“It Doesn’t Have To Be High Art For It To Be Useful”

Gene Hashmi interviews Anand for Indymedia during the World Social Forum 

The reason the government’s so upset with it is not because it’s so artistic but because of what it’s saying.” 

Anand Patwardhan has been making political and social documentaries for over three decades. While many of his films have won awards in India, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Switzerland and the UK, many have also been banned by a succession of Indian governments from being aired on national television. Anand has fought back with lawsuits against the Censor Board and, at least on four occasions, won rulings in his favour. A tireless activist since his student days in the US, he’s been part of the anti-Vietnam War movement in the early 70s, the Bihar anti-corruption movement in the mid-70s, the anti-Emergency movement shortly after, the anti-Narmada Dam movement in the late 80s, and finally the anti-nuclear movement in recent times. Here, Anand speaks to Gene Hashmi and Jessica Pupovac in an exclusive interview with IndyMedia at the WSF 2004 in Mumbai. 

IndyMedia: Most of your work gets shown at film festivals — to a dedicated “film festival crowd” — and not on mainstream networks to the tens of millions who really need to see those films. Are you worried that you might increasingly be in a situation where you’re preaching to the choir?
Patwardhan: Basically, the fight against being in the margins is an ongoing one, and while it’s true that the films are shown at festivals, we also make copies of the film available on a big scale and do a kind of mail-order distribution. And I’m also all the time fighting the mainstream networks to get the films to air on TV, because the documentary is best used on TV — if you can get it on — but the government usually controls TV. I’ve won four different court cases against Doordarshan to get my films shown. With “War And Peace” we fought a year’s battle in court to get the film past the censor board. So yeah, you waste a lot of time, and at the end the films are pretty much under-utilised. But even to the extent that they are used, there’s enough feedback to make them worthwhile.

IndyMedia: But the guy on the street, who needs to be your audience, doesn’t have access to mail-order, he’s not looking for your website, so it comes back to…
Patwardhan: No, I haven’t figured distribution out worldwide, but in India we keep getting orders and we send them out by post. For activist groups, there are other ways in which they get them, and I’m aware there’s some piracy going on as well which I don’t mind, because at least the film is getting around.

IndyMedia: Given how the issues dealt with by independent documentary film-makers (anti-corporatism, anti-war, pro-justice issues) are championed by online independent media collectives, why is it that independent documentary film-makers such as yourself have not warmed to the idea of using the Web as a viable medium for releasing at least part, if not all, of their work?
Patwardhan: Actually, partly out of ignorance, I mean I don’t know enough about how this thing works. And partly because all these films cost money to make and we’re not being paid by the the CIA — I don’t take any money from any corporate sources to make my films — and so the films have to pay for themselves through distribution and if you put them out free on the Net, then you lose any income that you could possibly get. So unless there’s a way to do some kind of income recovery as well, which is workable, I can only afford to do this after I’ve recovered all the money spent on the film so at some later stage they can become freeware.

IndyMedia: No corporate sources?
Patwardhan:None. I don’t actually try to raise money before I make the film because I don’t want my independence to be lost. I try to sell the film afterwards so that there’s no interference in the process of why the film is made and what it’s saying. So that means you really have to be able to get your money back in distribution, because there’s no grant money involved.

IndyMedia: What’re you working on now?
Patwardhan: The last two years I’ve been showing my films. I’ve taken time off to screen them rather than make more films, because one of the problems with these films is that they’re constantly under-utilised. So I’ve been traveling, going to schools and colleges, doing lectures and screening the films.

IndyMedia:A lot of your work deals with patriarchy, cultural fascism, and right-wing fundamentalism that’s taking this country over like a cancer. Are you even slightly optimistic that any of this can be stopped or even slowed down or is it just a runaway train?
Patwardhan: The picture in India about communalism is very depressing. At the same time — as far as the film work is concerned — the fact that the films exist is much better than if they didn’t exist. Because at least quite a lot of people have been watching them and I can see concrete differences in people after they’ve seen the film. It’s not true by the way that only the converted watch these films. In fact, the films have been shown across a wide spectrum and I’ve had people who were Kar Sevaks (who went to Ayodhya to demolish the mosque) come and tell me that at that time they thought they were doing something in the national interest. But after they saw the film they realised what they were doing was wrong. Of course, that’s just the most dramatic case, but there’s many shades of that rethinking that takes place …because films work slowly on people, you can’t measure the impact immediately. And a film like “War And Peace” which questions patriotism and jingoism, again I’ve been really happy with the positive response we got for the film both in India and in Pakistan. I went and showed it in Pakistan as well and it won the first prize at the documentary festival in Karachi as well as in Mumbai, so that shows a kind of wide recognition of what the problem is.

