A Declaration of Independence (Anand Patwardhan GR '22 keynote)
Editor’s Note: Anand Patwardhan, renowned as one of India’s greatest filmmakers, has amassed a considerable body of work over the course of his 50-year career, interrogating the sociopolitical systems that have convulsed India for decades. Patwardhan is the very model of an independent artist—principled about his funding sources, streamlined in his budgeting, focused on the communities he documents.
Rather than a keynote address at Getting Real 2022, the programming team devised a keynote conversation with filmmaker/writer Blair McClendon, who generated a stimulating discourse about independence, ethics and solidarity. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
BLAIR McCLENDON: So I thought we would start with this question of independence. When we were talking before about this conversation, what came up really early on is that you have been able, for a very long time, to maintain both editorial and financial independence in creating your work. How do you define independence in independent filmmaking, and why has that been such an important part of your process in making these films?
ANAND PATWARDHAN: I never became a filmmaker because this was what I really wanted to do. I became a filmmaker almost by accident because I was participating in justice movements and thought the best way to spread this was to document it on film. I could have written articles, but with low literacy levels and multiple languages an audiovisual medium was more useful.
So I got into it slowly over time, and then eventually it became the way that I could contribute the best.
As far as independence is concerned, one motivation was that I was always making films that were critical of the government of the day. For over 50 years. And because I was doing that, there was always the possibility, almost a certainty, that if I had taken money from outside sources, say internationally—in India raising money was not easy—then I could be accused of somebody else using me as a medium.
So I decided to not do that. I raised the money initially from my parents and friends, and I borrowed equipment. For a long time the films were made with outdated equipment borrowed from other people, and a lot of free labor from my friends who helped in doing camera until I learned how to use the camera myself over time.
Though the films are very low budget, the budget is actually invisible because it depends on a lot of free labor.
BM: And why have you across time then maintained that streak?
AP: One reason was that otherwise it could be seen as something somebody else was saying. I grew up in a time when corporations were seen as evil. It’s not like today, where it is an accepted practice to go to any big foundation. We saw this as dirty money sometimes and wanted to create an oppositional practice that would not depend on this kind of funding.
I was also very conscious that if I got big money from anywhere, any one particular source, then they would control what I had to say. Or they would tell me how to say it. So what I chose as a practice was to try and sell the films after they were made—not to take money beforehand. If there was an exceptional presale of some kind at some point, where I knew that my film would be screened no matter how long it was or what it was saying, then that would be okay. If you look at any of my films, you will never see long credits at the end listing foundations that put money into it.
BM: What’s the process for you, then, in finding collaborators? What are you looking for when you’re meeting these people who are helping you out with this?
AP: As I said, there are no collaborators in the production process, in terms of funding. But there are people who have helped. Exceptionally the movements that I was filming would contribute. But usually that didn’t happen because they didn’t have any money. On one occasion, the fish workers union put some money into a film. But that was very rare.
BM: You have always been very intentional about how your films get seen, making sure they actually get seen in places that you’re working in. Could you talk a little bit about what was the impetus for that? And also, what is the process for getting these screenings happening?
AP: I think I can relate it to one of the clips screened here. In fact we chose the clip because it highlights that issue. The first clip you saw, from Bombay: Our City, where a homeless person is turning back saying, “Why are you filming the poor? You’re going to get rich and famous doing this, but it’s going to do nothing for us.”
This is actually a question I have to address every time I make a film. We’re often making films about other peoples’ misery or about injustices done to them. Unless I thought that there was some potential that my filmmaking was actually going to draw attention and help mitigate a situation, I’d have no ethical right to go ahead and make the film. It meant that after a film was made, we had to make sure that it was used in that way. And we often did lots of screenings for working-class audiences.
BM: That section in Bombay: Our City has always struck me, where she’s asking the question that is always stalking a bit in documentary and journalism. But I wanted to push on what we talked about before—this question of what’s the ethical way to make a film and the political way to make a film. You’ve talked a little bit about coming out of these movements. How have you been reconciling the answer of what a film can do from the moment she pushes back on you? What keeps you going in making that work?
