Can You Do Anything for Us?

On the documentaries of Anand Patwardhan

Anand Patwardhan’s first film appeared on the eve of Indira Gandhi’s 1975 declaration of Emergency, during which the world’s largest democracy found its liberties suspended and activists of all stripes jailed. Waves of Revolution follows an enormous anti-corruption movement in Bihar and its attempt to establish a new popular democracy, derailed by the prime minister’s decree. Heroically made with fake press cards, twenty rolls of film, two borrowed cameras, and the support of movement members, who housed Patwardhan in a half-built construction site, the film lived underground during the Emergency. Screenings in India were solely for comrades; but prints were sent abroad, too, and avenues for distribution pursued. NBC refused. According to Patwardhan, a programmer at the network told him it would be “a waste of time to look at the film as his station already had ‘instructions’ not to tilt too strongly against Indira.” In Mexico delegates from the Indian government shut the film down mid-screening. Then a student in Montreal, Patwardhan began touring the States, playing it for local Indians organizing against the Emergency, for university audiences (Herbert Marcuse saw it and condemned the Emergency), for churches and trade unions, including Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers staff.

In 1977 the Emergency ended, and Waves of Revolution showed openly in India for the first time, lauded by the press amid the euphoria of a return to democracy. It was this return that was soberly assessed by Patwardhan’s second film, Prisoners of Conscience (1978), which profiles a series of militants still languishing in jail. The national film censors nearly denied it approval; then a letter from Satyajit Ray arrived and altered its fate, allowing open distribution in India.

Nothing has better testified to the streak of illiberalism still coursing through Indian political life in the years since the Emergency than the documentaries of Anand Patwardhan. His target has shifted: from Gandhi’s supposedly liberal Congress Party to the rise of right-wing Hindu nationalism, now manifested by a BJP government whose prime minister, Narendra Modi, has turned Kashmir into a prison state and begun a mass expulsion of Muslims in Assam. But the form and political sensibility of Patwardhan’s work has remained: an engaged documentarian moving in contraflow to the ideas of the day.

One story of documentary’s last half-century goes something like this: a once-politicized left-liberal form, associated with social reform and a positivist claim on the truth, faltered in the 1970s under a withering set of critiques. In the US, documentary’s most compelling antagonists were the artists and theorists Martha Rosler and Allan Sekula, memorable for their attacks—lambasting documentary’s penchant for reduction and cliché, its ploy of objectivity, its patronizing passion for social uplift, the way its high-mindedness hid the exploitation of its subjects—but also for their insistence that the ultimate point of critique was documentary’s reinvention, replacing its positivist claim on truth with a Marxist understanding of truth as partisan, as emerging from a particular social position and worldview. Throughout the ’80s and much of the ’90s, however, their critiques proved more influential than their bids for reinvention: even in the late ’90s and ’00s, when documentary began reintroducing itself to an art world now structured by the biennial circuit, it did so more by flouting documentary’s truth claims than reinventing them.

Patwardhan kept his distance from these art-theoretical debates; his cues came from elsewhere. In the ’70s, while Rosler and Sekula were theorizing documentary art, Patwardhan left what was then Bombay to study on scholarship in North America: first sociology at Brandeis, then communications at McGill. At Brandeis, then the tiny school of Angela Davis and Herbert Marcuse, he steeped in left politics. He read Fanon; grew alive to the Black Panthers and Black Studies; immersed himself in the anti–Vietnam War movement and gained experience in going to jail. Alongside movement work, he watched film. He was drawn to the New Latin American Cinema of the late ’60s and early ’70s, films—often documentaries—loosely grouped together as “Third Cinema”: Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas’s The Hour of the Furnaces (1968), Patricio Guzman’s The Battle of Chile (1975–’79).

