Q&A: Anand Patwardhan on his Retrospective at Tate

by Saumya Ancheri
12/07/13 8:20 AM EDT

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Anand Patwardhan’s first protest march was for the anti-Vietnam War movement, while a student at Brandeis University in the early 1970s. It flamed a torch that has burned for over five decades. Patwardhan went on to make well-constructed investigations into searing sociopolitical issues from behind the camera, and as a fellow protestor. London’s Tate Modern celebrates India’s trailblazing documentary filmmaker with a retrospective from July 12 to 28.

Audiences will experience a penetrating, insightful walk down several historical moments of protest through fifteen films, as Patwardhan’s sharp lens and keen questions capture the voices of the frustrated working-class, the oblivious elite, and the charged fundamentalist, weaving in protest songs, and commenting on the iconography and ideology of oppression.

Screenings include Patwardhan’s 1975 “Waves of Revolution,” capturing the police brutality during the anti-corruption movement in Bihar and the Emergency that followed; 1981’s “A Time to Rise” about the efforts to form a union by Indian immigrant farm laborers in Canada; 1985’s “Bombay Our City” in which a pavement-dweller questioned the voyeuristic nature of documentaries; 1992’s “In the Name of God,” filmed prior to the demolition of Babri Masjid; 1995’s “Father, Son and Holy War,” which connected the desire for virility with religious violence; 2002’s “War and Peace,” which juxtaposed Gandhian ideals with nuclear armament; and 2011’s “Jai Bhim Comrade,” filmed across 14 years from an unprovoked police firing on a Dalit community after the desecration of a statue of their leader, B. R. Ambedkar.

Each film screening will be introduced by Patwardhan and The Otolith Collective, and followed by a discussion with the audience. Guest speakers include critic T. J. Demos, filmmaker John Akomfrah, and political historian Shirin Rai (read our preview here).

The British Film Institute had screened a retrospective of Patwardhan’s works in February. He has won over 30 national and international awards, not to mention epic battles against unreasonable cuts from the censor board and for air-time on public broadcaster Doordarshan. BLOUIN ARTINFO caught up with the pioneering documentary filmmaker in an email interview.

What does the retrospective at Tate Modern mean for you?

It is of course a great honor to be screened in the Tate, and I don’t mean this in its clichéd sense. It is perhaps a function of my longevity as a documentarist interested in social and political India. Good or bad, the films have documented the changing (and unchanging) face of the country and recorded four decades of recent history. The reason I am particularly happy about the Tate showings is that for many years I faced the criticism from some quarters that my films were issue-oriented and utilitarian. Because what drove me to pick up my camera were human rights violations or examples of religious bigotry and social injustice, they were described as “agit-prop.” Their aesthetics were rarely discussed because the issues they raised grabbed all the attention. Art and politics were seen in opposition to each other, a dichotomy I could never stomach. I retaliated by denying the importance of an art that did not speak to the reality of people’s lives, an art that was to be hung in galleries and in the homes of the elite.

The fact that these films, which were considered propaganda, are to be screened in the mecca of art gives me a perverse sense of joy. The joy is not that I now consider myself an artist. I do not believe in any art that is self-consciously created. I see art as a byproduct of the attempt to communicate. When this act of communication transcends time and geography, it transcends its immediate purpose. In the same way that indigenous Warli painters never self-consciously created art but once their work was framed in a gallery it changed perceptions, I believe that what the world considers “art” is mainly about framing.

You smuggled film during the Emergency for “Waves of Revolution,” and spent 14 years on “Jai Bhim Comrade.” What has been your most challenging documentary to make?

Each film has had different challenges. “Waves of Revolution” became a guerrilla operation during the early days of the 1975-77 State of Emergency in India as all opponents of the ruling regime were in jail and you could be arrested for merely whispering criticism. Even getting the processed footage out of the laboratory was fraught with danger and many of my friends took great risks. Eventually a print was cut into pieces and smuggled abroad and reassembled later. “Jai Bhim Comrade” on the other hand is made at a time when no declared Emergency exists and yet, Dalit and working-class poets and musicians opposing the system are branded as Naxalite (Maoist) terrorists. The film, which was never funded by anyone, took 14 years to complete as the story it told unfolded. Finally I decided to stop shooting and start screening the film when poet-musicians in it went underground due to police harassment. After the film began to be screened in India, we formed a Defense Committee for those who had gone underground and were being hunted by the Anti Terrorist Squad. Recently, after two years they emerged and gave themselves up to the police confident that their visibility and the support from civil society would prevent torture. The Defence Committee took up their legal battle and was able to get bail for three of them. Three others are still in jail. So while the film ended after 14 years, the story and the challenges continue.