IndyMedia: Could you broaden the canvas a bit rather than just address the issue from a film-maker’s perspective?
Patwardhan: I actually wasn’t responding as a film-maker so much as a person who is an activist against fundamentalism of all kinds and, specially in this country, majority fundamentalism. What I’m saying is that although the overall picture’s depressing, there’s enough people doing good work that you can focus on and there’s enough to believe that the work that you’re doing is not useless. The only other option would be to give up and say it’s too big, it’s not going to change. I’m an optimist, I think things work in cycles and we’re going through a very bad phase. I think fascism in India won’t actually become full-blown fascism because we have a lot of democratic traditions which date back centuries. And they will overcome in the end.

IndyMedia:Arundhati Roy believes it’s not so much the democracy, there’s a kind of inherent anarchism which will save India from these guys. Because we just haven’t the order and organisation that fascism seeks in order to thrive. Patwardhan: And that.

IndyMedia: You mentioned earlier that films work slow. Now Bono once said “don’t believe that rock ‘n’ roll can really change the world.” Rock, as you know, has a far wider and larger audience than documentary films do. So Bono concedes rock can’t do it, and you concede that films work slow. So what do we have? Do you think films can change the world?
Patwardhan: Definitely. I mean, change the world not overnight and not through one film, but every film changes the world in their small way. And in that sense the films that you make are very important because you could be making much worse stuff and you could be changing the world in a bad direction. I think the films we’re trying to make are contributing in some small way. As I said, if in every audience there are two or three people who start thinking about those issues, that makes it worthwhile.

IndyMedia: Have any of your films met with problems other than not being viewed as widely as you’d have liked?
Patwardhan: You’re talking about a particular film? I mean they’ve attempted to stop all my films in one way or the other but never succeeded. Because one thing in India is that despite all the problems, we do have from time to time a judiciary that actually functions. So I’ve been lucky and found a good way to fight the system through the courts and won four different cases against censorship. I got three of my films shown on mainstream television by going to court and saying that it’s my constitutional right that they had to show these films.

IndyMedia: What about the public opinion? Have you got any feedback? What were people saying in the papers about your films that particularly treat gender issues?
Patwardhan: “Father, Son And Holy War” is the one that talks of gender issues. Yeah, we’ve got good press but that’s one of the films that’s still stuck. It’s been shown in alternative circles but it hasn’t been shown on national TV because the Supreme Court overturned a decision of the High Court that it had to be shown, so right now we’re back in court battling on that issue.

IndyMedia: A lot of kids fresh out of film school, you know, struggling documentary film-makers, one look at their work and you realise why they’re struggling. So what does it take for someone like that to get to the established position where you are?
Patwardhan: I think there’s no formula to it. The only thing you need is a desire to do it. You don’t need to go to film school or learn stuff, it’ll all happen if you really have a story to tell. If you really are committed to talking about something, you’ll find the way to do it well because that’s what’s bugging you so much. If you try to get into film-making as a career, then I think it’s not worth it. But if you’re making “that” particular film because this is something that’s been irritating you and depressing you and you’ve got to say something about it, so then…

IndyMedia: Yeah, but you have to get to — for want of a better word — a certain “calibre” before you can start taking risks and believe in your work enough to want to fight the government for it, and you work has to be good enough for the government to want to ban it in the first place. Do you have to be in a position of fame for people to start banning your work, or do you get famous because your work’s been banned? Look, Taslima Nasreen writes a rag and is catapulted to instant fame because it’s banned… I mean, what feeds what?
Patwardhan: I don’t agree with that actually. I think some of what she was doing was important and valuable. It doesn’t have to be high art for it to be useful. The point I’m making about film-making is the same: it doesn’t have to be high art for it to be meaningful or useful. And the reason the government’s so upset with it is not because it’s so artistic but because of what it’s saying. I don’t think that anybody who’s starting out to be a film-maker should make controversial films because they hope that they’ll get banned. That’s so cynical. They should do it only if they really want to do it. They shouldn’t even try to be film-makers unless they have something to say. There’s lot’s of things to do apart from being a documentary film-maker. I never got into film-making because I wanted to be a film-maker.

