Anand Patwardhan, a product of the counterculture generation, tasted “cancel culture” from a time before it was in vogue. From the CBFC, Doordarshan, I&B Ministry, university screenings to court proceedings. But he fought, time after time, through and for his films, and won the right to show his work. The observer, definitely not a silent one, would pick up his weapon of mass awareness — the camera — and record history as it played out in real-time, capturing uncomfortable truths and voices of resistance. His films speak louder than him and, over five decades, have become documents of a visual record for posterity. His Ram ke Naam/In the Name of God (1992) was submitted as evidence before the Liberhan Commission looking into the Babri (masjid demolition) dispute. In a post-truth society that is today’s India, as mainstream films pivot towards propaganda and as institutions collapse, the independent documentary film remains one of the few repositories of fact-finding and truth-telling. Patwardhan will receive the prestigious 2022 Outstanding Achievement Award at Toronto’s Hot Docs Festival, Toronto (April 28-May 8), where four of his films will be screened: A Time To Rise (1981), Father, Son, and Holy War (1994), War and Peace (2002), and Reason/Vivek (2018, available on YouTube).
“The India that Anand and I grew up in — a constitutionally secular, inclusive republic with a vibrant free media, an independent judiciary and a working parliament — no longer exists,” says Indo-Canadian filmmaker Ali Kazimi in a note on the festival website, adding that in “New India… lynchings, pogroms and open calls for genocide occur, driven by hate for minorities, specifically Muslims. Dissenting voices are silenced using a range of methods…”. Kazimi adds that besides India’s “transformational change” over the past decades, Patwardhan’s films also map “his own political journey” from “Left social justice driven by revolutionary ideals” to “Gandhian non-violence and BR Ambedkar’s anti-caste philosophy”.
In this interview, Mumbai-based Patwardhan, 72, speaks about labels and his documentary practice. Excerpts:
What does the award mean to you and for Indian documentary cinema?
It is an affirmation that comes at a time when films like mine are not officially liked or granted proper dissemination in India. Government agencies have banned them on their platforms and right-wing goons have attacked people who screen them in public.
If you could recall the making of A Time to Rise, on the Canadian Farmworkers Union. How did the film and your association with Canada come about?
I was doing an MA at McGill University in Montreal when we learnt that farmworkers of Indian origin (mostly Sikhs) were being denied minimum wages. We formed a support committee and I got together with a Canadian filmmaker, Jim Monro, to make a film on this struggle. A decade earlier as a student on scholarship in the US, I had volunteered to work with Mexican farmworkers in California led by the legendary (American labour leader and civil-rights activist) César Chávez, who had famously used Gandhian non-violence to organise the United Farm Workers Union. We invited Chávez to Canada and filmed him speaking to the farmworkers and supporters. After two years of bitter resistance from the owners’ lobby, the first Canadian Farmworkers Union was born and we were there to record it. The irony is that when I returned to India in 1982, the CBFC (Central Board of Film Certification) asked for several cuts, stating that it would offend relations with Canada. By this time, the National Film Board of Canada had bought distribution rights to the film. Luckily, an appeal to the revising committee settled the matter in my favour but not before the newspapers of the day had a good laugh.
How do you choose your subjects?
As I’ve often said, I’m not always on the lookout to make films and am quite content screening my own or other peoples’ films and holding discussions after. It is usually the case that some real-life situation of injustice starts to weigh on me so that I finally take up my camera. In other words, the subject finds me rather than the reverse.
How do you react to labels, to your films being tagged as ‘activist cinema’ and you as an ‘activist’ artist?
To the extent that an activist reacts to injustice rather than keeps quiet, I am proud of it. But many who use this ‘activist’ labelling, actually do it with a view to undermine both the truth as well as the artistic value of films like mine. In reality, I do a huge amount of fact-checking and if anyone points out a factual error, I’m more than willing to make corrections, even after a film is completed. Their real issue, however, is never with the facts, it is with the analysis of these facts. Yet, each author has a right to put forward their own analysis. How can it be otherwise? In fact, those who hide behind notions of ‘objectivity’ are the real liars for every observer. Even the BBC, let alone a Republic TV or Sudarshan TV, inevitably brings their own baggage and bias to their observations. I’m only different because my baggage is the Gandhian, Nehruvian, Ambedkarite, Bhagat Singh, Mahatma and Savitribai Phule, Periyar and Kabir baggage that I inherited from my parents and uncles and aunts who had actually fought for India’s liberation from the British. I can hardly choose to shed this baggage, so I wear it on my sleeve.
Which among your films would you consider your most satisfying work?
Each film was made for a specific time, place and reason and it is impossible to say which is my favourite but usually it is the latest one that I screen the most. This is more a question for the viewers. In today’s India, I would guess that the many films I made to fight religious and caste discrimination are the most useful.
Amid your fights and push-backs for your films, do you ever feel like giving up?
I get depressed sometimes if that is your question, but never to the point of giving up. All I need is a spark of resistance from somewhere and I’m up and running again. Luckily, the sparks are everywhere and all one has to do is to be able to spot them.
Given the abysmal support for documentaries in India, how important are international festivals?
As I said, festivals where you can show your films are affirmations. At the same time, there is a danger that international forums from well-to-do countries can start to impose an aesthetic and a methodology that may not be intrinsic to our own conditions and needs. You won’t find a list of credits in my films thanking such fora and grant monies because I prefer to make my films with my own resources, without interference or direction. Of course, I’m more than happy to screen my films wherever they are invited.
As a veteran, what word of advice do you give to young documentary filmmakers?
I’ve said this many times but it bears repeating — Do it only if it burns when you don’t. Documentary filmmaking should never become a career that has to be constantly fed just to make a living. It should remain a passion.