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A Broken System: Vinay Shukla’s ‘While We Watched’ and Other Recent Indian Documentaries Face Challenges At Home

By Ishita Sengupta

Film still from While We Watched. Courtesy of Cinetic Media

Film still from While We Watched. Courtesy of Cinetic Media

In 2018, like many others in India, filmmaker Vinay Shukla stopped watching the news. Since the right-leaning Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came into power in 2014, news channels have transformed into hate-mongering sites that actively propagate an aggressive brand of Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim bigotry. Shukla’s aversion was rooted in wanting to protect his mental health. But he was also eager to understand the mental health of those working in the ecosystem, such as the minority of journalists who still report the truth, instead of being government mouthpieces. The result is While We Watched (2022), Shukla’s urgent work of nonfiction that inspects the eroding state of Indian journalism through the profile of a 48-year-old famed Indian newscaster, Ravish Kumar. 

Kumar is known for relentlessly calling out both the misinformation peddled by his colleagues and the Hindutva politics promoted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP. The documentary is an intimate rendering of his life between 2018 and 2020, when Kumar braved verbal threats, disillusionment, and understaffing at NDTV, the media company where he spent close to three decades of his career. In 2022, the channel was acquired by a billionaire, allegedly a close aide of Modi, in a hostile takeover. Kumar resigned immediately. Through vérité style of filmmaking and brisk editing, Shukla pieced together a pulsating newsroom drama that refuses to underplay the political oppression journalists in India are subjected to. Thus, While We Watched also functions as a visceral chronicle of a country plagued with diminishing press freedom. 

The timely concerns foregrounded by the documentary found eager audiences all over the world. Since its premiere in 2022 at TIFF, the film has won awards at major film festivals like Busan and DocPoint (Helsinki). While We Watched secured theatrical releases in the UK and Ireland in July, running for six weeks in theaters. Shukla continues to conduct post-screening Q&As across the UK. This past August, in a year when most indie documentary makers are finding difficulty landing distribution deals and looking at alternative ad-based streaming platforms with uncertain revenue models, the film also concluded a spectacular four-week run at New York City’s IFC Center.

Meanwhile, in India, While We Watched has no takers. “I don't have any offers from theatrical distributors or a streaming platform,” confirmed Shukla. This absence has compelled him to screen the film in private settings in different cities and journalism schools. The idea, he stated, is to do a targeted impact campaign. The lack of interest from distributors might appear confounding because the documentary was made in the country and for its people. But Shukla is not the only one in such a quandary. 

In the past few years, India has produced some of the most visually inventive and formally ambitious nonfiction films. Global acclaim culminated with Kartiki Gonsalves’s The Elephant Whisperers (2022)a tender record of two caregivers looking after abandoned elephants, which was the first Indian documentary to win an Oscar. But the momentum had been accruing for a while. 

Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s Writing With Fire (2021), a riveting documentation of a Dalit-led, all-women group of journalists negotiating in the upper-caste, male-dominated bubble of journalism, registered India’s first nomination at the Oscars for feature documentary in 2022. Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes (2022), a captivating portrait of the precarious existence of Muslims in the country relayed through the precarity of kites—raptors that are struggling to survive in the polluted air of a city—repeated the feat the next year. Both these titles premiered and won jury prizes at Sundance. Sarvnik Kaur’s Against the Tide, an ecological fable articulated through the friendship of two fishermen, continued the winning streak at the festival earlier this year. Outside of the Sundance bubble, Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing, a lyrical record of student protest against the current regime, won L’Œil d’or (the Golden Eye) award for best documentary at Cannes in 2021. 

It would be fair to assume that the global success achieved by Indian filmmakers at prestigious film festivals and awards in the last couple of years would translate into commercial triumph back home. But in reality, most of the films are not publicly available to audiences in the country. This is not an oversight but an indication of the broken system contemporary nonfiction makers have inherited. In India, except for the government-run National Film Awards, which annually honors a wide range of performances, national and regional features, as well as one nonfiction film selected by a national panel, there are hardly any accolades for documentaries. However, international endorsements, especially Oscars, help build local film culture by increasing the reputation of nonfiction.

