The filmmaker as social participant

In this section, I discuss the ways in which Patwardhan’s practice demonstrates key elements of the propositions of Third Cinema with regard to the historical relation between the filmmaker and the social world but one that adapts the propositions to the postcolonial social and cultural context. Adaptation implies changes or modification in an idea or process in response to a new environment. For example, Pascal Nicklas and Oliver Lindner (2012) ascribe to adaptation a “metabolic quality” where material is broken up to be re-aggregated as part of “a new living organism.” (6). The New Latin American filmmakers had questioned the separation between intellectual activity and broader social participation. In Patwardhan’s practice these questions came to be answered through a method that collapsed the distance between image making and material modes of resistance.

One of documentary’s formal traditions, Direct Cinema, espouses detached objectivity when confronted with social actors and events, in favor of an “authentic” recording. Such a “claim on objective actuality,” according to Brian Winston, proposes a determinedly detached production relationship between the filmmaker and film participants of Direct Cinema (6). In contrast, in “For an Imperfect Cinema,” García Espinosa asks a number of rhetorical questions about the socially constructed separation between intellectuals, artistic expression and political commitment. He asks:

“Why protect oneself and seek recognition as a (revolutionary, it must be understood) political and scientific worker, yet not be prepared to run the same risks.”

For many Latin American filmmakers, political commitment has long extended to the social world. Reflecting upon Third Cinema, Paul Willemen (1989), interprets this practice of politically committed art as an

“end to the division between art and life and therefore between professional, full time intellectuals such as film-makers or critics and the people” (5).

In this light, Mariano Mestman (2011) outlines the radical participation histories of Solanas and Getino, both of whom belonged to the Argentine Communist Party and the Peronist Troskyist groups respectively and were to later identify with Juan Domingo Perón, and the Movimiento Nacional Justicialista, the name of the Leftist Peronist party.[2] [open endnotes in new window]

In order to differentiate his practice and purpose of filmmaking from that of the observational filmmaker or the academically-oriented sociological filmmaker, including those who make anthropological or ethnographic documentation, we can look at Patwardhan’s work to understand his personal relation to the social conditions and actors that lies at the heart of his films. In epistemological frameworks where art and life were considered separate, documentary film was imagined as a mode of information, objective observationalism or scientific documentation. But in Patwardhan’s documentary approach, each film is grounded in personal social participation and tangible objectives. In his hands, the practice of documentary cinema thus becomes what Solanas and Getino term the “field” in which the intellectual can “deploy his forces” for the goal of social emancipation (47). The collapse of the discursive separation between the filmmaker and the social-historical world embraced by the New Latin American filmmakers forms a core dimension in Patwardhan’s practice. In his cinema, documentary filmmaking is incompatible with a condition of neutrality, objectivity or detachment.

Abandoning the neutral position of observer, analyst or commentator associated with the roles of ethnographer, Direct Cinema practitioner, or journalist, Patwardhan stands with the workers, the slum dwellers and the marginalized subjects of each film. Beginning with his first Business As usual (1972), a film to raise funds for the displaced refugees of the 1971 war in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) while studying at Brandeis University to Bombay, Our City (1985) and A Narmada Diary (1995), each film offers an insight into this relational practice of film and the historical world. Bombay, Our City emerges from Patwardhan’s membership in the Mumbai-based Nivara Hak Suraksha Samiti (Committee for the Protection of the Right to Shelter), an umbrella group of 20 organizations opposed to the slum demolition activities of the Mumbai Municipal Council. United under the demand to provide alternative housing for demolished dwellings, the committee also responded to crisis situations when contacted by slum residents upon the arrival of demolition crews. Along with the political beliefs in the fair distribution of urban space, the film is constructed from Patwardhan’s personal knowledge of and experience within this resistance movement.

