Seeing Reason in Anand Patwardhan’s Latest Documentary Vivek

Written by Souradeep Roy | Published on: December 22, 2018


“Anyone who sees my films is my audience,” said Anand Patwardhan after the screening of his documentary Vivek (Reason). The film premiered at the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival in September, and won the award for Best Feature-Length Documentary at the 31st International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, in November. The question about possible audiences for his film was not just because of the content of this documentary, but also because of its length. Divided into eight chapters, the film is four hours and twenty minutes long. With this, Patwardhan has not only made a daring film in terms of its content, but also because of what he’s expecting from his audiences. The audience in Delhi, for whom he had screened the film privately, comprising mostly of progressive activists, were certainly willing to take the journey with him.

The film begins with a motorbike gearing to move. The faceless rider on the bike is a recurrent leitmotif in the film, often shown to be prowling through the night. Two of Patwardhan’s subjects in Reason, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar, were killed by men on motorcycles. In the course of making the film, Patwardhan asks the police officer investigating Pansare’s murder, if the two murders are linked. He is met with the usual reply: we are still investigating the case. (The police did confirm in September 2018 that the murders were linked). One of Patwardhan’s strengths is to draw links between various events which the constantly changing news cycle tends to forget. For instance, he draws the timeline for a discussion of the murders of Pansare, Kalburgi and Dabholkar back to the Mumbai terror attacks and the subsequent rise of Hindutva terror outfits. In particular, he examines the murder of Hemant Karkare.

He interviews S M Mushrif, the former IG police of Maharashtra, whose book Who Killed Hemant Karkare? challenges the theory that Karkare was killed by terrorists from Pakistan. He also interviews the public prosecutor in the Malegaon blasts case, who says that evidence was tampered within the premises of the courts, leading to the acquittal of Sadhvi Prachi and others for the Malegaon blasts, all of whom were arrested when Karkare was the head of Mumbai ATS. Before Karkare was appointed as the chief, ATS, then headed by K P Raghuvanshi, had concluded that the Malegaon blasts were the handiwork of Muslims. Immediately after Karkare’s tragic death, Raghuvanshi was reinstated as the chief of ATS. Pansare, we learn, had passed a resolution to hold 150 meetings across Maharashtra to discuss this book. Was he targeted because this could have possibly raked up discussion about Hindutva terror outfits which have allegedly executed bomb blasts, like the ones in Mecca Masjid and Malegaon, among others? “Don’t you fear you’ll be killed?” Patwardhan asks Mushrif. “I had feared I’ll be killed before the book came out. I know I won’t be targeted now. Killing me will attract more attention to the book”, he smiles. Patwardhan’s film also draws attention to the book, but in a way in which books should be discussed perhaps. 

While Patwardhan is compassionate in these interviews, in others, he is confrontational. As a filmmaker, he is not the passive receptor who simply observes what is unfolding before the camera. He intervenes with the subjects he films quite often. In Vivek, he intervenes with young members of Hindu right-wing organisations like ABVP and others. After the screening, an audience member asked him how he films on locations where organisations of the Hindu Right assemble. “That’s a secret,” he smiles. Whatever the secret may be, Patwardhan is driven by an ambition to prove his argument, come what may. We see it’s a common tactic among Hindutva organisations to strategically dissociate themselves or their party from proven acts of terrorism. The most cited example is Nathuram Godse’s assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Members of RSS, for instance, are often heard saying that he was a member of the Hindu Mahasabha, not RSS. Patwardhan quickly retorts that Godse’s own brother had confirmed they were both members of RSS. Nonetheless, on being asked about the various organisations at an RSS event later in the film, the young cadres say, “All the organisations are the same”. Patwardhan is a persistent argumentarian.  

While a lot of the attention is paid to the Hindu Right, the film pays equal, if not more attention, to the resistance movements. Vivek is not just a document of the atrocities against minorities, primarily Muslims and Dalits in India in the last three years, but also a film of hope. Patwardhan’s camera is relentless in documenting the struggles against Hindutva, be it his emphasis on students in Hyderabad Central University, where students protested after Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar committed suicide after repeated discrimination from the administration; or Jawaharlal Nehru University, where students stood up for their fundamental rights to free speech after being charged with sedition; or on the Dalit assertion in Una, Gujarat, where members of the community organised themselves after four Dalits were publicly flogged. The synopsis of the film says “Reason is then both a warning and a promise”. Indeed, the film ends with the words of Pansare who says that his philosophy is a philosophy of hope. The change is not a dream, it will happen. It is inevitable. And if it is a dream, what’s the harm?

Pansare comes across as a firebrand speaker in the film. While many have read Pansare’s book Who is Shivaji — the force of his argument is evident when we see him delivering the speech. The book is a shadow, a transcription of his speech, after all. What is it to talk to the masses, one may ask. Pansare should be an answer to this question. Dabholkar, who’s led a struggle for scientific temper, is calmer when speaking of scientific temper. He is not so theatrical, and, in fact, he depends on rationality, not the majesty of spectacle, to make his point. An interview with his wife at the beginning of the film is perhaps one of the most moving moments in the film. She narrates how they got married and, at one point, laughs while narrating an incident from their marriage. There is a pause, as if she is suddenly reminded of the fact that her husband is no more; the grief comes back with a force and she says, “Should we start again?” She says that Dabholkar had told her before they got married that she would have to be the one who works as he was going to completely devote himself to the rationalist movement. “Nobody asked what I wanted”, she says. I was expecting to hear more from her during the course of the documentary, but Patwardhan leaves the private life of the deceased rationalist behind, focusing instead on their public selves. It would have made a different documentary if the private world was shown, but it is a side which needed to be seen nevertheless. In following the public lives of the deceased activist and rationalist, however, Patwardhan’s film is invaluable. 

Mention must also be made of an uncharacteristic element in a documentary such as this: humour. In such a film humour is almost impossible at first glance. Patwardhan’s chosen method is parody. For instance, when we listen to Pansare’s speech on Shivaji, we are shown popular representations of the Maratha king. All the stereotypes for the latter are there: the bad, wild Muslim ruler, with close ups of his eyes lined with kohl, and the valiant, “Hindu” Shivaji who outwits him in an encounter. The difference between the melodramatic and the documentary styles are too stark, and the audience in Delhi responds with a subdued laughter, wondering if they should laugh while watching a documentary such as this. Patwardhan uses this more while dealing with the Sanatan Sanstha, a conglomerate of Hindutva organisations based in Goa. Their promotional videos are played at length, and audiences are left wondering if they should laugh at what they’re seeing, or be dismayed at the fact that these videos are taken seriously.

Patwardhan said that he’d like to show the film privately as much as he can, before the censor comes. Whenever it comes, it will come armed, for this is not a film the current government in power would want its citizens to see.
Souradeep Roy lives in Delhi. He tweets at @souradeeproy19.

Courtesy: Indian Cultural Forum