Silence not an option

Arunmozhi of Tamizhstudio interviews Anand Patwardhan

From Waves of Revolution to Jai Bhim Comrade in a unique way you have documented the history of the political resistance movements of India. When you talk to R.V.Ramani in his documentary This Country is Ours, you say that in a way you were reflecting the beliefs of your parents. Can you tell us about your early days leading to the making of Waves of Revolution?

My parents grew up with the values and spirit of the Independence era. My mother passed away in 2008 and my father in 2010, so I was lucky to have had them for almost 60 years. They never imposed ideas on me but gave me full freedom and support to do whatever I wanted. It must have encouraged me not to think in a straight line but be aware of the complexities and contradictions of life. Their influence was subtle. Mother taught me to be a fighter and father how not to take myself too seriously.

Did any documentary filmmaker influence your style? If so what is the influence?

Such things are more unconscious than conscious. Sometimes you learn what not to do, and sometimes when you admire something, you incorporate it without knowing. So certainly watching other films influenced me, but I am not aware of any single filmmaker that I could say was my main inspiration. I suppose if I had to name one film that had a deep impact on me, it would be Patricio Guzman’s “Battle of Chile”. Partly because of the way the film was made and partly because of the deep affinity I felt for Salvador Allende and the dream of democratically elected socialism. That particular dream ended in a nightmare of bloodshed sponsored by the CIA, but someday, somewhere in the world, such a dream could turn into reality again.

How would you evaluate the state of Indian Cinema ie the feature film industry today?

I am not really an expert on cinema, Indian or otherwise. But I have some nostalgia for the hopeful, naïvely forward-looking cinema of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. The left inspired IPTA imprint on cinema and its music, the poetry of people like Sahir Ludhianvi (and so many others) imagined a world that ought to be even as it criticized the world it wanted to change. The violence was staged and stylized, as if to underline that it was not real. Today cinema violence is hyper real and I am almost certain that human sensibilities are irreparably damaged by Hollywood, Bollywood and all the mindless horror and murder people regularly watch on TV and the big screen.

Fundementalism, Casteism and Corruption have become the rule of the day. At this juncture what would be your ideal India?

Forget the ideal. Right now we are facing a Machiavellian fascist force in the form of Modi, Amit Shah and their corporate backers, and yet people do not seem perturbed. They are salivating at the prospect of “DEVELOPMENT” as if this will happen without the vast majority paying a huge price. Our globe and our country has finite natural resources – finite water, finite air, finite forest cover, finite mountains, finite oil and minerals. By selling these off to giant corporates we are ensuring their rapid depletion. For a short time there may be some paper “growth”, some temporary increase in some bank accounts. But as actual resources vanish, inflation will destroy all gains and there will be a meltdown where the poor will be the first victims. It is already happening. Chanakya and Manu are in power and as we watch transfixed by their holograms, we forget the Buddha that lies within us all. My ideal India would be one that rekindles this Buddha, this compassionate self – but without imposing any unnatural and artificial morality, without sacrificing sensuality, without imposing denial. I do not believe in asceticism and saintliness but think that human beings can become wiser than they are at present.

Today sado-masochism is acceptable. Look at Israeli citizens watching and cheering from the ringside as missiles crash into Gaza killing men, women and children. In real life and in the cinema people get entertained and aroused by causing or watching suffering. Violence is considered sexy. People revel in hierarchy, in exclusivity, in the designer label. It is pathetic. So there is a great need for educating desire, for making us regain the power and beauty of mutuality. Only the wise can realize that you cannot have joy in isolation.

Now you are touring in India and abroad with your latest film Jai Bhim Comrade. Can you tell us about the after effects of the film screenings?

In many ways this film communicates with the working class better than some of my earlier films. At least in Maharashtra, because the film is in Marathi, there is no language barrier. We also made Hindi, Tamil and Kannada subtitled versions. The Hindi surprisingly works despite the fact that people are unused to reading subtitles but as I don’t speak Tamil and Kannada, my information about their accessibility is second hand. Potentially I think the film is a useful tool to start discussions, both amongst Dalits and non-Dalits. Within the Dalit community I think it works as a morale booster because it highlights a powerful music of resistance. Outside the community I think it shames into introspection all those who have any conscience left.

