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Last month, the streaming platform OVID dropped a bomb: a full retrospective of the work of Indian filmmaker Anand Patwardhan. Typically shooting and editing on his own, Patwardhan has always been a “one-man show.” With 17 documentaries spanning almost 50 years, the retrospective makes it possible to trace the evolution of his project, revealing him as a steady hand on the wheel, an unrelenting critic of power whose work stands in stark contrast to the notional “Indian miracle” of the country’s free market liberalization in the ’80s and ’90s.
Patwardhan views his filmmaking practice as comprehensive — not just researching, shooting, and completing films, but also taking them on tour and holding discussions, involving the communities and people he profiles. Similar to Indigenous Canadian filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, Patwardhan’s career serves as testament that the most crucial nonfiction work is often out of step with the glitz of festival hype and basic representation politics. The earliest film in OVID’s collection is his short Waves of Revolution, chronicling the 1974-75 uprising in Bihar. His latest is Vivek (“Reason”), a four-hour dissection of Hindu nationalism, which has been emboldened by India’s ruling political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party. Patwardhan refuses to believe things are getting better in his home country. Even if he is routinely cited as India’s leading documentarian, actually showing his films there is a bedeviling challenge. It was an honor to speak with him for a few minutes from his home in Mumbai.
Hyperallergic: Give us an idea of your efforts to get Reason shown within India, to have discussions and screenings around it.
Anand Patwardhan: Theatrical screenings are out. We’ve had a few months without publicity, just word of mouth. One-off non-theatrical screenings that are not publicly announced. There is a Hindi version of the film on YouTube — I won’t say how it got there. But now is the first time I have made it available in English, in America and Canada. In India, things are getting progressively worse. In the earlier stages of Reason, we thought we would at least be able to show it theatrically. I’ve had problems with all my films, but I have not yet been officially allowed to show this one.
When I made Bombay Our City, we did more than a hundred screenings in the slum areas; we put up a big bed sheet screen and a 16mm projector and waited for darkness. We had thousands of people watching. We did the same thing with Jai Bhim Comrade, we had a lot of screenings in working-class neighborhoods and places like that. That slowed down once television entered people’s homes, even in working-class neighborhoods. In the days I was taking the 16mm projector around, there was nothing else, so we would just get a huge audience. And we must compete now with people watching at home. I actually work hard to show these films to the people I made them about. It’s always very fulfilling when we do it. I don’t think that has changed. Showing Reason is kind of an underground activity, getting the audience through word of mouth. It has its own excitement.
AP: It’s very unlikely I will go to the censor board while this particular regime is in power. They’re so oversensitive to any criticism that even films on Netflix are coming under attack right now — for having a love scene between a Hindu and a Muslim, for example, in a very high-profile project, Mira Nair’s adaptation of A Suitable Boy. So to see how they are, it would be crazy if my film were to get past.
We did a small experiment at the beginning of 2020, [at the] Mumbai International Film Festival. It specifically says that films without certificates can enter. So I did, knowing they wouldn’t actually show it. And they rejected it, you know, claiming it wasn’t good enough. So we took them to court, saying they had discriminated on political grounds, not on merit. In the past I have won a lot of court cases against the government when they tried to do censorship. But now in India, the courts are under huge pressure from the government. So it’s very unlikely to find a judge who is brave enough to take a stand against the BJP. The judge began to say, ‘How can I replace the selection panel that rejected your film? How do I know the film is good enough?’ Even though we have won awards at international festivals. So then we adjourned the case because we didn’t want to lose and set a bad precedent for other filmmakers. So it’s very unlikely the board would pass Reason. I might do it again, if only to get rejected and take them to court. But that’s the only reason.
H: One of my heroes is the filmmaker Raymundo Gleyzer, who also toured his documentaries around Latin America before he was ‘disappeared’ by the dictatorship in Argentina. He had a saying: ‘I would rather have a tiny audience who leave the cinema with clear ideas than a massive audience of people who don’t understand what they just watched.’ Was there ever a moment you doubted the efficacy of these kinds of ‘social justice documentaries’?
