Anand Patwardhan: Dissent in the time of intolerance

Anand Patwardhan’s films have always dealt with explosive issues. Reason, a searing account of the rise of Hindu militancy, is not an exception.

Published : Jul 27, 2019 07:00 IST

Hyper Hindutva is a recurring theme in the documentary/

Hyper Hindutva is a recurring theme in the documentary/

Anand Patwardhan’s documentaries are lengthy, intense, bold and uncomfortable. For four decades, the award-winning film-maker has tackled explosive issues such as the Emergency in the 1970s, communal issues in the 1990s and the rise of the saffron brigade in the early 2000s. Most of Patwardhan’s documentaries meet with the same fate: the establishment hates them and uses its might to prevent their release.

Patwardhan’s latest film Reason ( Vivek in Hindi) is another masterpiece. An eight-part documentary, Reason is a searing account of the rise of Hindu militancy and its sinister manoeuvrings towards the goal of achieving Akhand Bharat or Hindu rashtra. Obviously, the current Bharatiya Janata Party government would not just find it objectionable but would do everything in its capacity to stall the film’s release.

Reason ’s first public Indian screening at a film festival in Kerala in June was blocked by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry on the grounds that it could trigger law and order problems. However, following a petition filed by the festival organisers, the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy, the Kerala High Court overruled the Ministry and allowed the film to be screened but only at this event.

Fortunately, technology has come to Patwardhan’s rescue. In the past, once a film was made, he would spend years fighting the Central Board of Film Certification, or censor board, for clearance. In the digital space, Patwardhan has uploaded Reason on YouTube, where it can be watched by anyone with access to the Internet. The festival organisers pointed this out to the court, saying that it was already in the public domain and there had not been any law and order problem since its release earlier this year.

The film’s message is blunt. The Hindu right wing has become a juggernaut that cannot be stopped. While Patwardhan has made films with bold themes before, he had never encountered the current dangerous climate of intolerance. Four activists in the past six years have been gunned down because they were outspoken in their critique of Hindutva and the people steering the crusade. Patwardhan is a strong believer in democracy and, therefore, in the freedom of speech and expression. Those who follow his work will know that mindless violence will not stop him from making films. In fact, he dives deep in to the deaths of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh. The film begins with their assassinations, and they are a common thread throughout the documentary.

Patwardhan explores the deaths of these rationalists; sinister and shadowy organisations such as the Sanatan Sanstha; the suicide of Rohith Vemula; the persecution of dissenters, particularly students; attacks on Dalits; the violence of gau rakshaks; the killing of Mohammed Akhlaq; and the conspiracy behind the 26/11 attacks. Known for filming volatile situations, protests marches, demonstrations, street plays and public gatherings, Patwardhan uses his clever editing skills to patch together a narrative that has a tremendous impact on the viewer.

As in his other films, he uses interviews extensively to understand the rise of Hindu militancy and masculinity. If his Jung and Aman ( War and Peace , 2002) narrated the rise of misplaced nationalism through jingoistic events, Reason speaks of the results of following that agenda.

Reason premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018. The documentary won the award for the best film at the 2018 International Film Festival at Amsterdam. “The jury voted ‘unanimously’ for Patwardhan’s 261-minute film, praising its epic storytelling of the rise of the Far Right in one of the most populated countries of this planet… in a way that acknowledges the complexity of the situation but puts it in a very understandable shape,” a media release from the organisers said.

Patwardhan explains on his web page: “ Reason takes us to a macrocosm—India, the world’s largest democracy. Its eight chapters are a chilling account of how murder and mind control are being applied to systematically dismantle secular democracy in a country which once aspired not just to liberty, egalite and fraternity, but to lead the post-war world out of its mindless spiral of violence and greed. And yet, the battle for reason is not lost. Even as Brahminism (a priest-ordained caste hierarchy that withheld knowledge from the working castes) drapes itself in the national flag and sends out its hit squads, resistance has not ended. For every brave rationalist gunned down or driven to suicide, many more take up the mantle. Reason is then both a warning and a promise.”

