Interview with Anand Patwardhan - Filmmaker
1) When you first started to make documentaries, were you influenced by any filmmaker or film style?
At first, filmmaking was not a conscious activity for me. As a student on scholarship in the USA in 1970-72, I was engaged in anti-Vietnam war student protests and filmed some of these with a borrowed camera. Later just before Bangladesh became independent, we had organized a fast on campus to raise money for East Pakistani refugees. I interviewed people making excuses about why they just had to eat and intercut this with photographs of the refugees. This film was only shown on campus. After returning to India in 1972 I worked in a village project, farming and teaching. We had a tuberculosis clinic but patients after being cured would relapses due to poor after care and malnutrition. I took still photographs of TB patients’ lives and matched them with a scripted sound track (using a cassette recorder) that focused on the ways to prevent recurrence.
In 1974 I joined an anti-corruption student movement in Bihar and was asked to take pictures of a demonstration where police violence was expected. I shot with a Super 8 camera, which we later projected and re-filmed to convert the footage to 16 mm film. Pradip Krishen, a friend in Delhi, had just bought a second hand 16 mm hand-cranked camera which could only record for 1 minute at a time. With him in tow we went back to film in Bihar. Soon after the film was completed a State of Emergency (martial law) was declared in India and thousands of movement supporters were jailed. Our film Waves of Revolution went underground. We showed the film sporadically because people involved in making or viewing it could have been immediately arrested. I cut a print of the film into four parts and smuggled these out of the country with friends going abroad. Later, after I got a Teaching Assistantship in Canada to do an MA, I gathered the pieces to complete the film with an English voice over. We then screened it widely to mobilize people, specially Indians living abroad, against the Emergency.
After the Emergency ended in 1977, I came back to India. A new government had come to power promising democracy and it was now legal to show the film. But because of an epilogue I had added stating that the new Janata (People's) government must not be confused with the workers’ and peasants’ rule aspired for in the film, the film was not shown on television. 6 months later, after media pressure, the film was finally broadcast.
During the Emergency I had interviewed some political prisoners who had come out of jail. At the end of the Emergency finding that not all prisoners had yet been freed, I returned to India and completed my second film “Prisoners of Conscience” (1977-1978).
In my early years I had not watched many documentary films. But by the time I made my second film, I had seen Latin American films like The Hour of the Furnaces and The Battle of Chile, and I identified with the theoretical ideas of 'Imperfect cinema' and ‘Third Cinema’ as espoused by Julio Garcia Espinosa. I was not much into film theory but was happy to find my own “imperfection” so unapologetically reaffirmed !
2) How did you define your work or your profession at the time (activist, independent filmmaker...)? And what made you pick the documentary film medium in the first place,
I first saw myself as an activist with an urge to document certain events, such as the Bihar movement and the campaign to free political prisoners. I picked the film medium, because when I made this short filmstrip on tuberculosis, I could see the impact of the audiovisual medium. A pamphlet or article could not have reached people with low levels of literacy. Film had the capacity to communicate with a cross section of society. We bought a 16mm projector to show our films in urban schools, colleges and slums and in open-air village screenings. It is only by the third film (A Time to Rise), that I started to consider myself as primarily a filmmaker, although the subject matter of my films have always been related to activism.
3) Do you have any recollection of watching Films Division (FD) films in your youngster's days (1960s up to the 70s)?
While many took the opportunity to go out for a smoke when these 20 minute FD films played compulsorily in theatres before the main feature, I never did. I was happy to watch them despite the fact that many were boring, official worship. Apart from news reviews (remember there was no television then) there were good films on music and other cultural aspects of India as well as innovative documentaries by people like S. Sukhdev and Pramod Pati. FD films kept a record of various aspects of the country for posterity. At the time, FD filmmakers were the only ones shooting in so many places around the country so their archives are a rich resource. Unfortunately not all these films are preserved, specially the news reviews. I was looking for footage on the early rise of right wing parties like the Shiv Sena. On paper these news reviews exist but in reality some have mysteriously disappeared.
