To call Ravish Kumar a journalist is to define him too narrowly. He is, above all, a storyteller, a modern-day bard. Ravish began reporting 19 years ago, and from the very beginning, he realised that television is a medium of narratives. So, he sought out news stories that were literally that – stories with relatable characters that were structured with a beginning, a middle and an end. It is the secret to Ravish’s success as a seeker and an advocate of truth and the reason for his huge win today with the Magsaysay Award.
The time of television is unilinear – it moves in only one direction. Now, this might seem like common sense, because all time that we experience is like that. But when we read something, we have the luxury of skipping words or entire paragraphs, or even going back to re-read something that we didn’t understand. In effect, it is like rewinding time. Live news unfolds in real time. It cannot be rewound. And if you lose the viewer somewhere in the middle, you have lost them entirely.
Ravish recognised this and adopted his unique narrative style because narratives pull viewers along as they unfold. They are easy to recall, especially in a country like ours where a large number of people are practically illiterate. Ravish’s linguistic and visual style amalgamates all the techniques and tricks of storytellers from established novelists and filmmakers to folk performers. He seamlessly switches from the language of high-art to the street-lingo of the roadside hawker.
But just being a skilled storyteller would not have made Ravish what he is. The self-image of journalism is that it is the fourth pillar of democracy. It extracts information about government, state institutions, the economy, politicians and eminent citizens and disseminates it amongst the people. News media (supposedly) arms citizens with the information to check excesses in the exercise of power. Journalists believe that the way to tell the truth is to be fair and balanced. And the conventional way to do it is to give equal voice to each side of a news story.
Ravish deliberately abjured this conventional wisdom. He wanted to tell the stories of those who appear as the nameless vox populi – the construction worker, the homeless widow, children waiting for a mid-day meal in a village school, the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. But he wanted them to have names, to be identified as individual citizens whose daily struggles are as important to democracy as are headlines about new bills in parliament. Ravish decided to make these invisible people visible to our everyday experience. Ravish knows that their stories cannot be told in a ‘balanced’ manner because the protagonists feature low on the scale of power. The truth about the powerless can only be told by giving them an unfettered one-sided voice.