A reason to watch

“In the past, Patwardhan’s films were only accessible to those who knew where to find them. Due to the lack of censor board clearance, you would have to seek them out. Although the film-maker tried to put them in the public domain, they would usually be watched by people who were on the same page as him. With the Internet, the reach is unimaginable. This film needs to be publicised. I can only pray he remains safe. It takes guts to do a movie such as this,” said a film critic in Mumbai.

The film can be viewed in 16 episodes on YouTube. Each part is a powerful and deeply disturbing capsule. All episodes begin with a visual of a hidden rider on a motorcycle going through a lonely road at night. It cuts to show four back-to-back profile photographs of Dabholkar, Pansare, Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh. The photographs are accompanied by loud gunshots. A dramatic and significant beginning that sets the tone of the documentary.

The film’s first two chapters are about the murders of Dabholkar and Pansare. Patwardhan has rare footage of their lectures and speeches. Both Dabholkar and Pansare often spoke at gatherings to help people understand the evils of superstition and casteism. In one scene, Dabholkar is seen debunking a godman who puts a spear through his tongue by showing the audience how a modified spear is used to do this trick. Patwardhan’s interview with Dabholkar’s wife poignantly brings out the couple’s simple lifestyle that was dedicated to helping weaker and marginalised communities. Similarly, Pansare’s family speaks about his relentless work with farmers and labourers. An interview with a farmer who speaks about “Comrade Pansare” with tears in his eyes is especially poignant.

Hyper Hindutva is a recurring theme through the film. Patwardhan shows youths shouting slogans and working themselves into a rage, proclaiming they will fight for a Hindu rashtra; another man says he has dedicated his life to the Bajrang Dal. The pride in their voices is frightening.

Patwardhan reveals skillful interviewing and editing techniques when he interviews Hindutvawadis. He has the ability to provoke them and make them say the most ridiculous things. In one scene, he asks a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad who is participating in a procession to memorialise the death of a soldier if he knew the name of any Sangh Parivar member who had fought in the freedom struggle. The youth looks stumped. The episode on the Sanatan Sanstha reveals a dark and dangerous organisation that could be the at the root of saffron terror. Patwardhan questions the fact that in spite of several leads that point to the Sanatan Sanstha being involved in the deaths of the four rationalists, the organisation seems off the radar in the investigation. The footage on Dalit youths in Una in Gujarat being beaten for skinning a cow, or Muslim men being tortured in the episodes on the Dadri (Uttar Pradesh) killing are deeply disturbing. Two men hanging from a tree at the end of the sequence is a tragic and telling symbol of the current climate of intolerance.

Reason also looks at the reasons behind the suicide of the Dalit student leader Rohith Vemula. Interviews with Vemula’s associates and friends expose the presence of blatant discrimination towards Dalits and the so-called lower castes in university campuses. But the power of the student movement comes through in the Vemula episode and the next one on Kanhaiya Kumar, the Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader who was arrested in a sedition case.

By dedicating an entire episode to Kanhaiya Kumar, who speaks of the absurdity of the anti-national tag and why dissent is a bad word for the current regime, Patwardhan underlines the fact that democracy is at huge risk with the right wing in power. In several episodes, Patwardhan weaves in political songs sung by Dalits, farmers, social workers and students. Between the songs and the visuals, an effective tool is created to drive home a message.

There have been many conspiracy theories behind the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai and the killing of former Anti-Terrorism Squad chief Hemant Karkare. Several top officers believe there was a saffron hand behind the attack. Patwardhan explores this angle and the Malegoan and Goa blasts. It is a contentious and difficult issue to depict through film. Yet, he makes an attempt at piecing together the facts.

Some of Patwardhan’s other politically charged films are Waves of Revolution (1978), A Time to Rise (1981), In the Name of God (1992), Father, Son and Holy War (1995), A Narmada Diary (1995) and War and Peace (2002). He fought a protracted battle with the censor board over War and Peace. The board asked for several cuts, including removing all speeches by politicians. Patwardhan refused and took the matter to court. The court ruled in his favour ,and it was allowed for screening on national television a year later. He fought a similar battle for Father, Son and Holy War. In the end, a good film and a good film-maker cannot be kept down. Patwardhan has certainly put himself in the line of danger this time, but crusaders know their works have a larger purpose. Reason has that purpose, and hopefully, it will be viewed widely.

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