In India, streamlined distribution networks for documentaries do not exist. Mainstream avenues like theatrical releases are largely reserved for fiction films, and the market is dictated by the star power of the actors involved in them. Shukla admitted it is a pity: “Nonfiction films are made at a fraction of a cost compared to regular fiction films. The returns would be more lucrative.” 

Shukla’s observation, however, runs up against the long-standing lack of a dedicated audience. In the handful of instances where documentaries were released in theaters, the films have not always yielded a profit. This has propelled filmmakers to be evangelists of their own films. In 2013, Hindi-language filmmakers Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane, and Vikas Bahl stepped in to back the theatrical release of Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa’s internationally funded Katiyabaaz, an affecting account of the electricity shortage in the country told through the deeds of a man notorious for power theft. Although the film was critically validated, it did not find an audience

But for Shukla, things have unfolded differently and favorably. His first feature, An Insignificant Man (2016), which he co-directed with Khushboo Ranka, was released in India in theaters and ran for eight weeks. An Insignificant Man is the stirring account of a transformative moment in India’s democracy when a political faction called the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) formed out of a civil movement in 2011. The filmmakers followed the party’s inception and its run-up to state elections two years later. 

Shukla recollected being rejected at that time by many theatrical chains on the grounds that there would not be viewership for documentaries. So he and Ranka approached VKAAO, a screening-on-demand service that allows anyone to book a screening of a film through an app, and works on a crowd-sourced audience model. One of the owners of VKAAO is a giant national exhibition chain, PVR, which facilitates the process. Shukla said, “Starting out, PVR gave us one screening each in four cities. They said if we can sell those, then they will talk.” All four screenings sold out in an hour. After the successful first weekend, the directors were fielding calls from distributors who wanted to release the film in various parts of the country. This remains a landmark moment for documentaries in India. But the experience of organizing the release utterly drained Ranka and Shukla. 

The release of the film was delayed by the bureaucratic process of applying for the censor certificate, which is necessary for any film to be publicly exhibited in India. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), the film certification body entrusted with regulating public exhibition of films under the Cinematograph Act 1952, initially directed Ranka and Shukla to remove references to the other major parties, the BJP, and Congress, and depictions of political figures like Modi, the former Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal without their express permission. Shukla and Ranka challenged this dictat by approaching the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), which was created to hear appeals from filmmakers unhappy with CBFC decisions. The film eventually earned certification without any cuts, but the entire process took eight months. “Who will account for that time?” asked Ranka.

Historically, obtaining certification has proved to be a grueling process for nonfiction makers. Filmmaker Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution (2004), an archival documentation of the 2002 communal riot in Gujarat, the BJP-led Indian state where Hindu nationalists instigated the killing of Muslims, was also initially banned by the CBFC. It was only after widespread protests against the decision followed that the board reconsidered and passed the film without demanding cuts. The Oscar-nominated director Ashvin Kumar faced prolonged harassment from CBFC while getting certification for Inshallah, Football (2010), a touching account of a young boy in Kashmir whose dream of playing for Brazil gets delayed because his father is a former militant. Anand Patwardhan, an early documentary trailblazer and longtime advocate of free speech, has accumulated a distinct legacy of fighting the system. The 73-year-old dutifully applied for censorship certificates for all his films, and when the board dictated cuts—which it inevitably does—Patwardhan sued for his rights in court. Earlier this fall, he premiered his latest, The World Is Family, a moving memoir of his own family, at TIFF. 

Another adversity Indian documentarians face is the lack of homegrown funding opportunities, propelling many filmmakers to raise money from international grants, broker minority co-productions, and self-finance. For instance, Ranka and Shukla started An Insignificant Man with their own money before receiving a grant from the IDFA Bertha Fund. In the later stages, they also conducted a successful crowdfunding campaign. Shukla admits that it was easier securing funding for While We Watched, but all the financing was sourced from abroad. 

