the dire predictions of communal carnage made in my film came true”
On issues ranging from communalism to corruption, Anand
Patwardhan’s uncompromising documentaries have always functioned
as a sort of early warning system. But thanks to a hostile State and a
largely indifferent media, those warnings have gone largely unheeded,
and at a heavy price. A committed activist-filmmaker from before the period
of Emergency, he speaks to Bijuraj about the difficulties
faced by documentary makers and the need for civic consciousness, among
documentaries mean to you? Are you satisfied with them as an artist?
My entry into the world of the documentary began as a means of political,
social intervention and thirty odd years later this is still a primary
motive. If I am not satisfied with the results, it is not because of a
failure of the medium, but because of the limits that our system puts
on the distribution of such films. All my films are badly under-utilized
and hence did not had the impact on the real world that they could have
How do you evaluate the Indian situation before and after
In the name of god (Ram ke naam)?
Has the situation changed? Do you think the Sangh parivar and Hindu fundamentalism
are facing setbacks?
In the name of god was made in 1991, one year before the demolition
of the Babri Mosque. It was meant to be a warning to the nation and to
the world about the dangers of rising Hindutva in India. Unfortunately
the film was not screened widely (Doordarshan refused to telecast it in
time) and all the dire predictions of communal carnage came true. Had
our rulers and media gatekeepers been genuinely secular, this and other
films like it would have been screened widely and done the job of exposing
the corruption of politicians who use religious hatred for personal gain.
Instead the film was suppressed
and India went through more than a decade of Hindutva dominated rule.
Now the RSS/BJP has lost power at the Centre and appears to be disintegrating
with many of its leaders trying to grab a share of the loot, but much
of its hate politics has infiltrated into the system. The Sangh placed
key people into positions of power, the judiciary, the media, Doordarshan,
everywhere. These people continue in office and have even entered other
political parties. In the recent UP elections, it was reported that in
one constituency all the candidates - BJP, BSP, Samajwadi and Congress
– originated from the RSS!
recently witnessed all kinds of revivalism and religious fundamentalism.
Muslim fundamentalists are coming to the forefront on issues like the
burkha. Do you feel it is the time now to make a documentary called ‘In
the name of Allah’?
Because I attack Hindu fanatics does not mean I have a soft spot for Muslim,
Christian or any other fanaticisms. One must realize where one is located.
Over 80% of Indians are Hindus, 13% Muslims and under 4% are Christians
or Sikhs. Obviously the greatest danger of genocide or ethnic cleansing
comes from the largest group. If I lived in Pakistan or Bangladesh I would
focus on Muslim terror. In the US and UK I would focus on the Christian
Right. In India I must primarily warn against the Hindu Right. I say primarily,
because it’s not that I am oblivious to other communalisms. My film
In Memory of Friends looks, in part, at Sikh extremists and Father,
Son and Holy War looks at both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism.
Another reason why I am more open in my critique of Hindutva is that I
am a Hindu by birth. So my critique is potentially more effective than
criticism of the “other”. Similarly Muslim critiques of Muslim
oppressive laws have a greater chance of being taken seriously. So in
Pakistan there is an effective movement against the sexist Hudood ordinance
and in India there are many Shah Banos and Shahnaz Sheikhs fighting for
What are your political affiliations? Do you think that JP’s
line is sufficient? You speak a lot about Gandhi. Don’t Gandhi and
socialists have different class characters? Is total revolution possible?
In 1974 I joined the JP movement because at that time I saw it as a democratic
upsurge against the corrupt Congress rule of the day. Initially the movement
had many socialists and leftists in it but JP was confused and allowed
the entry of rightists like the RSS. JP had been a Marxist and a strong
critic of communalism but during the Bihar drought in the mid 60’s
he had come across dedicated RSS workers doing drought relief work and
was impressed by this. When I argued with him in 1974 about the RSS he
told me that he felt the communal orientation of the RSS was capable of
being transformed. Of course history has shown that JP was wrong. The
RSS used JP, gained legitimacy by their association with him, grew in
strength and eventually in the 90’s this ideology that killed Mahatma
Gandhi came to rule India.
