It takes time for “While We Watched” to find momentum: Shukla’s vérité approach spends the first half hour or so notating the broad problem. What follows is a series of blaring clips of blustering Indian anchors vying for the public’s attention by offering up polarizing red meat. For them, that amounts to denouncing any dissenter as an enemy of the state or an anti-nationalist. Shukla juxtaposes these deafening clips with images of Kumar in melancholic silence. This dynamically jarring back-and-forth borders on overwrought, as it doesn’t take long to get the gist of the grave journalistic situation at hand.
“While We Watched” doesn’t get going until it turns into a crisis of faith for Kumar. Can he still practice the kind of reporting necessary to maintain an informed public in the face of extremism, or should he leave the profession altogether?
We begin to see NDTV take many hits due to Kumar’s search for truth: the government possibly censors the station’s broadcasts by scrambling its signal, other anchors attack Kumar, and he receives a mountain of death threats from irate viewers. As a result, NDTV begins to lose viewers and reach, causing some journalists to depart, to the point of the network being reduced to a skeleton crew. Even Kumar’s superiors hint that maybe he should pull back a little from his criticisms of the government and other rival news programs.
Some of the documentary’s best scenes arise from watching the craft of reporting at work as these writers try to pull together breaking news stories even as their limited resources put obstacles in their way. Other fascinating, introspective moments occur as Kumar ponders his place in the industry. He begins to lose faith, even circling the drain of delirium. In one scene, he responds to a crank caller by patronizing him; he even asks the threatening voice to sing along. The danger only ramps up as tensions between Hindus and Muslims fray when a 2019 terrorist attack leads to the death of 40 CRPF soldiers in India.