Who is Vinay Shukla? And why is his new film While We Watched getting people excited and talking?
In conversation with filmmaker Vinay Shukla, whose second feature documentary premiered at TIFF won the prestigious Amplify Voices Award.
In 2016 Vinay Shukla, along with Khushboo Ranka, wrote, directed and shot his first feature length documentary An Insignificant Man that tracked the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party and Arvind Kejriwal, riding on the anti-corruption wave. A no holds barred look at the formation of a political movement and the seeds of destruction within it, the film made for a thrilling ride. A rare documentary that found a theatrical release in India, ran for several weeks and became a sleeper hit of the year.
Shukla returns with yet another riveting film, While We Watched, that premiered to a great response at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, winning the Amplify Voices award. While centred on the popular TV journalist, Ravish Kumar of NDTV, it looks at the changing landscape of news reportage in India. Ravish is shown as one of the soldiers upholding the ideals of independence and accountability at a time when media at large is becoming an instrument of propaganda and misinformation. It’s a crisis afflicting journalism not just in India but across the globe, the reason why it resonated with many in the eclectic audience.
In an interview with Namrata Joshi after the world premiere, Shukla spoke at length about Ravish, Indian media, the global disenchantment with news, his filmmaking approach and detailed process involved in capturing Ravish Kumar in his world and what lies ahead, both for journalism and himself as a filmmaker. Excerpts:
While We Watched has been received so well at TIFF…
It’s an out of body experience. It almost feels as though someone else’s film is being talked about.
Why do you feel that way?
You put a lot of effort and hard work into a film. It’s like you are in a dark tunnel for such a long time that the light is blinding initially. So, I have just come out into the light. It’s taking me some time to align myself with the world.
First you made An Insignificant Man on politician Arvind Kejriwal and now While We Watched on journalist Ravish Kumar. Both are winners of the Magsaysay award. I was wondering what is it about that award that attracts you?
[Laughs loudly] You know my friends have been cracking a joke on me making a Magsaysay trilogy. They keep saying that whoever I make my next film on is sure to win the award. Coming back to An Insignificant Man, Arvind had won the Magsaysay long before we started on the film. Ravish won it while I was making the film. It is just a happy coincidence.
What is it that sparked the new film? Was it that you started off with Ravish and then decided to explore the larger state of Indian media or did it happen the other way round, that you wanted to explore the state of Indian media and chose to locate it specifically in Ravish?
I came to filmmaking because I thought stories can make the world a better place. I still believe that with our previous film, we (me and Khushboo Ranka who co-directed it and is a producer on the new film) were looking to understand the systems of politics in our country, and see how is it that we can make better solutions for everybody? The Aam Aadmi Party, Yogendra, Arvind are characters in our story, but the story itself stood for every new political party. It became some sort of representation of new political movements across the world. It was screened in Kenya, Indonesia, Hong Kong while the Hong Kong protests were happening. So, it found its audience across the world.
With this new film, we find that we are going through a process of change and rejuvenation now in India. Some of the changes are fantastic, some of the changes, you really wonder about. My job as a storyteller who is trying to tell the stories of his times, is to pause, reflect and tell stories that help us ask deeper questions.
The news impacts my life on a very visceral, immediate level. At the same time, I meet friends who have just completely stopped watching the news. The news, instead of making us better and brighter, is somehow making us scared. And this is not just in India. This is happening across the world.
With Ravish Kumar I found a character who was contemplating if he was still relevant in this world. He was a tired hero who had seen better and who was now beginning to wonder if he still belonged. And that was the starting point of my inquiry.
Could you have thought of any other character to explore this whole idea of loneliness? Do you see any other journalist who would have personified this aspect as well as Ravish?
Maybe there is one. This is a story of loneliness that people who fight against the mainstream will feel. That mainstream can be political mainstream, that mainstream can be entrepreneurial mainstream, that mainstream can be business mainstream. This film is about those people. Vidroh ki mayoosi (the isolation in rebellion). It doesn’t matter which side of the ideological, political news or debate you are on. I think all of us go through the same churning. We villainize the other side thinking only we are experiencing the forlornness and hopelessness. Hum sab mayoos hain (We are all forlorn).
You also feel that sense of loneliness?
100 per cent.
So, you yourself are one of the rebels that you’re talking about?
I don’t know how much strength I have in me to be able to rebel, but the sense of forlornness is definitely there.
Your engagement with the themes of politics and media makes me curious about how you came to filmmaking…
I came to filmmaking by the process of elimination. I was terrible at everything else. I grew up in Bombay. By the time I was in college, I realized that I was terrible at books, I failed. I tried everything. RJ, VJ, I played the guitar. I was all over the place trying to find my voice. By the time I finished college, I had won a short film competition. I used to like telling and hearing stories. I used to believe that stories can make us all better, stories can make the world a better place. So, I thought that because I won the short film competition, I am filmmaker. It was extremely short sighted of me. I made my decision on the data sample of just one competition. I was very, very lucky to find a peer group who were very active cinema goers, cinema watchers and who wanted to be filmmakers themselves. I became filmmaker because I hung out with these people. I was completely untalented. Still am. But I was very fortunate to have good friends in life. I made a short film when I was 23-24, called Bureaucracy Sonata. Its Hindi title is Raag Sarkari. It was set in the Emergency of 1975 and was a take on the bureaucracy during the Emergency.