AP: Basically this kind of documentary filmmaking is potentially an act of voyeurism. We are looking at things happening in real life. You give yourself that right if you convince yourself that it is going to be useful to the people you’re filming. In that particular case, this was the first time we had gone to that area. I was already working with a civil liberties group that was fighting for the Right to Shelter to be included as a Fundamental Right in the Indian Constitution. But the woman who had lost her home that day didn’t know us at all. And she assumed we were like most journalists coming to take pictures. That it was a movie camera didn’t occur to her at the time.
Later when we finished the film and showed it in the area, she loved it and wanted to see the film again and again and show it to everyone. It was an act of empowerment to see herself on a big screen, when she had only so far seen big movie stars on the big screen.
Witnessing this, I think I did successfully convince myself that these films were of some use.
BM: And you said before that you turned to filmmaking not with the intention of, “I’m going to be a big star.” But coming out of these movements, do you still consider yourself to be a member of those struggles? And if so, where do you slot yourself in those movements?
AP: There is truth in what she had said. I made a name for myself over time being a filmmaker. And I have privileges that don’t exist for everybody. Today rather than being a full-time activist on the ground, my contribution is largely through cinema. I think that especially today, when there’s so much fake news and so much right-wing propaganda out there in a country like India, and I’m sure in a country like America, these oppositional moments are very important to capture. I know the State doesn’t want us to show these films. They try to suppress them all the time. Which actually tells me that we’re on the right track. We’re saying something useful. If only we could get an audience.
BM: In thinking a little bit more, too, about something we were talking about that comes out of that question, is that you’ve been in this very particular place where because of your commitments, you often are filming people who are, for many different reasons, quite different from you. And there’s been lots of discussion here and pretty much everywhere in media and the arts about who gets to tell who’s story. How do you approach that question, and why do you keep doing this work? What has set you up to find value in being that opposition, even if you are in some ways outside it?
AP: I’m certainly privileged in comparison to many of the people I’m filming, so basically I see my role as someone who is using a position of privilege to offer solidarity. For instance, if a Muslim in India had made In the Name of God or Reason, their life would be in far greater danger than mine is.
The argument that this takes away space from endangered communities to make their own films is really an argument that protects the status quo. As access to filmmaking increases, the endangered are indeed making their own films. There is no competition between us. We’re on the same side. Why should the space to talk about all this be limited?
BM: Speaking more broadly, over the course of your career, there’s a way to look at your body of work and you can chart a certain political tendency in these films that gains over the time, culminating in Reason. The question is, How do you look back at this work when you’re sounding an alarm, repeatedly?
AP: I’m not some great truthsayer, but at least since the ’90s I’ve been talking about the rise of fundamentalism and in the ’90s it wasn’t taken seriously, even though the evidence was right there. And now, we’re on the road to fascism. It hasn’t reached full-blown fascism, but it’s on that path and you can see it very clearly.
I think, if you look at the films as a body of work, you see the trajectory of what’s been happening over 50 years. It’s been happening long before I started making films. It’s been happening for more than 100 years. And people have documented it, people have written about it. But again, all of our voices put together are not reaching a kind of critical mass where everybody wakes up and says, This is not the right path.
I think it’s too early to compare the present with the early days of Nazi Germany. But you see the phenomena. And you see that people are not actually paying attention. I’m not only talking about people in India. I’m talking internationally. People are not paying attention.
BM: In something like Reason, that just feels like so clearly a mapping of a descent into something, at what point in making Reason did it occur to you that that’s the container to you, that you’re plotting this loss of reason? Was that from the get-go you were thinking that’s the trajectory of this? Or did that come together over the long process of making it? Because it took quite a while to make.
AP: Reason took three years. Jai Bhim Comrade, the film before it, took 14 years.
BM: You were speeding up! (laughs). How did you get to that container of the loss of reason as a way to think through this footage and this phenomenon?
AP: One thing is, in the early days, we were branded as Leftists. Well, for them it’s an insult. But over time, it’s no longer necessary for them to say left wing or Communist, Socialist or whatever. Even “democractic rights” became bad words. The State claims democracy. But they deny it to everybody else, to the extent that now the word “intellectual” is used as a pejorative. So that’s how Reason comes into it. Because the act of reason is already becoming an act of treason.
BM: I don’t mean to put the “what is to be done?” question to you, but I do think in re-watching your work, it really does chart the rise or the descent into something. And as you’re saying, it’s not even that you are a Communist and there’s this tradition you’re calling on. But when you look at this, when you see something standing on the brink and you’re still going out there and still trying to make it work. What direction are you looking? How do you turn this around?