4) To which extent do you think FD supported or restrained the work of independent documentary filmmakers?
I was never put on any of FD’s panels, because my work was considered anti-government and controversial, but independents like Mani Kaul and Aravindan whose work was less overtly political, did get to make many memorable films for FD.
Of course during the Emergency specially, FD and I were on opposite political poles. FD made numerous propaganda films in support of Indira Gandhi’s 20 point program launched during the Emergency. While some of these 20 points were socialist sounding and seemed worthy in themselves, their main aim was to justify the need for the dictatorial rule of the Emergency. FD employees like S. Sukhdev perhaps had no choice but to make some of these films. Just a few of these hard core Emergency propaganda films made by FD still survive but many others have again mysteriously disappeared. In the period when the Janata Party came to power, someone in FD had obviously done a “clean up”.
5) Were you aware of the work of filmmakers such as Sukhdev in the 1960s and 1970s?
At the time I was not aware of them as 'filmmakers', but as people working for the State. Satyajit Ray was one of the few filmmakers who though asked by the State, never compromised. Incidentally after the Emergency Ray helped me with the Censor board when my film Prisoners of Conscience was being blocked. His letter of support was instrumental in getting my film certified without cuts.
As for Sukhdev, I learned later to appreciate his work, specially the pre-emergency work, for what it was. His egalitarian principles show through, as does his immense innovative talent. Though working within the constraints of government, he makes bold departures in films like An Indian Day/India 67. During the Emergency, to be fair, some left leaning people had internalized the idea that Indira Gandhi stood for progressive change and the people she was fighting were anarchists and rightists. Perhaps it was this mindset that allowed Sukhdev to make a propaganda film against the biggest railway workers’ strike in Indian history.
6) In the mid-1970s, did you connect with other early independent documentary filmmakers such as Gautam Ghosh or Chakraborty?
I had met them by the time I made my second film. Gautam Ghosh had made the documentary Hungry Autumn on the Bengal famine in 1974 and Utpalendu Chakraborty had made Muktichai, an ardent appeal to free Naxalite prisoners. Both films were hailed in the post-Emergency period but both filmmakers soon switched from documentaries to fiction.
7) In terms of film practice, how different was your approach to documentary filmmaking compared to the films made by FD?
My film practice was not really conscious, it was more about reacting to the moment. I didn't think of theoretical aspects very seriously. Later, when I read Espinoza’s ideas about 'imperfect' cinema I felt ratified that I had come to many of these ideas instinctively and of necessity. Not being over-aesthetical, not using “mood” background music, were ways of limiting myself primarily to what I shot and recorded on the spot.
I didn't want to include fiction or re-enacted moments, or if I did, these were made very obvious. For example, there is a re-enacted moment in Prisoners of Conscience, when people bang utensils against bars. I had heard this testimony in my interviews, but could obviously not have filmed it live, so I asked some friends to re-enact the moment. Also, later in the film, an eyewitness recounts how prisoners were executed in the forest. I just used a shot of jeep lights at night, which is 'impressionistic' rather than 'real'.
Unlike FD which had good equipment and often shot in 35 mm, my early films were made virtually without money and always in 16mm and even Super 8. Friends did most of the camera work for me, as I was not too well acquainted with cameras. For “Waves of Revolution” Shyam Benegal donated his old outdated color film stock, which after testing I found could still be used as reasonable black and white. The interview with the leader of the Janata party, Jayaprakash Narayan, is the only synch-sound sequence of the film. This was the only sequence shot using professional news equipment by the TV journalist Ved Prakash. The film was completed during the Emergency and no one wanted their names in it. Although many people helped in the making of this film, I never re-edited it, so it contains no credits even today.
8) In your opinion, what were the main achievements and limitations of your first two films?
