Film

Reason Being

Anand Patwardhan, Vivek (Reason), 2018, color, sound, 261 minutes.

IN A NORTH INDIAN VILLAGE, a Muslim man is lynched to death after being accused of storing beef in his fridge. Consuming beef is not only prohibited in orthodox Hinduism but it is outlawed in many states of Hindu-dominated India. Framed sitting on a bed in his courtyard, the victim’s Hindu neighbor justifies this grisly murder. Off-camera, we hear the filmmaker point out that the government later ran forensic tests on the meat in the man’s fridge and confirmed that it was mutton, not beef. The neighbor is adamant: “How we can just believe that?”

This is a scene from Vivek (Reason), the latest film by Anand Patwardhan, one of India’s foremost documentarians, and whose career spans nearly five decades. After its premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Patwardhan released Reason as a four-hour, sixteen-part series on YouTube this April, just as India’s general elections kicked off. Tracking the rise of militant Hindu nationalism emboldened by those in government, the film is presented as a chronicle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first term, through incarcerations, lynchings, institutional murders, and acts of terror. Threading these phenomena together are the assassinations of four prominent rationalists by fundamentalist forces. A POV shot of a motorcyclist ominously revving up a dark road opens each episode and gestures toward the circumstances of the rationalists’ deaths: In all cases, the culprits escaped on two-wheelers right after the kill.

The current climate of religious extremism in India, emboldened by the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), lends Reason relevance and focus. But these majoritarian tendencies have haunted India both before and after it broke free from British rule in 1947, through tenures of ostensibly liberal governments. For three decades following India’s independence, film technology was so expensive that only the state produced nonfiction films. These stylish propaganda shorts were, in a pre-television era, a crude sort of public broadcasting meant to inform citizens about their nation. In 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed a state of emergency on India. During those dark days, civil liberties were suspended and dissidents were jailed. It was not a good time to be making movies critical of the regime, but somebody had to. And so emerged the independent documentary movement in India, midwifed by Patwardhan’s first films, Waves of Revolution (1974) and Prisoners of Conscience (1978). Patwardhan was ideologically influenced by Latin America’s Third Cinema, but his unselfconsciously frontal, fluid, and resourceful work—Revolution was shot with expired Super 8, which was then reshot with 16 mm—eschewed Third Cinema’s strident aesthetic. He narrated context, captured crowds, and (with the use of synchronous sound in Prisoners) interviewed subjects, occasionally allowing himself to be heard and glimpsed on-screen.

Anand Patwardhan, Vikek (Reason), 2018, color, sound, 261 minutes.

From the 1980s to the 2000s, as video and then digital technologies became accessible, the world and its conflicts became easier to capture. Documentary practice became a way to register and record communal polarization and political violence—what Nicole Wolf has called a way of “being with the language of political movements.”1 Apart from Patwardhan’s In the Name of God (1992) and Father, Son and Holy War (1995), films such as Deepa Dhanraj’s What Has Happened to This City? (1986), Madhushree Dutta’s I Live in Behrampada (1993), and Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution (2004) combine testimonies with visual exposition to argue that religious radicalization is taking over India.

The Hindu right-wing’s prominence in the internet age merely magnifies social practices based on unreason—such as the persistence of the caste system—that have long been at odds with India’s professed constitutional values and yet are intrinsic to its nationhood. At one level, to hold responsible an irrational mode of polity—one that is being resisted from within the fold even as this dissent is suppressed—is to make a deeper claim than mere hand-wringing about endangered secularism. In modern India, the discourse on reason has to do not just with fighting against the “fake news” fascism du jour but with overdue systemic socioreligious reform. In one of Reason’s scenes, both Hindu and Muslim men unite to stop women from entering a shrine, cheerily affirming a patriarchal solidarity premised on the denial of women as equals. In another, a woman protesting against a militant Hindu outfit brings up the condoms supposedly strewn in their complex as the ultimate sign of their depravity. At times, however, the prolixity of Reason’s narratives overwhelms the linkages between them, despite the critique of Hindu supremacism undergirding them.

Anand Patwardhan, Vivek (Reason), 2018, color, sound, 261 minutes.

Who is Patwardhan’s audience? Ever since his debut, censorship laws have beleaguered the auteur: Waves of Revolution was screened secretly in India, then smuggled abroad.2 For practically all his films that have been publicly shown—in universities, NGOs, and cultural centers, and telecast—he fought in courts, destining his films for audiences that might not otherwise seek them out or get to watch them. In the digital era, it is relatively easy to make movies available to people in all corners of the world. And yet a pertinent question for one who considers himself more activist than artist is how to channel viewership into action. Historically, documentaries in India have circulated via film festivals and community screenings organized by filmmakers in collaboration with local initiatives. The viewing experience would often be structured as intimate and interactive, usually followed by discussions with the filmmaker, aligned with a vision of cinema as a site of doing politics. While Reason has been shown here and there, camouflaged as a work in progress, its chief platform has been the Web. YouTube comment threads seem to be full of the same Indians who once would have turned up for screenings at their universities. Today, those screenings would be disrupted and venues vandalized by the student wing of the BJP, dwindling the film’s influence and forcing citizen-spectators to migrate to the internet to forge communities in virtual space. The number of viewers might be greater, but the mobilizing effect that physical copresence has on spectatorship is missing. The revolution will not be streamed.

