'A scary situation'

Published : Jul 20, 2002 00:00 IST

Anand Patwardhan has been making politically and socially charged documentaries for about three decades now. His films have invariably dealt with controversial issues and raised the hackles of the ruling establishment. Many of them have been banned from being broadcast on state-owned television channels.

Although a recipient of national and international awards, Patwardhan has had to fight many a battle over his films. Recently, in Mumbai, the Board of Film Certification prevented the screening of his award-winning documentary War and Peace on the grounds that it lacked certification. Moreover, the Board ensured that War and Peace was removed as the inaugural film at the Kolkata Film Festival, which began on May 31. According to Patwardhan, several-award winning films are screened without certification. "In fact, a film festival would not happen if all films require certificates," he says. But Vijay Anand, Chairman of the Board, points out that it is illegal to screen a film publicly without certification. Anand told Frontline: "He is creating a controversy to gain publicity. The Board has asked for some specific cuts. If Patwardhan complies, we are prepared to certify the film." However, the film community is generally of the opinion that the suggested cuts are ridiculous.

War and Peace won the Best Film/Video and the International Jury Award at the seventh Mumbai International Film Festival this year. A three-hour documentary, it begins and ends with the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi. Patwardhan traces the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the tragic conditions of people who live near nuclear test sites, and the disastrous effects of uranium mining on populations living near the mines. The film also documents the rise of Indian jingoism, militarism and the globalisation of the arms trade. Patwardhan intersperses poignant moments with darkly amusing ones. He is known for an editing technique in which he pieces together comments and visuals to create the desired impact. Critics argue that he could do it differently and still say the same thing. Patwardhan, however, is not prepared to compromise. He says: "This is the only way and that's what makes them (the government) scared."

Patwardhan spoke to Anupama Katakam about his work and the dangers posed by the politics of the Sangh Parivar. Excerpts:

How did you begin work on War and Peace? What inspired you to make the film?

After the nuclear tests (at Pokhran in May 1998) I was totally depressed by the euphoria, so I began documenting that. Over a period of time I dropped all my other work in order to continue doing this because I came across not just people for the bomb but also the beginnings of a peace movement. And that was exciting to find, so I followed those stories as well. Slowly the film began to make itself. For instance, when Japanese Hibakusha (victims of the atomic bomb) visited India and Pakistan to warn people against nukes, they invited me to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I took my camera with me and that became part of the film. Having done that, I wanted to talk to people from America and discuss why the bomb was dropped in the first place. I got this opportunity when a university invited me to give a lecture, and I filmed in Washington D.C., at the Smithsonian Museum. The Smithsonian had tried to exhibit documents and analyses that would throw light on why atomic bombs were used on Japan. But pressure from American "patriots" prevented the truth from being told.

Later, I was able to visit Pakistan as a member of a peace and friendship delegation and I took along my small camera. We found, to our surprise and happiness, that there were many peace activists in Pakistan. The Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy is a group of Indian and Pakistani citizens who believe in forming people-to-people relationships despite the fact that our governments are so hostile to each other.

What do you think the Board of Film Certification objects to?

I am convinced that it is because people of a certain political ideology have been planted in the Board to prevent secular and democratic voices from being heard in full. They have been stopping all criticism of the state, of militarism, and of communal forces. But we can't allow them to get away with it. So I am fighting it.

What would be your next move?

Luckily, the film has been shown in India often. It won two awards at the Mumbai festival. There were many screenings after that. Several people from the media have seen the film. So, it is not going to be easy for them to suppress it. People are not going to buy the Board's version of it. Anyway, the cuts they are asking for are ridiculous. Such cuts have never been made in any documentary. For instance, to dictate that one can't report the speeches of political leaders. This is like a fascist dictatorship, not a democracy.

What is the justification for not allowing clips of speeches by politicians? All your shots are of them at public forums. In what way have you violated the rules?

They have quoted Number 2 (XVIII) of the censorship guideline as the justification for this cut. It says: "Visuals or words involving defamation of an individual or a body of individuals or contempt of court are not presented."

Now, there is no contempt of court or defamation because all we are doing is quoting politicians. I have only filmed them with their own words. Some of them have been broadcast on television. The Tehelka business - which they don't want me to show - has been broadcast at length on prime time national television. These are totally unsustainable cuts. We need an objective jury. If they have planted their own people in all these bodies, then one has to keep going further and further and see what happens.

How far will you go?

