My films must make a difference'

Print edition : December 17, 2010

Anand Patwardhan: Itry to look at every issue afresh.-G. MOORTHY

Interview with Anand Patwardhan, documentary film-maker.

ANAND PATWARDHAN is one of India's earliest documentary film-makers and has worked at this task for close to 40 years since his student days in the early 1970s. He has made 15 films, six of which have won national awards. They form a tumultuous visual archive of India and are grim reminders that all is not well with the nation state. His films display his commitment to a broadly left-liberal agenda with a concern for the working classes.

The varied subject matter of his films has given Patwardhan expertise on a variety of issues. He discusses them in the manner of a public intellectual, with felicity and a simple eloquent rhetoric that is combined with a sense of conviction. His films through the 1980s include Prisoners of Conscience(1978; on political prisoners before, during and after the Emergency), Bombay: Our City (1985; on the slum demolition drive in Mumbai) and In Memory of Friends (1990; on the issue of Khalistan).

This was also when he realised the profundity of the communal problem in the country and made two films on it: Ram Ke Naam (1991; on L.K. Advani's rath yatra) and Father, Son and Holy War (1995; on the psychological element of communal violence). His later films include A Narmada Diary (1996) and War and Peace (2002; a long documentary on the nuclear tests in India and Pakistan). He is working on a film on caste issues now.

During a visit to Bangalore, Patwardhan discussed his career and shared his ideas with Frontline. Excerpts from the interaction:

Why does the documentary film genre fascinate you? How have you managed to remain faithful to it for close to 40 years now? Your contemporaries in the 1970s, for example, went on to make fiction narrative cinema. Has the limited impact and the marginality of the genre not affected you?

Well, I haven't reached a point where I stop enjoying what I do. Frustrating as it may seem to make films that are always on the margins, I do it because of the positive feedback from those who do get to see the films. I also stick to this genre because in a country where literacy is low, I found film to be more effective; people wouldn't read what I wanted to communicate if I wrote just newspaper articles or pamphlets. More importantly, a documentary film is often a historical record, so necessary in a country that has little respect for history. A documentary has the opportunity to carry the voice of people who are marginalised.

As for the overall impact of my films, I have no illusions that they have changed the larger political reality we face. This might have been possible had such films been screened widely, but all said and done, I still take heart from the fact that it is better that these films exist than if they did not. When I screen my films for an audience, even if two people start to think about the issues raised, it's worth it.

Your two early films, Waves of Revolution and Prisoners of Conscience, are rare gems not only because they chronicle important vignettes of Indian history but also because they describe the trials of the democratic movement. How did you choose these themes and go about making these films?

Having worked for a few years on a village project in Madhya Pradesh where the pace of progress was slow, I was drawn to the student movement against corruption in Bihar led by Jayaprakash Narayan. On November 4, 1974, a big demonstration was planned in Patna, and even though J.P.'s movement was a non-violent one, it faced a lot of state repression. We filmed that day's demonstration and went back to Bihar to film again. The film took about a year to make. Around the time I completed it, the Emergency was declared in June 1975.

Almost all the people I had filmed, including many leaders of the movement, were put in jail. Strict censorship was introduced. We showed the film clandestinely, but people were being arrested for mere talk, let alone for watching or showing a contraband film. Eventually, I managed to smuggle the film abroad by cutting it into pieces and giving it to whoever was leaving the country. Later, after I got a scholarship to do my M.A. in Canada, I collected and put those pieces together, and that became Waves of Revolution. We screened this in several parts of the world to build pressure against the Emergency. When the Emergency ended in March 1977 after the electoral defeat of Indira Gandhi, I came back to India and showed the film openly.

The new government that came to power after the Emergency promised to release all political prisoners but did not do this. Suspected naxalites, Nagas and Mizos and those who were accused of violent beliefs were not released, so I made a film about these political prisoners and that was Prisoners of Conscience.

You have had problems getting clearance from the Central Board of Film Certification for almost all your films, and then later they were not allowed to be screened on Doordarshan. Your films are also not screened on private channels. How do you see this constant struggle with these forms of censorship?

