The Laparoscopic Cinema of Anand Patwardhan

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By Joshy Joseph
It happened during the 1988 International Film Festival of India (IFFI) held in Trivandrum. I was trying to persuade Anand Patwardhan to agree to receive the first copy of a book on Malayalam cinema at an official ceremony from the reputed film critic of The Guardian, Derek Malcolm. The author of the book was a friend of mine. Anand agreed to receive the book but not without posing a question to me : “Why Derek Malcolm? Is it because he is a white man?”

Many years later when Films Division interviewed Anand for a curtain-raiser film on Films Division for MIFF (Mumbai International Film Festival for documentary, short and animation films), I heard him saying : “Luckily, we need not refer to Ben Kinsley as Gandhi, since FD has the original Gandhi footage !”

Anand speaks so lucidly through his films and in person. That is why, even while working for an official documenting agency, I always go back to Anand’s films for measuring the actual height and weight of Indian history. Anybody who has attended that edition of MIFF at NCPA in Mumbai, where Anand’s film Ram ke Naam was screened and stood out in sharp contrast to the official version of the Ayodhya issue, would understand me better.

Every time I wake up for a sunrise shoot or patiently wait to capture a clear-sky sunset shot, I cannot help envying Anand. I cannot recall a single ‘beautiful shot’ in his films — a shot devised for the sake of achieving beauty. It is the political conviction that illuminates his skies without bothering about the acceptibility factor, that strikes me over and over again. It is not for nothing that Anand’s films have withstood so confidently the test of time. And about the wrath of a nervous officialdom towards him and his films, it is only a cinematic addition to the good old stories of flourishing court poets aplenty juxtaposed with one or two poets of destiny.

In Kerala, experienced farmers always advise us not to buy spotless vegetables from the market. They tell us that naturally-grown vegetables normally have spots on them. In a supposedly advanced method of cultivation, systemic insecticides are fed to the plants as they grow, unlike the general practice of spraying pesticides from outside. That is why they are called ‘systemic insecticides’. So, any insect that touches the plant, dies on the spot! And the vegetables and fruits remain spotless like the glossy images in advertisement films!

Once, in the course of a MIFF selection process, Anand’s film on the fishermen’s issue was rejected on the ground of ‘bad image quality’. The chairman of the selection committee was a Hindutva element in disguise who had, wonder of wonders, no difficulty in choosing his own film for the festival! Anyway, the list of selected films reached me through a colleague who was visibly upset at the turn of events and chose to confide in me. He asked whether something could be done in the matter.

I immediately relayed this information to a daredevil friend of mine who was on the staff of the now-defunct weekly paper, The Sunday Observer. It was a Saturday evening. Overlooking space and deadline constraints, they flashed the story the next day — “Miffed Patwardhan withdraws his film”. The story, or rather the strategy, worked — Anand’s film was included on Monday.

Later, when we met at a cocktail party, I said ‘cheers’ to the selection committee chairman and murmured in a lighter vein, “You are Vinod and he is Anand, both meaning joy. Now enjoy.”

Changing to a serious note, I asked to know the reason why the film had been rejected. In some sequences, according to him, the visuals were very grainy. He knew that in the capital of sleek Hindi commercial cinema and corporate advertisement films, ‘the image quality’ bit could be used as a ready-made purdah to conceal the actual facial expression in the presence of truth.

Recently, in a court battle over the Bombay bomb-blast case, one party requested the court to view Anand’s Father, Son and Holy War to get an idea of the conditions then obtaining in the city before arriving at any judgement. Whether the court admitted the plea or not is not the point. Rather, the point is that in a case which involves a gun-toting Hindi film star, the reference point of facts was an Anand Patwardhan film. When countless crores go down the drain to project the pelvic thrusts and the dishum-dishum of constipated poster boys, Anand’s investment is his political conviction expressed by means of a precise aperture that records vital twists and turns of contemporary history.

Anand’s film War and Peace is an epic documentation of how violence is perpetrated and is being perpetuated in the name of patriotism. This film unforgettably unveils whipped-up mob frenzy through bombastic speeches of politicians and their heady narratives of nationalism. A cunning master-narrative is woven into this, which acts as an eyewitness and an argumentative self at the same time. The film encompasses the viewer, too, for almost three, most fruitful hours; thus, the unity of trinity becomes a complete experience. This is masterpiece cinema.

War and Peace gets into the interiors of two nations — India and Pakistan — as if in a laparoscopic operation. Even as the right-wing political party then in power kept puking vehemently, Anand’s camera surveyed the body politic with remarkable surgical precision. They wanted to restrain him by asking him to remove even the film’s reference to Gandhiji’s assassination. Hey Ram! Gandhiji never got assassinated in this country!

I have a feeling that Gandhiji knew why Bonsai plants don’t grow tall. When seedlings, root cuttings and small grafted plants are to be developed as Bonsai, they are first cultivated in ground beds. Here, the branches and root tips are pruned repeatedly. Each pruning session helps the plants to develop ‘dwarfing’ habits.

State-of-the-art pruning of political documentaries in India happens today more in the avenues of huge inflow of international capital through funding agencies and the pitching sessions they organise, than in the public-sector sphere. This will become clear if one watches and analyses the kind of projects that are backed by the European Documentary Network (EDN) and its offshoots like STEPS India.

In portrayals of marginalized individuals, or dushtu-dushtu, mishti-mishti analyses of Kashmir or the North-East, you won’t find a junior Anand Patwardhan anywhere in the picture. No wonder, these pitching film-makers are often to be found bitching eloquently about Anand and his ouevre. They say Anand’s films are very functional and lack spiritual dimensions. So, to remedy the situation, they go out into the world and try their desperate best to discover the exotic ‘other’.

Vaikkom Mohammad Basheer, the great Malayalam writer, wandered all over India for many years in search of truth. One of his incarnations was that of a sadhu on the Himalayas. Explaining why he quit being a sadhu, Basheer said some people would collect firewood, split it into smaller pieces and use them to start the kitchen fire. These people would not ask Basheer to share in the work; “just meditate without distraction,” they would say. But Basheer still used to get distracted — the very arrangement of avoiding distraction, distracted him.

Indian documentary today is taken seriously by the world because yesterday an Anand Patwardhan happened here. Your ‘spirituality’ became possible due to the ‘physicality’ of Anand Patwardhan’s films. I don’t have to reserve these words for an obituary.

I would like to recall another incident at MIFF. Anand was secretly summoned by the organisers just before the awards ceremony to select a two-minute excerpt from his film which had won a prize. The clip was to be screened at the awards function. The then Maharashtra Chief Minister, Mr. Manohar Joshi, was the chief guest and he would hand out the prizes.

Just when a sequence from Father, Son and Holy War was being shown on the screen where Manohar Joshi — now on stage in a full-sleeved black safari suit — was asking for the blood of a minority community, Anand’s name was called out to receive one of the awards. While the audience cheered, Anand, dressed in his usual kurta-pyjama, shook hands with Joshi and received the award. Anand is an undomesticated political animal.

The sharp edges can be flattened with awards, awards and more awards. But, mercifully, the laws of the market do not apply to Anand. I have always respected him for consciously distancing himself from those ‘dwarfing habits’ about which I have spoken earlier.

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