Interview with Anand Patwardhan

30. 8. 2008

which school did you actually study in america? was you infulenced more by
the lectures, or more by activists mycelium around? did you have some
lectures of film or, for example, visual sociology? which docus had you seen
before you started to make your owns, did they inspire you somehow in film
form? (and later?)

I got a scholarship to study Sociology at Brandeis University (near Boston) in 1970. The anti-Viet Nam war movement was at its peak and Brandeis on the East coast and Berkeley on the West coast were key co-ordinators of the movement. Angela Davis, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Reuben went to Brandeis and Herbert Marcuse had taught there amongst others. I reached a year or two after their time but their legacy was still very much alive. The Black Studies department was also active and I went to Black Panther rallies as well. I ended up getting arrested twice against the Viet Nam war. On one of those occasions two of my professors were also jailed. After I finished my studies I worked with the Cesar Chavez-led United Farmworkers Union in California for 6 months before returning to India in 1972.

So obviously activism and not book study was my main teacher, and this included my initial brush with filmmaking. I borrowed a university camera to film anti-war protests. My first film “Business as Usual” was made when we organized a fast at Brandeis and asked people to donate their lunch money to the refugees from East Pakistan (which eventually became Bangladesh in 1971).

Although I took an undergraduate side course in film studies, this was pretty rudimentary and I don’t recall most of the films we saw. Nor did I decide to become a filmmaker then. I returned to India, worked in a village for a couple of years with a volunteer group that had set up a model farm and did science training for teachers in rural schools. I did make a 20 minute filmstrip (slide show with soundtrack on a cassette player) to motivate patients of tuberculosis to continue long term care after they had been discharged from our clinic.

Amongst the documentary films I saw in the early 70’s that excited me was one on the United Farmworkers union (I think it was called “Si Se Puede- Yes, we can” though I’m not sure. It had Joan Baez in it) and of course Patricio Guzman’s tragic epic “The Battle of Chile”.

how exactly works mechanism of censorship in india? is it possible to screen
legally a film without certificate? are there any actual punishments for
"illegal" screenings? what's the role of local governments, since some films
even certified by cbfc weren't allowed by local govs? distribution of the films? which organisations are connected to in india and

Theoretically every film made in India needs a certificate from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), widely known as the Censor Board, before it can be screened in public. But the word “public” is loosely defined so one can get away to an extent by having “private” screenings. Usually when films are not overtly political or critical of the State these do not attract intervention from the authorities. The problem arises when the State or citizens who do not want a particular film screened decide to intervene against an uncertified film. The CBFC Act legally empowers the authorities to confiscate the film, the projection equipment and even arrest filmmakers and those involved in “illegal” screenings. But these harshest provisions of law are rarely invoked. Usually the police make phone calls, warn the venue owners, and the screening is called off.  

Resistance to censorship has taken two distinct paths. Many documentary filmmakers these days do not bother with the cumbersome process of applying for certification. Many do this because the subject matter or treatment in their films is not likely to generate objections from anywhere. A few of the filmmakers who make politically sensitive films take an ideological stand against censorship and refuse to enter the process of certification on principle. The upshot is that their films are screened in a few festivals where censorship is no longer required, or in private, or abroad. The trade off is that while such films are widely spoken about in the press and media, they do not reach the wider public in India. There are just a few exceptions where the underground distribution of dvds and cds of such films has reached worthwhile proportions.

My own strategy from the very beginning has been to engage the State on its own terms by invoking the Constitution of India. This Constitution was drafted under the stewardship of none other than that champion of the underclass, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, and it lays down an unambiguous right to the Freedom of Expression. In more than 30 years of filmmaking I have never allowed the CBFC to trim a single frame from any of my films. This involved engaging the CBFC both from within and without, applying for innumerable steps of Revising Committees and Appellate Tribunals and courts of law. In the end I won all my cases. 

But having won a CBFC certificate does not automatically ensure that a film gets widely seen. So we fought further law suits to force the government to screen these films on national TV. We won 5 of these cases, two of which went right up to the Supreme Court.

Many years got spent in these cases, but I was staunchly supported both by public service lawyers and by the media.

how are you involved in 'vikalp' movement?

Since its inception in1990 the government run Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) has always screened films without requiring censor certificates. In 2002 our “War and Peace” won an award at MIFF although at the time it had not been certified. After the festival MIFF undertook to showcase all award winning films in Kolkota. At the last minute the BJP inspired CBFC raised objections and “War and Peace” was withheld. Meanwhile with the BJP in power the censor board refused to certify the film unless I made massive cuts. A year later the Bombay High Court ruled that the film had to be granted a “U” certificate and released without cuts. The government got a lot of bad press and may have resolved then to change the MIFF rules so that uncensored films could no longer be screened even at festivals. Another factor that certainly influenced this decision was the fact that after 2002 several documentaries had been made that documented government complicity in the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. These were obviously a major embarrassment to the BJP government and censorship was their response.

The government’s imposition of censorship at MIFF galvanized the filmmaking community. Our united action forced the government to withdraw their notification but they then brought censorship in through the backdoor. Their specially chosen “selection committee” rejected all the films that were politically embarrassing as not good enough to be screened at MIFF 2004. In response we launched a parallel festival Vikalp (literally “alternative”) across the street from MIFF where we screened all the films MIFF had rejected along with some films that were pulled out of MIFF in solidarity. Vikalp was an instant success, drawing bigger audiences than the official festival. 