Then Khushboo and I came across the Aam Aadmi Party in 2012 and began shooting actively. It led to An Insignificant Man. And when that one got over, I immediately dived into this one.
You used the term “tired hero” to describe Ravish. Is it easier to capture a tired hero because there would be more vulnerability about him? Does it make the person more transparent, or does it force him to clamp down further?
I spend a lot of time with people. People tend to open to you slowly. It’s like any relationship, any friendship, any business alliance, it takes time to come together. Ravish is clearly in a vulnerable phase in life. And I am not saying this, if you watch a 9pm broadcast, you know that he’s telling you what he’s going through. I had to just spend a lot of time when he was not on broadcast to be able to capture the mood and energy that he was in. People are waiting to be understood by you, and, if you’re not in a hurry to misunderstand them, they will speak to you.
I needed to know a bit about the whole process. Did you spend time a long time with him first without filming?
No, I was filming from day one.
I read Ravish’s Facebook post saying you spent two years with him?
Two years, every day, eight to nine hours of shooting.
What kind of footage do you have then?
Way too much.
Do you have any assessment of how many hours it would be?
I gave up. Saagar mein boondein gin-na. It’s like counting drops in the ocean.
I rented a place near his home. I would leave home at 12 noon, reach his place by 12.15-12.20. We would begin by shooting in his car. We would rig up the entire car with cameras and sound system. Then he would come down. He would drive to office, and we would shoot all the way. Then he would get off the car and a camera would follow him into the office. We would set things up in the office and when Ravish would come, we would continue shooting him in the office, move around with him in the office. Then he would shoot the broadcast. In the last 15 minutes of the broadcast, we would start packing up and get the car ready again. We would follow him to the car, continue shooting him in the car. Some days we would shoot him inside his house. Some days we wouldn’t. We would get home around 11.30 pm every day and, on the way home, make notes about what happened that day. When the entire shoot got over, we re-saw all the footage, went through the notes and then took a deep dive into editing.
So, the film actually took shape on the editing table?
Yes, because I wasn’t shooting to a script on this film. On the last film there was still the question about how it will all pan out in the end. In the last few months, we shot for AAP victory as well as defeat because we didn’t know. We had to hedge our bets. But I wasn’t shooting an outcome on this film with Ravish. I was shooting to capture what he’s feeling. I was trying to capture somebody’s inner life. Is aadmi ke andar kya chal raha hai. It’s like you are chasing a mood while you’re shooting.
Later, when we came to the edit then we had to work extremely hard on the structure. My editor Abhinav Tyagi and the head of my story team Reshma Ramachandran worked very hard on bringing structure and cohesiveness to the narrative.
While you’re shooting, you’re just playing with your instinct. Your readers won’t know till they see the film but the scene between [producer] Swarolipi Sengupta and Ravish when she decides to quit is shot from the outside and we couldn’t hear anything when we were shooting it. We had no idea. We were framing the scene, having no idea what the conversation was about. It is in hindsight that we could piece it together, we could capture a mood.
What got left out at the editing table?
There were many more characters in the newsroom who I wish I could have captured with greater detail. I couldn’t because I decided to really zone in on Ravish. NDTV as an institution has its own history which I hope other filmmakers would capture. This film is reflective of a certain time in Indian TV’s journey which coincides with Ravish’s conflict.
Another thing is that Ravish is very funny. Wo mast hain. The film doesn’t capture his whimsical humour as much. I tried hard but it wasn’t working within the mood that we had established.
How conscious were you about not deploying the conventional documentary format—testimonials, piece to camera, voiceovers—and giving a different structure and narrative to your film?
India has a huge film consuming audience. But no one wants to see a documentary in theatres. Documentary films have spoken in a language that the film consuming audience doesn’t speak and so it has alienated its audience by speaking in a language that they don’t understand. And secondly, it has spoken about things that the audience doesn’t really care about. People must climb down from the high horse of making virtuous films and look at where documentary in India stands. Yes, there is a great amount of traction and work that’s happening and yes, I am standing on shoulders of some of the most phenomenal filmmakers. If there wouldn’t have been an Anand Patwardhan, I wouldn’t be here. If there wasn’t a Deepa Dhanraj, I wouldn’t be here. But can I say this of a lot of other people? I can’t. I hope my films speak in a language and grammar that people find accessible.
