The bard of unsettling songs

RATNA PATHAK SHAH

WHEN Anand Patwardhan’s first film, Waves of Revolution, (about the rising tide of opposition to the Emergency) came out in 1974, Prabit Dasmahapatra said, ‘In India ... political consciousness is a rare thing among our filmmakers; in this context he is both a new name and a new trend in Indian film.’ Anand has, over the past forty years, never lost sight of this consciousness; if anything, his political understanding has deepened and become sharper. He has chosen to make documentaries, he has funded himself, and has picked his subjects pursuing only his own conscience.

Many ‘socially aware’ film-makers of his generation in India succumbed to the lure of power and popularity, but he has unwaveringly trod the path he chose for himself. In doing so he has taken the documentary genre out of the clutches of the officialdom of the Films Division type and shown the way to other filmmakers to harness the great potential of the form. If documentary films in India today are a vibrant, potent and highly diverse force, Anand is in no small measure responsible for it. A pioneer who has continued to think of himself as a student for over forty years.

‘It’s almost four hours long and they haven’t even started yet,’ whispers someone.

‘We’ll take breaks I’m sure,’ comes the reply from another of a small group gathered to watch Anand Patwardhan’s Vivek/Reason at a private screening, which is running behind time.

There’s always a little trepidation about watching his films; one is certain they will make you uncomfortable and they are likely to be long and yet one is curious to see how he has strung his ideas together and who he’s going to ‘offend’ this time. This screening too follows a pattern; the setting up of projector, screen, laptop; sound is always a delicate matter requiring much backing and forthing; the audience is getting restive – when will this begin? I’ve been to several of these screenings in college halls, community centres, small auditoria and I remember getting extremely worried about the many seemingly insurmountable complications and also the ever-present threat of some offended group crawling out of the woodwork.

Unfazed in the midst of this is Anand; he knows the screening will happen and everyone will be held by what he has to say. This is the confidence that permeates all his films, that here is something he has to say after thinking deeply about it and that he knows how to say it effectively and that there are people who will want to hear it.

 

 

Fearlessness is a thread that runs through his work. He is always in the thick of things while covering an event as he shoots almost all his films himself; he drags us into the situation along with him and we see the real faces and stories behind media reports. In Hamara Shahar/Bombay, Our City (1985) we are brought face to face both with the people whose houses have been demolished and those who ordered the demolition; we’re also made uncomfortably aware of the antipathy and ignorant heartlessness of ‘people like us’ who look away from such concerns. I remember the debates around the film with some groups sometimes embarrassedly, sometimes arrogantly defending highly untenable positions when confronted by the inequities the film demands that we acknowledge. At the same time his camera unflinching records the women who lambast his privilege of photographing their misery but doing nothing to alleviate it. He takes the accusation on the chin and we are left with no alternative but to recognize our own complicity.

Patwardhan is also not afraid of wandering away from the thrust of the ‘story’ and chasing another that leads from it. To me this is very much part of our Indian artistic tradition where ideas unfold and give birth to other conundrums and those lead on to unexpected but related stories, until finally everything comes together to leave a deep mark on the viewer. It is because of this non-linear movement that Anand’s films become con-versations between the filmmaker
and his subjects and between the viewer and her world view; these conversations persist in ones thoughts long after the film is done. ‘Patwardhan never preaches; he simply shows things the way they are and let’s his audience decide,’ says Blair B. Kling of the University of Illinois.

Fortunately, he thinks of himself as a storyteller first, using images and sound to speak to us in different ways from the words he employs. His latest film, Vivek /Reason opens with the ominous sound of a Bullet motorcycle as headlights come at the camera through the dark. It’s a dramatic beginning and the sense of dreadful anticipation that settles over us could well signify a dark Netflix thriller, but this isn’t staged; it’s really happening. Anand puts us right in the middle of the mess that is India as it teeters on the very edge of madness.

 

 

The film unfolds like a thriller but what he compels you to look at is yourself – and people you know – and what you see is not pretty. The motorcycle appears again in the film, each time carrying the message of ominous happenings; each time you brace yourself for the ugliness that is to come and wonder how we let our society come to this pass. The film has penetrated one’s heart and mind and will not allow us to slip back into numb ignorance. I have sometimes wondered why Anand has never made a fictional film but having recently revisited some of his films, I realize he has no need to; he uses the drama of real life, always much more potent and convincing than any that imagination can produce.

