by Vinay Lal

Anand Patwardhan is probably India’s most distinguished, and certainly one of its most controversial, documentary filmmakers; he has no peer among those working in the socialist tradition. He is consistently India’s “representative” at documentary film festivals around the world, and his films have won numerous awards at such festivals in Toronto, Vancouver, Mannheim, Cannes, Sydney, and elsewhere; he has also won, in India, the National Award and the Filmfare Award on more than one occasion. His career has spanned three decades, and has oeuvre includes films on the Bombay textile strike, Indian farmworkers in British Columbia and their efforts to unionize, the dispute over the now-destroyed Babri Masjid, the politics of masculinity and sexuality in contemporary India, and India’s nuclear testing. Patwardhan’s films, which are uncompromising in their depiction of Hindu militancy and the culture of violence generated by the political arrangements of the modern Indian state, have provoked the wrath of Hindutva advocates; and in February 2002, surrendering to pressure from militant Hindu activists, the American Museum for Natural History postponed scheduled screenings of some of Patwardhan’s films.

Over the years, Patwardhan’s films have been subjected to censorship by the Indian state, and his most recent film, Jang aur Aman (“War and Peace”, 2002), celebrated at the Mumbai International Film Festival, has been refused a certificate for general screening since Patwardhan has understandably stated his unwillingness to accommodate the censor’s demands for cuts. Indian authorities engineered its removal as the inaugural film of the Kolkata Film Festival in May 2002. “My film is based on the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence”, says Patwardhan. “It exposes the political hypocrisies of India, Pakistan and the United States regarding the nuclear issue. They have a problem with the way I have put forward my argument. But [they] cannot point a finger at the factual data I have used in the film as it is true.” An essay by Patwardhan, entitled “How We Learned to Love the Bomb”, is more explicit in its denunciation of the obscenity of nuclear armaments, as well in its insightful discussion on the profound anxieties over masculinity afflicting the Indian nation-state. Jang aur Aman, though largely an exploration of the political climate of India and Pakistan following the nuclear testing by both countries in May 1998, draws upon the precedent created by the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Patwardhan is just as sparing in his criticism of the aggressiveness of the American military and nuclear machine as he is of the nuclear pretensions of India and Pakistan. Yet, as he points out, the United States, which has done more than any other country to make nuclearism a part of the morally degraded vocabulary of humanity in the twentieth century, is unlikely to ever face the consequences of a nuclear war. Advocates of nuclearism within the Indian and Pakistan militaries are allowed a voice in Jang aur Aman — but this is all the more effective because, when placed in juxtaposition with the poor in both countries, for instance the rural populations around the test sites and the uranium mines, the military perspective begins to look exceedingly foolish. Yet Patwardhan understands that the nuclear ambitions of both states have widespread support among some strata of society: achievement in this domain is viewed as an index of technological prowess, and many people have come to accept the view that nothing earns a nation-state respect in the world as much as its nuclear status. Both in India and Pakistan, as Patwardhan reminds us, the “successful” nuclear tests of 1998 were celebrated on the streets with explosions of fire crackers and the distribution of sweets.

Patwardhan was a student of English literature and earned his B.A. in 1970 from the University of Bombay; he subsequently earned a M.A. in Communications from McGill University in 1982. He has been active on behalf of the rights of the urban poor, slum-dwellers, refugees, and political dissenters; he works, in many respects, from the margins of Indian society, but he also has a discerning eye for the gravity of politics. Though his 1990 film, Ram Ke Naam, or “In the Name of Ram”, an exploration of the controversy over the Babri Masjid before the mosque was torn down by militant Hindus in December 1992, might be said to have earned him very wide recognition, Patwardhan had earned a considerable reputation for himself with films such as “Prisoners of Conscience” (1978, 45 mins.). Here Patwardhan offered a withering critique of the internal emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi from 1975-77, which led to the incarceration without trial of 100,000 people; however, as the film plainly makes clear, these were not the only “prisoners of conscience” in India. Political issues have generally been at the forefront of Patwardhan’s work, and in 1995 he entered into the raging debate over the Sardar Sarovar project which, when completed, will have displaced not less than 150,000 people (largely adivasis), and possibly many more. Patwardhan’s Narmada Diary (co-directed with Simantini Dhuru, 60 minutes) focuses on the efforts of the Narmada Bachao Andolan to make the economic, social, cultural, indeed moral costs of development, to which state planners are usually oblivious, widely known.

