Ananad Patwardhan does not care about easy applause. The director who made his name by insightful, hard-hitting documentaries, taking into the spotlight subjects of significance as well as controversy, has been turning his camera toward unrests and tensions since early 70’s. So far, his areas of interest included social inequalities, reality of the oppressed, Dalit movement, the origins of Babri Masjid demolition, patterns of masculinity woven into the context of sexual violence, and nationalistic rhetoric combined with the militarization of discourse accompanying the India-Pakistan nuclear tests. All those issues intertwine, creating a complex web of connections. Patwardhan’s works earned him international recognition and awards in India and abroad, hence in 2014 he was honoured with the prestigious V. Shantaram Lifetime Achievement Award at the Mumbai International Film Festival. However, running into trouble with the system due to his choice of subjects, the director has many times faced government’s censorship as well as fought numerous prolonging court battles to get his films broadcast in India.
Reason is screening at Watch Docs
“Reason” (Vivek), premiered at Toronto and awarded in Amsterdam, is not intended to buy ardent followers. Quite the opposite, it has every chance to cause a stir as well. With the previously tested structure of a chapter-split film essay, Patwardhan, a secular rationalist, once again raises topics that provoke heated disputes and social unrest (read: communal violence resulting in aggression and bloodshed) in India. Hence he brings the darker face of the world’s biggest democracy to light.
Through the 240 minutes of his documentary, the director wastes no time, setting wider contexts, presenting evidence, talking to witnesses along with participants of incidents and people representing both sides of the debate, composing, as it is rightly put by the political sciences and indology specialist Weronika Rokicka, an indictment act. And the role of the accused falls to the Indian government, since Patwardhan sees the ruling right wing Bharatiya Janata Party’s (Indian People’s Party) promoted narration, allowing fringe ideologies to sneak into the mainstream, as the cause of the troubling wave of violence sweeping over the country with increasingly brutal force since 2014, when the party gained a broad majority control in Parliament.
The director unhurriedly, without exclaiming charges, feverishly and with precision constructs his reasoning. Whenever we hear his voiceover, it surely belongs to the bright, cautious orator, who not only poses probing questions but also challenges the audience to ask their own. Those moments, however, when he allows himself to speak, are rare. Patwardhan only provides a concise commentary, necessary to fit in all the elements of a puzzle or to begin a new train of thought. He follows people, archival news footage, and participates in events, posing as a witness and a prosecutor at the same time.
We know the context from media. Prime minister Narendra Modi and his ministers condemn all the acts of violence; though many commentators criticize the government for not taking a firmer stance against them and not ensuring the proper measures to fight them. Far too often the rulers’ sympathies drift toward fringe groups and alarming connections are being exposed. Contrary to the “unity in diversity” concept of nation, underlining the country’s multicultural, multiethnic, and multireligious heritage, the nationalistic vision of BJP offers a monolith. The state of one religion (Hinduism, omnipresent in public life), one language (reinforcing Hindi domination, hence marginalization of Dravidians), and one Sanskrit (not to allude Aryan) cultural legacy. The attachment to the truthful tradition is reflected by proper outfits as well. Thus Modi’s opponents mock that a suit indeed does make a true patriot. In that narration, not only the British colonizers are the invaders and oppressors, but also the Mughals or the rulers who, centuries back, established the Delhi sultanate. Consequently, the monuments like Taj Mahal have become the thorn in radicals’ side. The names of the cities, stations and streets are being changed to uproot the Muslim heritage.
Patwardhan alarms that the extreme right wing-shaped patriotism takes a blatant form when various attempts to re-write history arise. Therefore the XVII-century Marathi king Shivaji who fought the Mughals is glorified to enforce Hindu-centric narrations, yet the fact he had Muslims as close associates and officers and by no means was anti-Muslim or anti-Islamic is omitted. The grand plans of erecting a 200-plus meter high Shivaji statue intended to “make the nation proud” seem bitterly comical.
