Anand Patwardhan presenting 'Jai Bhim Comrade' at Viennale 2012
Anand Patwardhan presenting ‘Jai Bhim Comrade’ at Viennale 2012

Anand Patwardhan has been making politically charged documentaries for nearly three decades, tackling subjects like street dwellers, religious fundamentalism, the connection between machismo and sectarian violence and the plight of those displaced in the name of “development”. Filmmaker Magnus Isacsson met him in Montreal.


Anand Patwardhan has been making politically charged documentaries for nearly three decades, tackling subjects like street dwellers, religious fundamentalism, the connection between machismo and sectarian violence and the plight of those displaced in the name of “development”. Filmmaker Magnus Isacsson met him in Montreal.

MI: You’ve been involved in a lot of fights for freedom of speech, for the right to have your films shown, and I was almost surprised to hear you say that you have actually had quite a bit of success.

AP: Let me give due credit to the Indian democratic system. I’m not aware if independent filmmakers elsewhere in the world have been able to force-feed their work onto public TV channels by resorting to court intervention. I don’t think that you could extrapolate that we live in a democracy because people like me have had their rights; if I was working-class and not privileged, I’m sure this wouldn’t be true. But in the position that I am, I have been able to exercise my rights as a filmmaker, certainly. The government has attempted to censor my films every time but, in the last thirty-five years of filmmaking, I’ve won every single one of those battles in the end and not a single frame has ever been cut.

MI: I have a feeling that, as documentary filmmakers, like a lot of other cultural workers, we are–no matter where we are in the world and in the era of globalization and war–involved in resistance, some kind of a struggle. But I imagine that being where you are in the world has an even greater sense of urgency. What’s the difference between making films here and making films in India?

AP: There are big differences. In the North there’s much more of a support system for filmmakers. I don’t know if it’s the same today, but the National Film Board of Canada was very open to helping independent filmmakers like me when I studied in Canada in the late ’70s. Now there is an increasing tribe doing documentaries in India, but in those days there wasn’t. The positive side is that in India you always feel an immediate urgency for the work that you’re doing. You know that as soon as you finish your film, it’s going to be useful. You can start showing it right away, at least in activist circles. Northern filmmakers often make films outside their own countries because they don’t find the immediacy to make films about issues at home.

MI: “In your last film War and Peace you situate yourself right at the beginning of the film”.

AP: I had never actually done a first-person narrative before. It was a tactical decision. I knew that I would be targeted for not being a patriot. I was attacking India’s nuclear bomb and “nationalism” and so I decided to establish my “patriotic” family credentials first by stating that my uncles had gone to jail for many years for fighting against British rule. The first person, of course, also gave me licence to say things which in an impersonal narrative would have been difficult to say.

MI: Do you think that might lead you to having more personal elements?

AP: I don’t think I’ll end up doing confessional documentaries but I might use the first-person narrative again sometime because, yeah, you get poetic licence. You’re not forced to be totally balanced about everything. All my films are point-of-view films. They’re not pretending to be objective, but working in the first person gives you even greater freedom.

MI: There is quite an ongoing discussion here about those kinds of issues: self-reflexivity, aesthetics, modes of storytelling. Do you think that is something we can afford to do more of, because we live in a relatively more privileged position?

AP: No. Actually, if you look at Indian documentary films made recently, many people are obviously concerned about the formal structure and worry about theoretical aspects. Personally too much theory doesn’t excite me. You can be self-reflexive, but ultimately it’s an artificial device. If I show my camera or my microphone in my frame it doesn’t absolve me from the act of filmmaking. No matter what you do to announce that you’re being self-reflexive, you still maintain control in the act of filmmaking, you’re doing the editing, you’re doing so many things which give you complete control over what you’re saying. It’s not necessary to treat the audience like idiots and say, “I am making a film, it’s not real.” Take it for granted, the audience knows.

