Courting controversy

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Award-winning director Anand Patwardhan’s hard-hitting films on issues of importance have time and again pitched him headlong into bitter battles with the establishment, writes Saibal Chatterjee.

Patwardhan’s War and Peace won a National Award
Patwardhan’s War and Peace won a National Award

AWARDS and accolades come easy to Anand Patwardhan. His latest film,War and Peace, a trenchant anti-nuclear statement that survived a protracted war of attrition with the censors, has won the Swarna Kamal for the Best Non-Feature Film of 2003. But the uneasy calm that surrounds the controversial film refuses to go away.

“I screened War and Peace on a number of occasions even when it was banned,” announces the combative Patwardhan. Does he expect a free run on Doordarshan now that his film is armed with a censor certificate and a National Award? “If they don’t telecast it, I will have to fight another legal battle,” he declares. Of course, the legal clashes are only a means to an end — the assertion of a filmmaker’s inalienable right to give vent to his views.

Each of the no-holds-barred documentary films that he has made to date has addressed a question of socio-political import, triggering a raging controversy.

As India’s most celebrated independent documentary filmmaker, Patwardhan is acutely aware of his role in society. He dares to take a stand even if that means having to fight long and bitter battles against the likes of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and Doordarshan.

In a career spanning 30 years, Patwardhan has maintained a clean legal slate, having won as many as five court cases against Doordarshan. Add to that the favourable Mumbai High Court verdict that he secured in mid-2003 in a crucial battle over War and Peace against CBFC, and he has every reason to believe that he is just as likely to win the current court case.

“Every single film of mine has been initially rejected by Doordarshan despite it winning a National Award,” says the unruffled filmmaker. “Their argument is that my films are good for festivals but the masses will not understand them. That is ridiculous: the masses are just as intelligent as any jury,” Patwardhan adds.

The Swarna Kamal for War and Peace is Patwardhan’s second Best Non-Feature Film National Award.Bombay Our City, which dealt with the eviction of slum dwellers in the megalopolis, bagged the first. He has also won National Awards in subsidiary categories for films like In Memory of Friends, which examined the roots of militancy in Punjab, Raam Ke Naam, which explored events leading to the Babri Masjid demolition, and Father, Son and Holy War.

Patwardhan’s other legal battle pertains to Father, Son and the Holy War, which attacks fundamentalism of all hues. Winner of a National Award as Best Investigative Non-Feature Film nearly 10 years ago, it was automatically entitled to a telecast on Doordarshan. But the public broadcaster appealed against the stipulation in the mid-1990s on the technicality that part two of the documentary had an ‘A’ certificate. “The A certificate,” says Patwardhan “is the consequence of the foul language used in the film by an aphrodisiac seller.”

The case has dragged on ever since and Father, Son and the Holy War still awaits national telecast.

Patwardhan burst on the independent documentary scene in the mid 1970s with Prisoners of Conscience, which dwelt upon with the plight of political prisoners during Emergency (1975-77). Getting his films into Doordarshan’s programming has been an uphill task ever since.

The effort, he feels, is worth it. “A single telecast on Doordarshan takes a film to every corner of the country. That is the reason why a national award means much more to me than an international one,” he argues. “I can physically carry a film around India and screen it in different places, but the reach of that exercise can never be the same.”

CBFC had imposed 21 cuts on War and Peace. It ruled that Patwardhan should, among other things, delete the opening footage depicting the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Godse, all references to the Tehelka arms scandal expose, all utterances by Dalits and all speeches by political leaders. “The existing censorship mechanism allows misuse of the guidelines,” he says.

Patwardhan stood his ground and approached the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), which reduced the cuts to two and recommended one “addition” to the film. That wasn’t good enough for him.

Patwardhan filed a petition against the FCAT ruling as well in the Mumbai High Court. The CBFC then did the unthinkable: in an unprecedented move, it challenged its own higher appellate body, the FCAT, in the court and sought an order to reinstate all the 21 original cuts.

But eventually, the CBFC withdrew the petition, leaving the way clear for the high court to give Patwardhan a favourable verdict.

The court upheld Patwardhan’s right to screen War and Peace without a single cut. Patwardhan has won the battle. But the war is far from over.


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