ELS DISCOURSE Episode 4: Dissent: On-Screen & Off-Screen

Speaker Profile: Anand Patwardhan

Mr. Anand Patwardhan is an Indian filmmaker. He usually makes documentaries on social issues and human rights issues. He has won numerous accolades, including national awards and Filmfare awards. He has majorly worked in this area through the means of his movies, which deal with the issues of Hindutva ideology, secularism, rationalism, superstition, the issues of casteism, etc. He’s engaged with the idea of dissent. his notable films include Bombay: Our City (1985), In the Name of God (Ram ke Nam) (1992), Father, Son, and Holy War (1995), War and Peace (2002) and Jai Bhim Comrade (2011).


Aanchal Bhateja: Starting off with the interview. You have contributed a great deal when it comes to the film industry and you have actually bridged the gap between the real and the reel between on screen and off screen by dealing with very humanistic issues that have a impact on people’s lives. What exactly were the events in your life or what was the infliction point exactly which influenced you and inspired you to work in this area and specially deal with issues which are generally considered to be very controversial in common parlance?

Anand Patwardhan: The only reason they’re considered controversial is because the state itself is not living up to what the Constitution says. Had the state been doing the work according to the Constitution, at least according to the preamble of the Constitution, then I wouldn’t have to make films because then things would be much better than they are. And as you pointed out, my films are mainly human rights related and if the human rights violations were not happening, then I wouldn’t need to do anything about it. But since they are and they have been for decades now, I didn’t start out deliberately to be a filmmaker. And as you know, I make only documentaries. I don’t make fiction films.

I I’ve been following various issues over the last forty five years and sometimes in the beginning I started out with actually being part of the movement that I ended up documenting. The very first time I started, I used the camera was, when I was a student in America at the time during the Vietnam War, and we as students were protesting against the Vietnam War. And I borrowed equipment to film some of those rallies. That was the first time I filmed. And then when I came back to India. I worked in a village project for a few years and then joined the movement in Bihar, a student movement, again against corruption and against many social issues, as well as the role of the state, and ended up making a documentary on the Bihar movement, which film went underground because an emergency was declared and during an emergency it was not allowed to show the film at all. And, then I made a film on political prisoners who had been imprisoned during the emergency, but also before the emergency and after the emergency. So that’s how I slowly became a filmmaker by trial and error.

Chaaru Gupta: The kind of films that you make, usually bring along a lot of issues with them such as censorship or judicial battles. So how has that experience been with the judiciary and the central board of film certification? And what makes you keep going despite all these issues?

Anand Patwardhan: In the beginning when I made the first two films, Waves of Revolution in the Bihar movement and Prisoners of Conscience during the emergency. Initially, I didn’t take it to the censor board. It was out of the question that these were underground. So we knew what the state was. The state already declared itself to be a kind of martial law state where people were being put in jail for this document. So the films had to be shown carefully. But after the emergency ended then we could show them openly and then after that, I got a censor certificate for both the films. But even then, even though we had a new government that had come to power on the promise of civil liberties, the Janata government at that time, they didn’t like that I had put an epilogue in my film, Waves of Revolution saying that the Janata government that the people were talking about in the film was not the same as the Janata government that had come to power and that the long term struggle for civil liberties would continue. They didn’t want that epilogue, so we fought against them. They refused to telecast for a long period. Finally, that film got telecast on Doordarshan and then prisoners of conscience again took some trouble with the censor board. They asked for cuts, but we asked to be voted out and at the revising committee stage we managed to get the film passed without any cuts.

As you know, in the censor board there’s a process within the censor board where you can appeal whatever their decision is to cut. The final authority within the censor system is to go to the FCATA – the Appellate tribunal, which usually has a retired judge on it. So many of my films went through that process and got passed at the last stage. Then came another stage of court battles that even if I if my film pass in the censor board. For instance, Bombay our city, was the first time we explored this courtroom. The film had got the censor certificate; it won a national award for best documentary, because in those days the government was not trying to control every single aspect of our society like it is today. In those days, they had an independent jury which gave it the national award. So on the basis of the national award, I went to Doordarshan saying that now you should broadcast the film for the public because the government has ruled us the best documentary in the country. But Doordarshan said it was not fit for telecast and so we went to court saying that how can the government give it an award and the same time say it is not good for telecast? Because it means that it wants only an elite audience and the jury to watch the film, but not the general public.

