Volume 4: Number 1, May 1 2000
never set out to be a cultural activist”:
Anand Patwardhan is not only one of India’s most distinguished filmmakers, he is also a committed and impassioned worker against communalism and for social justice and peace. In this interview, conducted in New York in the fall of 1998, he spoke with Mir Ali Raza and Amitava Kumar.
Q: For this special issue on cultural activism we would like to use the example of your work as something from which certain useful conversations can start—even among diasporic communities. Could you say something about your cultural activism?
AP: Actually, I do not really work very theoretically. I never set out to be a cultural activist as such. So, I am uncomfortable in answering a question that may, in a sense, not be totally valid.
Q: Your answer to this question seems to be part of a pattern, that whenever you are asked questions that are more clearly “aesthetic” in nature, you give them short shrift as you have done just now. So, question is how do you personally make the connection or “peace” between politics and aesthetics?
AP: I guess that even the films that I saw—that excited me the most—were films like Patricio Guzman’s Chile, el cine contra el fascismo, which ends with the overthrow of the government of Salvador Allende. Then I read some contemporary theoretical works about cinema of that kind. I guess I have internalized this position that I tend not to do anything in my films that is purely aesthetic. In the sense that I would not shoot a sunset just because it is beautiful, but I would be happy if it were there fortuitously during the shooting of the course of events that I was actually depicting. But I will not seek it out. It’s not really a principle because I am never really conscious of this position when I am shooting. It is, however, a sort of internalized position that is continuous throughout my filmmaking. Especially now that I am my own cameraman most of the time, in a sense my camerawork can be criticized as being very utilitarian. This is so in the sense that I only shoot things that are necessary to tell the story. Beyond the camerawork, when I look at other aspects of my filmmaking, almost everything is purposeful. There is very little in the film that allows you a kind of aesthetic leeway. And I say this as a criticism because I can see that this might actually be a weakness—of not allowing nature to manifest itself or other things to happen which do not fit my way of thinking.
Q: Do you think of that as a compromise?
AP: No. Not at all. I don’t think that it is a compromise. This makes the films move at a very directed pace. You see, I am not only shooting the film, I am simultaneously editing it too. I think what I want to say is that this uni-dimensional approach may seem as a problem but I’d rather do this than allow a free flow of ideas to pass through the work.
Q: Anand, you were living in the US. In one of your recent writings, you had mentioned that you’d also been arrested.
AP: I have mentioned that because of a perception in India. Today, if one takes the position that India should sign the CTBT, one is immediately labeled pro-American. So I had to reveal this to prove my credentials—that I had been jailed in the US.
Q: When you were in the US, you were a cultural activist of some form. I think our readers would be interested in learning about that phase of your life. What kind of activism did you engage in, especially in the cultural sphere?
AP: The first time I was in North America, it was 1970 when I received a scholarship to study at Brandeis University in Boston. I was there for two years. Brandeis happened to be at the East Coast center of the movement against the Vietnam War. The West Coast center was Berkeley. Brandeis and Berkeley were the two poles through which the student movement against the Vietnam War was directed. And many fairly well known activists came out of Brandeis, like Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Angela Davis, and Herbert Marcuse. That whole time at Brandeis was quite incredible. They had left the university by the time of my arrival there. But their legacy was still there. I got involved in the anti-war movement and along with other students I was arrested a couple of times during protests. It was in those days that I started making films. Actually I was in the Sociology Department but I borrowed equipment from the Theatre Art Department, and shot the anti-war protests in 1971. Around that time the Bangladesh situation was also worsening with so many refugees. I got involved in raising money for refugees from Bangladesh. Bangladesh had not yet gained independence from Pakistan. To raise money for the refugees, I organized a “fast” and requested the students to not eat for a day and donate the money thus saved to the refugees. And then I interviewed people on-camera about whether they were fasting or not. So, that became my first film. My first film with soundtrack, called Business As Usual because in it people were making excuses about why they had to eat in order to do well in the Chemistry test. All kinds of excuses! Somebody said that he went to the George Harrison concert. Or someone said she’d bought a Ravi Shankar album and had more than done her share.
Q: So, you made a film and you switched from being a student of sociology to a media activist—if one could describe you as that.
AP: Not at that time. No, I didn’t become a media activist. I just made that one film and shot a little bit of footage about anti-Vietnam-war protest that never got made into a film. Then, after graduating, after 1972, I worked for six months in California with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers as a union organizer. And then I went back to India.