Most of the directors also oversee the noncreative aspects of making their films, such as pitching, strategizing, and appraising funding avenues. These responsibilities are traditionally associated with a separate producer, but in the Indian documentary landscape there is a scarcity of people who are trained for such a role, which further overburdens the filmmakers. 

There is minimal help from the government. In 1948, a year after India’s independence, the Films Division of India (FDI) was formed to preserve and produce documentaries. Over the years, it has served as an excellent repository of India’s history. Sen’s first film, Cities of Sleep (2015), a triumph of observational filmmaking that examines public spaces of sleep in an urban setting, was made on a grant provided by the division. But in 2023, the FDI lost its autonomy when it became one of the four film-related government agencies to merge with the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). This move reduced one more source of internal funding for independent documentarians in India. 

Alternatives to government-controlled networks like streaming platforms are single-mindedly focused on crowd-pleasing genres like true crime and reality television–inflected nonfiction. “With digital intervention, things have become both easier and narrower,” said Sen. “There is clearly a lot of space and resources for those, but a creative indie documentary is still languishing in the margins.” Cities of Sleep arrived in the pre-streaming era and is currently unavailable to watch anywhere. Only one streamer informally expressed belated interest, but logistical complications crept up. 

Indian documentarians receive conflicting feedback from streaming platforms on the marketability of their films, which further discourages them. For example, Deepti Gupta’s Shut Up Sona (2019), an insightful portrait of the outspoken Indian singer Sona Mohapatra, premiered at MAMI Mumbai Film Festival and traveled to IFFR and HotDocs. Although the film secured international distribution through a UK sales agent, it was refused by two main streaming platforms back home. “Amazon Prime said they did not have a nonfiction slot and Netflix reasoned that the film did not fit their slate,” Gupta said. Later, it was acquired by Zee5, an Indian video-on-demand and subscription service. 

Films that are not available to stream at all include documentaries with heavy political focuses, such as While We WatchedWriting With Fire, and A Night of Knowing Nothing. Currently, Against the Tide is concluding its one-year festival run, but its makers are skeptical about the film’s fate in India. “Sarvnik and I will do whatever it takes to distribute in India, but we are going into this knowing that there are very limited options,” said Koval Bhatia, Against the Tide’s producer (and an IDA Getting Real ’22 Fellow).

There are a few exceptions to streamer disinterest in independent Indian documentaries. Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s The Cinema Travellers (2016), a moving paean to an endangered group of showmen who make a living by projecting films in rural areas, premiered at Cannes to much fanfare. Abraham and Madheshiya purposefully rejected offers from streamers because those opportunities did not align with the vibrant, big-screen life they had envisioned for the film. In 2016, Netflix acquired Abhay Kumar’s Placebo (2014), an enthralling dissection of mental health within the confines of an educational institute; a few years later, MUBI picked up Archana Phadke’s About Love (2019), a personal portrait of multiple generations of her family. 

The absence of Writing With FireWhile We Watched, and A Night of Knowing Nothing from the streaming roster in India demands inspection. Unlike Placebo and About Love, these films are politically inclined and antiestablishment. For instance, Writing With Fire spans three years and is bookended by two sets of elections in 2016 and 2019, both of which were won by the BJP. Thomas and Ghosh’s chronicle of journalists doing their job underlined an early moment in the country’s transformation from its pluralist character to a Hindu-hegemony identity. In several scenes, BJP party officials can be seen freely swearing violence against Muslims. In contrast, A Night of Knowing Nothing is formally more daring, held together by fictitious letters exchanged between two film students. But within that innocuous scaffolding, Kapadia recorded prolonged student dissent in 2015 at her alma mater, the Film and Television Institute of India, which was directed against Modi’s appointment of a former actor with expressed ring-wing connections as the new university chairman. 

