War, Peace and Activism

For veteran documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, there is a fine balance between filmmaking and activism.

Documentary filmmaker and activist Anand Patwardhan famously once said, "You have to be a filmmaker, and then you have to be a lawyer as well." The veteran filmmaker, who has been making documentaries on the social and political life in India for four decades, has at one point or another faced bans for his films by state television channels. He has contested them all and won them too.

Patwardhan's documentaries often toe the line between activism and filmmaking. If awards and critical acclaim are yardsticks for successful filmmaking, Patwardhan has been successful many times over. His latest film Jai Bhim Comrade, in which he explores the problems and atrocities faced by the Dalits for over 14 years, won the Best Film/Video award at Mumbai International Film Festival and the Special Jury Prize at the National Awards. "The incident in 1997, when 10 Dalits were shot dead during protests following the defacing of the statue of Babasaheb Ambedkar, disturbed me greatly. That's when I decided to follow the subject," says Patwardhan. This week, his films will be screened at the British Film Institute in London.

For the 64-year-old, documentaries are an instrument of change, when portrayed in an entertaining manner. "A boring film would surely be counter-productive as it would lose its audience. Irony and humour can cut through people's defence faster than a didactic commentary, so I have no bar against entertainment as such," he says.

The absence of a platform for independent cinema, exorbitant ticket prices and lack of publicity are some of the challenges faced by independent filmmakers. But these factors haven't stopped Patwardhan from showcasing his films on mainstream outlets such as television channels or movie halls. "I think documentaries would be viable if the gatekeepers were ready to take the risk. When we released War and Peace in two multiplexes as an experiment, we had many houseful days. On the occasions that we won court cases against Doordarshan and forced them to telecast these films, we had high ratings. So all the signs are positive. I think people are tired of the monotony of so-called entertainment cinema and hungry for something that makes them think," he says firmly.

He has touched upon various sensitive or politically-charged topics such as the slum-dwellers in Mumbai in Bombay Our City (1985) and Hindu fundamentalism in, In The Name Of God (1992). "When one is involved in a subject prior to and beyond the act of filmmaking, that involvement reflects in the filmmaking too. So perhaps you can make out the difference between a film that is an assignment and those that grew integrally from a need. In the latter case, the involvement does not necessarily cease when the film is completed but spills over into the way the film is used. Perhaps this is what you describe as activism," says the Mumbai-based filmmaker.

For the next few years, Patwardhan will focus on screening his films in India and abroad. The discussions and thoughts that his films inspire make him want to reach out to more people. "Whether I screen them in bastis or in elite colleges, there is always a healthy discussion that follows. When my films are shown in the west, I try to make people see the parallels in their own experience. So after Jai Bhim Comrade screens in London on February 23, we have invited Linton Kwesi Johnson, a well-known Black poet-musician to speak with me. Linton has long been a champion in the fight against white racism and fascism in the UK," he concludes.

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