As a child he’d hated movies. But these films were something different. Coined by the pair of Argentine filmmakers Getino and Solanas in their 1969 essay “Toward a Third Cinema,” the term attempted to introduce a rupture between “first cinema” (Hollywood and its big studio scion), “second cinema” (auteur-film, the various New Waves, even the radical extremes of Dziga Vertov-period Godard and Brazilian Cinema Novo), and what Getino and Solanas saw in their own work, and also in films by Chris Marker and radical student collectives in the US and Japan. For its theorists, Third Cinema’s resistance to incorporation didn’t come from a novel aesthetic, but from extra-filmic organizing. Its films were “imperfect,” as the Cuban director Julio Garcia Espinosa wrote in a complementary manifesto, eschewing the polish of aesthetic completeness for immersion in the life of revolutionary movements. They aimed to arm movements with critical thought; organizationally, screenings doubled as political events. Played for students, workers, militants and activists, with pauses for discussion and prompts for debate built in, screenings became “a kind of enlarged cell meeting of which the films were a part but not the most important factor. We thus discovered a new facet of cinema: the participation of people who, until then, were considered spectators.” Like Brecht, the sleep of spectatorship became a key foil; but unlike Brecht, the solution came not at the level of formal innovation, but cultural organization.

Third Cinema’s revolutionary ferment had begun to expire by the time Patwardhan made his first film. But as an Indian documentarian in the ’70s, he had his own battle to fight. Documentary in India was a colonized, official art, originating in the war propaganda and Griersonian social uplift of the British Empire. With the midnight toll of independence, its bureaucratic management changed uniforms, but its official cast remained. Government newsreels of gleaming new dam projects and “ministers cutting ribbons,” as Patwardhan once summed it, played compulsorily before commercial movies; documentary grew synonymous with “walking out for a smoke.” Like Rosler and Sekula, Patwardhan had to both critique and reinvent documentary. Yet what distinguishes Patwardhan from even brilliant and sympathetic artists like Rosler and Sekula, and what makes him such a singular international cultural figure, is in part a question of influence: Rosler’s and Sekula’s critiques trace back to the Frankfurt School; Patwardhan’s to Third Cinema. The resultant break comes at the level of organizing and proximity to political movements. Rosler’s work enriched the feminist and anti-war movements; Sekula’s the labor movement. But their art worked as critique, at home in a left-cultural spectrum extending from the agitprop photomontages of John Heartfield to Georg Lukács’s prescriptions for a totalizing realism, yet neglecting embedded, living depictions of movements.

Critique and totalizing realism likewise characterize Patwardhan’s work, but at his cinema’s heart is something else: the vital portrayal of left movements, less final film product than an unfinished one—in which extra-filmic organizing and usefulness to movements stand as preeminent concerns. His post-Emergency films fell into two camps: portraits of left social justice movements and chronicles of the rise of Hindutva. The left movements ranged from migrant farm workers in Canada unionizing across race and gender lines to pavement dwellers in Bombay fighting for their right to the city, indigenous groups organizing against a World Bank–funded dam to mill workers in Bombay struggling amid de-industrialization, fishing communities pushing back against industrial pollution to Indian and Pakistani peace activists opposing nuclear proliferation. The films’ range was expansive; their movements particular.

The variety owes much to the catholicity of Patwardhan’s leftism. His mother was a crafts-based artist who studied at Santiniketan, Tagore’s experimental arts school; photographs of her together with Gandhi decorate Patwardhan’s house, as the artist John Akomfrah recollected in an interview. His father came from a socialist family active in the independence struggle: one uncle a Gandhian, another a founder of the Socialist Party. In part this family milieu, and in part Patwardhan’s time among the dispersed currents of the US’s New Left (at Brandeis he wrote a paper synthesizing Gandhi and Fanon), disposed him to a non-sectarian life on the left, gathering Gandhian nonviolence, Ambedkarite anti-casteism, and Marxist theory into a worldview equally committed to pacifism and labor unions, intensely devoted to material struggles and yet hovering on the edge of idealism.

