Interview: Firebrand filmmaker Anand Patwardhan
Anand Patwardhan asks questions ordinary filmmakers do not. Which goes a long way toward explaining why, a full seven years after its release, Patwardhan's seminal documentary “War and Peace” is headlining this month's Taj Enlighten Documentary Film Festival.
In “War and Peace,” the always-provocative director explored nuclear testing in the Indian subcontinent, global militarism and war, religious fundamentalism, the aggressive posturing of the United States as a superpower role model and the murder of Mahatma Gandhi.
All 14 of Patwardhan’s films have challenged censorship rulings in India’s courts. But when the Central Board for Film Certification refused to certify 2002's "War and Peace" unless the director agreed to 21 edits, he took the government to court. After a protracted legal battle, Patwardhan won the right to screen "War and Peace" without a single cut, forcing reluctant national broadcaster Doordarshan to show it on their national network in 2003. The documentary wasn't commercially released in theaters until 2005.
On the eve of the documentary's DVD release, we cornered the firebrand director for a typically intense, articulate interview.
CNNGo: American film critic J. Hoberman once said, “'War and Peace' gives doomsday a human face.” Was that your intent?
Anand Patwardhan: The film probably makes you realize that a holocaust can happen any time, any place. And that the person pulling the nuclear trigger can be someone pretty familiar. (Smiles)
CNNGo: Did your family’s involvement in the non-violent Gandhian freedom struggle factor into "War and Peace"?
Patwardhan: I knew at the time of the release of this anti-nuke documentary that I would be seen as an anti-national, and I spoke of my family’s involvement in the freedom struggle so it would not be so easy to write me off as a traitor. But the entire Gandhi angle in the movie is really there because the trajectory of the film moves from an independence achieved largely through non-violence to a country that is now proud to have nuclear weapons.
CNNGo: Were the film's moving interviews with the villagers at the nuclear test sites meant to shine a light on the government's exploitation of the ignorance of these people?
Patwardhan: For me the real ignorance is that of our 'educated' elite, not that of illiterate villagers. In the working class there is a lack of exposure to information but no lack of humanity and wisdom. Once people understand issues like nuclear armaments they go against it. But the case of the elite is not the same. There lies the real ignorance. What you see in the film is the perception of innocent villagers to the nuclear tests conducted on their land. Like an old villager near Pokaran states in the movie, "They want to go to the Moon, I want to remain on Earth."
CNNGo: You argue that nuclear weapons do not protect us.
Patwardhan: Making the bomb did not increase India’s security in any way. It stoked a nuclear arms race with Pakistan who proceeded to match us bomb for bomb, missile for missile. It made the Chinese who earlier never regarded us as much of a threat and consequently never aimed their nukes at us, take notice and reposition their warheads in our direction. A bomb is the need of an elite that has solved its food and shelter issues and now seeks 'superpower' status.
CNNGo: You mention India imitating a ‘Big Brother’ America. What does that mean exactly?
Patwardhan: Right now our entire nuclear functioning is based on being a nuclear superpower and we think its OK to do that because America is doing it. These are the aspirations of a failed elite, which seeks a short cut to 'greatness.'
CNNGo: And yet you argue India also pursued its nuclear ambition with a kind of cultural secrecy.
Patwardhan: The whole atomic program was done in secret without consulting the people of India. Nobody’s permission was taken. Just a handful of people decided that this is the future of India. And the same exact process took place when America took this route earlier. American citizens were never consulted. They just went and dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was top secret, no one knew of it till it actually happened. But we are proud because now we too are on the ‘map’ of those who make the bomb.
CNNGo: You were invited by a Pakistani TV channel to be part of a panel discussion following the screening of your film in 2005. We have heard of no such debate or interview on any Indian television channel.
Patwardhan: Yes, isn’t that a surprise? Pakistan was meant to be the military dictatorship and we were the democracy. Yet no TV channel in India offered to screen "War and Peace" or to debate its contents. Finally, it was screened on Doordarshan after I won a court case in the Supreme Court, but there was no debate.
The film was shown by a Pakistani channel and they spent time over it, advertised it, running it over four days, with a panel discussion each day -- that was quite remarkable. The whole program was so popular that they ended up repeating it three times. In India, I can’t even get it on a private channel. The whole situation here is badly dumbed down. Channels are not interested in anything that make people think. Instead CEOs and those they hire decide what people should think. The debates you see on TV are shouting matches. There is no tolerance for any criticism of root values in our country.
CNNGo: You have spent 30 years in the industry. What has changed in Indian cinema over that time?
Patwardhan: When it comes to distributing a film, it’s as bad as it was 30 years back. For serious cinema there is only a fraction of an opening. Our distribution mechanism has not understood the potential of the intelligent and engaged documentary. But I think it’s a matter of time. Michael Moore in the U.S. has made the breakthrough and sooner or later India will catch up.
CNNGo: In one of your recent lectures you said, ‘The nuclear war will not end even if we decide to end it today.'
Patwardhan: We have already made a huge amount of radioactive material. So even if today we decide by some miracle that we are not going to make any more bombs or nuclear energy, there is enough damage done already. No one can get rid of the radioactive material we have created that will pollute the globe for millions of years. All we can do on our part is to stop making more.