Right from the first film, I faced censorship in some form or the other. Even the Janata Party after it came to power refused to screen Waves of Revolution though it was against the Emergency. L.K. Advani was the Information and Broadcasting Minister then. I had added an epilogue which said that the janata raj [people's rule] that the film spoke about was not the same as [that of] the Janata Party now in power. I also drew attention to the political prisoners still being held in jail. Finally, after media pressure built up, the film was screened on Doordarshan.

Prisoners of Conscience also got into trouble with the censor board, and it took a letter from Satyajit Ray to the government saying that they must not stop a film like this to get the required clearance.

Ram Ke Naam followed the rath yatra of Advani and the violence in Ayodhya on October 30, 1990, when the Babri Mosque was attacked for the first time. It was meant to be a warning to the nation about the rise of Hindutva fundamentalism. I had trouble with the censors initially, but it finally got through in 1992 and then I had trouble with Doordarshan, which refused to show it. Finally, after the film won a national award for Best Investigative Documentary, I was able to go to court and argue that the government cannot give me a national award and yet say that I cannot show the film on Doordarshan, which it had been doing systematically. In fact, whenever any film of mine won a national award, I used it to go to court. I argued that not showing such a film on national TV was a denial of my right to freedom of expression and of the viewers' right to information.

On these grounds I have won seven cases till now five in the High Courts and two in the Supreme Court after the government went in appeal. Ram Ke Naam was finally shown on Doordarshan in 1997. The judge ordered that the film should be telecast at prime time.

Why have you not approached private channels to screen your films?

The private media, including television, are not about giving people information. They are run by corporates more interested in providing entertainment. Their news and analysis are restricted to five and 10 second [sound] bites. Their clear mandate is commercial. They will ask, Where are the advertisers who will endorse your product? Who is going to give the money to show this? Are we going to waste one and a half hours of TV time on issues?

I have also discovered that even in the private domain there is political censorship. A few days before the Allahabad High Court verdict on [the] Ayodhya [title suit] was due, a private channel approached me to screen Ram Ke Naam. They paid me for three broadcasts but stopped after showing the film just once despite extremely positive feedback from viewers. On inquiring, I was told that the channel was pressured not to show the film by both the Information and Broadcasting Ministry and the TV Broadcasters' Association. Anyone who watches Ram Ke Naam will realise that this censorship was done to protect the interests of unscrupulous politicians who had used the emotive appeal of Ram for financial and political gain.

The situation today is such that you cannot pinpoint where the censorship is coming from. During the Emergency you at least knew who the enemy was. But now what do you do when every wing of society whether it's the legal system, and so on is complicit in a blanket suppression of facts.

What about the Internet? That is a growing and powerful medium that you could use to show your films.

I think in India Internet penetration is still very low. How many people in India have access to the Internet, and which class of people? If my job was to reach the elite, the Internet was an option, but even there I haven't figured a way of attracting eyeballs and getting millions of hits. When I put something on Youtube, I get 500 or a 1,000 people to watch my clips. I get more than that in a week by screening my films in colleges where I actually talk to the audience. So I'm not thrilled by the Net as yet.

From the mid-1980s, your attention has shifted to chronicling, exploring and analysing the profundity of the communal problem. What brought about this change and who do you hold responsible for this change in the social ethos of our country?

Till the mid-1980s all my films were about working-class issues and issues of economic disparities and about people fighting for change. But by that time I had to give up all that to focus on fighting communal violence.

I began to think in this manner after the violence of 1984. In Delhi alone 3,000 Sikhs were killed in three days following the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

There was the dawn of liberalisation on the one hand and curiously enough something quite contradictory also began to happen. Here was a free market economy and liberalisation and money was becoming God. But the religious gods didn't disappear. By the mid-1980s, communal violence and identity politics were on the rise. Curiously, the money God and religious gods lived in perfect harmony. They did not compete but helped each other as people were diverted from fighting for their economic rights.