AP: I try to spend as much time showing the film as I spent making it. I don’t go from film to film — [I’ve not made] that big a number of films over almost 50 years. Jai Bhim Comrade took 14 years to make, and it took me another four or five years of showing it before I started the next one. I haven’t questioned the idea of documentary filmmaking as useful. I’ve always had enough positive feedback from people to keep me going.
H: I first learned of your work during India’s supposed ‘economic miracle.’ To many Americans, Slumdog Millionaire is a more famous image of India than any Bollywood movie, to say nothing of your documentaries.
AP: My film Bombay Our City is also about those slums. Slumdog Millionaire gives you an easy way out: winning the lottery. You don’t do any resisting, you don’t fight injustice, you don’t organize; you just hope that one of the homeless can win the lottery and move out of their slum and join the elite. To me it’s escapism. It may have alerted some to the fact that there is poverty in India, but who doesn’t know that already? This is one reason I never got into fiction. Even if I made a bad film, it would be documenting people’s lives and it would give voice to people who do not have one. In a sense, my camera, going into areas where the elite never go, carries those voices to other people, and carries the voice of the elite to the slum as well. So there’s a cross-fertilization if people watch the films, [between] people who normally do not speak to each other.
Right now, the share market is booming in India. The super-rich, the people who can afford to buy those shares, are extremely happy with what is happening. But at the same time, things have never been worse for the poor. Right now, the price of petrol has gone up immensely. One good thing would be for people to drive fewer cars and for us to build fewer highways, but that is not what happens. New cars will continue to be made and petrol will continue to be bought, because there is a class that will do that. But what is happening to the people who don’t have the money is unimaginable.
H: I wrote a review of Reason in 2018 that originally ended like so: ‘The filmmaker has cause to fear for his own life.’ A mutual friend of ours got in touch and said, you know, this was an unhelpful way to frame your activities, so I changed that ending. [Both laugh] Tell me about the romance of the persecuted documentary filmmaker.
AP: Actually, the New York Times did exactly that. I tried my best to get them not to. I don’t think it’s useful to point me out as a potential victim of right-wing terrorism. I don’t want to give them ideas. There is something happening which is protecting me, maybe. Maybe it’s the fact that I do belong to an elite, of a kind — born Hindu, born upper-caste. But that kind of protection is no longer guaranteed anymore. As I show in Reason, Hindus from those same castes can be killed. But the main targets are still Muslims and Dalits, people who don’t have the power to fight back. But I think of myself as taking advantage of my privilege.
H: Has any critique from the left haunted or bedeviled you over the years?
AP: We are part of a rainbow alliance. It includes the left, but it is not only the left. You don’t have to be a communist or a socialist to see what is happening is a basic denial of human rights. I am pitching my view in a much broader way, and that is why Reason is called Reason. Those denials will be clear to anybody willing to look at the facts and be logical.
My experience in North America is that the interest in countries like India is not that great, so I don’t know how this will go. Will people seriously watch documentary films about India that are obviously technically challenged? They were made with poor equipment over long periods of time. But I’m hoping that people will watch it.
H: In 2015, you told Georgia Korossi, ‘Most major film festivals have turned into pitching zones where in five minutes flat, commissioning editors give thumbs up or thumbs down to competing performing monkeys. Once selected, these mostly white folk are sent into the jungles of the world to come back with a quickie that will run 52 minutes and tell people what they already know, because anything more would be too taxing and would risk the channel being switched.’ Do you still feel that way?
AP: I still think that. No serious work can be made that way. I make the films I want to make, about issues I see around me in India. I do not want to be influenced by people who will consume them in some other country as entertainment or even as ‘information.’ These should not be the people deciding how the film gets made, how long it is, where it sits — that decision has to be local. I don’t do co-productions. I don’t pitch. I make my own film in whatever way I can, then I start trying to think through distribution. That is becoming harder and harder these days. We had independent film festivals — if the film did well, distributors would pick it up and some TV channels would show it. Nowadays, unless you have a sales agent, a team marketing you, it’s hard to get even onto a TV broadcast. I thought Reason would be perfect for Netflix, for example, because it’s in eight chapters — they could serialize it. But basically they told me — not in writing — they would be thrown out of India if they showed it.
Anand Patwardhan’s films can be streamed on OVID.