Nonika Singh talks to Anand Patwardhan
NATION’S conscience-keeper, messenger of bad news, Michael Moore of India… choose your own epithet to describe India’s most celebrated documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan. His foray into filmmaking began as a means of social and political intervention. While his films such as “Ram Ke Naam” have tackled hydra-headed issues like communalism, he has often locked horns with the government, challenged Doordarshan and stood his ground when film cuts were demanded. In a career spanning four decades, his films like “War and Peace” have won many an honour like Grand Prize, International Critics Award, Sydney Film Festival, International Jury Prize and Mumbai International Film Festival, 2002. Yet when he makes films, he neither seeks favour nor funding. He is a man for whom the line between activism and documentary filmmaking is not merely thin, but almost non-existent. Excerpts
How do you find the gumption to take on the powers that be?
It’s not a question of guts. It’s part of the same process that drives me to make films. I want my voice and those who speak out in my films to be heard widely and so have often taken Doordarshan to court when it refused to show my films despite their winning national awards.
You are called the messenger of bad news. India tends to shoot messengers. How often have you been shot at?
Figuratively many times. It is easier to repress the voice of already repressed classes, people like the subaltern cultural activists of Kabir Kala Manch whose journey I filmed in “Jai Bhim Comrade”, a film on Dalit protests made over a period of 14 years. Right now they are behind bars while the film won a national award! That is the irony of our class and caste divided system.
Once you said a filmmaker has to be a lawyer too.
I have to be well-versed with legalities as more often than not, whether for the right to screen my films or to protect the rights of those on the margins, we end up in court.
Is communalism your biggest worry?
Yes, right now it is. Ideally I should be out with my camera filming. But with the prospect of Modi coming to power, I decided to eschew filmmaking for direct campaigning in favour of secular parties who can defeat the BJP.
Why do Hindu fundamentalists bother you more?
If I was a Pakistani or Bangladeshi Muslim, I would have concentrated on fighting Islamic jihadis. As a Hindu living in a Hindu-dominated India, it is my duty to protect minorities, be they Muslim, Christian, Dalit or ‘adivasi’. I must criticise my own before I earn the right to criticise others.
In your films one often finds voices of sanity. Are there very many of them?
Yes, even in abject conditions, they speak out with no holds barred. The economically deprived might not be armed with education but are no less intelligent and in comparison with the elite classes, they are often much less cynical or obsessed with their own well-being.
What was the catalyst for your film “In Memory of Friends” on communal harmony in Punjab?
The same as for my other films — the rise of communalism. In the Punjab of the 1980s, I saw Bhagat Singh was being held as a hero both by Sikh separatists and by the government. No one remembered his actual writings which clearly spoke of class solidarity across religious lines. It was this appropriation of the symbol of the great martyr without understanding his ideology that perturbed me. Today the same is happening to Vallabhbhai Patel. The man who banned the RSS is being owned by the same group. We forget history and then rewrite it. That is why documenting it becomes important, for then it is on record and you can’t look away.
Can documentary films change mindsets?
They can play a vital role, provided they are seen widely enough. But even today, the distribution of these films remains the biggest hurdle for filmmakers.
Have social networking sites helped the cause of documentary filmmakers?
These cater to a small elite. I would rather my films are telecast on Doordarshan that reaches millions. The masses that watch this channel are the ones I want to address. That is why I force the government to show my films on DD. I find government-run channels and festivals like Mumbai International Film Festival far more palatable than private festivals or distribution companies who are driven by profit.
Your film “War and Peace” was released theatrically. Do you see this as a viable option?
“War and Peace” was not released by any company. We hired two multiplexes for a week and drew house-full shows. But we had to hire the video projectors and do our own publicity, so we just about broke even. Still the potential exists.
You have won many honours. Do awards help?
Only in the sense that they create a buzz. Awarded films attract audiences but if the film has no real merit, or is made in too abstract a manner, the audience may walk out and the buzz can die.
Songs are an integral part of your films.
I almost never get songs written for my films. What I use are existing songs, people’s expressions like those of Kabir Kala Manch, and hence these are as necessary to document and put on record as interviews.
Are you religious?
Most likely man created God and not the other way around. But I have an open mind about this which makes me an agnostic. Whether God exists or not I will only find out after my death. I am not saying that religious and cultural backgrounds should not be valued and do not shape our identity, but the ultimate identity has to be of being a good human.
The original article can be found here.