But the range of social justice movements in his work owes itself more deeply to history. The Third Cinema directors Patwardhan admired worked on vast canvases, the left fervor of Allende’s Chile or post-Cuban revolution Latin America projecting their films’ revolutionary politics to national or continental dimensions. But in post-Emergency, newly neoliberal India, with the left nationally and globally peripheral, Patwardhan’s work had to scale down to the minor, isolate units of anti-globalization protest. And yet reduction in scale meant a new sense of intimacy. The films stay with a migrant worker as she cooks roti in the morning, or former mill workers as, after reoccupying the now defunct New Great Eastern Mill, they sweep the cobwebs off their old machines. They progress in lockstep with the growth of an indigenous movement, walking alongside it village to village, accompanying its interruption of a World Bank delegation at a Mumbai fashion show. They devote almost lavish space to movement songs, dances and performances, the feel of protest marches. They show mill workers spending an evening in the open air of their reoccupied factory compound watching Patwardhan’s Bombay, Our City, and remain alongside the same workers as the police confront them for breaking into the factory, workers insisting against police injunctions that the camera stay on. But there are limits to the intimacy. Perhaps the most difficult, least resolvable moment in Patwardhan’s cinema comes halfway through Bombay, Our City (1985). The squatter movement has lost its land, their homes destroyed by state demolition crews; they stand on the sidewalk with their belongings at their feet. The camera lingers over the thronged sidewalk as a woman’s voice interjects. “We are on the footpath now with our children,” she begins, as if providing straightforward narration. But her tenor shifts; the camera cuts to frame her directly, a child in her arms. “You record our voices on your tape, but can do you do anything for us?”

They won’t let us cook or sleep. Last night a child was hit by a scooter. Where can we go? Do you have a solution? At least give us shelter during the monsoons. After that we’ll go anywhere. But you won’t shelter us even for four months—you just want to earn a name taking photographs. What else can you do? The government has discarded us. You and I can do nothing. So don’t take photos of the poor. There is no one to support the poor.

The film pauses, cuts to B-roll, breathes. All the unresolved problems of documentary flood over the sincerity of the film’s commitment. But then the film carries on, without the reflex of self-defense or the drama of self-doubt, exuding both a quiet sense of self-criticism and a quiet confidence. Its tone remains intimate, its scope deceptively peripheral—the contradictions of capital revealed by a forgotten community that spends its days building luxury high-rises, its nights without space to sleep. But it’s not a moment you forget.

The scope of Patwardhan’s films wouldn’t remain peripheral. They soon acquired a vast canvas of their own—unhappily provided not by the left, but Hindutva. Hindu nationalist reaction has a long history, but its recent ascendance traces back to the 1992 demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. Fittingly, this is where Patwardhan’s cycle of films on Hindutva begins. In the Name of God (1992) is a brisk work of reportage, tightly argued, a brief 75 minutes that condenses the course of a couple years. It follows BJP politician L.K. Advani’s campaign to destroy the mosque and replace it with a temple, as he crosses the country in an air-conditioned Toyota costumed as a religious chariot. It ends on the fateful day of the mosque’s destruction, its final moments pulsing with drama, and a melancholic mix of terror and loss, unparalleled in Patwardhan’s work, or the cinema of many others.

The film’s argument unfolds in three stages. First, the Hindutva campaign to destroy the mosque leads back to British colonialism; sensing a growing Hindu-Muslim anti-colonial alliance, colonists spread a rumor situating the Hindu god Ram’s birthplace at the site of the Babri Mosque. Second, once the seed has been planted, Hindu nationalism acquires a life of its own within the political machinations of the BJP and the World Hindu Council (VHP), useful for a high-caste, capitalist-class elite to drum up support for everything from economic liberalization to undoing caste-based affirmative action by disguising them beneath a Hindutva cloak, keeping the communally diverse working class divided. Third, parenthetical to this political game dwell the poor, who stand only to have their communities trampled or their votes manipulated. These convictions never disappear from Patwardhan’s Hindutva films. But in the later films, more epic in scope, they become a quieter refrain. Muddying their force is the symbolism of Modi himself, the hard-working prime minister of humble origins (provincial town, low caste), who defeated the Congress Party’s long reign by playing up the same rhetoric—chai wallah, or tea seller (his father’s occupation)—that the Congress elite dismissed him with, and whose party, the BJP, appropriates the symbol of Ambedkar and others to court Dalit votes, as Patwardhan documents in Jai Bhim Comrade (2011). The validity of a materialist, caste-class explanation of Hindutva remains, but it faces a thickly dressed political surface, riddled by contradiction. Rising to the fore alongside this materialist explanation in Patwardhan’s later films, then, is something which by necessity remains half-opaque: an excess of political feeling, irreducible to any materialist base, which sometimes appears the dominant fact of twenty-first-century political life.