For his direct approach, Patwardhan is often compared to Michael Moore. Moore’s latest film, Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018), certainly invites comparison to Reason. A sequence in which President Trump’s voice is dubbed over footage of Hitler would have been apt for Modi, had Patwardhan shared Moore’s wry humor. In the past, Patwardhan has downplayed the comparison, calling himself a “lawyer” rather than a “bully.”3 But in a post-truth world, cases are hard to build. In Rhetoric, Aristotle writes: “Before some audiences not even the possession of the exactest knowledge will make it easy for what we say to produce conviction.”4 Yet in the same breath, he lays the blame for failing to convince judges at the feet of the speakers, because “things that are true . . . just have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites.”5

Anand Patwardhan, Vivek (Reason), 2018, color, sound, 261 minutes.

What does it mean to make confrontational nonfiction films in India at a moment when fiction is resolutely accepted as truth by powerful classes of citizens? In April, the same month as Reason’s rollout, the PM’s publicity machine was in overdrive; a biopic of Modi starring a well-known Bollywood actor was being heavily promoted, and a Web series about him was newly available for streaming. Some of the clips excerpted in Reason—of lynchings, of Dalit citizens being assaulted—were widely circulated and accessible to anyone with internet access. A decade of this kind of footage has rendered us incapable of being shocked. The sort of statements being spouted by lumpen youth in In the Name of God and Father, Son and Holy War are now routinely issued by cabinet ministers. Other questions are raised—about the trauma of the marginalized being repeatedly exhibited as though it would convert those committed to zealotry. As if beef could ever be proven to be mutton. Patwardhan’s previous film, the powerful Jai Bhim Comrade (2015), about the political lives of Mumbai’s Dalit communities, was criticized for its lack of reflexivity regarding the complicity of his own upper-caste gaze and, by extension, that of his audience.6 In the episode devoted to the casteist harassment of a student that culminated in his suicide, Reason might have benefitted from interrogating the upper-caste students and establishment. Reason—and the dream of “being with the language of political movements”—is inadequate in an aesthetic regime at once laden with affect and insensible to it.

At the end of an episode on cow vigilantism, the son of the lynched man, and an officer in the Air Force of the very nation that legitimized his father’s murder, says, with eerie and heartbreaking calm, “It is difficult to find a country like this one. It is my great fortune to have been born here.” The last few episodes of Reason are dedicated to exploring a conspiracy theory regarding the November 2007 terrorist attack in Mumbai. Hemant Karkare, the state’s anti-terrorist squad chief, was gunned down, ostensibly by the Pakistani terrorists responsible for the Mumbai attack. On camera, a retired police chief presents evidence to suggest that Karkare was assassinated by Hindutva fanatics who did not want him uncovering their role in the bombings at Malegaon, a Muslim-majority town, in 2006. One of the accused in that case now sits in the Indian parliament. On the twenty-third of May, the BJP swept the general elections and Modi secured a second term. In an essay on Patwardhan, the Ghanaian-born British filmmaker John Akomfrah wrote: “In the best documentaries we always glimpse the future.”7 Patwardhan’s predictions have all come true. So what?

Vivek is currently _streaming_ on YouTube.

NOTES

1. Nicole Wolf, “Thinking Between Day and Night or for Those Awake at Dawn,” ART India 18, no. 3 (April 2014): 25.
2. Anand Patwardhan, “Waves of Revolution,” Films of Anand Patwardhan (website), patwardhan.com?page_id=231. Accessed June 8, 2019.
3. Joseph Josy, “An Interview with Anand Patwardhan,” Kandla Online, April 28, 2012. kanglaonline.com/2012/04/an-interview-with-anand-patwardhan/. Accessed May 30, 2019.
4. Aristotle, Rhetoric, trans. W. Rhys Roberts, book 1. classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/rhetoric.html. Accessed June 2, 2019.
5. Aristotle, Rhetoric.
6. Dhurwa R., “Pandit Patwardhan’s Jai Bhim Comrade: A Case Study in Brahminism,” Round Table India (website), October 2, 2016. roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=comcontent&view=article&id=8804:dhruwa-r&catid=119:feature&Itemid=132. Accessed June 1, 2019.
7. John Akomfrah, “Storming the Reality Asylum,” PIX_ 2 (January 1997). Retrieved from Films of Anand Patwardhan, patwardhan/?page_id=381/. Accessed May 31, 2019.

 

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