As for whether Gandhi and socialists
or communists have different class and caste character, I think if you
analyse the leadership of all these movements you will find that upper
castes still dominate even in the Left in general and most leaders of
all parties are also from middle to upper class backgrounds. So Gandhi
is no different. If you mean whether his politics reconcilable with Left
thinking, in my mind it is. It really depends on what parts of Gandhi
you accept and what you reject. If you carry out this exercise with the
Left as well, something close to a new politics of liberation can emerge.
We see the Left becoming an oppressive force in different
situations like Singur in W.Bengal and the ADB Loan issues in Kerala.
What is your reaction to it?
The old understanding of Left and Right has lost meaning. The Chinese
Communist Party today is practicing capitalism with more gusto than anybody
in the world. Singur and Nandigram show us that the CPM is keen to emulate
China. Why on earth does our country need another motorcar driven by petrol
or diesel? The only thing I’m willing to concede is that our Left
remains a bulwark against communal forces but even in this sphere they
are doing far less than the necessary.
are many struggles happening all around India. For example, movements
like NBA, and that of Dalits and Advasis, Naxalites like People’s
War and the national liberation movements of Manipuris, Nagas etc. Do
you think that a new India is in its embryonic stage and a new movement
is needed to assimilate all this?
Before I answer, I want to reiterate that in pronouncing judgments in
an interview like this I am well aware that my opinions hardly matter
in the world. I am thinking aloud for my own clarity. Personally I am
emotionally and intellectually tied to movements that are non-violent
in principle. This does not mean I don’t understand why some people
turn to armed struggle. Abject conditions in many parts of our geographic
region and the total non-response of the State to the just demands of
people are the main causes of violence. But I really believe that violence
and even the psychological admissibility of reactive or retributional
violence dehumanises us all. It even clouds the thinking of otherwise
intelligent persons. For instance Arundhati Roy in a recent interview
spoke disparagingly about virtually all existing non-violent movements
and went so far as to call Mohandas Gandhi “perhaps our first NGO”.
When you visualise yourself on the side of armed struggle, even if you
don’t physically participate in it, I think you become an authoritarian
in your thinking, someone who can write off those who disagree with you
as “counter-revolutionary” and therefore deserving of the
This is not to say I have not
admired the courage and dedication and romance of people like Che Guevara
and Bhagat Singh. It is just that I unequivocally prefer the path chosen
by Gandhi, Ambedkar, Martin Luther King, Salvador Allende and Shankar
Guha Niyogi. I must be able to practice what I preach. I cannot ask working
class comrades to be fodder for our cause while I exercise the privilege
of being a supporter who is not prepared to participate in armed struggle
or live an underground life. So while I will continue to defend the civil
liberties of all citizens, even of those accused of violence, and protest
against the State when it uses means like encounter killings, torture
and illegal detention, I cannot in truth support the ideology of armed
struggle, even when the cause is just.
As for national movements,
I think these should be analysed case-by-case rather than put into one
big basket. Is a group economically exploited and culturally suppressed?
Wherever there is such suppression, people will seek common ground and
if this happens to be colour or culture or language or religion, it makes
the glue stronger. But once the immediate oppressor is defeated there
is every danger of a dominant group within the broad movement becoming
an oppressor of its own minority. In every nation there are sub-nations.
So how far do we go? Ideally, if we believe in democracy, everyone should
have a choice to choose their country and even create their own new country
as long as minorities are fully protected, freedom of movement and the
right of secession is granted.
I prefer the idea of breaking
down borders rather than erecting new ones. If poor Bangladeshis cross
into Assam they threaten the culture of the Assamese and a nationality
issue is born. We forget that these are human beings who occupy the earth,
who move in large numbers, not out of choice but out of calamity and necessity.