In an interview with Sean Cubitt (1986), Patwardhan describes the way in which active participation creates a cinematic aesthetic not of a perfectly controlled or intended visual order but of the partial, the opportune, and the chanced-upon. An objective of making a film does not impose its aesthetic will upon the unfolding events. He says,

“At the same time, the roles between film-making and activism are constantly changing. Has the organization suffered? I definitely would have got better footage—zooms, hidden mics, dramatic shots of bulldozers clearing people out of their shanties at dawn—but instead we warned the people that the demolitions might happen and tried to organise resistance…. The most dramatic footage would have been the panic as the demolitions started, but it is too hard to sit by and watch, because there were people there we had come to know. We are organising demos and also filming them.” (63)

Testifying to this tension between intervention and image making, in Bombay, Our City the camera rarely captures the beginning of the moment of crisis; the arrival of bulldozers, frenzy of violence, and actual demolition are nearly absent from the visual narrative. The camera films only the aftermath, scattered remains of the belongings, dwellings themselves lying as fragments of cloth and scaffolding—besides which the residents recount the instant of impact.

One of the most cited sequences from the film offers a point of entry into the dialectical political aesthetics of the film, poised between artistic considerations and political commitment. By including this sequence Patwardhan works to obstruct what Solanas and Getino decry, a limited systemic response of “democratic broadmindedness” (49). As the camera films the thousands living on the pavements of South Mumbai under a pouring monsoon rain, a woman holding a baby confronts the filmmaker:

“Where can we go? Do you have a solution? You just want to earn a name taking photographs, what else can you do? Don't just take photographs of the poor.” (Bombay, Our City, film).

The filmmaker does not respond and includes this heated speech that effectively points out the disjuncture between the lived material dimensions and any symbolic representation of the unfolding crisis. In artistic terms, the sequence is a potent example of formal self-reflexivity, a key area of interest in documentary studies, and at the same time this sequence places center-stage the political issues of class relations at the heart of the film. It potently brings alive on the screen the hierarchies of class—the social distance between the filmmaker, middle class viewer and marginalized film subject. It seems to pose questions about the social adequacy of filmmaking and film viewing itself. But Patwardhan’s disinterest in establishing a metacritical aesthetic or his own ethical credibility is evident when he says,

“I toyed with ending with that scene…But finally the main contradiction is not between the filmmaker and the filmed, but between them and the landowners” (64).

He shares this disavowal of the critics’ opinion with García Espinosa who also questions the powers of “critics (mediators)” in justifying artistic value (3). To show both this encounter as well as narrative juxtapositions of upper class hostility towards slums expands the issue of urban spatial contestation from presenting ameliorative solutions around rehabilitation to analyzing primary conflicts of class and socio-economic relations.

The functional dimension of film as public communication that New Latin American filmmakers demonstrate through their direct support of political groups and leaders is another point of intersection with Patwardhan’s practice. Solanas and Getino explicitly exhort cooperation between filmmakers, organizations and the public to address the insufficiency of “individual rebellion” (52). In Patwardhan’s case this communication activity extends to building public opinion through the film as well as through taking personal action in the public world. The filmmaker sees himself as a participant in a broader radical coalition. For instance the rushes from Bombay, Our City were used as evidence by the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties to successfully obtain a temporary reprieve against slum demolitions. But the continued participation of the filmmaker in the movement after the completion of the film offers further evidence of the merging of art and history. In February 1986, nearly two years after the release of the film, Patwardhan continued to participate in protests against slum evictions. He courted arrest with 150 slum residents against the demolition of dwellings in Sanjay Gandhi Nagar slum, and later during May 1986, he joined a hunger strike with three slum residents to demand alternate land allocation. This form of visible action, while gathering direct support for the cause, also attracts the attention of a broader group of socially connected agents. The role of the educated middle classes, civil liberties activists, lawyers, and journalists forms an important dimension in the larger struggle; they can raise the visibility and strength of the struggle. Filmmaking and participation in these conditions, according to Patwardhan, plays a role in a targeted communication project. He states (1986),

“Well, if this kind of work was not carried on, public opinion, which is already violently against slum dwellers, would be even worse than it is today. The fact that demolitions are protested, keeps public opinion from being totally reactionary and also keeps authorities on their toes” (Interview, Manushi).