You have filmed and been part of protests since the 1970s. Has the nature of protest changed?

Let me give an example from Bombay (Mumbai since the late ’90s). In the ’70s and ’80s we had huge protest demonstrations by striking millworkers, slum-dwellers, Dalits and many others. We marched down main street and filled many a park, garden and empty lot. The 1980s saw the beginning of the era of liberalization, globalization, foreign investment and eventually, foreign control through agencies like the IMF and the World Bank. With this came a new attitude to labor. Unions were systematically destroyed or co-opted. On the street, the anti-protest law Section 144 ruled that more than four people could not assemble anywhere downtown (where most protests usually headed) except in a tiny, fenced-off corner of a public ground ironically named Azad (“freedom”) Maidan. Even now, large protests do occasionally take to the street but they are usually led by one or the other major mainstream political party. Other protesters find themselves on the wrong end of the police stick.

Would you like to comment on the role of protest songs?

In any society where literacy levels are low, the music and poetry of protest takes precedence over literature in recording and spreading the message of liberation. For me, the music I hear encapsulates both emotion and intellect and this music sometimes becomes the backbone of my film or a kind of leitmotif. – See more at: http://in.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/929183/qa-anand-patwardhan-on-his-retrospective-at-tate#sthash.gZ0z3St7.dpuf

How has your cinema been perceived in India and the West, and has this evolved over the years?

In India, our films have been used widely by oppositional groups, whether it is by those who fight religious fundamentalism, nuclear nationalism, casteism or economic injustice. Having said that there is no tried and tested mechanism in place to do this. So, each time, the wheel has to be reinvented and the onus of organizing good screenings remains with the filmmaker. In the ’70s, we traveled with 16mm projectors and large cans of film. Today, we have video projectors that are much more portable. The reception to the films varies. Left and human rights groups for some reason still do not recognize how effective films can be and relegate them to late night slots after all the business of the day is done. But at times when the film is given pride of place and time, wonderful discussions follow. In colleges too, discussions are great but my all-time favorite is to screen films to older schoolkids, no matter what their class background is. That is where you get the freshest insights unfiltered by the defense mechanisms that set in with age and social pressure.

My experience of the West is equally mixed. I have had wonderful screenings in colleges abroad and our films have won a few prizes at festivals but the reverse is also true. Television abroad is increasingly a closed door. And more and more film festivals reject what I consider to be my best films and this is more true today than it was before. In many ways, my films are old-fashioned. They are self-funded, something you almost never see in this day of “pitching” to TV commissioning editors and their agents. These films invariably take sides openly. They do not draw attention to their own formal characteristics preferring that content speaks louder. And they are increasingly longer than the attention spans that prevail.

In your keynote address at the 2004 Silverdocs Seminar, you spoke of the enemy camp in the US as well as the enemy within all of us – are we closer to confronting that? How hopeful are you of change?

The Silverdocs Seminar in 2004 was co-sponsored by the World Bank and held in Washington DC on the eve of the elections that shockingly gave George Bush another four years. I must have been invited by accident or by some mole in the system. So I took the opportunity to talk about the horror of the Iraq war and the continuing nightmare faced by Palestine, but mainly I talked about why the most important stories of the day were exactly the stories that were not being told in the mainstream. I pointed out that the Iron Curtain of the Soviet era had been superseded by a Velvet Curtain of Infotainment that has been drawn across the so-called “free” world. How do I feel nine years later? I think the velvet is just a cover. It hides the iron underneath. The curtain is more impenetrable than ever before.

You have had several successful battles with the censor board, and managed screenings on Doordarshan and in theaters against all odds. Looking back, how do you perceive your censorship battles? And would you say things are better for documentary filmmakers today?

We have fought two kinds of court cases, against the government censor board, and against the State-run national broadcaster Doordarshan. The first were to establish the right to show these films in public without any cuts imposed by the censor. The second was to force national TV to broadcast these films on the grounds that they were in the public interest and not showing them was a violation of my freedom of expression and denied the public’s right to information. I think both types of court cases have established precedents and eased the path for future litigants. Of course, the path to court is daunting as it requires patience and resources. I was lucky to find pro bono lawyers but even then there were costs, the greatest of these being the amount of time spent. So, not many choose to tread this path, in India or abroad.

The original article can be read here.