Just in Time


On the undoing of Indian politics in the films of Anand Patwardhan

Statue of BR Ambedkar, still from Jai Bhim Comrade, 2011. Courtesy of Anand Patwardhan.

by Chris Moffat

In July 2013, the UK-based Otolith Collective invited guests to a blood-red room in the heart of London’s Tate Modern to witness what they called “the undoing of secular and socialist India”. For two and a half weeks, audiences shifted to scenes of India’s “wounded democratic polity”: a spectacle of riot, rage and dispossession, archived over 40 years by the insistent lens of Bombay-based documentarian Anand Patwardhan.

As if to defy the bleak nature of the event’s concern, the Collective assembled Patwardhan’s films under a more celebratory title: ‘A Cinema of Songs and People’. With this name, the curators paid tribute to those unlikely rebellions and quiet dignities Patwardhan has been so skilled at documenting since he started making films in the 1970s. Across Anand’s archive, the distortions of nationalist, religious, economic and patriarchal violence are shadowed – at every step – by moments of insurgent clarity: the revelations of dissident poetry, the promise of rebellious solidarity.

An image of the Dalit (‘Untouchable’, lit. ‘Oppressed’) poet and activist Vilas Ghogre graces the Tate’s promotional materials, his eyes closed and arm raised passionately in song, a still from Patwardhan’s 1985 film Bombay Our City. Even this, however, cannot stand outside a history of violence: Ghogre, we soon discover, committed suicide in 1997, an act of protest after police officers fired upon unarmed Dalit protestors near his home in Ramabai Nagar.

Screening of Jai Bhim Comrade in Ramabai, 2012. Courtesy of Anand Patwardhan.

A dead man’s song thus inaugurates the film programme, just as it opens the narrative of Patwardhan’s most recent documentary, Jai Bhim Comrade (2012). Fourteen years in production, Jai Bhim Comrade is Patwardhan’s attempt to understand the life-long struggle of his friend, the poet Ghogre. The man’s suicide becomes the window through which we enter, solemnly, an India afflicted by what Patwardhan calls “the atrocity of caste”.

We see, in the film’s opening minutes, footage of a young Ghogre singing lyrics of protest, his voice juxtaposed with a march against slum clearances first captured for Bombay Our City. We then jump forward in time to 1997, to see Ghogre’s wife, Asha, sitting distraught in their small home, and we know that the words scrawled on the blue wall behind her are the words of a dead man, a poet’s final testament: ‘Long Live Ambedkarite Unity’.

With this slogan, the deceased Ghogre introduces another ghost: that of the iconic Dalit leader, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891-1956), a figure whose name is invoked plainly in the film’s title (Jai for ‘Victory’, Bhim to salute ‘Bhimrao’). The story of Ambedkar’s earlier struggle to annihilate caste – as a scholar, a lawyer, a politician and eventually the architect of India’s constitution – is then woven into what is ostensibly a story of India’s twenty-first century. It was the desecration of a statue of Bhim that sparked the protest in Ramabai Nagar, the prequel to the police violence that prompted Ghogre’s act of protest and desolation.

The spectral presence of Ghogre, Ambedkar and indeed the other Dalits gunned down at Ramabai Nagar drives the narrative of Jai Bhim Comrade in the same way it has constituted the lives and passions of the film’s corporeal subjects. In this, as in almost all of Patwardhan’s films, the dead and the living are made conversant. This is a dialogue enabled by the ‘scene’ of cinema, certainly – the possibilities it presents for juxtaposition and flashback – but it also evokes a more fundamental feature of contemporary Indian politics: the sense that the present unfolds under the gaze of the dead; that the actions of the living should take inspiration from – and do justice to – the struggle and sacrifice of generations passed.

Father, Son, and Holy War, 1995, Courtesy of Anand Patwardhan.

Patwardhan both captures and manifests this wavering time of modern India: history exists in his films not as a static object for reflection, nostalgia or mourning, but as something which constantly returns, flashing up, animating politics and inflecting horizons of possibility in the present. So, in Father, Son and Holy War (1995), we see the outcome of an alliance forged between the 17th century Hindu warrior-king Shivaji and the late 20th century right-wing ideologue Bal Thackeray, founder of the fascist organisation Shiv Sena. In War and Peace (2002), the assassination of MK Gandhi in 1948 and the displacement of the Mahatma’s message of non-violence haunts the story of independent India’s militarist desire to build an atomic bomb.

Figures from India’s anti-colonial and pre-colonial past populate Patwardhan’s films, not as distant ancestors but as active interlocutors, holding the present to account, urging particular forms of action. The potential of the dead to interrupt contemporary politics is perhaps most explicit in Patwardhan’s powerful documentary on religious conflict in late 1980s Punjab, the 1990 film In Memory of Friends. Here, the iconic Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh – hanged by British colonial authorities in March 1931 – is re-animated to confront Hindu and Sikh communal violence in the post-colonial state.

