Saturday, November 01, 1997

INTERVIEW: Anand Patwardhan

By Sushma Joshi

INT: How did you start making films?
AP: Partly by accident. I had a scholarship where I was studying in America, in 1970, in Brandeis University. It was the time of the Vietnam War. We were organizing against the War in our university. There were lots of anti-Vietnam war demonstrations so I borrowed equipment from the theatre department - although that wasn't what I was studying, I was studying sociology. But, as part of the anti-war effort, I filmed some of the demonstrations against the Vietnam War. That's when I began.

1971 was also the time when millions of refugees were coming from Bangladesh - although it wasn't Bangladesh yet, it was East Pakistan. We organized a hunger fast for a day in our university to send the money to the refugees. I made my first completed film then, asking people whether they were eating or not on that day. That film was called Business as Usual, because we found funny responses.
Then I came back to India and worked in a village project for a few years. I wasn't doing anything in film, but I did a small film strip with still photographs of a TB clinic that we were running for rural patients. In 1974, I joined the JP Movement in Bihar - a student movement against corruption, and made a film about the Bihar movement. That movement ended up with the Emergency being declared in India. The film became an underground film, because it was banned. During the Emergency, I also began a film about political prisoners, which was completed after the Emergency ended. It was called Prisoners of Conscience.

My filmmaking has always been related to other work that I was doing. The last years, I have mainly been making films against religious violence. I have made three long films about the rise of fundamentalism in India The first one was called In Memory of Friends, and it deals with Punjab. Second part is Ram Ke Naam, about Ayodhya, and the third part is called Father, Son and Holy War. In each of the three films, I have dealt with the issue of communal violence, but with a slightly different analytical tool.

In the first film, I talk about class struggles, because it was the idea of Bhagad Singh and the Left Revolutionaries who believed that class solidarity would be the antidote to communalism. If the working class realised that it was class issues that mattered, not religious divide…

In Ram ke Naam, the second film, I was looking not only at the Left's response to communalism, but also to the caste question. The people who have benefited from the revivalism are basically the upper castes. The lower castes have been oppressed for centuries. So they really have nothing to gain from the revivalism. The lower castes were not even allowed in temples, so why should they fight for temples?

In this film, I also talk about Liberation theologies. What has happened in India is that Hinduism has been hijacked by Hindutva, by a group that wants to use this only for political gain and financial gain. It has nothing to do with the essence of Hinduism necessarily. There are disputes about what Hinduism actually means. It is so broad. One of the main protagonists of Ram Ke Naam was the priest of the Ram Temple who actually spoke out against the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Hindu fanatics. He was, by the way, murdered a year and a half after the film was made.

Then I made Father, Son and Holy War, which deals with the connection between gender and communalism. Mainly between machismo - the male psyche that is behind the violence that is taking place.

INT: So you think violence is derived from models of masculinity?
AP: As I pointed out in the film, its not necessarily only men who are doing it, because women are part of the same patriarchal system. It wouldn't survive if it were all only men doing it. So I show women using patriarchal language to rouse thousands and thousands of men against Muslims - you men are impotent, that kind of thing.

INT: Do you think we need to be moving towards a new construction of gender in order to deal with violence?
AP: I think we have to break down this masculine-feminine thing completely, because these are constructions which people have been socialised into. I don't think that there is a biological difference, and if there is, we can't do anything about it, so we need not even try. So the fact we are trying means that there is not a biological difference. These are social baggage that we are carrying, images of manhood...

INT: What kind of alternatives do you envision or propose?
AP: There is no distinct answer to this, but we have to discourage and laugh out of existence those ideas of manhood and masculinity which is perpetuated by advertising, perpetuated by everything we read, the posters that we see. Everything. So that's why Father, Son and Holy War tried to show you what popular culture has done with this as well. One has to basically reunderstand what it means to be a human being, and forget about male and female.

INT: Have you done other work in areas of violence?
AP: No. It's not that I set out to do something against violence. For instance, the Narmada Diary is about a non-violent movement. It happens that the movements that I have been attracted to most were people fighting with non-violence as the means. But I have also made films on Naxlites who in fact were using armed struggle.

My main concern is to fight for social change, but my personal opinion says - violence finally dehumanizes, even when its violence for a just cause. So I have problems with that, although I can't actually sit in judgement over others who have chosen this as a means to use. I couldn't say that in South Africa people shouldn't use armed struggle to overthrow Apartheid. I don't think that personally I can impose my views on other people. But I myself was drawn towards non-violence as a means to fight.

INT: You started out being involved with Vietnam. Was that part of the reason for being drawn towards non-violence, since that is associated with non-violence?
AP: Not necessarily. Not everybody was non-violent. (Laugh). Yeah, yeah, flower-power and all that. People in my university even killed a policeman and robbed a bank to protest against the War. So there were all sorts of people doing all sorts of things.

INT: So were you ever involved in violent acts of protest?
AP: No. Non-violent protests, for which we were arrested.

INT: Do you think your documentaries have had some effects in mitigating the current communalist violence in India?
AP: Asking about violence is not the right question. The films that I made are not specifically aimed towards fighting violence. Each one deal with different issues. They deal with issues of social justice.

INT: Do you get reactions?
AP: Oh yeah, I get that all the time. I also travel all over the country, showing films and having discussions, so I can get a fairly good idea of what effect they are having. That also changes how I make them interacting with the audience.

INT: Can you give us some examples?
AP: If you want a dramatic example, I had people who were doing Kar Seva, who actually went as part of the Hindu fanatic brigade to demolish the Babri Mosque. But after seeing Ram Ke Naam, they came and told me that it had changed their perspective and that they had left the party. There were two people, and probably more that I don't meet. So I get enough feedback to make the whole exercise worthwhile.

Even though my films are not normally shown on TV so they don't have a huge, big audience. They were finally shown on TV after a big fight in the courts. Then they reached millions of people but normally the films are shown when we take our projectors around. Or by video. It wasn't banned per se; it was just that TV wouldn't show it. Three of them were shown on TV after I won a court case. Three court cases.

INT: What are your future projects?
AP: I am doing a film on fish workers right now.

INT: What's the focus?
AP: Fighting against the factory ships. These foreign factory ships that are depleting the oceans around the whole region. And against aquaculture which is destroying the coastline, depriving the coastal community of drinking water, because all the water is becoming saline.