This excess can go multiple ways. Father, Son and Holy War (1995), Patwardhan’s monumental follow-up to In the Name of God, was conceived as a historical inquiry into Hindutva’s roots; instead it became an attack on the patriarchal culture inherent to it—the structure of feeling behind the spectacular enthusiasms for bodybuilding and wrestling, Bollywood masculinity and the practice of sati, street-hawker remedies for penis enlargement and talk of virile Hinduism. But it’s with his two recent films that an entire spectrum of political feeling finds its expression, to the point where Patwardhan’s work constitutes something like a novel genre of documentary: fieldwork in comparative political affect.

Jai Bhim Comrade (2012) begins with the suicide of Vilas Ghogre, a poet-musician, Dalit and Communist, whose music now survives only through recordings in Bombay, Our City—Patwardhan met Ghogre, then working alongside the homeless, while filming in the ’80s, and subsequently included his music as the film’s leitmotif. Ghogre lived in the slums near Mumbai’s Ramabai Colony, where in 1997 a group of Dalits gathered to protest the desecration of a statue of Ambedkar. The police arrived and opened fire, killing ten. In despair, Ghogre tied the Dalit symbol of a blue ribbon around his forehead, wrote “Long live Ambedkarite unity” on the wall of his house, and took his own life. The film begins here. But it soon broadens out, unfolding the tragedy of Ghogre’s life. A member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)–aligned Aavhaan Cultural Troupe, Ghogre drew criticism for arguing that the left neglected caste. He lived in a small, worn home in the slums with his wife and children. Needing money for house repairs, he began performing on occasion for the Ambedkarite Republican Party, viewed by the left as a vehicle of bourgeois reform, and by Ghogre himself as representing the centrist cooptation of Ambedkar’s thought. This was too much for his comrades; CPI(ML) leadership expelled him.

One source of his tragedy lies here. But the film broadens out, too, to memorialize his achievement, portraying the centrality of music to Dalit and leftist political and cultural life. Certain marks of Patwardhan’s style—witty, acerbic montage; sly interviews with self-destructing political opponents; the deconstruction of official image worlds—give way here to another predilection: the patient blankness in which his films can seem to forfeit cinematic style and give themselves over to non-filmic forms, such as the public speech, the story, the movement song. Long outdoor musical performances flood the film with Left feeling. The songs mock corporate advertising and official promises; they repurpose myths and epics; they dream of lost rural pasts, or for Ambedkar’s statue to come alive, not as commodified symbol but as the spirit of democratic revolution. The songs teach, mix suffering and joy, preserve memory from below. Jai Bhim Comrade takes its cues from their example, striving to rescue Ghogre’s commitment and the truth behind the Ramabai Colony massacre from oblivion.

Reason (2018) explores an altogether different structure of feeling: the passion and resentment underlying the now hegemonic reach of Hindutva. Yet it does so with indirectness, chronicling the aftermath of a series of Hindutva-inspired political murders: of Narendra Dabholkar, rationalist founder of ANIS (Anti-Blind Faith Movement); Govind Pansare, Communist politician and best-selling author of Who Was Shivaji? (1988), an attack on Hindutva’s historical myth-making; and, among others, Mohammed Akhlaq, a Muslim man dragged outside his house and beaten to death by a mob after a temple falsely announced that his family slaughtered and consumed beef. The culprits are rarely arrested.

A startling feature of Patwardhan’s Hindutva films, at least for a US audience fed a ceaseless diet of Trump coverage, is how the state and its world-historical actors fade into secondary roles—Modi appearing in glimpses while history’s foot-soldiers stalk the foreground. The state obstructs investigations and lends tacit support to murders, but Hindutva civil society organizations—from the paramilitary RSS, to the student group ABVP, to secretive right-wing ashrams—pull the strings. It’s through these organizations that a world of right-wing resentment finds its expression.

