Interview with Anand Patwardhan

in Interview
Published on: 20 July 2017
The interview was conducted on December 11, 2013, in Mumbai, with a focus on the film Jai Bhim Comrade (2011) while touching on various aspects of Anand Patwardhan’s filmmaking practice. The text was updated in April 2016 for Sahapedia.


Shilpi Gulati: Your style is more journalistic and minimal in that sense and limited to interviews rather than voice-over and poetry. I wanted to talk a little bit about your presence in your film…


Anand Patwardhan: I suppose what appears journalistic about my films is the fact that they document real events without background music scores or other forms of cinematic embellishment. But journalism by definition is something you do quickly. Journalists have very limited time to write, and in electronic or TV journalism, it is even more immediate. Jai Bhim Comrade (JBC) took 14 years to make—a far cry from journalistic practice. Its rough edges may give it the look of reportage but obviously 14 years is a lot of time to research and emotionally engage, a lot of time to explore structural violence, follow strands and nuances, and to develop an argument and analysis. How people experience the film, their emotional and mental involvement, is completely different from how they experience news on TV.

As for poetry and art, for me it is rarely exciting when a filmmaker consciously sets out to create this. Much more exciting is the discovery of art and poetry in the lives and words and voices of the so-called ‘ordinary’.



S.G.: As a filmmaker you have complete control over how you portray yourself in your films, yet you remain outside the frame?


A.P.: Every film is subjective and of course one has complete control over what one shows. After all, apart from the decision of where to point the camera you also decide when and how long to shoot and how much to keep of what you have shot. In some of my films you see me and in some you don’t. As I am often the camera person, I would have to insert myself artificially which I do not like to do. There is no hard and fast rule about this. In a sense what you are raising is somewhat dated cinema theory, which made sense in the days when films were made with a ‘voice of god’ commentary and pretended to be ‘objective’. The idea of self-reflexive cinema came into being to counter this pretense at objectivity and the device of visually acknowledging the filmmaking crew became fashionable, even mandatory. Today there are many other ways of signaling subjectivity. Jai Bhim Comrade begins with the last scene of my 1985 documentary Bombay Our City featuring a song by Vilas Ghogre.  It then cuts to his suicide in 1997.  I could have inserted myself by saying, ‘I knew and worked with Vilas Ghogre’ but it would have shifted the focus of the film. Why draw attention to myself when the film has so much more to say? And though I’m visually absent you can certainly hear and sense me interviewing, and intervening off camera and through every edit decision.



S.G.: With 14 years of shooting, how does the scripting of the argument happen?


A.P.: There is no scripting. There is the procedure of looking at the footage on the editing table for a long time until a structure emerges. If necessary some scripting comes at the very end. In JBC there are inter titles instead of an audio commentary. They are used to fill gaps in the narrative… bits of information that you do not get otherwise in the audio visual of the film. These are the connecting dots, which you figure out when you see your material and structure it. Links have to be provided by the filmmaker and I could have done that through a voice commentary or narration but chose to do it through inter titles.



S.G.: During the process when you’re shooting, isn’t there a script developing in your mind as well?


A.P.: Not concretely. Over 14 years, you can’t be developing a script. It’s basically following your instinct and following people and events, one thing might lead to something else, in the sense that if I shoot one thing, I might get the sense to shoot something else to connect the story or expand the story. So yes, at some moment, without putting it down on paper, ideas develop. For example, when I’m making a film primarily focused on Dalits, I also want to know what the upper caste thinks. So I will think about where I will get an upper caste reaction and go and shoot there.


The film can go anywhere. When I started, at the beginning, I had no idea that I will make this film in particular. This film began because someone I knew committed suicide and I began to try and understand why he committed suicide. I had a lot of Vilas’s music and then I started following other musicians like him, following court cases which were going on. So it was very logical what I landed up doing. There was nothing on paper, no scripting it out.