We argued on the grounds of freedom of expression, my freedom of expression and the public’s right to information. We said the both were being denied. We won that case. It took many years in court, but I had a very good lawyer in Bombay at the time, that is Mumbai, P.A. Sebastian. And he fought that case and subsequently for many more cases like that. So we went to court many times, sometimes to get a censor certificate and sometimes to get Doordarshan to telecast the films that had been already made.

And in the case of Father, Son and Holy War, which is the film I made in 1995, you fight about communal violence and the relationship with sexism, much of a macho, male dominated psyche in our country. And that film – we won the case in the high court. Then they went and appealed to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court sent it back to the High Court then we fought another case in the High Court, won that, then again, they went on appeal to the Supreme Court and finally we won in the Supreme Court.

All of these films will pass or telecast without a single cut. And the other interesting thing about the Father, Son and holy war was that the censor certificate that I got for that was an adult certificate, and not a universal certificate and Doordarshan has a rule saying that we cannot show adult films. But we argued in court that just because the film has got an adult certificate doesn’t mean that it’s not fit for the public to see. You can telecast it after children go to sleep, say, after 10:00 at night or something like that. And what if you were making a film on say childbirth or on AIDS or something like that? You’d be talking about things that normally would be given an adult certificate. But it’s important for the public to see it. We won that case, but that took 10 years and finally we won in the Supreme Court in 1997 or something like that.

Aanchal Bhateja: Your recent movie, Reason and many other movies as well, you’ve spoken about the idea of secular rationalism and you have debunked many superstitions. There has always been a collusion between the state and religion, even though Article 25 calls for the state maintain some distance from religions. But still, there has been a collusion between the state and religion. But you’ve been active in this field in the Congress area as well. Do you notice some change? Has this collusion between state and religion become more obvious and become more detrimental to our democracy? If yes, then in what specific ways? And how have you experienced it yourself throughout the process of movie making and engaging with the audience and the state?

Yeah, absolutely, it’s a lot worse than it was in the Congress era or any other era. I mean, I’ve been making films for, as I have said, forty five years. I’ve seen the Congress government. I’ve seen the United Front Government, VP Singh’s government and all those interim shut down governments have given. But no government has ever been as bad as the BJP government and the BJP government, BJP government, I mean, the alliance that is led by the BJP. And even then, there’s a difference between the first time the BJP came to power under Bajpayee and then the second time it has come to power under Modi and there’s a world of difference between the two in terms of what you could do and what we cannot do now.

I would say that what we’re living through right now is a lot worse than the emergency itself, even the emergency – when it was openly declared that people speaking against the state will be will be arrested, etc., things were at least declared in open, right? Now, that is happening without us being told that it’s happening. So whoever is a dissenter of any kind is under great threat, not only great threat of going to jail, but great threat to their own lives. And that’s what my last film Reason is about. Partly, it is about the killing of rationalists – Dr. Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh, are four examples of rationalists who were murdered.

And to date, their killers, the real killers have not been caught, even though I’m sure the government knows very well who the killers are, but they are not caught because they’re protected by the state. And in fact, there were people who were in jail for attacks. And they walked out of jail when this government came to power. So you see complete impunity. Apart from the killing of rationalists, the killing in the name of cow, in the name of beef and all kinds of horrific things are happening, rape murders are happening.

We are living in very insecure times in terms of those who believe in secular democracy. That apart, I’ll also point out the legal aspects. I mean, in the sense that as I described, I won so many court cases against the government either to get a censor certificate or to get my films shown on Doordarshan, which is a government run television. And we won all of those cases. But I wanted to test the waters under this new regime. With the film Reason, we first tested it because the film was selected to be shown at the Kerala Film Festival in 2019 and although it was selected, this was the only film that the government said could not be shown out of all the things that had been submitted.

They didn’t give any reason till the last day of the festival, they kept waiting. They waited until the last day and then they said it cannot be shown. But we went to court that very day in Kerala. Actually, the Kerala government went to the court and I went along with them in support. And we won that case in the morning and the film was shown at night. The court gave us permission for one screening at that festival. At the Mumbai International Film Festival, which happened this year, in February, I deliberately submitted the film knowing that they would reject it and they duly rejected it.