Among Patwardhan’s films, Pitra, Putra, aur Dharamyuddha, known in the English-speaking world as “Father, Son, and Holy War” (1994), has been of particular interest to lovers of cinema, political activists, scholars, and observers of contemporary Indian life. Completed shortly after the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the bomb blasts that tore apart Bombay in 1993, Patwardhan attempts in this film (in two parts) to weave together a narrative on political violence that considers the nexus between communalism, the changing culture of the contemporary Hindi film, violence towards women in many domains of Indian society, vernacular forms of masculinity, and other aspects of Indian society and culture. Patwardhan is nuanced enough to understand, unlike some other liberal and secular commentators, that communalism cannot merely be viewed as the logical outcome of illiteracy and deep-seated traditions, and some of the film’s most touching moments are seen in the interviews conducted with working-class women who are firmly persuaded that there is no inseparable gulf between “Hindus” and “Muslims” and that tensions between the two communities are greatly exploited by politicians. Indeed, as Patwardhan suggests on more than one occasion, the educated are more attracted by communal thinking, and among Hindus, in particular, the conceit that the Hindu tradition is a spectacular repository of the world’s timeless truths sometimes leads them to embrace absurdities. Patwardhan’s camera takes us to a Hindu temple in south India where a ceremony is held for childless couples whose greatest desire is to have progeny, and it then lingers on a highly educated couple (with university degrees from Britain) who state, with the utmost seriousness, that the ritual chanting of the Vedas produces sonic vibrations that can render a barren woman fertile. Though there is something comical in the argument that the highest truths of physics were all anticipated in the Vedas, this supposed “insight” has a firm place in middle-class Indian consciousness.

Precisely because Father, Son, and Holy War is Patwardhan’s most ambitious film, it is also emblematic of the conceptual and political shortcomings of Patwardhan’s resolutely liberal and humanistic worldview. A crude distinction between matriarchy and patriarchy furnishes the framework for Patwardhan’s cinematic observations, and Patwardhan overlooks the fact that didacticism is cinema’s weakest point just it is of poetry. Viewers are led to believe that matriarchy engulfed the entire world in remote antiquity before men, the hunters, began to assert their presence and change the rules guiding most societies. This thesis of the matriarchal origins of cultures does not, of course, originate with Patwardhan, but he seems quite unaware of the depth and breadth of feminist scholarship and of the difficulties that some strands of feminist scholarship — not to mention other scholars who are entirely hostile to what are viewed as ahistorical and romantic conceptions of the early history of humankind — have with sketchy representations of supposed matriarchal pasts. Patwardhan’s understanding of patriarchy is not necessarily any more sophisticated, and the assumption remains that one can write a seamless history of a uniform kind of patriarchy. Patwardhan’s roving camera finds nearly every aspect of Indian culture deeply implicated in the workings of patriarchy, and at times it appears that the speeches of Thackeray, the rantings of a Sadhvi Ritambhara or Uma Bharati, the sexual fantasies of young Indian men who fill the country’s cinema halls, the street culture of many Indian cities with their roving hordes of young men for whom any young or attractive woman is reasonable prey, the fears of impotency that quacks exploit at street corners with colorful demonstrations of the aphrodisiac effects of Indian herbs, the sexual molestation and rape of women in communal conflicts, and the deeply protective culture of Rajput men are all expressions of one single tale of a conflicted, thwarted, and emasculated male sexuality. Patwardhan doesn’t quite think through his theses, nor is he fully aware of the politics and regimes of representation; and yet, in his understanding of the sexual politics of resurgent Hindu communalism, Patwardhan remains India’s most astute and daring documentary filmmaker and one of the country’s most sensitive commentators.

Partial Filmography:

Waves of Revolution (1974)

Prisoners of Conscience (1978, 45 mins, B&W)

A Time to Rise (1981, 40 mins, color)

Bombay Our City (1985, 82 mins, color)

In Memory of Friends (1990, 60mins, color)

In the Name of God [Hindi title: Ram Ke Naam] (1992, 90mins, color)

Father, Son, and Holy War [Hindi title: Pitra, Putra, aur Dharamyuddha] (1994, 120 mins, color): in 2 parts, each 60 minutes long.

Narmada Diary (1995, 50 mins, color video; co-directed with S. Dhuru)

We Are Not Your Monkeys (1999, 5 mins., color)

War and Peace [Jang aur Aman] (2002, color, 148 minutes, in English, Hindi, and Japanese)