This is also possible because I am not writing a proposal for anyone. My films are not funded. It’s not like I have to write a synopsis and send it off to get money from someone or the other. And the film I start may never become a complete film. It might end up as footage that remains in my archives. That is the advantage of having your own means of production where you have a camera and you film as things happen. Later when you have a body of work that speaks to you, you can start discerning the pattern and structure the edit.



S.G.: How did you decide on the end of the film? It took you 14 years; it could have gone on for longer.

A.P.: Twelve years after I had begun filming, the police officer who had wrongfully ordered a police firing on Dalits was finally sentenced to life imprisonment by a lower court. I could have ended the film here but the officer appealed to the High Court and got bail. He never went to jail. There was no logical closure. So I still waited to see what the next stage in court would bring. The end of the film finally happened in late 2011 when I found out that Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), a cultural troupe I had filmed with in the latter part of the film, had gone underground. They were being branded as Naxalites (Maoists), who in the eyes of the Indian State are considered terrorists. I perceived a palpable danger to their lives. After KKM went underground I decided not to wait longer because the film had to be shown to people for them to understand what the Kabir Kala Manch was fighting and singing for. So I rushed and finished the film as fast as I could and began screenings.



S.G.: Are you never asked about the fact that you’re not a Dalit and you’ve made a film on caste issues?


A.P.: Many of my films are about injustice to others, but we are all implicated in this injustice. I’ve made films about farmworkers, fishermen, slum dwellers, victims of communal riots, victims of patriarchy, and victims of rapacious globalization. So this question could have been asked about any one of those films. In the beginning before the first basti (settlement) screenings, when we had put up posters some Dalits who had not yet seen the film expressed scepticism since they could figure out from my name that I’m not a Dalit. But scepticism transformed into solidarity once they saw the film.


Today so much has been written about the film and there is so much word of mouth in the community that, outside of academia, few worry about my caste origin. Now, five years later, the largest groups of people still using the film are Dalits. Apart from Marathi, Hindi and English, we’ve made Tamil and Kannada versions too as local people expressed the need for it. Of course there are some Dalit leaders criticized in the film for moving from Ambedkarite politics into the waiting hands of Hindu fundamentalists, who are not happy, but as they know that their own rank and file use the film, their criticism has been muted.

In any case I do not see JBC exclusively as a film made for and about Dalits. It is equally a film for and about non-Dalits. Why do ‘upper caste’ people not want to deal with caste? Why do they think they are not implicated in caste issues? Most do not know who Dr Ambedkar is beyond a rudimentary understanding and have never read him so they don’t know his invaluable contribution to the intellectual and political debates that accompanied our freedom struggle. Consequently they have an abysmal knowledge about sections of society that are invisible to them.



S.G.: The film raises questions about Dalit politics and Marxist politics. The name Jai Bhim Comrade explains a lot of what you are trying to raise.


A.P.: ‘Bhim’ is short for ‘Bhimrao Ambedkar’. ‘Comrade’ obviously refers to the communist use of the term.  So some Dalits who had not seen the film but had heard its name did get upset by the title ‘Jai Bhim Comrade’ because they thought I was calling Dr Ambedkar a communist. There is some historical baggage between those who follow traditional Ambedkarite politics and the Left as a whole. Many Dalits feel betrayed by communists and there are historical reasons for this. But once people see the film, they realize that the title does not refer to Dr Ambedkar but to people like Vilas Ghogre. Vilas was a poet and musician deeply influenced by his Ambedkarite roots but he had become a communist, preoccupied by both caste and class.


The film starts with his suicide and throughout the film you hear his songs. The film shows how he was in a Marxist party but was expelled on trivial grounds. The tragedy of his life includes his particular encounter with the insensitive leadership of the party he had joined. But it leaves open the possibility of Marxism and Dalit thought coming together in the future when caste struggle and class struggle join hands in both body and spirit. Which is what Vilas had tried to do and which is what radical Dalit poets write and sing about. They are an amalgamation of Dalit politics and class politics and I do see that as a dynamic way forward in our country. If communists don’t understand the nature of caste and if they are waiting for a class struggle to happen then they are not going to get anywhere because the working class is divided amongst each other on caste lines. Unless you deal with the caste question first, you cannot move forward.