As long as those who are oppressed
use the nationality issue for the temporary purpose of binding themselves
into a cohesive resistance force, I am comfortable with the idea of nation.
So I support the Black nation, the Dalit nation, the Adivasi nation. But
the idea of nation should not outlive the oppression that gave birth to
it. The Jews of Europe had reason to fight anti-semitism and genocide
during World War II but can we support the Jewish nation of Israel in
its efforts to rob Palestinians of their nation? Muslims have reason to
unite under Islam as a way to resist the US in Iraq but can we subscribe
to the idea of a pan-Islamic state that uses interpretations of religious
law to override basic democratic rights and procedures?
Maoists argue that the democracy
practiced in India is fake. Having witnessed the time of Emergency, what
is your take on this?
I think people like me recognize that the democratic rights we enjoy personally
have never really extended to the working poor. But even the limited rights
that we in the middle class enjoy are valuable and need to be protected.
When Maoist revolutions succeeded they did not respect the rights of dissidents
from any class. Pol Pot in Cambodia was the worst example but much of
that happened in China cannot be wished away either. Nepal is still emerging
and the verdict must be withheld till the picture becomes clear, though
there seems to be some real hope for progressive democratic solutions.
won against several court proceedings. However, the judiciary has been
unjust in several verdicts that were pronounced against people’s
interests. Considering this do you think one should depend on the judiciary
It would be silly to be ideological about the act of going or not going
to court. We have to fight with all the means at hand. In some situations
when the masses are with you, you may bring about a change by the force
of numbers. In other situations, a legal change may be brought about by
only a handful of players. The courts are meant to be one of the safeguards
in any democracy. Of course, it is far from infallible. In our country
as in other parts of the world we have seen how courts often become subservient
to the interests of the rich and powerful, and the State. But as Constitutions
go, ours is a good one, drafted by none other than B.R. Ambedkar. Freedom
of expression in particular, is enshrined in it.
So for writers, playwrights,
filmmakers, it would be irresponsible not to utilise this to prevent our
works from being censored. My winning so many court battles against censorship
has certainly helped to expose the censor board and the government. This
could not have happened had I not engaged with the State and held them
to their word as enshrined in the Constitution. If you want to be heard
widely, it can’t be done by opting out of the system and screening
only abroad or in your own tiny circle of the like-minded. Because of
our court victories especially against Doordarshan, millions of Indians
could see films that otherwise would have been denied to them. On the
other hand if the courts had not upheld our Constitution, I would certainly
continue to screen by any means necessary.
written about “Intellectual Brahminism”. Do you think it is
It is everywhere. You don’t have to be literally upper caste to
practice it. All you have to do is accept the development paradigm - with
nuclear weapons as the epitome of scientific achievement, pesticide/fertiliser/genetically
modified seeds/heavy irrigation as the epitome of agriculture and the
share bazaar as the indicator of economic health. In the field of art
and cinema also this Brahmanism can be seen in the demand for more “artistic”
work as opposed to what is dismissively deemed as “agit-prop”,
as if art and politics could ever be separated.
spoken out against the capital punishment of Afzal Guru. Why?
I have always stood against capital punishment regardless of who the victim
is. The first time was during the Emergency when Kishta Gowd and Bhoomaiah,
two landless peasants were hanged in Andhra Pradesh. In India, the strongest
argument against capital punishment is to look at the class and caste
background of those executed. They are invariably from the lower strata.
On the other hand, I do not know of a single rich person whom the State
officially murdered. This fact alone makes the practice of the death penalty
unconstitutional. It violates Article 14, which demands equality before
What are the general problems documentary filmmakers face?