 

 

The greater achievement is that the techniques he employs to make his point are never manipulative; they emerge organically from the argument that he is laying out and that he is in no mood to guide towards a predetermined conclusion. He is always the patient listener off camera, asking questions that force even an angry communalist to exercise some form of reason. He’s at his best in War and Peace/Jung aur Aman, 2002, talking to young Pakistani schoolgirls and drawing a well reasoned and most hopeful message from that encounter – that peace between warring peoples is possible. But it is when he puts us in the proximity of the Hindu right and lets us see those hate-filled faces and hear their passionate but disturbingly distorted ideas that we feel the chill of real horror that no fiction can produce.

Through it all, Anand’s is the voice that is engaging with the ugliness, not manipulating it into revealing itself but rather trying to understand the fount from which it emanates, not even stopping to register the danger that he himself is in when a Hindutva ‘firebrand’ offers to do away with him in a public meeting. We see Anand in the same room and our blood runs cold at the possibility of what could happen next, but Anand lets them know he is there and is willing to debate with them. As the incensed right-winger backs down somewhat, Anand has shown us the nature and the inherent weakness of bullies and that it is possible for an individual to counter them; for a moment Reason seems to have an upper hand and I, the viewer, feel empowered and liberated.

‘It is not hatred towards the ruling class, but a genuine concern for the underprivileged that characterizes his cinema… his central interest remains… in the struggles of the oppressed than the acts of the powerful. All his films, in one way or the other, are celebrations of (or pleas for) nonviolent forms of resistance.’ (theseventhart)

 

 

When one sees his films, one realizes that he must travel and shoot almost all the time, in all kinds of places and situations, recording events as they happen, engaging with a variety of people and taking the time to understand where they are coming from. In Jai Bhim Comrade, the interview with the Kabir Kala Manch singer Sheetal Sathe’s mother was a revelation to me as I was forced to recognize the complex challenges that Sheetal has surmounted to be the person she is. With that conversation, Anand humanizes the politics of caste, gender and religion so that when Sheetal sings Maajhi Maay (My Mother) she encapsulates the pain of centuries of Dalit oppression and draws attention to the bedrock of courage that is the steel in their souls.

Anand understands the Indian penchant for emotion and uses it to invite the viewer’s empathy; whether poignant or perverse, emotion is the bridge that he uses to beckon one into his argument. He wants us to see what happens to individuals in moments of stress and pain, but he is always patient, never letting his camera look away even when they struggle to find words, when emotions overwhelm them, when hopelessness is at its most unbearable; he applauds their dignity and waits with them like a friend.

He even affords the same opportunity to the fundamentalists and when they can’t show any regret, any awareness of the brutality of their actions, he steps back to let us make up our own minds about their conduct. In an intriguing combination of ideas and values, Just Another Film Buff calls Anand Patwardhan the child of Karl Marx and Gandhi and sees in his films efforts to demonstrate that this marriage is not just chimerical utopianism, but a practical possibility.

 

 

Then Anand has to make sense of all the material he has collected. I have often wondered what it must mean to over and over again see footage that is almost unbearable for us to watch even once – how does he retain his sanity and belief in human beings? He edits by himself mostly, shut away in a tiny room (the only one with an air conditioner – his equipment needs it , not he himself), the peace regularly destroyed by the loud aartis and bells of the temple next door (a most peculiar irony), willing and eager to show segments he’s working on to his friends roped in to watch and comment; young people around him always, curious about everything that people think and talk about. In between he takes breaks to play tennis in the gymkhana across the road from where he lives, and to watch cricket – both activities lead to much excitement and argument; he being a person given to fighting for the underdog always.

He has never tried to raise money for his films, preferring to self-finance and to work at his own pace and choosing his subjects and style. He has said that he cannot work on commissioned projects because then one gets what the consumer wants, which is not the purpose of making documentary films, in an echo of Robert Bresson’s advice: ‘Try to show that which, without you, might never have been seen.’ This decision must be a tough one as the films he makes are not geared towards making large revenues and entail travel and take years to put together. Alongside he is often in court fighting (and winning) cases to get his films passed by censors or shown even after getting National Awards – another amazing irony that can happen only in India. And he finds the time to stand up for others in a similar predicament like members of the Kabir Kala Manch who had been forced to go underground after police began to brand them as Maoist ‘Naxalites’.