But the film does not say all this didactically as I don’t have a heavy commentary that tells you what to think. It comes through experientially as you watch the contradictions of life and politics and it comes through the music and poetry of resistance. What is implicit becomes more explicit in discussions when we show the film and talk to audiences about the inadequacies of both the present Dalit political leadership and the inadequacies of the Left movement wherever the understanding of caste is not profound. How these forces could come together and what this new understanding could lead to is a question for everyone.



S.G.: What do you think political documentaries do?


A.P.: I don’t think the category ‘political documentary’ is quite accurate. Every film, even a Hollywood or Bollywood film, is political in that it sells us an implicit worldview. I think when you say ‘political documentary’ you are talking about a specific kind of politics that is human-rights oriented or left wing.


For this kind of cinema I think the politics lies in the screening itself as much as in the content of the film. It is important to see how a film is shown and where it is shown. If a film is only shown in elite circles it can appear to be very radical but it acts as a safety valve. You’re allowed to say anything. It can be celebrated as art. Society can applaud a lot of stuff that doesn’t become an actual threat precisely because it never reaches the segment of society that is capable of creating a structural change. So really, it’s a matter of how people use a film that deepens its meaning and its worth.


The fact is that all over the world and especially in India, most documentary films are terribly under-utilized. If you ask me whether my films have changed the political reality of the country, the answer is no, because the number of people who have seen these films is too tiny to make a major difference. Having said this, on a smaller scale they are used by movements and have impacted individuals. They are used by activist groups and in schools and colleges. JBC is a good example. We have had hundreds of screenings with thousands of people in bastis, and in makeshift open-air theatres. Thousands of DVDs are in circulation.


Ram Ke Naam (1992) our film on the temple/mosque controversy that polarized Hindus and Muslims has also been seen ‘widely’. Widely, I say in quotes, because documentaries do not get widely seen. After a court battle the Doordarshan (DD), our national television channel, did telecast it. Repeat screenings on DD could possibly have undermined the rise of divisive Hindutva politics. But the State, no matter which party was in power, never allowed this to happen. The tragedy of our films is that they have not been disseminated enough to make a political impact. But within limits, they have made a small contribution.



S.G.: You make films that critique the State and you have also been a recipient of the National Film Award, which is given by the State. Why do you accept an Award by the State? Don’t you see this as an appropriation?


A.P.: I am not interested in applause from a self-appointed radical fringe that prefers abstract purity over the real task of reaching the public at large. I not only accepted National Awards when I made films in 16mm celluloid till the mid-1990s, but when many filmmakers began to make documentaries in video and digital formats, I joined the fight to make these formats eligible in the National Awards competition. Under government rules only films made on celluloid or 35mm were eligible. We went to court and won the right to get video and digital films included and even won the right to get uncensored films eligible, though the latter part of the ruling was overturned in the Supreme Court.


There was another reason why I fought so hard for the right to win National Awards. On seven occasions we fought court cases to get a reluctant Doordarshan to telecast my films. In each case our arguments were bolstered by the fact that my films had won National Awards and we showed how absurd it was for one arm of government to say that this was the best documentary in the country while another arm of government refused to telecast it! Needless to say we won all our cases including two in the Supreme Court, on the grounds that my freedom of expression and the public’s right to information could not be denied. We have a decent Constitution so we must explore the law, push its boundaries and speak out when its spirit is violated. What’s the use of democracy if you’re not going to use the law?