IndyMedia:You’ve been in largish demonstrations in the past, and you’re here now at the WSF. After seeing so many different organisations of every tint and hue in such a huge, organic, chaotic convergence, do you think people here and elsewhere will see anything of substance emerge from this? Or is it just a silly “mela” as the mainstream press describes us?
Patwardhan: I think the positive side of what’s happening here is the fact that it’s a mela …it’s like a Kumbh mela of the progressives and the Left. It’s a space for everybody to feel good for a few days, to meet other people, to interact, to exchange stuff and learn something without it being done in a terribly dogmatic way. It’s really a festival and that’s the positive part of it, but I think that if that was the only outcome of this, it would be a wasted opportunity. And I feel the wasted opportunity is that the rest of the city doesn’t know what’s going on here and certainly doesn’t know what the main issues are. And possibly there’s a real lack of focus even here of what the main issues are. It’s good to have a thousand flowers bloom. At the same time, if those thousand flowers could have some minimum agreement which we could present to the world, it would be even better. I mean, protesting to get the US out of Iraq, fighting against religious fundamentalism in India (and since the WSF is taking place here in India, I think it needs to make a very strong statement about fundamentalism and intolerance). So if we could boil it all down to a few key issues, get a minimum agreement, and then go out — there’s a major demonstration in the next few days — under the banner of a central message, then that would go through. Right now, what’s likely to happen is that there’ll be a hundred thousand banners for lots of small, different causes and everyone at the end of it will be confused as to what is it they’re trying to say.

IndyMedia: You used the term “terribly dogmatic” for some of what you see happening around. Whom would you define as terribly dogmatic? Mumbai Resistance?
Patwardhan: I don’t want to get so much into Mumbai Resistance versus WSF so much because, well, I’ve been to MR and I like the fact that in both of these places my films are being used, because those are important issues that people need to hear and talk about. At the same time, I don’t think that there’s a huge radical difference between the WSF and MR — it’s probably a fallout of some kind amid the leadership — because as far as that “NGO issue” is concerned, there are NGOs there as well as here. Maybe at MR there’s a more vocal opposition to the war on Iraq, but the group is much smaller as a consequence of this split, so that’s a big loss. It would be good to have the 100,000 people who are here to march in streets of Bombay against religious fundamentalism. I don’t think Mumbai Resistance has the strength to do that. WSF has the strength to do that but it’s a pity that they’re not doing that in a conscious way.
IndyMedia:You’ve talked about the opposition to the Iraq invasion here, Would you like to comment on the state of the peace and justice movement in the US?
Patwardhan:I’ve spent time in the US, we participated in the anti-Vietnam war movement, and I’ve seen the US change radically from the early 70s to now and that is depressing because there was a time when you thought that you could stop that war, and then the Iraq war happened and for a while we thought that maybe we could stop *this* war. But we haven’t been able to, the people in America haven’t been able to, and that’s depressing for people all over the world — the fact that the peace movement in America actually, to be frank, failed. I mean, I’m glad that they tried. Things could have been even worse had there been no peace movement, at the same time, the peace movement was not able to shut the war down.

IndyMedia:And once the war started, the dialogue shifted very much so to “well, let’s support our troops and let’s not talk about this issue anymore” and I think the same thing happened with the Vietnam era… as soon as the war ended, the movement collapsed, instead of going further and investigating into the systematic nature of these problems — I mean, attacking Iraq for economic reasons, attacking Vietnam for geopolitical ones — there’s been a lack of investigation ever since.
Patwardhan: Yeah, I think people outside the US can look at what’s happening there in terms of what the media reports and the one glaring thing is that nobody in the American establishment has apologised for the fact that they (the CIA and the military-industrial complex) created this terror that they’re now trying to shut down. Or the fact that Bin Laden was imported from Saudi Arabia into Afghanistan, that even when Saddam Hussein was gassing people, Donald Rumsfeld was there giving him more weapons. The culpability of the US in the regimes that they now seek to change is mind-boggling, and the fact that they’ve never said sorry, they’ve never said that they were wrong. They keep trying to shut down these terrorists, but they’ll create many more, because they haven’t understood what they’re up to, they haven’t apologised, they haven’t admitted it to their own people or to the world. And I think that little bit of humility and introspection is what everyone in the world is looking for from the US.

END OF TRANSCRIPT http://india.indymedia.org/en/2004/01/208970.shtml