As for abroad, there are different reactions. There is disbelief that such a pernicious system (of caste) can still survive after thousands of years and admiration for all those that fight this evil. The other reaction is of indifference. Many important international film festivals rejected the film. Affluent societies are generally self-obsessed. They may get temporarily involved in Third World issues if there is a stated or unstated appeal to their charity. But if one is asking them for nothing more than to share a human experience and to rejoice in a form of resistance from half way across the globe, there are many who will find the exercise tiring. One hour of multi-culture resistance they might tolerate, but three?

You seem to share Gandhian beliefs of non-violence and constitutionalism. At the same time you speak up for the rights of Naxalites. How do you reconcile both?

Strictly speaking while both Gandhi and Ambedkar believed in the power of non-violence, their understanding of Constitutional rights was not the same. Gandhi emphasized the need to change oppressors from within while Dr. Ambedkar was more realistic in insisting that rather than wait endlessly for such internal change, the law of the land had to be changed and equal rights enshrined in the Constitution. Fortunately, especially in his latter years, Gandhi recognized the genius and integrity of Dr. Ambedkar and insisted that he be at the helm of drafting our Constitution. As for Naxalites who remain on the path of armed struggle (remember that there are many who have moderated this path) I recognize their dedication and self-sacrifice in the cause of justice, but frankly I do not believe that an Indian revolution in the 21st century can come by the force of arms. We are not Cuba in the 1950’s where an armed band of 12 people could galvanize a revolution against an unpopular dictator. Whether we like it or not, we happen to have a dictator who won by a popular majority! So the first revolution has to be a cultural revolution so that people learn to value secularism, gender equality, anti-casteism, anti-superstition, anti-imperialism and learn to love all those who protect our environment from plunder. To the extent that Naxalites have prevented the government and mining corporations from grabbing forest lands, they have done a service. Unfortunately there is nothing in Naxalite literature to show that if they were to come to power some day, their own understanding of the economy would allow them to follow a different model of development from the one being followed today.

My support to those who are targeted and hunted as Naxalites or are illegally detained and tortured in jails, is largely from a civil liberties point of view. I know that many are wrongly branded just because they belong to target groups like Dalits and Adivasis. Even those who are conscious and active Naxalites, I do not regard as enemies but as people I would argue with and try to convince. I too grew up romanticizing Che Guevara and Bhagat Singh. If I were the State, I would engage them in dialogue, not try to wipe them out with the gun. For just as Naxalites cannot succeed in making the revolution they seek, the corporate State cannot succeed in wiping out Naxalism. If they did succeed, India would be the poorer for it, for many of the best and bravest of this land would be lost.

You have filmed Indian political movements for forty years, Have you seen any qualitative changes? In your view what are the challenges facing the political Left?

As I said the need of the hour is a cultural revolution. Just think of it. In 1948 when Gandhi was assassinated, the RSS was banned and for decades afterwards, Hindutva ideology was hated all across this land. But they continued to organize in secret, sowing their seed and nurturing it till one day they were able to show their face in public again. Today the cultural revolution they wrought has succeeded beyond their own expectations. The word secularism is now treated as poison and an openly declared RSS man rules the country with an iron fist. No Left and democratic movement can survive if it does not know how to fight fascist culture with a cultural movement that is equally powerful. There is plenty in our history to draw upon. The long history of a rationalist tradition beckons us, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

How do you explain the norms of Artistic and Political commitment to our next generation of filmmakers?

Commitment cannot be taught, it has to come from within, but when it is there, it has to find expression. There are no rules and formulae for this expression. Everyone has to re-invent their own wheel. As for the word “artistic” it is best to ignore it. Art is a by-product of integrity. It cannot be taught or learned. It emanates when one does something honestly. If you seek it out, it will elude you. At best you will learn the gift of gab, the tricks of the trade. If at all Art appears, it will come unconsciously and even then, may not be recognized by others until time and distance have created the necessary understanding.

Some of your films never got a certificate from Censors? What do you think about Indian censorship?