Sadly only a few amongst those of us whose films faced cuts, fought legally against the Censor Board. In 2003, despite the BJP being in power, we went to court over War and Peace and after a year long battle won a ‘U’ certificate, without a single cut. Whenever we won, the law benefitted from our interventions and precedents were set for others to use in the future. Yet for some unfathomable reason there was a section of filmmakers who attacked me, first for making ‘political propaganda’ rather than making ‘art’ and later for making a noise about censorship and for going to court! Some took the position that it was more ‘radical’ not to submit films to the Censor Board at all and those who did this were showing approval for the State! All this is fine if you have no ambition to screen your films widely in India and are content with a few select venues like the Mumbai International Film Festival or other specific venues that do not require a censor certificate.

Festivals and national awards apart the real reason I fight legally to get a censor certificate for my films is so that people who show my films are not put at risk. If there is no censor certificate the police is authorized to stop a screening, even confiscate equipment. If one is only screening for select audiences or if the film has no serious political content, you may get away without attracting the police or right-wing disruptive groups.  With my films both these threats are ever present so a censor certificate at least puts us on the right side of the law. Then if a disruption happens (and it does, from time to time) we can take action against the police for not protecting a ‘legal’ screening. All this is not at all to criticize those who, apprehending that their films will not be granted a certificate, choose to screen their work by any means at hand. I’m only saying that legal intervention can help deepen the meaning of the rights enshrined in our Constitution.



S.G.: Do you think the State considers you as a threat? If they wanted they could have put you behind bars for something or the other. Ajay TG was put behind bars.


A.P.: To my knowledge Ajay TG was not put behind bars for the films he made. He was attending court during a hearing against Dr Binayak Sen who had been wrongly accused of being a Naxalite. Ajay had forgotten to remove a small pen-knife in his pocket. The State used this excuse to jail Ajay and instill fear in all those who showed solidarity with Dr Sen. Ajay was finally released after many months but was never officially charged.


I have been arrested for political work now and again but never for making films. As I said most of my films are ‘legal’ so it is almost impossible for the State to arrest me for them. What is so radical about Ram Ke Naam or any of my films for that matter? They uphold the democratic, secular and egalitarian values enshrined in our Constitution. My films are not trying to overthrow the system but are showing what is wrong with the system in practice. They are not meant to be revolutionary unless you consider that trying to bridge the gap between the promise of democracy and the reality of it is revolutionary in itself.



S.G.: What challenges does the documentary practice in India face vis-à-vis distribution and what have been the ways in which you have tried to address them?


A.P.: Because films like mine are based on issues of human rights, we have been able to connect with a natural constituency that waits for our films to get completed. These constituencies are on the ground already fighting for the issues that we deal with in our films. We consistently do DVD sales and film screenings in schools, colleges and other venues. These days there are not as many trade union screenings but there are many basti-level and activist-initiated screenings.


I have also made many of my films available in different regional languages. Then we have used the medium of the National Film Awards to be able to show our films on national TV (Doordarshan) and that has happened either by going to court or threatening court action. These days we are even trying for screenings in commercial cinemas.


In 2005/06 War and Peace was in the cinema; during the monsoons when cinema halls are empty we were able to hire two multiplexes for a week each. We had to pay for the video projector and do all the publicity but we broke even after several full houses thanks to some good press. Had we got a proper distributor we would have been sailing.


So theatrical release has potential option but is not yet a viable reality. With what the PVR chain currently offers at present, independent documentary filmmakers lose money. The filmmakers have to pay for converting their films into a codec which allows it to be screened in big theatres. Their share of gate money is not enough to make up for the costs incurred. I think there has to be a more equitable agreement for this to take off. NDTV made a good beginning but their 20-minute documentary slots are not enough for films like mine which are feature length. The films are also not publicized enough to create public taste. This has been a slow process. But it has potential.

Again, this is why I fall back on the State. DD (national public TV) should logically show our films. They are not here to make money by showing Bollywood films. They run on public money and need to follow the mandate for public service. So they need to give rightful hours to documentary films made in the public interest.



S.G.: What has been your experience with post-screening discussions of your films?