The film’s most indelible moments capture the spectacle of this resentment. In one scene, ABVP students, all men, march on the dusty outskirts of the University of Hyderabad’s campus, waving Indian flags and chanting “Beat the anti-nationals with your shoes!” and “Thrash those who red salute!” A voiceover tells us that “today’s Brahminism is draped in the national flag, its stormtroopers drawn from those it has dumbed down and made jobless.” But this sort of materialist explanation is kept brief, the film devoting itself more to the tense interviews that follow, in which Patwardhan asks the students if they know who killed Gandhi. (The answer: Nathuram Godse, RSS member.) The students gang around the camera, addressing their implied affinity with Gandhi’s assassin with an array of defenses and historical confusions, each student in turn rushing the camera, hurling a rejoinder, yelling and being held back by the crowd. Their fury recalls the final moments of In the Name of God, in which Patwardhan interviews Hindu nationalists storming across a bridge en route to destroying the Babri Mosque; one of them insists that Gandhi deserved to die. Faced with anger this passionate and prejudicial, no explanation serves. A caste-class analysis limns the background, but in the fore senselessness reigns: “anonymous murders for a cause,” as Patwardhan has said, “which make no sense, not even for the people who are doing it.”

The horror of Patwardhan’s Hindutva films lies in this insight: stark footage of the purposive purposelessness of right-wing brutality. Amid the uncertainty of senselessness, Reason’s generalizing rhetoric enters as compensation. The age of anger, to steal Pankaj Mishra’s phrase, must be superseded by the age of reason. But how hopeful can any prospectus be? The film gives its final lines to Pansare. Walking uphill into the sunset, he blends orthodox Marxism with a parting note of idealism: “In the philosophy I follow, a basic aspect is about the inevitability of success. It has little to do with our desires. At no stage in world history was disparity as great as it is today. This inequity won’t allow human beings to rest. People will rise up to fight it. And step by step, step by step, humans will progress. It will happen. It’s no dream. And dreaming is no sin.”

It’s hard to distribute films like these. State television refuses to show them, or plays them in the dead of night; BBC Channel 4 demands drastic cuts; US-based Hindu groups protest their screening in New York; ABVP students disrupt a legal screening at the University of Hyderabad, and police come to arrest the event’s organizers; YouTube requires viewers to confirm they’re adults; local authorities pull them from Indian film festivals with the logic that films about the senselessness of communal violence may themselves spark communal violence. In India, Patwardhan goes to court each time a film is censored, and each time wins. Yet the films still aren’t widely shown. This, then, is another story of documentary’s last half-century: a view from the margins. A frail solution in today’s political landscape is to immerse a film’s production and reception within social movements and activist organizations, to follow Third Cinema’s organizing strategy by circulating it within parallel networks; this is what Patwardhan has done. He organizes free or low-cost screenings for labor unions, activist and revolutionary groups, poor communities, Indian universities, and shares copies with activist organizations who hold screenings and discussions of their own. But to sustain his work, and to compete in the ideological worlds and economies of scale of mass media and public institutions, he screens also in mainstream or more privileged settings: public television, film festivals, galleries, biennials, universities in the Global North. He travels extensively with each film, rushing deadlines to screen or post films on YouTube before elections, or to call attention to campaigns before they can be stomped out. But he also works slowly—Jai Bhim Comrade was made over 14 years—and engages intimately with the communities he documents.

Documentary’s ethical vexations aren’t things one resolves. But they can be worked with, made meaningfully partisan and productively self-scrutinizing, as is perhaps best shown by the contrast between the scene in Bombay, Our City, in which Patwardhan is told not to take photos of the poor, and a similar scene at the end of Jai Bhim Comrade. The mother of an auto-rickshaw driver killed in the Ramabai Colony massacre sits on the ground in her dimly lit home and tells Patwardhan of her son’s life, how hard she worked to raise her children, how angry she is that “your state” murdered him, that “your people make money and become politicians and kill the children of us poor.” There’s nothing more to say, she says. “What’s the point of you taking pictures? Is it any use? None at all.” She ends it there: “I apologize, I can’t bear to go on.” “It’s us who must apologize,” Patwardhan responds, “we apologize for not being able to do anything.” He says they’re not from the government nor television, that they’re making a film about a friend of theirs, Vilas Ghogre, a singer who lived in a nearby slum and killed himself in despair after the massacre. She stops him from apologizing further. She knew Vilas, she says. “He was my son’s friend.”

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