Q: Even while working as a labor activist you would have been, of course, talking to a lot of people, you would have been engaged in dialog with workers and other organizers and leaders. Can you recall those instances where you did apply in your own work as an organizer tools like media and technology in cultural and political organizing and mobilization?
AP: I think the only thing of this nature I did at the time was I made some posters. And, of course, we used songs and other forms of cultural expression in our work. Then when I went back to India and worked on a village project for two years, as a volunteer in a Rural Development project in Madhya Pradesh called Kishore Bharati. This organization had gotten 99 acres of land and in our do-good spirit we deforested some of this land to do farming. Later on we realized that we’d done some damage and we replanted some land and forgot about farming. During that time I taught Hindi and drove a tractor. I did all kinds of jobs in that project. Also, around that time I started some media-related work. I did not have a movie camera but I made a story out of still photographs and slides. It was a filmstrip with a soundtrack on a cassette recorder to motivate the villagers to continue treatment for tuberculosis. People would get diagnosed with TB and start the treatment but discontinue. Their condition would then become acute. So to prevent relapse the clinics tried to motivate patients to continue treatment even after the symptoms would disappear. And then, in 1974, when I found the pace of the NGOs’ work in Kishore Bharati too slow, I went to Bihar. The Bihar movement was happening around the time and these were exciting times. So I went there and started working with the JP movement. On the 4th November 1974, there was a big demonstration in Patna and the movement people asked me to document with photographs because they were expecting police brutalities to occur that day. People in the movement were reporting police atrocities even though the movement itself was explicitly non-violent. So I went to Delhi to borrow a still camera and found out that a friend had a Super 8 camera. So the two of us went back to Patna with the Super 8 and an 8mm black-and-white camera, and we shot the day’s demonstrations. Since working with Super 8 film gives you diminishing returns because you do not have a negative to work with, we decided to convert it into the 16-mm format. We projected the Super 8 film on a screen and shot it again using a 16-mm camera. So the film has a very rough quality to it, but the footage is dramatic, with the police attacking students. Then I went back to Bihar with another friend who had a 16-mm camera to continue shooting. All that footage was developed into a half-hour length film called Kranti Ki Tarange. This film went underground because it was completed a few months before the declaration of the Emergency. Most of the people in the film were in prison by the time the film could be shown, and it could not be shown openly during the emergency.
Q: What, as a cultural activist, did the Emergency do to you? What did you learn from your experiences around the time?
AP: The Emergency forced me out of my own country. Many friends were now in prison. So my space of activity was markedly reduced. It was also very depressing because as a documentary filmmaker I could not show the films that I’d made about the Bihar movement. If we screened a film we had to do it secretly for few people at a time and we still couldn’t be sure if one of the viewers wouldn’t report us. Finally we cut the film into pieces and different people who were leaving the country smuggled the pieces out of India. I eventually got admitted into a postgraduate program in Communications with a teaching assistantship at McGill University in Canada. I was then able to put all those pieces together and show it all over North America as an activist work against the Emergency in India.
Q: In a similar vein, could you tell us about the impact that the rise of Hindutva has had on left-wing cultural activists like yourself? What kind of work it has elicited from you in particular, and in a broader sense?
AP: By the beginning of the 80s I had made a film called Bombay Hamara Shehar about the slums in Bombay. Even if this film was on a different topic—slums in this case—the issue of communalism arises in discussion several times. We were aware right then that communalism was brewing. Bhiwandi riots had taken place in Bombay. In this movie I tried to show several times how in the slums Hindus and Muslims were living side-by-side and helping each other. I became quite aware by the early 1980s that communalism was a rising phenomenon. Then in 1984 the Sikh massacre took place in Delhi. This communal incident led me to commit my life as a filmmaker exclusively to fighting communalism. I started to look for topical things to shoot—I shot some rallies of Ekta, an organization I worked with in Bombay. But I still did not have clarity about what I really wanted to make. I kept on shooting a bunch of different things as they happened. In 1987 some people had come to Bombay from Punjab under the aegis of Inquilaabi Ekta Kendra—Jaimal Singh Padda and Sardara Singh. Their work sounded exciting. They were planning to commemorate Bhagat Singh’s death anniversary so I asked them if I could accompany them. I went with them on their Yatra through Punjab. That is how the film In Memory of Friends got made. During this time I also had gone to Rajasthan when the Sati had happened there in 1987. I kept shooting various things not knowing how it will all connect. I was able to make three films out of that material.
Q: Could you say something about Jaimal Singh Padda and the example of what the work that he and his group was doing meant to you at that moment, what it represented to you?