 

 

Anand has probably been an conscientious objector from childhood, having grown up in a staunchly socialist, liberal family (a stint at a tony boarding school must have contributed in spades to his revulsion towards unfairness) and as a student having participated in the anti-Vietnam War movement, worked in Kishore Bharati, a rural development and education project in central India and participated in the Bihar anti-corruption movement in 1974-75, and in the civil liberties and democratic rights movement during and after the 1975-77 Emergency.

This early schooling has lasted and reflects in all that he does; for example in the ways in which he shows his films – the locations where they are screened, the people who are part of the audience and the discussions that follow. Waves of Revolution was not only shot clandestinely on outdated film using whichever camera they could borrow and with sound recorded on a cassette player, it was also screened at secret gatherings. A print was cut up and sent out of the country in bits so that it could be saved from the Censors – this was the Emergency, remember. Jai Bhim Comrade was screened at Ramabai Nagar, a Dalit colony in Mumbai on a makeshift screen where the audience stood and watched for three and a half hours and then stayed on to talk about it.

This is what Anand is waiting for, this is the reason why he works the way he does – this direct engagement with the audience, the immediate, lively and meaningful communication with viewers that is the USP of the live performance; this is what the actor in the theatre looks for. Anand takes a pre-recorded form, film, and turns it into live theatre. The discussion sometimes begins slowly, awkwardly and sometimes with a outpouring of opinions and comments. Anand is provocative only if necessary but he constantly pushes for clarity, guiding the discussion to stop it from wandering off, but mostly letting all sorts of ideas and contradictions emerge. His is a mature and passionate voice, tempered now by the years and experiences and therefore much more potent.

 

 

In June 2012, War and Peace/Jung aur Aman (someone suggested that it could well have been titled ‘War and Peace: Or How I Learned to Forget Gandhi and Worship the Bomb’) was released in two multiplexes in Mumbai, a major event as no Indian documentary had ever had a theatrical release anywhere in the world and hope floated that documentaries would become a lucrative form of entertainment. It was premature excitement unfortunately but there is no doubt that more and more young Indians are watching documentaries today. Anand is deeply connected to the effort to build a sustainable future for this form in India and the world.

Along with his partner Simantini Dhuru and others he runs Vikalp, a platform for screenings at Prithvi House in Juhu, where documentary films are shown twice a month to an enthusiastic audience that stays on to discuss and argue what they have witnessed. Anand is there for most of the screenings, leading the discussions and offering a constant reminder of the purpose behind such films.

His home is open to young filmmakers, writers, poets, stand-up comics, lawyers and activists of all stripes and the discussions are animated, sometimes stormy but always passionate and full of colour and song. He travels to festivals to participate in the ever-expanding
reach of new ideas and ways of communicating them; he often wins awards, nationally and internationally, but we hardly hear him speak of that; he’s happier to talk about the reactions of the audiences and his interaction with other filmmakers of his ilk. He is an enthusiastic poster boy for the documentary film movement – he even has the good looks for it!

 

 

There’s another Anand that lives very close to the surface but emerges only once in a while as a balladeer, the everready, boyishly enthusiastic singer of Dylan and Baez and Kishore Kumar songs. At a friend’s farm near Mumbai, sitting around the bonfire, his guitar strung and tuned, the harmonica and its stand adjusted, Anand is ready to turn into Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Vilas Ghoghre and Sheetal Sathe, embodying all their longing for change and their protest against the inequities of the world for, to sing is to protest! To watch him sing (and singing along) ‘Joe Hill’ or ‘Blowing in the Wind’ or ‘Aa Chal ke Tujhe’ is to, for a brief interlude, turn back the clock and find oneself once more a young student full of unsullied hope and the off-hand belief that life can only change for the better. And that brief interlude fans the embers of the passion for a better future in us, as do all his films.

When asked to deliver a message for future documentary filmmakers, Anand Patwardhan said, ‘No message really. Do it only if it burns when you don’t.’

May his burn last and set alight fires in all of us.