In a similar attempt to alter history, VD Savarkar, a Hindutva ideologue and dubious hero opposing inclusive values, became nationalists’ towering icon. (For the curious, a small example of “the icon’s” views on caste: All that the caste system has done is to regulate its noble blood on the lines believed – and on the whole rightly believed – by our saintly and patriotic law-givers and kings to contribute most to fertilize and enrich all that was barren and poor, without famishing and debasing all that was flourishing and nobly endowed.)
We will not see it in the documentary, but let me remind you for the record that the infamous local politician, who offered a reward for beheading actress Deepika Padukone as well as the director Sanjay Leela Bhansali for the alleged defamation of the legendary queen in yet-to-be-screened “Padmavaat”, was of BJP.
These are but few examples of the many that set a fertile soil for the ideas of, transforming India into Hindu State to sprout (in one of the scenes we see a fervent advocate of India spreading from shore to shore, absorbing not only Pakistan, but also Afghanistan and Myanmar). Furthermore, the “Upsetting religious sentiments” phrase has turned into a chorus. The saffron-coloured fascism, dividing the citizens according to their beliefs and caste, inflames more and more minds like a disease. From the director’s point of view, Brahmanism is the cause of the endless war against imaginary demons as well as the convenient excuse for dominance, impunity, and supremacy.
In such socio-political landscape, liberal intellectuals and activists opposing religious violence, fighting superstitions, advocating minorities’ rights, or questioning the imposed narration in any other way, receive threats and subsequently are executed.
Patwardhan cites few prominent examples such as rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, exposing false gurus and battling blind faith, whose efforts resulted in Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Ordinance in Maharashtra. The other mentioned is communist Govind Pansare, adversary of cast discrimination and author of the publication clarifying the true nature of king Shivaji’s rule. Finally, fearless journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was very vocal about criticizing nationalist policy. What those people had in common apart from their views and will to make them public? They were shot dead by unknown attackers on motorbikes. No breakthroughs and arrests in all three cases, combined with sloppy investigations leading nowhere for months are another link. Patwardhan sees the clues that should be taken into consideration.
He also portrays other citizens fighting for human rights and secular state, including students campaigning on campuses. Among them, the tragic fate of Rohit Vemula is particularly heartbreaking. The Rohit’s story combines the threads of Dalits’ discrimination with the pattern of repressions aimed at the government’s critics (A theme so familiar from “Jai Bhim Comrade”). Because of all of that “Reason” might help foreign audience to understand why the communism (or should I rather say “socialism”) fell on such a fertile ground in India. Those ideological sympathies aren’t a skipped history lesson, but a search for the healthy alternative of the culture-sanctioned oppression and the attempt to protect the fragile ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
In the name of the cow segment confronts the events that frighteningly often hit Indian headlines – lynches conducted on people suspected of cattle slaughter or eating beef. As international organizations (like Human Rights Watch) alarm, the majority of religionist vigilantes’ attacks are directed towards Muslims (having beef in their diet) and Dalits (who due to the order imposed by the “culture” perform dirty jobs like slaying, removing carcass or tanning leather). The director gives special attention to the case in which the angry mob attacked a fellow elder villager after the announcement of alleged “beef consumption crime” coming from the local temple. None had made any effort to investigate the rumours before the carnage started. Moreover, the father of two of the perpetrators, confronted with the forensic facts that the disputed meat was mutton, answers with gruesome disbelief that he perfectly knows what he saw that day. Listening to the victim’s son testimony, calmly narrating the events, can make a heart sink, his unshattered trust in the state’s foundations, despite the fact it failed him miserably in the task of protecting his family, seems utterly bitter. “I was happy to be born here,” he claims. “Where else would I find such a great country,” he adds faithfully.
Religious absurdities are also exposed earlier, illustrated by the example of barring women from places of worship. For a change, it is not a Hindu temple that is disputed (though Sabarimala’s case is still vivid in memory), but the Mumbai-based Sufi shrine of Haji Ali. This sequence proves that extreme nationalism, obviously combined with patriarchy, attracts both male and female supporters. One of the vocal ladies fervently agitates that as a woman, she has to emphasise that women are impure, because they give birth, breastfeed, and have periods, thus they should not be allowed inside so as not to disturb the saint in his holy tomb. When someone else asks in irritated voice, “And what about men ejaculating every day?” she replies, “This is inappropriate question, I won’t answer it”.