How successfully are they able to reach the ordinary people, especially
in remote villages? Do you ever think of releasing your documentary in
The main problem documentary filmmakers face is not at the production
but the distribution phase, especially if the filmmaker is actually concerned
about getting work screened beyond the festival circuit. That is when
the real journey begins. I have spent as many years showing my films as
I did making them, traveling widely in India with projector and print
in tow. We did many rural screenings, sometimes even in places that lacked
electricity, but urban screenings have far outnumbered the rural. In the
early days we got huge audiences. After the advent of satellite TV, the
spontaneous public that comes out for one off independent screenings has
diminished, but it still remains substantial where there are well-organised
groups to do the publicity and planning.
is definitely an option for the future. We did a limited release of War
and Peace for one week each in two cinemas in Bombay to test the
waters. It was a big success in terms of audience, but it is not economical
as yet because theatres are not equipped with video projectors and these
have to be hired. Our gate receipts were just enough to pay for this and
for limited publicity.
Do you think some kind of innovation is required in the field of documentary
I think all those films, which set out to be made not because they have
a sponsor, or someone wants to make a career, are interesting. Some may
lack technical skills and may have a tiny budget but you can still see
the integrity behind what is being said. The films I find less interesting
are those that are increasingly made these days because market savvy filmmakers
have figured out what sells, what gets critical acclaim in international
forums. Innovating with “form” without having something particular
to say leads to insipidity. In some circles this self-conscious activity
is dubbed as “art” but personally I do not trust art that
consciously sets out to be art. Hype creates this art. Art created unconsciously,
as a by-product of an attempt to reach out and communicate, is the art
I value. You can see the pain in the works of Van Gogh, the reason and
resistance in the poetry of Kabir, the self-respect and dignity in the
documentaries of Alanis Obamsawin.
You had an offer to make Bandit Queen before Shekhar Kapoor.
Why did you hesitate to do that?
It is always easier to get funding for commercial fiction films than for
documentaries. If you look at Bollywood you will see many first-time filmmakers
with no experience at all, entrusted with huge budget productions. In
a sense this is possible because there is a whole industry and all things
are in place, from technical crew to the actors, people know their roles.
So all you have to do is be a good manager. This is unfortunately one
of the skills I lack. For me filmmaking has always been a fairly personal
activity. I produce, shoot and edit my own films so it is like a home
production. I am reluctant to get out into the world and work under the
pressure of other people’s money and time constraints.
Some call you the Michael Moore and Fernando Solanas of India.
What do you say to that?
I am a great admirer of Michael Moore’s refusal to be marginalized.
He has managed to push his films and books - and through them, his ideas
- right into the mainstream. He had the guts to stand up on Oscar night
and denounce the US invasion of Iraq. His continuing opposition to the
policies of his government has made him plenty of enemies including some
who masquerade as film critics. And yet I cannot honestly say that I love
all his films without reservation. I love his sense of black humour generally
but there are moments in some of his films where I think emotional weight
has been sacrificed at the altar of sarcasm.
Michael is a later
generation from me, but Solanas on the other hand was a contemporary.
Around the time I began to make films I did see his Hour of the Furnaces.
I appreciated its directness and its sympathies, but I remember not liking
the form very much as it bombarded the viewer with slogans, rapid-fire
cutting and authoritative textual interventions. In contrast, Battle
of Chile (1973) by Patricio Guzman combined the fine art of observation
and analysis with the convictions of one who stood squarely with the Resistance.
Earlier IPTA like organizations used to lead people in the cultural field.
Do you think presently a similar joint movement of writers, artists, film
persons and activists is necessary?
Movements like IPTA and the Progressive Writer’s Association grew
at a time when the glue of socialism was rich and thick. Today’s
world is far more commercial, fragmented and individualistic. From time
to time common problems and aspirations bring people together but there
is no broad movement to sustain this. Still, those who have affinity and
trust end up in co-operations that are meaningful.
were not a documentary fimamker, then what would you have been?
I have no idea. I’m lucky to have stumbled upon a medium that gives
me so much pleasure while sustaining in me the illusion that at least
potentially, all this is for the good of the world.