AP: See, even though I decided to do something about Punjab after the Delhi massacre, I did not want to make a film that was just a sob story about the tragedy of Punjab. All that you saw on TV at the time was the widows of people killed by Khalistanis and very rarely you would see the widows of the people killed by police. Those who were slightly more sensitive would show widows from both sides. But others who were engaged in government propaganda would show only the widows of the people killed by Khalistanis. But that was the only focus of all the TV reporting. Nobody was focusing on any other aspect of this tragedy or what an antidote to it might be. Then I found that Inquilaabi Ekta were talking about Bhagat Singh and building communal harmony in a situation like this, while having a class-based position without accepting the government's line about the situation. In fact, they were very critical about how both the government and the fundamentalists were finally on the same side. I was attracted to that and went to work with them. Jaimal Singh Padda in particular. Padda was actually a peasant leader, not an intellectual in the academic sense, but in an organic, grassroots sense. Not only was he the leader of the Kirti Kisan Union but he also brought out magazines and wrote poetry and songs, many of which he sang himself. We are lucky to have recorded some of his songs on a rather bad cassette recorder. I used the recording of his songs in the film. Later, he was killed and this is the only available audio recording of Padda.
Q: We see that you were shooting many different things at that time and you did not realize how they were connected. One of the ways we could accent our approach to your politics is to examine how precisely you do connect them in very urgent ways. The issue of masculinity, for example, is connected to sati. We do not know of others who have connected sati to Babri Masjid in the media and presented it in such a strong way. Then, of course, there is the issue of peace also after the Bomb. How does this connectedness come about?
AP: As I said, I like the academic exercise in retrospect but I do not like it a priori. If I were very theoretical I would end up making films of a totally different kind. If I pre-thought out everything to the degree of controlling that “now this is to be shown,” etc., I think my films would become partly fiction. They would not be things I discovered with my camera but things that I deliberately went to discover knowing that I had to say this or say that. It is not that there is no theoretical basis to any of my films, it’s not that I don't read anything, but I usually do the reading in the process of the work. Films take a long time to edit and to put together. I keep shooting and editing. The process of filmmaking is continuous for several years and in those years there is plenty of time to study the issue and do research. My films are not pre-planned and then created.
Q: Just leading on to something that you’d said earlier—would you to talk a little about the relationship that you have not only with issues of your films, but also the subjects whom you portray in them. We understand that you have a personal relationship with the movements you study and also with the people who are there. Maybe with an example you could tell us how you as a filmmaker and them as subjects interact, maybe as co-authors, collaborators, and fellow activists.
AP: The relationship is close, but I think “co-authors” would be too tall a claim to make and ultimately the filmmaker has so much more power to shape the work. There are some filmmakers and groups that actually do collaborative work and there is no author; it is collective teamwork where the community takes part in all the decisions. But that is not exactly the kinds of film I do. My films are fairly closely controlled works—controlled rather closely by me, or by my close friends. But I do interact with the people that I shoot throughout the process of filmmaking. At the editing stage I call people and discuss with them the issues. It is very important to me to justify the film to myself as something that will actually be useful to the people that I am making the film about. I can’t make a film unless I am sure that my work will actually do that. If I cannot be sure of this then I feel that I have no right to focus on other people’s misery. The problem of voyeurism exists in any documentary filmmaking, especially with the kinds of films that I make. I do not make these films in any sort of confessional mode. I must be able to convince myself that the film is actually going to be useful. For example, in making Fishing in the Sea of Greed the fisher people came and discussed the main issues that we were going to focus on. Factory ships and aquaculture were the main issues. This information gave me clues about where I would film, and the general direction the film would take. I do this every time I make a film, but in this case the process was even more concrete because the fisher people raised the money for the film. They collected two lakh rupees. They also had some control over the length of the film—they wanted the film to be short, very short, and I was desirous of a longer one. They wanted a 30-minute production and I wanted an hour-long one. Finally we compromised at 45 minutes.
Q: You also co-authored one of the songs that was done by one of the performers, and in Bombay, Hamara Shehar you have a relationship with the activist there.
AP: Yes. In We Are Not Your Monkeys I had this idea for many years that irritated me—the people who accepted the Ramayana story as something truly historical were also the people who, in my opinion, suffered the most under Hindutva. I then decided to work with the Dalits. I knew Daya Pawar well, who was a very well known Dalit poet and who passed away a couple of years ago. I had interviewed him earlier. I used to sing one of his songs and I played it for him on the guitar and he liked it very much. I do not remember how it came about but we decided that we’d collaborate and write a song for We Are Not Your Monkeys. Samba Ji was also there. So all three of us put it together. Samba Ji is someone with whom I'd worked many years ago. He was part of the Ahwan Natya Manch. You can see him in Bombay, Hamara Shehar where he’s one of the street theatre activists. That's how the song came about.