Discussing those issues, Patwardhan also raises serious doubts about activities of organisations like Sanatan Sanstha. Villagers from Ramnathi where Sanatan launched its ashram-posing headquarters requested the state authorities to either ban it or move it from the area. The director points out the complete lack of control over the sect, and in the light of evidence, he suggests, among SS’s other possible offences, its links to terrorist acts and the possibility of organising militant training camps disguised as self-defence lessons.
Big guns are also called in against Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organisation) and its affiliate Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (All Indian Student Council). RRS’s followers advertise their group’s selfless mission of backing up world equity, justice, and peace. Yet it cannot be forgotten that the group was banned after Gandhi’s murder (the plot and the act came from the RSS members) as well as after Babri Masjid demolition. Additionally, the organisation commonly faces various religious violence accusations.
Allowing the members of fringe groups to speak, gives the audience a unique insight into their blind faith in the cause. Frustrating is the vision of the young male who mentions he neither studies nor works, to be able to fully devote to his service, no matter if it is an ordinary beating or creating a havoc. No less alarming are the images of a rally with extremists dressed in comical uniforms, which bear disturbing resemblances to Europe’s history from the first half of the XX century. Undermining the facts combined with laying claims of preaching the most truthful of truths, adds up to the ultra right winger’s effigy.
Nonetheless, the most shocking revelations come with the chapter Terror and the stories of terror disclosing the darkest side of extreme Hindutva. We hear about the attacks mirroring the jihadists activities conducted by Hindu fanatics. Their purpose is to rouse anti-Muslim sentiments, provoke violence, and in broader perspective, to support the idea of Hindu State with substantial arguments. Patwardhan recalls the 2006 bomb blasts in Goa’s town of Malegaon. Initially, the usual Muslim suspects had been arrested based on doctored evidence. Further investigation revealed involvement of the fringe Hindu group Abhinav Bharat. The breakthrough in the case had been provided by Hemant Karkare, the chief of the Mumbai Anti-Terrorist Squad, who later was killed in action during the Mumbai attacks in 2008. In relation to his death, Pratwardhan gives voice to S.M. Mushrif, a former policeman and the author of book “Who Killed Karkare?: The Real Face of Terrorism in India”, whose bold conspiracy theory shouldn’t be easily rejected or ridiculed. Mushrif claims Karkare did not fall victim to the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists, and that the part of the attacks tormenting Mumbai a decade back was allegedly orchestrated by Hindu terrorists. Asked whether he fears for his his life, SMM replies that he no longer does, as his potential death would draw too much unwanted attention to his book.
Patwardhan’s vision invokes many concerns. Not only about future scenarios for India. Unfortunately, affairs such as religion interfering with swelling number of aspects of the public life’s, the national pride rhetoric combined with supremacy gripping over the majority of a population, and the revisionism hitting the history textbooks seem to become a pattern all over the world. Another recurring theme are citizens. Tired of the stagnant order and hoping for a change, they turn to dealers of brisk populist slogans who enable them to bind in unity against a common foe: be it the outside enemy lurking at the borders or the inner one, in the form of corruption, injustice, and power pacts.
Though, there is still hope, as long as there are unbending free-thinkers ready to take risks. Like Sheetal Sathe, known from the director’s “Jai Bhim Comrade”, briefly shown also in “Reason”. In spite of attempts to silence her, she still sings about inequalities and fights for justice.
The question remains, however, whether “Reason” can have a changing impact. The position of ruling BJP seems unshaken so far, though some recent losses in assembly elections may launch a warning sign for the rulers. In the face of upcoming Parliament elections, would the politicians risk allowing the movie release in India? In a democratic society it should be left to the citizens to decide whether they agree with the Patwardhan’s accusation act or reject it as a bunch of nonsense.
Yet, heaving heard that a few days back a local screening of Lalit Vachani’s “The Men in the Tree” (2002), the documentary harshly criticizing the RSS, was disrupted by the police, I foresee that “Reason” might not be reasonably received…