The film follows a group of leftist activists across the Punjab, recording their attempts to correct and direct the spectre of the celebrated young martyr, executed at 23 years of age for killing a British police officer in Lahore in 1928 and bombing the New Delhi Legislative Assembly in 1929. Bhagat Singh’s stirring jail-time reflections on socialism and atheism are wielded, decades out of time, to critique religious fundamentalism amidst a swell of communal riots and vigilante violence. The left’s invocations are contested, however, by the parallel conjuring of the revolutionary by those Sikh rebels demanding an independent ‘Khalistan’. For these men, Bhagat Singh’s example does not prompt ideological reflection but instead the romance of confrontation, the necessity of guns and bombs, the glory of a heroic death.

Scenes and archival documents from 1920s India are knitted into the film’s progression. The narrator’s voice recites sections from Bhagat Singh’s own writing – crucially, the 1931 essay ‘Why I Am an Atheist’ – to position the dead revolutionary as a trenchant critic of religious chauvinism, grasping to reclaim the young martyr from the Sikh rebels fighting in his name.

Bhagat Singh’s embrace of death becomes a mirror, moreover, for the fate of Patwardhan’s leftist protagonists, affirming the sweetness of “a short life of struggle, with no magnificent end”; here, the martyr’s voice mitigates the tragic death of communist campaigner Jaimal Singh Padda, gunned down by Khalistani militants outside his home in 1988. During the film’s closing credits, martyrs from the colonial period like Kartar Singh Sarabha (hanged in 1916) are juxtaposed with victims of reactionary violence in the 1980s – particularly the communist playwright Safdar Hashmi (beaten to death in 1989) and the trade union organiser Darshan Singh Canadian (murdered in 1986).

These spectral alliances, forged across space and time, animate the contemporary in Patwardhan’s films. The audience watches how the past works for those groups positioned to receive our empathy, as well as among those organisations we watch with apprehension. The terrain of political possibility is constituted by this conversation with ghosts, a protean condition described in the last lines of Father, Son and Holy War: memories, the narrator reads, do not take shape with a mind to capture the past accurately, but to determine a direction for the future.

Coming at the end of a film on masculinity and right-wing Hindu nationalism, the narrator’s statement appears as part of an appeal to foreground the progressive role of women in Indian history. By re-imagining where we’ve come from, Patwardhan suggests, we can begin to imagine an alternative for where we’re heading. Indeed, these alternative futures already exist in our present as dormant spirits, waiting to be acknowledged. But if here the charged potential of the past is welcomed, it is approached elsewhere with a word of warning: these spirits may be malicious. We watch in Father, Son and Holy War and in the earlier In the Name of God (1991) how Hindu nationalist ideologues brandish history to legitimize patriarchal values and construe the Indian Muslim as an alien other, marking this community for destruction. In Jai Bhim Comrade, the very parties responsible for anti-Dalit violence in Bombay come to claim Ambedkar as their own.

There is an interesting tension here, demonstrated powerfully by Patwardhan in his films: we cannot ignore the dead, but we cannot trust them either. We may find inspiration and comradeship in dialogue with revenants, but, ultimately, they cannot be relied upon. One cannot build on a wavering present: it will always disappear beneath your feet.

At various moments, Patwardhan appears to contest this vertigo by giving the past a hard, material form. His camera will frame an archival record, the ‘original’ document, and suddenly the promiscuous ghost is dissolved by facts, contained by some ‘proof’ of the event. But if these films seek to document struggle, then such an exorcism can only be partial, temporary – especially on the projector’s stage of light and shadow. The power of Patwardhan’s cinéma verité becomes, perhaps counter-intuitively, about capturing the ‘truth’ of this absent presence: the animating potential of India’s relationship with the dead; the perils and possibilities of a politics of inheritance.

In this blood-red room, in the heart of Tate Modern, each screening of Patwardhan’s work received an introduction from Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun of the Otolith Collective. After every film, the documentarian joined the two curators on stage for a discussion, welcoming guest speakers on different occasions and inviting questions from the audience (recordings of these conversations have been archived on the Tate Modern website).

Sagar and Eshun, artist-filmmakers themselves, were eager to open a conversation around the Otolith’s curatorial proposition: that only through an engagement with the aesthetic strategies deployed by Patwardhan can one begin to grasp the magnitude of the struggles depicted in his films. Members of the audience were encouraged to note the filmmaker’s specific style of shooting, his mode of “conclusive inconclusion”. Sagar and Eshun were particularly interested in the unusual space Patwardhan gives to his interview subjects, suggesting that this tactic works to “puncture” fundamentalist certainties, forcing figures to speak and reveal their own contradictory logic, exposing the distortions of the mob. The camera here becomes a weapon wielded, inciting the subject rather than simply documenting an event.

Against the certainty of the fundamentalist under the lens, we might position the uncertain temporality evoked by Patwardhan’s editing style: the manner in which he demonstrates – through juxtaposition and montage – the constant flux of India’s present in relation to its pasts and possible futures. At the first screening of Jai Bhim Comrade, the filmmaker John Akomfrah mused on Patwardhan’s curious relationship to the ‘time’ of documentary filmmaking. Rather than focusing on individual experiences for a pedagogical dividend, or charting the dénouement of some grand, Brechtian narrative to provide the sensation of conclusion, Patwardhan’s films evade any clear resolution. In fact, within them, history itself doesn’t appear resolvable; it unfolds only as a series of ongoing clashes.