By the way the Censor Board does not call itself that. It calls itself the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) as if to say it only certifies films and does not censor them! Actually this is untrue but it is a good aspiration to have because they should ideally just grant U, A or X certificates and never ban or cut films. As it stands just as the British once used the power of censorship to curb the freedom struggle, various political parties in power in Independent India have used the CBFC to impose their own ideology. In every CBFC regional centre there is a pool of people who are authorized to sit in judgment on the films they watch. This pool, along with the head of the CBFC gets changed whenever a new party comes to power. Everything depends on which particular panel of 5 people is assigned to vet your film. The number of broadminded, liberal people available to be on these panels is getting smaller by the day. When a right wing government like the BJP comes to power, things get that much worse.

By the way the only films of mine that do not have certificates are the few that I never applied for. Every film that I did apply for eventually got cleared without a single cut because we fought tooth and nail for each frame to be kept intact. Many of these battles took place within the ambit of the CBFC regulations. It meant going before Revising Committees or before the Appellate Tribunal. Only on one occasion I had to go to an actual court of law. That was when in 2003, under BJP rule, “War and Peace” was ordered to be given a “U” certificate without cuts by the Bombay High Court. Amazingly under the BJP the CBFC had asked me to delete many scenes including a sentence of commentary that says that Nathuram Godse, an upper caste Hindu, killed Mahatma Gandhi. At that point in time the BJP was changing history books to say that Gandhi was killed by a madman. The cultural background and political affiliation of the madman was not mentioned. Today with a new BJP government in power the exercise in rewriting history continues. Historic files in the Home Ministry pertaining to the Gandhi assassination have been destroyed in the name of “housekeeping”. Last month an excellent film on the recent communal violence in Muzzafarnagar made by Shubradeep Chakravarty was banned by CBFC and he is going in appeal.

We must remain vigilant and condemn all these acts of censorship. CBFC censorship is just one part of the battle. The bigger battle is how to get your film seen by the mainstream. The answer is through TV but commercial TV channels point blank refuse to show our films. Their reasons are both commercial and political. Now the entire corporate TV media has been “Modi fied”. Having strong secular content is clearly a liability. So the only other large national TV viewership is the one that is reached by the government controlled Doordarshan (DD). Over the years we have fought for and won 6 court cases against DD and my films finally reached mass audiences this way. Right now I am on the verge of filing yet another case against DD, this time to broadcast “Jai Bhim Comrade”.

Apart from State censorship and market censorship, the third form is censorship through goondas. Throughout my filmmaking days, right wing groups have sought to stop screenings even of films that had CBFC certificates. The one advantage for in such a scenario is that technically the State is meant to protect our right to screen certified films, but of course in most cases they fail to give protection. Today this danger has increased. Many filmmakers have experienced disruptions by right wing elements. Last year itself my 23 year old film “Ram Ke Naam” was attacked twice, once in Bangalore and once in Ayodhya. After a screening of “Jai Bhim Comrade” in Pune, one day after anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar was murdered in broad daylight, we did a screening of “Jai Bhim Comrade” at the National Film archives theatre. Following the film and discussion, members of the Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) a Dalit and working class cultural troupe who feature in “Jai Bhim Comrade”, sang on stage for the first time after a gap of two years. KKM had gone into hiding after being branded by the police as Naxalite sympathizers. When we formed the KKM Defence Committee they all decided to come overground and face charges. Some got bail but 3 are still in jail. After the screening and the performance, as we were dispersing, an ABVP mob attacked FTII students and injured 5. The police did not intervene. In February this year, a documentary made by Bilal Jan, which criticized both Kashmiri militants as well as the Indian State, was attacked by Vishwa Hindu Parishad members during the Vibgyor Film Festival in Kerala. Luckily the festival and its audience stood their ground and the film was screened. A few days later the mob attacked again and injured people. The police, instead of catching the perpetrators, arrested the victims.

But of all these forms of censorship, it is the fourth form that I fear the most, and that is self-censorship. As the whole country goes silent in awe and fear as Mr. 56 inch swaggers onto stage, acquiescence by silence is the one thing we must never succumb to.

Anand Patwardhan, July 2014