Talking of the structure, what I really found very amusing as well as poignant, is this presence of cakes, farewell cakes, all through the film. Signifying people leaving Ravish, quitting, or being laid off at NDTV…
I saw the cake cutting on the first day when I was there. The air was pregnant with tension when I saw the cake being cut the first time. I knew it would make it to the film. I was seeing an organization go through layoffs to try and protect itself, trying to make sure that it survives as an institution. And full marks to it; it did. It was the first time I was seeing people getting laid off after 22-24 years of work. How do you start a career after having worked in an industry for so many years? It was also a reality check for me because that happens to filmmakers as well. It’s not like this is happening in another institution. You feel fearful. What if someday I am dated? What if someday I am forgotten? What if someday I am this guy who is called in a room and said the culture doesn’t need you anymore? From now onwards, you will just be on juries. No funder will meet you to finance your films. I like admitting my fears in all honesty. This film is also an admission of my own inner life. I hope to stay relevant. Hum sab relevance ki ladayi lad rahe hain.
Like you said, the loneliness of Ravish is something a lot of us have been feeling. The film gradually moves forward to a cathartic moment (Magsaysay award, a team member opting not to join Aaj Tak) which felt like a validation if not triumph. Not just for Ravish but a lot of us. In that sense the film is an emotional process, it offers hope…
It’s because I am that person, the film speaks the same emotional language that I speak. My friend will tell you that I’m over emotional. And I get deeply invested in my friends. My previous film was a love letter to idealism. This film is an angry letter to journalism. I’m a fan of journalists. I’m a fan of newsroom dramas. But this film is not a conventional happy newsroom drama. Today hope doesn’t come cheap. It comes at a great cost. And this film I hope helps you understand that. Werner Herzog has a beautiful title called Burden of Dreams. Every time you have a dream, somebody must pay its cost. You know, parents at times have a dream for their children. That they lead better lives. And parents pay that cost. This film is about the people who have to bear the burden of your dreams. I very often tell people that it’s like “Titanic” but it’s not about Jack and Rose. It’s about the people who stayed back and continued playing their violins when the ship was sinking. Because they wanted to go out playing what they were good at. This film is about those stupid people who decide to go out playing their music.
I do believe that we are here as a country and doing well because of people who are fighting and trying to make things better and they are on all sides of the political divide. This film is about the people who are fighting for all of us. I am an optimist. I believe that there are enough people out there who want to fight the good fight. Very often journalism films claim to bring big changes. This film is about smaller victories. This film is about more personal victories.
Very often I tell my friends that if I run very hard, I will win some race. This film is about people who are running very hard and winning something or the other. You don’t know if you will change the country forever or if you will build something fantastic. But you will be able to build your island of beauty. I think there is something nice about that.
How has the reception been amongst foreign viewers, critics and journalists?
Everybody’s feeling the same. The experience of journalism across the countries is universal. The Capitol Hill riots showed you what disinformation can do to popular imagination and the kind of havoc that major networks of disinformation can wreck. If it’s happening in the US, it’s happening across the world. There is a great amount of course correction that the news industry needs to go through.
When you say journalism, do you see it as a job or career, or do you see it as something bigger?
That’s a personal call. Not all of us need to sign the same memorandum of understanding of why we are doing this. A lot of people in this world just want a good family, healthy life, and peace around them. Some of us see differently and want to push culture to a better place, make life different for everybody. We don’t need to sign up for the same battles. But we should agree on what’s the common good for all of us.
How did Ravish himself respond to the film?
Ravish was indifferent, almost detached. I guess it’s always a little bit of an out of body experience when you see a film about yourself.
Now that the film has premiered at TIFF, what lies ahead?
The film is going to be playing at a couple of festivals. People are asking me when the film is coming to India. I’m trying to bring it to India soon. I’m actively talking to people and figuring it out. I have made this film for India. So, I want to be able to show it to my friends, cousins, parents, families, neighbours. They are the people I want to have this conversation with. So, I can’t wait to bring it home soon.
Are there any documentaries about newsrooms or newsmakers which have fired you?
I have been a fan of newsroom thrillers and dramas forever. I love Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. I love Alexander Nanau’s film that came out last year called Collective. I love Spotlight. I don’t know if you can call Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani a newsroom thriller…
I thought it was way ahead of its times, it pre-empted the media circus…
I like it. Full marks to Shah Rukh Khan. Who of course I should say is my f****** personal idol. Why not?
What’s coming up next?
I am writing a fiction project right now, with my cinematographer Amaan Shaikh. It’s going to be a hostage drama. It’s not political at all. I have made two very serious films. I need to make something new, say something new. It’s time that I step away from documentary and do some fiction.
Hopefully you will have Shah Rukh act in it…
I think everybody wants to do something with him. I’m sure he’s not waiting for me.
Honestly, the hostage drama is still revealing itself to me. So, I don’t know where it will go and who I will approach. It’s still very early. I believe in taking one step and then the next and then the next step. I’d be very happy to find the right players for it once I have the script.
Namrata Joshi is an independent Indian journalist and national award-winning film critic. She is the author of Reel India: Cinema off the Beaten Track (Hachette, 2019).
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