By Devapriya Sanyal.
One shouldn’t underestimate the power of factual documentary cinema in a world where facts are so often distorted or hidden.”
Many have called him the Michael Moore of India, even if his career precedes the American filmmaker’s by decades. Anand Patwardhan has won both national and international recognition and awards for his films, which document religious fundamentalism, sectarianism and casteism. His first film, made in 1974-75, Kranti ke Tarangein (Waves of Revolution) documented government repression of the Bihar movement. He continues to make and showcase his films to critical acclaim.
You have always been a critic of the state but has your position changed with the present regime?
Yes, to the extent that the State I was critical of has grown far more horrendous than it ever was in earlier times.
You are very persuasive in your films and use argument. What is the public you want to reach? Are you satisfied that you are reaching them?
No, not at all satisfied. Not just my films, but all films that are critical of the State or of majoritarian rule find it very difficult to get mass viewings. I’m not dissatisfied with the films themselves, we get very good feedback but the outreach is very constrained.
Have your films brought about policy changes?
When I started out making films Congress was in power and later other governments. It was then possible at least to embarrass governments. It isn’t now. Things are worse than ever before. And I’m including the 1975 -77 Emergency where there was virtual martial law. Then I had to go underground and show my films secretly. But it was a declared “Emergency” and people knew what to do. Now there is an undeclared Emergency against minorities and the poor, but many think it is a democracy and things are working fine.
You have taken a position against the Bomb. If countries like Iraq and Iran have it won’t they be safer?
When opposing countries acquire nuclear weapons it is known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). The acronym is appropriate. Countries may feel more powerful, but are actually more insecure than when they didn’t have the bomb. India did its first nuclear test in 1974 when Pakistan did not have a nuclear bomb. After this test Pakistan’s Bhutto went on record saying, “Hum ghaas khayenge par bomb zaroor banayenge.” (We will eat grass, but will make the bomb). So India put Pakistan on the nuclear path by going first. You could argue that China had done it even earlier but Chinese missiles were not aimed at India, as China never thought of India as a nuclear threat. Chinese missiles were aimed elsewhere like Taiwan, Japan and other USA bases. Today they are also aimed at India.
In 1998 under BJP rule India tested again and declared itself a nuclear state, setting off jingoist celebrations all over the country. Within two weeks Pakistan tested their own nukes and the Indian euphoria evaporated.
Today India and Pakistan are at great atomic risk. If India drops a nuclear bomb on Pakistan, radioactive fallout could fall back on India with the wind. The same could happen in reverse if Pakistan dropped the bomb on India. But the biggest danger of all is the possibility of an accidental nuclear war. During the Cold War between the USA and the USSR there were times when the world came very close to an accidental nuclear Holocaust. The worst part is, thanks to the very long half-life of nuclear radioactivity, we are sacrificing the lives of millions of people who are not yet born.
If you show your films to groups that watch political documentaries, won’t you be preaching to the converted?
It is difficult to know who is converted and what they are converted to. Even among groups that oppose Right wing majoritarian rule there are widespread disagreements about many things. I also hope that among people who don’t agree with me but watch in anger, the films may raise questions that they can’t walk away from.
At times people from the other side have got back to me years later saying that one of my films made a difference to their thinking and created a kind of turnaround in their lives. So one shouldn’t underestimate the power of factual documentary cinema in a world where facts are so often distorted or hidden.
What do awards mean to you?
My films are hard to show. There is censorship both by government and by the market. We do not have TV channels willing to show documentaries. Awards are a way of attracting people just as peacocks attract mates by displaying colorful feathers.
What do you think political documentaries do?
I don’t think I like the term ‘political documentary’. Every film, even a Hollywood or Bollywood film, is political in that it sells us an implicit worldview. I think when you say ‘political documentary’ you are talking about a specific kind of politics that is human-rights oriented or perceived as left wing.
For this kind of cinema I think the politics lies in the screening itself as much as in the content of the film. It is important to see how a film is shown and where it is shown. If a film is only shown in elite circles it can appear to be very radical but it acts as a safety valve. You’re allowed to say anything in tiny circles. It can be celebrated as art. Society can applaud a lot of stuff that doesn’t become an actual threat precisely because it never reaches the segment of society that is capable of creating a structural change. So really, it’s a matter of how people use a film that deepens its meaning and its worth.
The fact is that all over the world and especially in India, most human rights oriented documentary films are terribly under-utilized. If you ask me whether my films have changed the political reality of the country, the answer is no, because the number of people who have seen them is too tiny to make a major difference. Having said this, on a smaller scale they are used by movements and have impacted individuals. They are used by activist groups and in schools and colleges.
Films like In the Name of God/Ram Ke Naam (1992) on the temple/mosque controversy that polarized Hindus and Muslims has indeed been seen ‘widely’. After a court battle the Doordarshan (DD), our national television channel, telecast it. If we had been a genuinely secular State, repeat screenings on DD may have undermined the rise of divisive Hindutva politics. But no matter which party was in power, this was never allowed to happen. So the tragedy of our films is that they have not been disseminated enough to make a real impact.
What is your creative process like?
My films are not funded and are always low tech. I don’t write a treatment or script and send it off somewhere to raise money. I shoot and the film develops over time, on the edit table. Not all films I start get completed. Some end up as footage that remains in my archives. That is the advantage of having your own camera – you film as things happen. Later when you have a body of work that speaks to you, you can start discerning the pattern and structure the edit.
Gandhi is invoked in many of your films. Is he so relevant in today’s globalised world?
It’s true that at least two of my films, Warand Peace and Reason invoke Gandhi as an ideal that we have fallen away from. Today the majoritarian ideology that led to the murder of Gandhi, actually rules India. At the same time, climate change caused by over-industrialization and war endangers all life on our planet. What could be more relevant than Gandhi’s non-violence, communal harmony and emphasis on eco-friendly development?
Your critique of the nation has been unbiased but severe under all the regimes. Do you subscribe to any political utopia? What would it look like?
I am ideologically an odd mix of seemingly contradictory ideas, from those of Gandhi to Dr. Ambedkar, Marx and Bhagat Singh and many others. Above all I do not want my mind to be trapped in any single box, but be able to use logic as the situation demands. That is perhaps why my last film was called Reason.
The complete filmography of Anand Patwardhan is currently streaming on Ovid.tv.
Devapriya Sanyal has a Ph.D. in English Literature from JNU, India. She is the author of From Text to Screen: Issues and Images in Schindler’s List and Through the Eyes of a Cinematographer: A Biography of Soumendu Roy (Harper Collins, 2017).