AP: Well, my response to when I’m called a left revolutionary or an “anti-national” is that I believe in non-violent action. If you look at all the films, there’s never a moment where I’m advocating any armed-struggle overthrow of the State. I’m talking about non-violent processes and people who are using non-violence to fight back and resist. So it’s really far-fetched for them to see me as some—not me alone—I’m talking about a whole lot of people who are in jail right now, for non-violently resisting, for non-violently talking about the injustices that have been carried out, or the atrocities on and the killings of minorities. That is the period we’re going through right now. Mine is just a small act of solidarity with them.
BM: You said the word “solidarity” twice; I like that word. Where does that figure in for you? Because that does to me what I liked about your answer earlier: It really does unlock a lot of these questions about identities and telling these stories and working forward the question, Are you working from a position of solidarity or not? And I’m wondering now in this position that you’re describing, where the people who are on the same side, as are being imprisoned or under attack, as things ratchet up, what does that solidarity demand of you? What does it demand of the work you keep making? Does it change the work you make, how you’re showing it? How do you feel your work changes according to the conditions you’re in?
AP: Very honestly, I don’t think my work has changed that much. I went from Super 8 to very poor quality black and white 16 mm, then to color, and then from 16 millimeter to Hi-8 video and Mini-DV. Only the last film that I made, Reason, was made on high definition. We haven’t reached 4K yet!
So that’s the only change I see. And also I got a little better in terms of camerawork. And I got probably a little better as an editor. But I don’t think my thought process changed very radically. Maybe I tried to avoid being didactic. I might have been a little more didactic earlier. I don’t think I’m less didactic now but it’s better disguised.
BM: What made you feel like you should disguise the didacticism?
AP: Basically what I’m trying to do is get the audience to think things out. I don’t want to say, This is what it is. I just want to present the evidence. And so I think I’m being like a lawyer. And I actually had to become sort of a lawyer; my films were always in court.
I’m trying to present evidence. I take a lot of care to not make factual mistakes. And I’m willing to change anything if I have made a factual mistake. I can correct it, especially in the days of video. In the days of film, it was hard to correct anything. But I’m basically making an argument. And that’s what I mean by still being didactic, in a sense. But I’m allowing the audience to come to those conclusions, rather than me providing the conclusions.
One thing that we should revisit slightly is distribution or funding. I do think that there’s something wrong in an international system where so much emphasis is put on pitching to people who are not necessarily from the community that is making the film, or the community that the film is about, but are only the gatekeepers. Once at a well-known film festival, I was invited to observe a pitching session. It felt like a gong show: three minutes and you’re out. Today this is the norm. It probably brings out the lowest common denominator in how films are made.
I think internationally there needs to be space for the one-off documentary that is made with passion by people who raise the money themselves. But there is no such space. Because what has happened now over time is that if you don’t take money from a sales agent or a foundation to make a film, your film becomes invisible. You don’t know what to do. You can’t get it on TV. Most of my films have never been on TV. In the early days, in the ’80s, some of them did get onto Channel 4 in UK; one got onto BBC, in a shorter version. Luckily I was allowed to make the shorter version myself.
But films like Jai Bhim Comrade or Reason have not been shown anywhere in the world except in Taiwan, which showed a shorter version of Reason. There is like a virtual blockade against this kind of cinema. Because you didn’t take anybody’s money, nobody is interested in pushing it. So I think we do need to fight for space on at least public channels, where there can be a spot created for independent documentaries that are independently made
BM: We have time for a few questions.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, I really appreciate you speaking today. I’m curious how you balance the urgency of making a film like Reason, or something that feels very timely, with a desire to make it right and to let it take its time and to get involved and really know a community so that it doesn’t feel like an outsider coming in and telling someone else’s story. You said you worked on one documentary for 14 years. How do you do that?
AP: It’s not that I wanted to take so long. And it’s not that I made only one film in those 14 years; I actually made two films. But it took 14 years because one film, Jai Bhim Comrade, kept growing. It started because the police had killed 10 people from the Dalit community. Dalits have historically been treated as “untouchables” or “low caste.” The police just shot into a colony where they lived and killed 10 people on the spot. A Dalit friend, a musician I had filmed in Bombay: Our City, witnessed this act—and committed suicide by hanging himself in his own tiny home.
