War and Peace is a passionate documentary based on the sad irony of the nuclear arsenal held by India – home of Mahatma Gandhi, the world’s most famous and successful pacifist. Sweeping beyond India into Pakistan, the US and Japan and delivering a critique of militarism and fundamentalism, both Muslim and Hindu, the film ends at the Twin Towers on Manhattan.
There are many gems in War and Peace: did you know that the Indian army’s code words for signalling the detonation of an underground nuclear warhead were “The Buddha Smiled”? Have you ever seen an all-singing all-dancing music video dedicated to Pakistan’s militarism? (It evokes an edgy blend of horror and laughter.) There are memorable interviews, like the Indian nuclear scientist describing wandering cows that threatened to disturb a nuclear test, “We’ve worshipped cows for all these centuries… and the cow jumped safely over the cables!” More poignant are interviews with persons who already pay the price of the nukes, suffering the effects of radiation in villages close to both the test site and the uranium mines. They contrast with the breezy enthusiasm of salesmen at an arms fair, unabashedly extolling the kill rate of their products. There’s a charming recollection of being a child in Gandhi’s household, and the dilemma of being offered toys imported from England. Patwardhan’s own on-screen encounters with ordinary Pakistani civilians underline in a touching way the absurdity of the armed hostility between the two neighbouring countries.
At the time of writing, and despite being awarded an impressive array of film festival prizes, Anand Patwardhan is still battling it out with the censors in India’s High Court for the right to broadcast his film in his own country. From the point of view of freedom of speech and anti-war activism, I support and applaud him warmly. This isn’t an Indian courtroom, however, it’s the review page, so I must also admit to some reservations about the film.
It seems a shamefully petty complaint, in the face of a film that tackles such grand historical issues, but I have to mention it: three hours is a long running time. While I appreciate Patwardhan’s anxiety to get everything in (he shot 180 hours of DV material over three years in four countries and did all the editing himself), to me the three hours dragged. The cumulative effect of sequence after sequence, flicking between countries and characters, blunted his message instead of sharpening it. The narrative was more episodic than analytical, without tying the disparate threads together – as if the only conclusions the viewers are encouraged to draw are the rather banal ‘Nukes are Bad,’ ‘Gandhi was Good’. Nor did the newsreel-like visual style of the film have the power or originality to sustain the double feature-length format.
Patwardhan has a venerable background after starting as a guerrilla-filmmaker in the 1970s. In those days, smuggling your footage out was an achievement, and audiences had to fend for themselves. He seems to have stayed with the agitprop aesthetic but risks losing the power of his argument in the volume of his material. Perhaps the problem is mine, as a European viewer unschooled in Indian narrative style; but to me, this is more of an endurance-test documentary than a revelation documentary. I felt that a better, equally impassioned, but more coherent film was struggling to get out of this one.