But then I went to court, along with the other filmmakers whose films had been rejected, films that have won awards all over the world. I mean, my Reason had won the main prize at one of the most respected documentary festivals in the world at Amsterdam and another film Janani’s Juliet had won at the Kerala Film Festival. For these two films, we went as co-petitioners saying that they hadn’t followed any due process when they were doing selection and they were doing backdoor censorship through the selection process.

Again, that in normal times, I’m sure we would have won this case. The first day when we were in court, the judge was all on our side upbraiding the government for doing this and trying to censor my films over so many decades. He knew the history. He was telling it to the government lawyers. But then the weekend came and the next Monday when the court re-began, when the case re-began, he said, you know I can substitute myself for the selection panel. How do I know that there were not better films than yours? Once he started saying that, he offered our lawyer the chance to withdraw the case and our lawyer basically told me that it’s better that we withdraw rather than lose the case, because if we lose, it would become a precedent and set a bad precedent for others. We withdrew that case. But that’s an example of how it’s so difficult now to find judges who will stand up to this system.

Aanchal Bhateja: Building on that question. So, just to follow up, in what terms you have seen the interaction between religion and state – religion, let’s say the Hindutva ideology particularly. To what extent have you seen the engagement of state increase with the Hindutva ideology or any other religion or preferential treatment being meted out a certain religions? To what extent have you seen that increase in the post 2014 era vis-à-vis the Congress era or any other era before 2014?

Anand Patwardhan: I mean, there are many horrific things that this government has done since coming to power in 2014, demonetization was one of them. I’m not even going through all the economic woes that have landed on us because of misrule but let’s just talk about communal harmony. For instance, they have given, but they’ve not issued a statement saying that we will forgive all the Hindutva attackers for whatever they do. But in reality, that seems to be happening with people who have attacked Muslims in the name of beef eating – sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly. Rightly, in the sense that sometimes they actually having beef and sometimes they didn’t even have beef, but they were just targeted. And so people have been killed and the guilty have not been punished, or rarely punished, because I know I don’t know how many people are still in jail for having murdered or attacked people in the name of beef.

Similarly, look at what they did in Kashmir. They completely changed the entire geography and history of Kashmir. Kashmir, came to India, acceded to India on certain grounds, on certain prerequisites, and they changed those rules and they also basically imposed a complete lockdown on Kashmir long before the pandemic. They actually shut it down, they shut off the Internet, they put their democratically elected people in jail for a long, long time and only now a few of them are coming out of jail and then they abrogated the one thing that they had promised that people from outside Kashmir will not be able to do to change the demography of the state. it’s a Muslim dominated state and obvious attempt is now to change that demography. I’m not saying this already have started by buying the land but they are making provisions for that and then the biggest blow of all in terms of the open defiance of our Constitution would be the Citizenship Amendment Act.

They passed it, rammed it down the throats of the parliament. It’s an act that, in my view I think, completely against the spirit of our Constitution because it denies equality before the law to people on the basis of religion. If you’re a Muslim, then you are discriminated in a way that other who are like Hindus are not. So they are welcoming towards Hindus who want to come back to India, but they are ensuring that Muslims who may want to come back to India would not be given the same rights.

Chaaru Gupta: This was regarding the level of tolerance towards dissent that the state has. Do you think that the difference between right now and 30 years earlier has also changed in terms of the response of the viewers towards dissent?

There are many kinds of viewers. Viewers that watch Arnab Goswami, that’s a different situation. I can’t speak for those viewers. I think those viewers probably maybe enjoying what they see. I don’t know. It’s hard to believe that anybody could enjoy that. But as far as my own viewership, I don’t think that things are worse than before. I get a positive response from the audience whenever I am there in person. Nowadays, we can’t do that because of the pandemic. We were locked down. We’re not doing any public speaking with an audience present that we’re doing a lot of online screenings and we get responses that way. But I think that actually there is a lot of dissent in our country, plenty, much more than people imagine. But it’s not visible. It’s not visible because there’s no big forum. I mean, for instance, even the relatively middle of the road channels, like NDTV, etc., they don’t call me on TV anymore because the atmosphere is such that they don’t probably want anyone with strong opinions that they would maybe feel embarrassed to air.

