Features & Opinion

Opinion: Anand Patwardhan – Nation’s Conscience-Keeper

By Vidyarthy Chatterjee • Published on February 19, 2010

lt has been said of Anand Patwardhan that he is ‘a kind of phenomenon; in that he has all along faced official apathy, disapproval, and at times, censorship and open discrimination. Perhaps, this is the way it should be for any creative artist wanting to grapple with political abuses, social injustices and economic disparities in a determined effort to educate, expose, inform, reform and effect change in a resistant and otherwise unenlightened world.

To put it simply, Patwardhan, who turns sixty this February, is India’s best-known and most respected documentary filmmaker. It has taken him an acute intelligence, an exceptional social conscience and more than three decades of solid hard work on several fronts to reach that position. But he is admired across the subcontinent and beyond also as a fearless and indefatigable activist; a whistle-blower who spends a large part of his time writing and speaking and organising protest against diverse social evils that afflict the Indian nation. From communalism to class inequalities to political humbug to working class distress to discrimination based on gender and caste, Patwardhan has concentrated on one and all of these growing cancers with vision, energy and sheer guts.

Anand Patwardhan has been a thorn in the flesh for many governments, whether in New Delhi or in Mumbai, where he lives. He has opposed regimes regardless of their political complexion. He has spoken out whenever he has found so-called elected representatives of the people straying from the path of rectitude. So, as is to be expected, none of his scathing critiques of festering political and social realities in modern India has had an easy passage.

He has been to court repeatedly to challenge censorship that has sought to silence him and others like him. Energetic efforts have been made by vested interests to prevent his award-winning films from reaching the people. Let us take the case of ‘Jung aur Aman’ (War and Peace), the film he made some eight years ago exposing the dangers of nuclear machismo and heralding the birth of a small but significant anti-nuclear movement in the subcontinent.

‘Jung aur Aman’ (172 minutes, colour and b/w, 2001) was declared the best documentary in 2002. No sooner had the film made further news by winning two major awards at the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) for documentary, short and animation films the same year, than censorship was imposed upon it. True to style and proceeding on lessons learnt from previous outings, Patwardhan fought the Censor Board with characteristic determination. The Central Board of Film Certification had originally asked for six cuts which, however, were increased to 21 cuts when it went to the revising committee. An appeal against the second ruling was then made to the Appellate Tribunal.

‘Jung aur Aman’ highlights the irreparable damage caused to Man and Nature by nuclear testing in Patwardhan’s signature style which combines lively interviews with moving film clips and alarming scenes of devastation. The film is a seminal contribution to a public debate that is taking place every day the world over. Ironically, even as the film makes a strong plea for peace and religious tolerance, the snip-outs, were demanded on the ground that it posed ‘a threat to public order’!

Understandably, both acclaim and controversy have come Patwardhan’s way. After all, for three and a half decades he has been in the highly  precarious business of showing and telling his countrymen and whoever else is willing to see and listen in the world beyond India about the plight of the common man in the backdrop of larger-than-life designs of, and machinations by Mafiosi of all sorts.

In ‘Hamara Shahar’ (Bombay, Our City, 1984), with which Patwardhan may be said to have first come to public notice in a substantive way, the documentarist revealed the many warts hidden from public view by myths about the supposed beauteous face of the corporate capital of India. From policeman Ribeiro to industrialist Godrej to civilian Sukhtankar, a whole gallery of self-righteous eminences are held up to close scrutiny and found badly wanting. Arguably, no film documentary or fiction has so effectively exposed the nexus between municipal moguls, policemen and politicians, business dons and ad gurus, that keeps Bombay tickling.

Hamara Shahar’ won top-notch awards at home and abroad including the national award for best non-fiction film and the special jury prize at the prestigious “Cinema du reel  in Paris. But more importantly, Patwardhan’s pioneering exercise spawned an entire gharana of dare-to-show documentaries which gave the lie to many an assembly-line product churned out by the Films Division, the audio-visual propaganda arm of the Government of India. Notable among those films which clearly drew their inspiration from ‘Hamara Shahar’ in terms of both style and politics were Ranjan Palit and Vasudha Joshi’s ‘Voices from Baliapal’ about the government’s plan to build a rocket-launching facility in the teeth of popular opposition in rural Orissa,’ and Chalam Bennurakar’s ‘Children of Kutty Japan’ which took up the cause of tender-aged children used in the fireworks and matchstick industry at Sivakasi and other places in Tamil Nadu.

Two years after his Bombay chronicle, in 1986, at the height of the bloody insurgency for a separate Khalistan, Patwardhan made ‘Una Mitraan di Yaad Pyaari’ (In Memory of Friends), which took to task the terrorism perpetrated by both the State and religious fanatics. In this fearless film about an entire people dragged into senseless violence and self-destruction by a misdirected ideologue matched by a revengeful police and administrative machinery, the director resurrected the martyr and folk hero, Bhagat Singh. For the first time, Indians got to hear the wise words of the young visionary a secularist and an internationalist recounted in voice-over by Naseeruddin Shah. This was the beginning of a new phase in Patwardhan’s corpus his searching yet underplayed, and all the more effective for that, denunciations of rabid fundamentalism in a supposedly tolerant and liberal India.

The Punjab film came to be followed by ‘Rann ke Naam’ (In the Name of God, 1990) and ‘Pita Putra our Dharamyudh’ (Father, Son and Holy War, 1993), each a milestone in the ‘ Gandhian socialist filmmaker’s oeuvre of life-affirming documentation of his times and his people caught in extended moments of hyper-religiosity leading to tragic fissures in the body politic. The subject of the first film is the crisis of confidence that came to grip the Indian nation following the eruption of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute; and the other takes a detailed tongue-in-cheek look at pop religion and the influence of machismo on popular psychology and behaviour.

Some years ago a respected European film journal asked Patwardhan to indicate his favourite documentary. Patwardhan chose ‘The Battle of Chile’ which is as well because his own vision of social justice coincides with the positive signals sent out by this monumental celluloid journey through the turbulent soul of a poor nation struggling for radical change. Patwardhan: “As a student in America in the radical 1970s, I saw many documentaries that began to push me towards filmmaking as a visible form of social action, but the film that remains etched in my mind is Patricio Guzman’s The Battle of Chile.”

Recalling those days when he himself was having a trying time choosing between Gandhi and Marx, the two father-figures who have since long wrestled to possess the imagination and conscience of many an educated Indian, Patwardhan wrote: “Chile’s President Salvador Allende was already an icon. I was grappling with the desire to convert my Marxist friends to accept the ethics and strategy of non-violence, while trying to convince my Gandhian friends that non violence without class struggle could not bring justice. Here was a Marxist who came to power not through a bloody revolution, but through elections. When a CIA-sponsored military coup killed Allende on September 11, 1973, and thousands of workers and citizens were massacred, it was a devastating blow to the cause of democracy and socialism. Guzman’s epic documentary captured the glory and the tragedy of the Allende years”

In search of an elusive new order where religious and political intolerance would be a little less, and where frictions between classes, genders, faiths and ideologies would have to come up against the solidarity of reason, hope and compassion, Anand Patwardhan marches on with only his deliberately and consciously-‘ chosen ‘imperfect’ camera and his conscience as his constant companions. ‘Jung our Aman’ is, in effect, his latest but by no means his last refusal to take things lying down as the subcontinent is poised on the brink of not one but several man-mode disasters in the name of scientific progress, development, patriotism, national pride or whatever else the powers-be can cook up for popular consumption.


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