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Making that difference

Anand Patwardhan believes that the documentary film is a record of subaltern voices drowned in societies that have turned unidimensional.

THERE ARE no actors, certainly no stars. Just the man on the street, speaking straight from the heart. There is no formal or written script. Not even a narrator or a sutradhar stitching it together. Just the voices of ordinary men and women, in Mumbai, Karachi, Hiroshima, New York. Voices that do not falter even slightly in expressing their dismay at the state of the world, the arms race, Mumbai riots, and injustices that affect not just them and their daily lives but also the world. Interspersed with these voices are others — of public servants, politicians, and leaders of the world. Voices that are measured, that speak after considerable thought, weighing each word for its proper effect. And then, there are the songs — ranging from Lata's "Aye mere watan ke logon" to the Pakistani rock group Junoon's hit, "Sayonee".

The drama that emerges from this seemingly unstructured production cannot be matched by the biggest of Hollywood or Bollywood producers. It glues you to your seat, keeps you waiting with bated breath to see what comes next. It angers you, makes you want to weep, moves you totally. Those are Anand Patwardhan's films for you. Documentaries that have changed the meaning of the word documentary. For, these could easily be fiction, they are so interesting.

"If I were to create a character that spoke like Thackeray or Advani, who would believe it?" asks Patwardhan, explaining why he'd rather make documentary films. While he does not decry fiction, he believes that it does not have a direct connection. "It is not a record of events," he points out, "while the documentary is a proof." According to him, you are working with found material. You take other people's voices and you go across class, caste, religion. "The documentary gives you the ability to make those bridges, it is closer to activism." Coming from a family of activists, it was probably just natural for Patwardhan to be drawn by issues that were integral to a certain point in time. Like his first film that just happened on a U.S. campus where he was studying. There were anti-Vietnam protests going on. Patwardhan began to document the protests. What emerged finally was his first documentary film.

The methodology has not changed much since. Even today, Patwardhan prefers to shoot randomly — for months, even years on end, before he decides to look at the material he has accumulated. And then, it all comes together on the editing table. In the bargain, he might even make two or three films out of it. In fact, he points out, he had this "large mess of fundamentalism" at one point of time and he made three films out of it. In Memory of Friends was about Bhagat Singh as an atheist, In the Name of God was about the temple/mosque conflict in Ayodhya, and Father, Son and Holy War examined the patriarchal roots of violence in India and the relationship between male insecurity and religious conflict.

Patwardhan also prefers to wield the camera himself. "Partly because it is more economical — I can shut it off when the person stops saying something interesting — and partly because it gives me more control," he says. Filmmaking then, for him becomes somewhat like writing a diary. "You are scribbling using a camera," he explains. Which explains why he does not work out earlier what film he is going to make. "I don't pick the issues," he replies to a question, "as much as the thing integrally begins. Like the Bombay riots happened in front of my eyes." And then, he needs to go out there, to try to understand, and make sense of what is happening, in the hope that it will make him feel better.

So, does it make him feel better? "The act of filming itself does not help. But, that later it can be shown, and can create a discussion, does," he says, adding that he feels that he has at least contributed in some way.

Always on the fringes of the Left, the filmmaker has, since his first few films, moved away from its ideology, in the direction of issues. "I have always been on the fringes of the Left. One of the fundamental things that the Left is supposed to do is fight fundamentalism and communalism. Theoretically, they do not believe in religion, it is anathema to them," he points out, adding that that was how one of his first films (In Memory of Friends) was about Bhagat Singh being an atheist and about Sikh fundamentalism. "By my second one, I had learnt not to pin all my hopes on the left," he says. In In the Name of God, for instance, he is looking at the liberation theology and a temple priest who is against Hindu fundamentalism, while in Father, Son and Holy War, he moves on to gender and psychology.

So, do his films make a difference? "Ever since we've started to show War and Peace, the response has been incredibly good. Which means that there is a need. The critique of jingoism and fundamentalism that the film makes is very strong. Yet, people are accepting that and are coming to the screening," he points out. And this has been the case in many parts of the country. "Just as the fundamentalists appear to be getting stronger, there is a backlash to it. People are getting fed up. It is a matter of how to channelise that," he says, adding that most of it is short-lived. "The Gujarat kind of hate-mongering is not something that they can reproduce everywhere," says Patwardhan, who is not making a film on Gujarat.

Actually, Patwardhan at the moment is on another task — showing War and Peace and selling his films. The latter, according to him, is a more difficult task than producing a film. He funds himself from his own resources and then tries to get his money back by selling tapes, distributing his films through NGOs, and putting them on television and the like. Screening his films on Doordarshan has been a long, continuous battle with censorship, which he has invariably won.

Given that his films are so interesting, he is quite sure that they would be a commercial success. He has been considering distributing his films through the regular cinema distributors, which is a tough task. "People would pay money to see them, but the distributor has to have political guts. He will have to face problems from fundamentalists and stand even if the government gets involved," points out Patwardhan. In the meantime, the films continue to circulate, through friends, word-of-mouth, the Internet. They run to full houses, wherever they are screened.

Obviously, they make a difference.


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