So our presence in the national mainstream has become much smaller than before. But on places like the Internet, etc., we can still have viewership. Either way, it’s like what is what we’re seeing right now, for instance, there are potentially cases on film makers in Delhi whom the government now claims were part of the Delhi Riot and instigating the Delhi Riot when all they were doing was basically doing relief work after the riots that happened and they may have gone to the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, which I also did. We did that. I went to Shaheen Bagh, but I went to also we had protests in Mumbai. There were things like Shaheen Bagh all over the country and people were voicing their protest. In Mumbai, we had a rally in which one and a half lakhs of people came out and on the 19th of December against this Citizenship Amendment Act and it was so huge and wonderful. I’ve never seen a rally that’s huge and that happened under this regime and that is what actually probably scared them into maybe ensuring that something like Delhi Riots happen and then they could crush that form of dissent.

I mean, at least, that’s my allegation. I don’t have proof because I don’t know. I am not there on the ground. But from everything I read and everyone I speak to, it seems like that was a preplanned riot. And it wasn’t preplanned by the protesters.

Aanchal Bhateja: As a filmmaker, you’ve interacted with law and law enforcement authorities at two levels. First, you have had experiences of your own with the state negotiating forum, negotiating with the CBFC, and then in movies like Jai Bheem Comrade, you’ve interacted with minority communities yourself. What do you think the role of a lawyer in a post 2014 India would be in order to enable people from various walks of life?  Be it a filmmaker, or Dalit, let’s say, or Muslim, let’s say. So what is the role of a lawyer in ensuring that these people have a right to dissent, which has been given to us under Article 19(1)(a), especially in the light of the various incidents like the arrest of people from the minority communities recently, or like the Supreme Court’s treatment of the right to protest or like people like Sudha Bharadwaj and Stan Swamy being booked under UAPA, etc. What do you think the role of a lawyer would be in such a scenario?

Anand Patwardhan: Firstly, we need human rights lawyers like we never needed them before in the sense that we need more and more people to take to that kind of work. Of course, in my case, for instance, a lot of my lawyers and I have had only Sebastian in Mumbai and we had Prashant Bhushan in the Supreme Court and what these lawyers did pro bono work, they did not charge me money. When I could afford it, I did pay what I could not to Prashant but to Sebastian because he himself worked for free for so many people and he needed that money. But there was no demand for money, it was done out of solidarity and we need those kind of lawyers. There will always be such lawyers but we need them in greater number. I hope some of you will go in that direction. Then more than lawyers we also want some of the lawyers to become judges. Because that’s the other big problem that we are having right now. We don’t have judges who have courage, who will stand up to what the system is trying to do which is basically destroying the independence of the judiciary. People who will stand up for what the constitution says and speaks to that no matter what the rewards being offered or what the punishments being threatened are.

Chaaru Gupta: Just one last question, are there any readings that you would suggest to our readers and viewers that they should read probably?

Anand Patwardhan: Readings, I don’t read a lot of this kind of literature much but I just recently these films that you would. In fact, there’s one film on Netflix that you should watch as young lawyers, it’s called the Trial of the Chicago placed which took place in America and in fact one of those people in the film – I was in the jail with him because I also in the Vietman War in 1971.

There are several more, in fact, we run a weekly documentary film festival so if you are either on Facebook or on my WhatsApp I will share the links with you so every week we show a good documentary either from India or from Abroad and some of them with legal cases.

Aanchal Bhateja: Sir, it was wonderful taling to you and specially knowing the perspective of a filmmaker and their interaction with law and dissent was essentially a very interesting enterprise that we could have at Economics Law and Social Sciences Review and we hope to have more and more of dissenters like you in film making and in other areas because that’s what our country needs today and it was certainly a pleasure talking to you and we look forward to having more of such interactions in the future as well sir.

Chaaru Gupta: Thank you so much, sir.

Anand Patwardhan: I am glad that there are young lawyers who will be lawyers soon who will take up such battles.

Host – Chaaru Gupta & Aanchal Bhateja.

Technical Editor – AarzoGang.

Transcript – Aarzoo Gang & Prakhar Raghuvanshi.

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