Now it is at the revising committee stage. If they fill this up with people of their ideology, then I have to go to the tribunal. If they get judges with their ideology, then it will get stuck there too. Then I have to go higher than that, to a court.

It is a scary situation, which should be taken seriously by all Indians. It's not just about this film. It's this kind of political intervention by supposedly neutral officials that is the real danger of what has happened in the last few years. The fact is that this ruling party has planted people who belong to a certain ideology in key positions. Even after they lose power these bureaucrats will remain. That is why one has to challenge them on constitutional grounds. We can't let them get away with these things. And they are not the arbiters of what is in the national interest.

You have been given awards by the state. Yet, the same people prevent the screenings of your films.

They look the other way in the case of so many films that don't have certification. But this one they chose to crack down on. Not only that, the Board in Mumbai actually stopped a screening in Kolkata, which was organised by the Films Division (which comes under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting) itself. War and Peace was the inaugural film (at the Kolkata festival) and the Films Division was within its rights to show a film that won the best film award at its own festival.

Almost all your films have had problems with the Board of Film Certification and the government. You had a tough time with Ram ke naam...

Some of them have gone through without problems but many have got stuck at some stage or the other. Eventually, they have all passed without cuts. In the past 25 to 30 years of my film-making, the censor board has not cut even a frame, though they have been able to delay things and trouble me. In the past, even if the certification may have been delayed, they never intervened to stop non-commercial screenings. This is something new. They are taking an extraordinary interest in the matter.

With Ram ke naam, the real battle was with Doordarshan. My film had won national awards and so I argued in court that if it had won a national award how come they were not showing it on television. I won four of those battles. Three films were telecast at prime time. In the case of the fourth, Father, Son and the Holy War, we won in the Bombay High Court, then it went to the Supreme Court. That happened only recently. In the Supreme Court we did not win, an indication of the changing times. For the first time, the Supreme Court overturned the High Court decision and made me go back to Doordarshan. They said Doordarshan would appoint a committee to look into the film. Now that is an absurd thing because Doordarshan is trying to stop my film. So there is no point in my going back to them. Doordarshan is a slave of the political party in power. Changing times means that our constitutional guarantees cannot be taken for granted. Screenings of Ram ke naam, which had a 'U' certificate, were stopped two days ago by a District Collector in Kerala. That they can stop a film with certification is a very dangerous sign for freedom of speech and democratic expression.

Even in New York, when about two months ago Ram ke naam was going to be shown at the Museum of Natural History, the VHP launched an e-mail campaign against it. They accused it of being a communist film and threatened violence. Supporters of the film also put up an online petition. The Museum cancelled the screening inside the museum, but decided to screen the film at New York University. So, in post-9/11 America, when they are supposed to crack down on fundamentalists they gave in to Hindu fundamentalists.

Would a change in government help curb the problems that historians and artists like you are facing?

A change of government at the Centre would definitely help. For instance, all these forces that I am now facing in the censor board are an example. When a government is in power it can put its people in key places. It has gone in very deep, into the educational system... everywhere. Not that I like most of the Opposition. For instance, even the Congress has now supported (A.P.J.) Abdul Kalam, who is Mr. Missile Man. What kind of a symbol do we have - the President of this country is the man who made nuclear bombs and missiles! However, "nice" a person he may be, that is not the real issue. He symbolises this kind of a development process, which leads to weapons. For all these parties to support this... They don't have the guts to oppose him because he is of Muslim origin. This is the perversion of our times. On the one hand the minorities are attacked and, on the other, somebody from the minorities is made into this great national figure because he represents the same fundamentals of power and weapons.

It is a slap in the face for those who believe in alternative science - people who don't think that all our budget should be spent on defence and on nukes; that research and development should go towards alternative energy and things that the country badly needs. It is a terrible irony.

Did you face similar problems when the Congress was in power?

Yes. In fact, two of my films were made during the Emergency. One was on J.P.'s (Jayaprakash Narayan) movement in Bihar. Many of these people who are now in power were on the same side that I was. Including people like George Fernandes. My earlier films fought Congress misrule. I don't have an axe to grind with political parties as such. It is just that now what we are facing is the rise of fundamentalism. It goes beyond the question of parties - fundamentalism, militarism and economic surrender to multinational corporations. On the one hand you talk of nationalism and you build weapons, on the other you surrender your economic sovereignty to foreign multinationals.

Are you still continuing your research on War and Peace? Would you consider making it a two-part video?

Not really. I am now fully preoccupied with the question of how to get this film shown widely. Making a film is only half the battle. What use is it if it is not seen?

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