In subsequent years MIFF reverted to screening films without censor certificates and without an obvious bias in selection policy, and Vikalp transformed into a loose coalition doing monthly documentary screenings in several cities across India.  

what are the working conditions for documentary filmmakers in india now?
what is possible and what is impossible to shoot? what do you have some
permission for?

Working conditions have improved for many as quite a few films are being made today with some kind of foreign collaboration. Inevitably these usually reflect the concerns and tastes of their sponsors. Distribution within India remains abysmal and filmmakers who work hard to reach Indian audiences remain a rarity. 

As for permissions, I don’t ask, because the answer is always likely to be “No”. If I don’t get physically stopped, I figure I have permission, because I’m not using a hidden camera.

what is the situation with ajay tg now? are you somehow involved in the
case? are there some other documentary film makers punished for their work?

Ajay is finally out on bail but has to report regularly to the authorities. We have been showing his films and this month he will come to Pune and Bombay to attend further screenings. Sadly Dr. Binayak Sen who was the reason Ajay got arrested (Ajay had made a film about his medical and civil liberties work), remains in jail after well over a year.

censorship pressures seems to be ambiguous - on the one side you get
national film award, on the other side your film is banned by board. how are
those pressures distributed in government? associated with some parties?
which parts of gov are supporting freedom of speech, which are supressing

It must be confusing to those who don’t know India! Yes I have got national awards for films that the government had tried to ban. Then even after the award, it has again refused to screen them on TV until forced to do so by court. Maybe you can attribute it to democracy! Different arms of the government operate differently and even the government can be held accountable at times. For instance for its national awards the government appoints filmmakers, film critics and eminent citizens to be on the jury. In certain years, depending on the government, these jury members are pressurized but very often they are genuinely left alone. So the discrepancy between what a section of the government wanted and what they got.

If I had to generalize I’d say that the BJP was more pro-active in putting its own people at the helm culturally than the Congress has been, but the Congress is showing increasing signs of intolerance. In both cases it is public vigilance and action that ensures any degree of fairness and transparency. As reported, it was public action that forced the removal of censorship from MIFF in 2004 and it is public vigilance that will prevent further erosion of the right to expression.

what film do you shoot now? doc about enron in india (as written in the
media)? why?

I don’t really want to speak in public about my current film till it is done. But yes I do have a few films on the back burner and one of them is about Enron’s role in India.

in ,,occupation: mill-worker`` and partly also in ,,narmada diary`` is a
police violence told only in the titles. in ,,narmada diary`` you say, that
police used the absence of film crew for violent action. is the presence of
camera something protecting from such actions? could the spread of
small-and-cheap digital videocameras among the people be some new kind of

In “Occupation Millworker” the police action spoken about in the titles occurred at night when we had gone home so we missed shooting the event. The same thing happened in “A Narmada Diary”. When we went into the hotel looking for the World Bank officials the police launched a cane assault on the protesters gathered outside.

I do think that at times police violence is under some check when there are cameras present, though this is obviously not always the case. On two occasions the police have attacked my camera, in one case seriously damaging it. This was at a rally of slumdwellers led by Medha Patkar in Bombay in 2005 when the police tore into the crowd and started beating people. After several people were badly injured and my shirt was torn and camera damaged the police charged us with attacking them! This again is standard procedure. If the police is worried that protesters will file a suit against them for brutality, they file charges first!

But generally the presence of cameras is a good idea, partly as a deterrence, and partly to keep record of the police actions.

in ,,occupation: mill-worker`` you follow only the protests and final
victory of workers. did you follow the case even after that? (if so, wern't
you tempted to make it part of the film?) as a spectator, i'm pretty
curious, what happened then, whether the worker's rule over the factory was

“Occupation: Millworker” is a snapshot of history, a momentary victory for a small group of dedicated workers. History, sadly in some cases, does not stand still. Today the textile mills of Bombay have virtually closed down in the face of globalization. Millworkers are valiantly fighting, not anymore for their jobs, which have almost vanished, but for their housing. They still occupy a lot of prime land in Central Bombay and the government in cahoots with builders would dearly like to evict them. This is the next battle.

in ,,father, son and holly war`` you describe machoist background of
violence. did you choose some special events and people to support the idea,
or the idea rised after the actual shoot?

FSHW started as a film on communal violence in the mid 80’s. I did not have a pre-formulated idea. For a decade or so I filmed around this issue in various parts of India. The footage I gathered was very complex, and over time I sub-divided this material to make more sense of it.. What emerged is a kind of trilogy of which FSHW is the third part. The first part, “In Memory of Friends” looked at Punjab where the populace was caught between the terror tactics of a separatist Sikh movement and the counter terror of the State for whom every “Sikh” was suspect. “Memory” reminded people of the legacy of Bhagat Singh, a 23 year old left revolutionary Sikh who was hung by the British in 1931. For Bhagat Singh and his comrades class struggle was the antidote to communal frenzy. The second film was “In the Name of God” that traced the rise of Hindu fundamentalism which led to the carnage that followed the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992. In a sense this film went beyond class and looked also at caste and to some extent at liberation theology. FSHW for its part looked at both Hindu and Muslim religious mobilization from the prism of gender. It examines the patriarchal baggage that both men and women are forced to carry and shows how together with religious revival this compounds violence against women as well as violence between men.

--Honza Šípek