Responding to Akomfrah, Patwardhan proposed that this, perhaps, is why no political party had tried to claim a film like Jai Bhim: it criticises every side, “almost everyone fails in some way.” Here, the depiction of a wavering present is seen to prompt a sort of immobilization. Akomfrah invoked Marx’s famous phrase to suggest the entrapment of Patwardhan’s subjects in a space where the past “weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living.”

It is curious, perhaps, that while Patwardhan’s films acknowledge the bleak, cyclical nature of violence and dispossession– conjured via a powerful aesthetic of recurrence and return – the filmmaker does not appear to advocate rupture; the films do not urge a clean break from this tangled present, nor from the histories that weigh upon it. In Patwardhan’s cautious but purposeful allegiance with ghosts, we begin to see how this wavering is experienced without a sense of paralysis. A process of undoing becomes instead the opening of possibility, the resistance of closure, a continual unfolding. This is cinema of resistance, after all, and Patwardhan’s provocation is difficult but precise.

Still from Jai Bhim Comrade, 2011. Courtesy of Anand Patwardhan.

History, in these films, appears powerful not for what it ‘really’ was, how it ‘really’ happened, but in the manner it is seized – as in Walter Benjamin’s famous observation – in a moment of danger. Patwardhan’s call is not to clean up the distortions of history in the hope that ‘facts’ may lead to a more inclusive, democratic understanding of the present – we have seen how even Ambedkar can be unhinged from his moorings. Rather, the recalcitrance of the past within the present is greeted as a living arsenal of alternatives to be deployed in struggle: a band of ghostly comrades waiting to be mobilized, new constellations waiting to be activated.

Benjamin’s essay On the Concept of History speaks of how moments of resistance resonate not for their material spoils or for the fact of gains and losses, but because of the “refined and spiritual things” demonstrated in the fight: courage, especially, but also humour, cunning, fortitude. “These have retroactive force,” he writes, “and will constantly call in question every victory, past and present, of the rulers.”

There is something similarly agonistic about Patwardhan’s presentation of history: these counter-narratives are not proffered for recognition or integration into some reformed pantheon. This is, rather, about the wholesale redescription of the past – wielded in the midst of a struggle – and the translation of possibility in the wake of this gesture. To rise in solidarity with the dead, here, is to affirm the radical possibility they have demonstrated and continue to represent. “He who has been, from then on cannot not have been,” to invoke the tousled reflection of Vladimir Jankélévitch. In Patwardhan’s films, Bhagat Singh’s fight carries on, Ambedkar’s call is still being answered, Ghogre’s song continues to be sung.

Martyrs and other heroic figures in India are often celebrated by attaching their name to the slogan Zindabad, an expression translated most commonly as ‘Long Live’, evoking the urge ‘to give life to’, a form of conjuring. So chants of Bhagat Singh Zindabad or BR Ambedkar Zindabad regularly soundtrack marches, rallies and protests in the country. Patwardhan’s films may be seen to capture this desire of Indian politics in visual form, allowing spirit to manifest in sight and sound. We see here, vividly, how the dead are invited to the centre of contemporary political arguments: not as objects to be mourned, but as partners in an ongoing struggle.

The rebel’s investment in a spark that defies linear time is echoed in Patwardhan’s own interest in song – as both a narrative device and a carrier of politics. Like film, the song is a medium that escapes sequential time. “The song conjures,” Sagar and Eshun remind their audience in the programme notes; it has a profound mnemonic power. We see this activated in Patwardhan’s commitment to the Dalit cultural group Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), protagonists in Jai Bhim and the focus of the filmmaker’s ongoing activism. Upon first hearing the KKM’s Sheetal Sathe sing, Patwardhan writes elsewhere, he knew “right away that the legacy of Vilas Ghogre would never die.”

To order history, to make it ‘resolvable’, would in this sense constitute a form of exorcism: the banishing of ghosts, as well as the possibility they represent. Patwardhan’s aesthetic strategy of recurrence and return – blurring the boundaries between past and present struggles – invites his audience to visualize a politics that exceeds the dichotomy between presence and absence. One cannot build on a wavering present, perhaps, but this is a terrain ripe for struggle. In the experience of vertigo, there is also an opening of possibility.

Faced here with the immensity of India’s social, economic and political problems – this terrifying spectacle of a country’s undoing – Patwardhan does not ask us to lament. We are not supposed to become lost in this nightmare. These films are meant to incite: both through the shock of brutal injustice and in the reminder that to die does not mean to be extinguished. The demand of the latter, actualised on the cinematic stage, does not simply implore the honouring of the dead; it also asks the viewer to be just in their own time, to recognize the value of a short life of struggle, “with no magnificent end”. Because this example may last, flashing-up elsewhere, seized by another: toward an alternative constellation, a more just arrangement, however fleeting.

About the Author:

Chris Moffat lectures in History at Queen Mary, University of London. He writes on death, politics and the public life of the past. A monograph based on his PhD thesis, entitled Politics and the Promise of Bhagat Singh, is forthcoming.