A.P.: Post-screening discussions are best in terms of getting an opportunity to hear what people have to say about your film. The most interesting are those where tough questions are asked. People who disagree with the film make the discussion sharper. Of course, we have been attacked by the right-wing. But I’m not talking about people whose agenda is to disrupt us. I’m talking about situations where the disagreements are honest and interesting because they make the space come alive. Sometimes in our basti screenings, I don’t get to talk at all because people take off from the film and start having discussions among themselves, which is very exciting.



S.G.: How did Vikalp start?


A.P.: One of the back stories to MIFF 2004 is that in MIFF 2002 our anti-nuclear film War and Peace won an award despite not having a censor certificate (later we went to court and won a ‘U’ certificate without cuts).  Right from its establishment in 1990, MIFF was a space where censorship was not required. In 2002, BJP and the RSS were in power and dominated the Censor Board. When Films Division organized a Kolkata festival of MIFF award-winning films, the Censor Board under instructions from their RSS-oriented officers refused to allow the public screening of War and Peace on the grounds that it had no certificate. The film was withdrawn at the last minute, causing uproar in the media.


By 2003 anticipating that the next MIFF would have even more embarrassing films, some specifically targeting the State-sponsored massacre of Muslims in Gujarat, the BJP-led government took the decision that they would only allow films which had a censor certificate to screen at the festival.


This is when filmmakers across the country finally came together to campaign against censorship. The campaign was successful in that MIFF removed the censorship clause on paper. But overt censorship was replaced by a backdoor mechanism where a right-wing selection panel rejected all potentially embarrassing films from the festival on grounds of ‘merit’. Of course we saw through the ruse, there was mass coordination and we thought about different ways of protesting. Finally we found a good space across the road from MIFF and organized screenings of all the films rejected by MIFF (and some films that were pulled out in solidarity with us).  We ended up getting bigger audiences than MIFF. Some jury members resigned from MIFF committees and came to our venue to criticize MIFF.


Vikalp has continued since then in different ways. In Mumbai we have two separately curated screenings of documentaries every month in two different parts of Mumbai. Many other groups have also come up across the country to show documentary films which are hard to source otherwise. These groups sometimes affiliate with Vikalp and sometimes not. Vikalp as such is an idea, not a franchise.



S.G.: How else have you been attached to KKM?


A.P.: Jai Bhim Comrade was finally completed because the KKM had gone underground. At that time I felt it was important to hurry the process and bring out the film so people would understand what people like the KKM were fighting for. When JBC won a National Award and then a Maharashtra State award we used this as seed money to form our KKM Defence Committee.


In April 2013, after over a year of showing the film across the country, we started receiving messages from KKM from the underground. They had heard that civil society was reacting positively to their work and this gave them the courage to come out and face the charges leveled by the police. They did a Satyagraha outside the State Assembly by singing their songs and were then arrested by the Anti-Terrorist Squad. Today three years later three KKM members are still in jail while three have been granted bail. All of them face the charge of being Naxalites. We are still fighting their cases, countering propaganda done by both the police and by right-wing forces.


At the Film and Television Institute of India after a screening of JBC and a question-and-answer session followed by a performance by the KKM went off completely peacefully, as we were dispersing, flag bearing members of the AVBP verbally attacked the KKM but we pulled them away. The argument seemed to fizzle out and we dispersed but in the darkness outside the gate, the ABVP physically attacked FTII students with their flag sticks, injuring five.


Right-wing attacks on people showing our films do still occur with monotonous regularity. It happened with Ram Ke Naam in Bangalore last year and twice in Ayodhya recently. If this film did not have a censor certificate we would have been regarded as the ones breaking the law.


You asked me why I am okay about getting national awards. Would it be better to get funded by blood money from abroad? In today’s internationally corporatized world the State is a slightly lesser evil than private enterprise, although the two are coming closer day by day.  This is not to say that if we get a fascist State in the future, which is totally undemocratic and totally against the interests of the people, I will balk at finding alternate ways of defending my freedoms and reaching out to society. I do believe in communicating by any means necessary, as long as these means do not violate my value system. The legal/illegal divide is secondary to the ethical/unethical one.