And so I started exploring his music, a lot of which I had recorded previously. Since he was no more, I started looking at other musicians from the community. And I started following the court cases that began after the police killings. As they always do, to cover their backs, the police put counter-cases on the people they had shot at in the community.
As all of these court cases unraveled, time kept passing. That’s how it ended up taking 14 years. I could do this precisely because I wasn’t making a commissioned film. Nobody was saying, now you’ve got to deliver it and it’s got to be this long. So that act of independent production frees you to do the film that needs to be done—although I finally finished it because the film needed to be shown as well. And then we did hundreds of public screenings.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I just wonder, if primarily you’re an activist, how do you cope with the frustration that you’re making films in order to inform, if they don’t get shown and they don’t get a wide audience? Are you going around and showing them locally?
AP: Well, we’re not doing too much of that at this moment. Because even that has become dangerous and difficult to do. Now the public screenings we do are by word of mouth and not through open announcements.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: But essentially you’re preaching to the converted because you’re showing it to communities who know it’s going on.
AP: Even when you show it to people who somewhat agree with what you’re saying, it’s a morale booster. Which is needed. Because people are depressed by the fact that there’s no resistance.
And it’s not true that people across the board know or agree. With people from the middle classes, when we do college screenings or other such screenings, there’s always lots of disagreement. The right wing used to come to heckle us and try to stop the screenings, or mess up the discussion afterwards by being obnoxious in the Q&A. But they started to lose people. Some of the people who watched the films actually woke up. Because it’s not the story they had been told. So I do believe that these kinds of films have the power to change people’s perceptions.
That’s precisely why they are not being allowed to be seen widely. And as I said, even internationally, the stories that need to be told are not being told in the way they need to be told. Because when something has the real power to change society, there will be a systemic way to stop it. There obviously is. Otherwise we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, thank you so much for sharing your work. In the first clip, where the woman is speaking about being exploited in image, how have you reconciled that over your career? How do you engage your subjects so that they don’t feel exploited?
AP: As I said, in that particular case, she didn’t feel exploited at the end when she actually saw the film. But this is an ongoing question. It is something you can never be reconciled with fully. And in fact, it’s most of the time true that the filmmaker is getting more out of it than the subjects are. But an awareness of that keeps you honest.
BM: You mentioned solidarity and being in solidarity with communities when making work or thinking about work. And I’m curious if you have a process of interrogating yourself for your own filmmaking, like whether or not you might be avoiding looking at certain truths or maybe being less objective. Do you have a process of interrogating your own views as you’re making a film? Does that make sense?
AP: It makes sense but I think the moment you put that process down on paper, or think it out theoretically, it’s no longer probably true. Because this has to be an internal process. It has to be something that you internalize in a way that makes you produce something of value to the people that you’re filming. There are so many theories about all of this. There’s the act of being self-reflexive—showing your camera in the frame. It’s not a theoretically thought-out process for me. And I don’t think it actually can be. It would become artificial if I laid a formula for myself to follow. That’s why I always find the theoretical question of ethics problematic. It’s something that is much more a package deal of many things, of all that you grew up with and all the values that you have. It’s not something that you necessarily teach yourself. Not consciously, anyway.
There’s a four-minute music video that I made about the screenings that we did mainly in working-class neighborhoods: We don’t have time to screen it today, but let me describe it to you. We put up bamboo poles and bed sheets to make a large outdoor screen, and then we played a lot of music to gather the audience in the community. We always choose the music carefully. We often play old Bollywood songs, though it wasn’t Bollywood in those days. In the ’60s and ’70s, we still had a lot of progressive culture and a lot of films were made by people who were on the side of the majority. And so we played those kind of songs to attract the audience. And they came, sometimes in the thousands, sometimes standing for hours as there were too few chairs.
BM: You talked about the injustices these people were suffering. As you keep making this work, what would justice look like for the people who you have been filming with?
AP: I don’t know, I haven’t seen it recently.
BM: Good answer.
AP: But right now I think I’m asking for very little. The film Reason is asking for very little. I just want people to think things out. I’m just saying, Don’t be stupid.
BM: Good advice for everybody.