MI: You made this very interesting film, Father, Son, and Holy War about machismo, about the male psyche and how it relates to politics and religion. You could have included yourself, your own upbringing, your own training…

AP: I wasn’t making a film about gender to start with. I was actually making a film about religious and communal violence, the things I saw around me, mainly the Hindu-Muslim violence that had broken out. But as I explored these issues in greater depth, I found the connection between the male psyche and this violence. The film was the last part of a trilogy. In the mid-’80s, after 3000 Sikhs had been massacred in Delhi following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, I dropped everything and started making films against fundamentalism and religious violence. Over the next decade, three films emerged. The first, “In Memory of Friends”, was about the Sikh-Hindu divide and explored how class solidarity could be an antidote to religious hatred. The second film, “In the Name of God” about the Babri Mosque being demolished in north India by Hindu militants, looked not only at class but also talked about caste and about liberation theology, because I found a Hindu priest who refused to subscribe to hatred and was murdered for his inclusive views.

By the ’80s, everybody who was politically active was totally sidetracked by the rise of fundamentalism, at least in our part of the world. Even trade unions became communalized. I couldn’t show my “In the Name of God” in union halls because the leadership told me that if I showed this film, Hindu workers would turn against us. That was a great disappointment. So I could no longer really talk about class issues alone. I began looking at psychology, at where this crazy impetus for religious hatred was coming from. “Father, Son, and Holy War” got into gender and is an attempt to look at the psyche of violence, not assuming, like the Left did at the time, that if you’re working-class you’ll automatically embrace class solidarity. The three films together form slightly different prisms through which religious violence can be viewed.

At the same time I didn’t find room to get into my own personal psyche. That would have been a different film altogether, not invalid, but it may have deflected from the depiction of the external horror I was documenting. This horror did not care who the particular witness was. I felt it was the “eye” and not “I” that was important at the time.

MI: In following social movements and their struggles, I feel I’m constantly, living with a tremendous tension between representation, on the one hand, and good dramatic filmmaking, on the other. A lot of choices have to be made along the road. I remember in the film called Power, about the Cree fighting this hydro project in northern Quebec, that there were many, many individuals standing up criticizing their own Band leadership, and in the end, there were too many faces appearing on the screen, so we decided to let one of those people be the spokesperson for that opinion. That’s a tremendous simplification, of course, and some people didn’t really approve, but it certainly worked better for the film.

AP: Many times I’ve been told that my films would probably be more dramatic or work better if I didn’t have so many people, if I followed the story of one person or one family and just see where that takes me. But what I set out to do was to document movements and interrelated events. Had I restricted myself to one person, it would certainly have had emotional weight but it could also be reduced to being the story of one person. I have always wanted to tell a larger story, and generalize from the particular. I haven’t thought this out very clearly, it’s not that I’ll never do a single person film in the future. But, yeah, most of the time it hasn’t been like that. At the same time there are individuals like Pritam Kaur in “A Time to Rise” or the Hindu priest Laldas in “In the Name of God” who are very charismatic. Sometimes people leave a big impression on you in the end –even in the short time you see them.

War and Peace

MI: Any new directions? Where are you headed from now on?

AP: I haven’t made a film since War and Peace. I finished it in 2002 and it’s nearing the end of 2006 now. I’ve done a lot of screenings and have spent my time doing language versions of the film, making a Hindi version, a Tamil version, just making sure the film is used in India more widely. Trying to get a theatrical release, trying to get my films on television, things like that. After every film that I’ve spent a lot of time making I take time off to concentrate on screenings. I still have three half-edited films on the back burner.

Anand Patwardhan’s website:


On 8 October 2006, Anand Patwardhan’s film “Father, Son and Holy War” was finally shown on Doordarshan (India’s national television) following an 11-year court battle. State-controlled Doordarshan had rejected the film because of its controversial political content. After several lower court verdicts in favour of Anand, however, the Supreme Court finally ordered (in August 2006) Doordarshan to showcase the film within 8 weeks. Three of Anand’s previous award-winning films – “Bombay our City” (1985), “In Memory of Friends” (1990) and “Ram Ke Naam” (1992)–share a similar fate, i.e. they were only broadcast after a court ruling.

Modern Times Review