Q: You have shown your films to expatriate Indians in the US many times. We have been fortunate to view your films. What has been your experience of showing these films to expatriate Indians in terms of the kinds of energy and anxieties you may generate here? Any comments that you’d care to make about the kinds of responses to your kind of work and what you might see here as enabling or as disabling?
AP: I have been very happy to come here and meet all the progressive south Asians who have come together in North America. Even the first time I came to North America we formed this organization called Indian Peoples Association in North America to basically fight the Emergency. I also worked with another group called Indians for Democracy during the Emergency. In a sense this is a continuous process in my work as a filmmaker. The only thing that I’d like to see happen when I come—which does not happen now when I come and show my films—is that we end up showing the film to the people who do agree with us politically. I am not saying this is a bad thing, because it can be a morale booster for people to see the work of other people. For example, I’d like to see the work of people who are doing my kind of work in countries like Pakistan or Bangladesh. It is a great thing for us to celebrate by coming together and creating bonds. But in terms of political work, I believe much more can be done if we make the extra effort of locating these film screenings amongst communities that completely disagree with us. I know that the ground has been surrendered to Hindutva forces in North America as far as the Indian expatriates are concerned. I don’t know how to judge this but they may be a majority when compared to the progressives here. If that is truly the case, then we are not doing our job if we locate this kind of work all the time in a social milieu that agrees with us.
Q: You’ve switched recently from the film to the video medium. It’s quite noticeable in your movies, even when you are working with the medium of film, you used to shoot a lot and then finally get around to editing in relation to the movement, etc. Do you see this as a definite shift in your work?
AP: I think because of this I am a bit more freed in my work in the sense of when things happen I don’t have to think twice, “shall I shoot this, or not.” Because it’s cheap for me to pick up my camera and buy a tape and go and shoot. In that sense it’s liberating to be able to afford this. Two things are frustrating about shooting in video as opposed to film. One is that you don’t get taken seriously in the aesthetic circles and that’s not frustrating because one wants to be recognized as an aesthete, but because I have enjoyed the kind of appreciation that happens at film festivals and awards. Festivals and awards have helped me very concretely in the sense that in India I can do dadagiri on their basis and say “This film is good. You can't say that it’s not. Look I’ve won so many awards for it in so many places.” And then finally, the Indian authorities also had to give it an award and I was able to get it on national TV on the basis that it won these awards and these are films that you cannot ignore. Now, with videos this is much more difficult. Videos are precisely the kind of thing that they can ignore and they choose to. So, at one level it becomes easier for the activist to use them but the acceptance at the other level is reduced. Maybe this is a temporary phase before the film festivals and other circuits realize that video is the medium right now. The other frustrating thing, more frustrating than the first, about working with videos is the fact that film has a historical potential. Film can last over a hundred years, film is an archival medium. So I am happy that films like Ram Ke Naam, and Father, Son, and Holy War are on film. They will last and they’ll be records of things that happened. On the other hand, video will not last more than six years. Every six years the video will disintegrate and you’ll have to make a copy and lose a generation. So, maybe until the technology changes, something digital happens, right now it’s a very temporary medium.
Q: There is a mode of documentary filmmaking where you have lot of expert talking heads. In films like this there is a great distance between the expert and the subject itself and the people involved in the issue. Whereas other documentary filmmakers, including yourself, do not work in this mode. You have the method of directly talking to the subjects, there are very few experts in your films. While watching some of your films we have noticed a particular response to them from some audiences, especially the more academically oriented audiences, that you are talking down to the subjects in your films. How do you respond to that kind of a charge? Do you get that a lot?
