rated. In English and Hindi, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. In theaters.

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