"Do it only if it burns when you don't." -
Anand Patwardhan to student filmmakers
To understand the transformational change in contemporary India over the past decades, it is essential to also experience Anand Patwardhan’s œuvre created over the last 40 years. 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. The New India, as it is referred to by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is a land where lynchings, pogroms and open calls for genocide occur, driven by the hate of minorities, specifically Muslims. Dissenting voices are silenced using a range of methods. With a few brave exceptions, Indian media have capitulated, amplifying and normalizing hate speech.
In such a climate, Anand’s films take the viewer on a transformative, troubling and often uncomfortable journey. Guided by his probing curiosity and openness to converse with people on both sides of the divide, his film essays weave together a tapestry of opinions, songs, poetry and intermittent, sparse, tightly written first-person voice-over and/or on-screen text.
Patwardhan’s films also map his own political journey from a left social justice perspective driven by revolutionary ideals to an increasing alignment with Gandhian non-violence and B. R. Ambedkar’s anti-caste philosophy, combined with a deep commitment to humanism. In the light of this development, it is fitting that he should be honoured in Canada, where he first augmented his filmmaking career with a documentary about the fight to unionize BC farmworkers.
None of Patwardhan’s films have been commissioned by broadcasters. Instead, he funds them with distribution money from educational sales and tours, the occasional festival prize money or TV sale and community-driven sales of tapes and latterly, DVDs, giving him the freedom and time to shape each film without compromise. Remarkably, he is one of the rare filmmakers who films and edits his own work.
Making films has always been half the process for him; the other half has been screening his films to grassroots audiences and having post-screening discussions. Starting with a 16mm projector in the ’70s, graduating to video projectors with massive outdoor screens made from bedsheets strung across wooden scaffolding frames, Patwardhan has travelled thousands of kilometres across India, bringing his films to audiences in marginalized communities in cities and villages and to students in schools and universities.
However, all Indian films are scrutinized by the Indian Censor Board and require a certificate for public screening and distribution. Patwardhan has fought many precedent-setting legal battles to successfully overturn the cuts to his films demanded by the censors, as well as the resistance of the national broadcaster to televise his films.
In the digital streaming era, the market has revealed its censorship as streaming services have privately acknowledged to him that they fear backlash from an increasingly authoritarian regime in India. These days public screenings are hazardous: violent physical interventions by right-wing activists, as well as police raids, are increasingly common. Screening Anand’s films has become an act of resistance, and groups all over India continue to screen his works despite threats.
With his films, his successful legal battles, his incisive writing, and his equanimity and gentle sense of humour, Anand is a source of continuing inspiration to generations of documentary filmmakers, both present and future. Ali Kazimi