During its tenure, the BJP has created an excessively intolerant environment in which the depiction of anything the party disagrees with results in an immediate, hostile reaction. In 2021, a studio-backed fiction series got mired in legal red tape for its supposed disrespect to the Hindu gods. This is one of the many instances. Arrest warrants are freely threatened and bans are proposed. The current crop of independent filmmakers, with their politically charged work, are holding up a portrait of an India that the government doesn’t want its people to see. Only All That Breathes is available in India by virtue of having worldwide rights acquired by the global distributor HBO. “Shaunak’s film would not have been picked up in India,” Bhatia stated. 

Sen’s All That Breathes captures the 2019 civil uprising against the Citizenship Amendment Act, a draconian law that accelerated Indian citizenship to persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, but excluded Muslims. Although the protest is never actively filmed, it rages in the background and leaks on the screen through the fragile existence of the protagonists. The oblique political nature of the film differs from A Night of Doing Nothing, where the political persecution is clearly on screen—Kapadia’s film includes footage of police beatings and cell phone shots of masked men storming a student campus. Given the current situation in India, one can also argue that the subtle dissenting tone of All That Breathes made it all the more feasible for a global streamer. Sen explained, “I do not know if I can replicate this model. It is truly a culmination of some fortunate circumstances.” 

To further hinder documentarians’ artistic freedom, the BJP has systematically dismantled whatever crutches documentary filmmakers had. In 2021, the Modi government dissolved FCAT, the same statutory body that had allowed An Insignificant Man to bypass the draconian demands of the CBFC, with immediate effect. In 2020, when the government placed online portals under the purview of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, it opened up a pathway for the state to exercise control in spaces that were previously unregulated. “They should just say there is no freedom of expression. At least then people will not make what they want,” said Ranka. 

Private screenings thus surface as the most potent, and often the only outlet many makers can afford. Filmmakers like Patwardhan and Rakesh Sharma have long engaged directly with the public through their private screenings. Shukla has a similar desire. He seeks to build a community around the film and create a direct link with his audiences. Other filmmakers have used the same tactics. In August, A Night of Knowing Nothing was shown in a multidisciplinary gallery in Kolkata for two weeks; details were shared on social media and one had to RSVP to attend. Writing With Fire has had almost 50 screenings in Indian schools, colleges, and journalistic institutions. Said Ghosh, “In the absence of digital or theatrical distribution offers, we are finding this film following the tradition of how independent nonfiction has historically been distributed in this country.” 

A pressing question emerges: Does international festival and awards acclaim not translate at all to better domestic distribution prospects for Indian nonfiction? Shukla disagrees. “There is, without a doubt, a massive audience for nonfiction. I know people who are writing emails to streamers and inquiring why my film is not streaming.” Indeed, there has been an exponential rise in awareness about documentaries and documentary filmmakers in India. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when it happened, but international accolades have catalyzed public interest. On social media, any update from Shukla regarding While We Watched is met with a barrage of comments, all of them querying about the availability of the film in India. It is the same story for Against the Tide. In interviews, Sen credited An Insignificant Man as the harbinger. 

Slowly but surely, a culture is taking shape among audiences, supplementing the community formed among nonfiction creators. In India, DocedgeKolkata is a singular incubation center that provides nonfiction makers a platform for pitching their ideas to broadcasters and securing finances. NFDC Film Bazaar, one of the largest South Asian markets, which serves as an annual meeting ground of filmmakers, sales agents, and producers for financial collaborations, will expand space for documentaries this year. Its Documentary Co-Production Market could bridge the gap between filmmakers and international producers and financiers. 

The global lights shining on the current bunch of Indian documentarians have initiated interest in nonfiction in the country while also highlighting the taxing process they have to undergo to make and show their work. That so many still soldier on, with or without international acclaim, invites comparison to the journalist Ravish Kumar. After resigning from NDTV, he has been working independently. His videos are available on YouTube, and he remains committed to urging a complacent audience to question the government. In interviews, he admits to living a life of exile. For years, nonfiction filmmakers in India have embodied this resilient spirit, and the new generation will continue to do so.

Ishita Sengupta is an independent film critic and culture writer based in India. Her writing is informed by gender and pop culture. She has previously worked with the Indian Express and News9.