The only achievement is that they document their times. Even if they are quite rudimentary, they capture the moment truthfully with a minimum of fuss and artifice. The obvious limitation in the first film is the absence of synch-sound. In the second film there is synch sound but it has quite a basic, “talking heads” approach. Celluloid was expensive so one had to be pretty sure of where one was going with an interview. Cinema verite moments are few and far between. In my later films especially after the advent of video, shooting ratios went up dramatically and I could afford “accidents” and harness the unforeseen. While in the early films you hear the filmmaker’s voice and point of view, now the voices of the people in the film are much more important. In my early films, the audience had to believe the filmmaker. Prisoners of Conscience included synch-sound and was interview-based, but it only focused on the prisoners' point of view. Although different kinds of prisoners of conscience were interviewed, nobody from the government and no pro-government voices were included. So these films were somewhat uni-dimensional. It is only later that I started to include different spectrums into the picture. In that sense, these early films were similar to Hour of the Furnaces, which hammers the point of view of the filmmakers.
9) In those early days, have you ever considered making films for private sponsors and why?
I never did any corporate or government-funded films. At first I relied on friends and family and later my films started to sell occasionally and break even. To date the money from the sales of previous films is recycled into the next one. Being self-financed secures my political and artistic independence.
If sponsorship were ever offered completely on trust and without strings attached, I would accept it. But I am consciously against the idea of 'advertising'. I don't look for NGOs money either, as most of my films are critical of government and I don’t want the State to blame an NGO or “foreign funds” for my critique. So, I prefer to live off the sale of my finished product rather than rely on grants or sponsors.
But it has become more difficult to sell films to TV channels now, and it remains the only place where one can get a substantial income. In the early days we would also place a donation box at every screening site to collect money from the audience. Today I do screening/lecture tours at colleges to raise funds.
10) In 1974, the project SITE was introduced to bring television programmes for and to village communities. Where you aware of this project at the time and how did you perceive it then? How do you perceive it now?
Yes, I knew about the SITE project as friends like Jahnu Baruah, an Assamese filmmaker worked for SITE. During the Emergency he helped me secretly process Waves of a Revolution in a laboratory he frequented. I think that the impact of the programme was good but their empowerment never went deep enough, because it emanated from a State that ultimately protected the established order. Nevertheless at least they made the attempt as opposed to the ideology of today where the government is increasingly washing its hands off education for the poor. Education is being ceded to the private sector so only those with money will rise. In earlier times the government also had Field Publicity vans to show films on family planning in rural areas. It was largely a top down effort and not too effective although I haven't done enough research on the subject to have a final opinion.
11) Do you have any information concerning the reception of your 2 first documentaries in India and abroad?
For Waves of a Revolution, initially only two prints of the films were available in India and the screenings were limited. The video format was not available at the time, equipment was heavy and screenings were difficult to organize. It was screened abroad more often during the Emergency, to raise awareness, for solidarity and for fund-raising (although only tiny amounts could be collected). There were 6 prints of Prisoners of Conscience and they circulated mainly in India. Both films were used a lot by human rights activist groups. I attended many screenings but many more happened in my absence.
12) For the past decade, some Indian documentary filmmakers are reconnecting or acknowledging the films produced by Films Division (Sastri, Sukhdev and others). Have you changed your perception of these films? Do you relate to some of these films today and why?
I have no quarrel with FD except during the Emergency and potentially when there is a right wing government in power. I appreciate the fact that they effectively host the immensely useful Mumbai International Film Festival and I appreciate their present CEO, Mr. Kundu. I bought some footage from the FD film 'A Village Smiles', which is included in our film A Narmada Diary (1995). FD’s archives are very valuable as only the government had cameras at the time. Foreign organizations, like Pathé, the Congress Library in Washington and others also have old footage shot in India, but it is too expensive for independent filmmakers like me, which I find quite ironic...
- Dr. Camille Deprez (2015)