AP: If you look at particular instances, Princeton and Madison referred in particular by you, if I remember correctly were Hindutva responses of people complaining about certain things in Ram Ke Naam which were funny. There is a scene in which I ask a group of Bajrang Dalis if they have proof where Ram was born. They say yes, it’s in the Ramayan. And I ask them when do you think Ram was born; they say that they know inch-by-inch where he was born—in that mosque and nowhere else. But they cannot tell you which century he was born. So, I said how can you know where he was born and not know when he was born? I was pointing out the logical impossibility of their contention. Now, people did raise the flag that these were illiterate people I was talking with and I shouldn’t have made fun of them in this manner. In fact, they were not illiterate people and I actually brought that out—one of them was studying to be a lawyer, and the other was an electrician. And in the very next sequence, which the criticizing viewers conveniently forgot, I interviewed one of the Shankaracharyas (not the Shankaracharya of Puri but one of the Karnataka Shankaracharyas) who is saying that Ram was born several lakhs of years ago and his colleague next to him is saying no, he was born only thousands of years ago. So, even they have a dispute about Ram’s birth date. And, then finally he says that it was Treta Yug, i.e., before history. So I was just trying to show the logical absurdity of that. And similarly at another time somebody objected when I was showing In Memory of Friends. I interviewed the Khalistani students and asked them “How come you are celebrating Bhagat Singh’s anniversary when Bhagat Singh was an atheist?” They hemmed and hawed about it for a time and finally said that this history is biased and incorrect because Congress historians wrote it. These are sequences where the audience laughs and people end up criticizing me saying that I am making fun of the people I am interviewing.
Q: With We Are Not Your Monkeys, we see you as introducing caste into the discussion of communalism. Caste has been absent from the larger discussion on communalism. Do you expect a lot of work coming out in the future, work that talks about caste in the context of secularism?
AP: In fact, I started connecting caste to communalism in Ram Ke Naam back in 1990. Long before We are Not Your Monkeys. I went out of my way by asking the caste affiliation of people I was interviewing regarding their position on the Mandir, or whether they were against the demolition. It’s not that I wanted to know everybody’s caste, but I wanted to show the correlation between secular values and the fact that the people who articulate them tended to be of the lower castes, and the fact that communal values were coming out of the upper castes. Throughout Ram Ke Naam caste is a very prominent issue. This is why you see the connection between the Mandir and Mandal Commission in that very upfront way. In Father, Son and Holy War too I have talked about caste. When a thread ceremony is being performed and there is chanting of the Vedas, the voiceover is about how caste system was probably invented as a form of racial purity. This theme of caste and communalism is more crystallized in We Are Not Your Monkeys.
Q: Other than yourself, who do you think are good documentary filmmakers in India and South Asia?
AP: There are so many now. With video becoming more accessible more people are making films than before. Shabnam Virmani has made some very good films. Their group has made an excellent film about night soil workers, The Bhangis of Gujarat. Reena Mohan has done some good films, but maybe not so overtly political. I haven't seen her new film but I have seen her previous film called Kamala Bai. Ranjan Palekar and Vasudha have made The Voices of Balliapal. I don't know if you get all these films here.
Films of Anand Patwardhan
Prisoners of Conscience (1978, 45 mins, B&W) On political prisoners in India before, during and after the State of Emergency in 1975-77. Ivy Award, Tyneside Festival, U.K. 1982.
A Time to Rise (1981, 40 mins, Color) On the efforts of Indian immigrant farmworkers in Canada to form a union. Silver Dove, Leipzig, Germany 1981; IWE Award, Tyneside. U.K. 1982.
Bombay Our City (1985, 82mins, Color) On the daily battle for survival of Bombay's slum dwellers. National Award, Best Non-fiction, 1986; Filmfare Award, Best Documentary India, 1986; Special Jury Prize, Cinema du Reel, France, 1986.
In Memory of Friends (1990, 60mins, Color) On the efforts of a group of Sikhs and Hindus to rebuild communal harmony in strife-hit Punjab. Silver Conch, Bombay Documentary Festival, 1990; Special Jury Prize, Mannheim, Germany, 1990; National Award, Best Investigative Documentary, India, 1990.
In the Name of God (1992, 90 mins, Color) On the rise of Hindu fundamentalism as reflected in the temple/mosque conflict in Ayodhya, which led to nation wide carnage. Filmfare Award, Best Documentary, India, 1992; National Award, Best Investigative Documentary, India, 1992; Ecumenical Prize, Nyon, Switzerland, 1993; Documentary Prize, Friebourg, Switzerland, 1993; Citizen's Prize, Yamagata, Japan, 1993.
Father Son and Holy War (1994, 120 mins, Color) On the relation between religion, violence and male identity. Jury PrizeWinner, Vancouver Film Festival, 1994; Toronto Film Festival, 1994.
Narmada Diary (1995, 50 mins, Color, video) Co-directed with Sima Dhuru on the ten year old battle between the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the Indian State.
We are Not Your Monkeys (1996, 5 mins, Color, video)
Fishing in the Sea of Greed (1998, 45 mins, Color, video)
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