As I said, by the late 1980s I started making films against communal violence. I started by doing the film In Memory of Friends on the secular memory of Shaheed Bhagat Singh in a Punjab now riven by sectarian violence. Next, I followed the rath yatra of Advani as it started to gather steam in 1990.

As someone who has followed the issue of the demolition of the Babri Masjid closely and chronicled the demonstrations leading up to it, what do you have to say about the recent Allahabad High Court verdict?

Many, including intellectuals like Ashish Nandy, have hailed the judgment as one of reconciliation. I am shocked by this. First, you seize the Muslim Waqf Board's property, occupy it illegally for 60 years, demolish the structure on it, and then the court divides it three ways. It gives one-third to God, the baby God Ram. And one-third it gives to an akhara, which is an exercise place where young men in the medieval ages were trained in warfare and were basically used as bodyguards in rich temples. Legally, this akhara might have had a certain claim as at least it was there before 1949. But Ram Lalla idols were clearly introduced into the mosque only in 1949 after a break and entry by some Hindu miscreants this is clearly on record.

If the law of a secular country had been applied in this property dispute and if the judgment had gone in favour of the rightful owners, a spirit of reconciliation may have prevailed among the Muslim Waqf Board, which could have invited Hindu groups to build a temple within the compound of the mosque, as cooperation had been the tradition prior to 1949. A compromise had existed where the compound was used by one religious group and the prayers of another religion happened in another section. Such a magnanimous gesture by the people who legally owned the property would have gone a long way towards genuine reconciliation. But now that the court has, in a totally unjust manner, taken away property rights from the rightful post-Independence owners, I don't see how genuine reconciliation can take place.

Yes, the streets have not erupted and we must give credit to those who chose to be peaceful despite being hurt by the judgment. But injustice festers and it adds to the perception that India can never deal fairly with its minorities. As for the majority community, it is natural that it does not want to deal with its own misdeeds. After I made Ram Ke Naam in 1991 and before the mosque was demolished in 1992, when I screened the film, everybody would say: Please don't rake this up, it is a dead and gone issue. Why do you want to remind people of ugly incidents of violence? Let's just forget about it, pretend it did not happen.

That pretending finally allowed the demolition to happen in December 1992. And now again we pretend that everything is going to be all right. I feel grateful that Muslims have taken this peacefully and violence has not broken out because nothing is worth shedding blood over, but an injustice has been done and written into law.

In your long career, you have seen the genre of documentary film-making change in India. What are your comments on these changes?

Documentary film-making is a lot easier now than it used to be. Anyone with a mobile camera can make a film and put it on Youtube, so the democratisation of technology has happened on a huge scale. But this does not necessarily mean that good films are being made. Film-makers talk more about aesthetics now, and it is fashionable to make artistic-looking films. Issue-based films are dismissed as agitprop. I do what I do and I'm not aspiring to be one thing or the other. But I do find it ironic that after all the heated debates and polemics of the 1960s and 1970s when these issues seemed to have been resolved, art and politics are still seen as separate and conflicting.

Do you see yourself as an activist using the medium of films to further your activism?

Activism and film-making are not two different things for me. But if I think about it, I am not an activist in the field because most of the time I'm at home editing my films. In all these years, I never joined any party or line, and I try to look at every issue afresh. But I would like my films to make a difference in the real world. I'm not content to make a film and let it sit idle or let it go only to some film festival or museum and be appreciated by a tiny fraction of well-to-do people. I want the films to be in the mainstream and do as much as I can to get into that mainstream, so that they have an impact in the real world.

Do you think you are being objective in what you record for future generations?

Again, this is something we resolved long ago but the question keeps being raised again. No intervention can be objective because the presence of the observer will always change the observed. We don't use a satellite camera from the moon! The real question then is how honest can you be about the intervention?

A film is a clip of life from a huge canvas of reality. A tiny moment here and a tiny moment there, and you're pointing your camera and capturing those moments rather than something else. A film can only give a selective viewpoint at a selected period in time and you are extrapolating from that. It is best then to be straightforward and explain and justify your viewpoint rather than pretend you don't have one.

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