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interview

“All 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 other things.

 

What do 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 had.

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!

We have 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 women’s’ rights.

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.

There 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 ideological guillotine.

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.

You have 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 system?
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.

You have written about “Intellectual Brahminism”. Do you think it is dominating India?
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.

You have 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 the law.

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 theatres?
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.

Theatrical release 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 filmmaking?

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.

If you 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.

Oct 13, 2007

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