India saw a growing culture of non-institutional social documentary during the 1980s; for this group of media makers, Patwardhan’s form of involved practice had potent implications. The merging of the political and the artistic, of thought and action, allowed a way out of a detached or institutionally constrained mode of artistic production that had dominated Indian documentary cinema since independence. The collapse of the distance between the private and the public where the filmmaker’s private politics now forms the basis of public artistic expression has formed the ethic of an involved form of social documentary filmmaking amongst upcoming Indian filmmakers who arrived at their art from a wide spectrum of political movements and struggles. It has permitted the middle class intellectual filmmaker a model for moving beyond observationalism or informational reportage and to an extent has addressed an older criticism of social oratory, attached to the Griersonian social documentary filmmaker.

Documentary narrative and cultures of protest

For García Espinosa, aesthetic imperfection is the point of departure from the fetishistic pursuit of impartial artistic purity. In concluding his argument about Imperfect Cinema, he places “folk art” as the idealized form of democratic artistic expression. The folk as a form of “popular memory” according to Third Cinema theorist Teshome Gabriel (1989) offers an alternative history remembered not from the center but from the peripheries of power. Popular memory, Gabriel writes, no longer orders time as a “reference point” but as a “theme of struggle” (54). In its expression, popular memory often adopts traditional cultural genres in its analysis of and response to social conflict and struggles. Local forms of music, poetry and theater in their response to socio-historic conditions produce rich performative and literary expressions of resistance. In this section, I will examine the ways in which Patwardhan brings together popular oral expressions of cultural protest with the issues at the centre of his films. By incorporating popular arts, each film integrates ideas and theory with existing cultural histories, at once drawing values from them and affirming the connection between his cinema and people’s struggles. At the same time, unlike the state documentary film, Patwardhan’s cinema refuses to celebrate people’s cultural expressions under bourgeois notions of an idyllic decontextualized “folk,” instead focusing on the performers and their ways of encoding political meaning and narratives of social history.

Using music in social documentary cinema also recurs in the Griersonian public service documentary. Grierson (1966) viewed music as an aesthetic device in the creative treatment of the material of the “real,” an element that enhances the sensory dimension of the visual. Rather abstractly he observed that music provides an opportunity for something “individual and different and imaginatively so” (180). In her account of early experiments in documentary sound, Carloyn Birdsall argues that Grierson attributed to music the potential for “providing atmosphere or dramatic tension” with a sharp focus upon narrative and dramatic structures (29). In contrast, whereas Indian public service documentary film has continued to incorporate music precisely to provide atmosphere, to create an aural experience or as a symbolic representation of “other” cultures and rituals, Patwardhan uses music, I contend, to historicize and make audible the symbolic expression of resistance amongst the groups and communities shown in his films. In each film, the music heard is specific to the struggle being waged, and its use in the film offers a way of thinking about the unique synthesis of aural cultural traditions with political consciousness.

Waves of Revolution is a reflexive film where Patwardhan directly addresses the viewer through voice and image to simultaneously chronicle the JP movement and build favorable public opinion.It features two songs from the JP movement. Both are similar rousing calls to youth to rise up and take responsibility for leading the revolution. In his discussion of a related symbolic form of expression in India, political slogans, Lalan Tiwari (1987) argues that slogans were necessary to establish the non-violent credentials of the JP movement. Unlike violent movements, a non-violent movement, he continues, seeks to secure its objectives “through pressure on the authorities” such as strikes and marches. It requires the “mobilization of more and more people” and slogans serve an important function in “ventilating” mass grievances (176). Music shares the slogan’s political impulse; it uses language to creatively capture a sentiment or message but also uses affective sonic registers to evoke political meanings.

Waves of Revolution’s first song, “O youth the revolution is at your door,” shares aesthetic and political resonance with Santiago Alvarez’s legendary call to political action with the film Now (1965). In particular it can be examined alongside Alvarez’s choice of song, sung by Lena Horne, arranged to the music of the Hebrew folksong “Hava Nagila” and visually constructed from found footage. Considered a successful example of revolutionary Cuban cinema, Now, writes Julianne Burton (1978), “elevated the film collage to a high level of political and artistic quality” (ejumpcut, web). Working within political and financial constraints, both filmmakers construct highly original and experimental visual montages that combine the musical form of protest with historical imagery to situate the lyrics in the context of a contemporary social struggle (images 21 and 22). Alvarez relates the lyrics of Now to the racial tension and violence in the United States, and Patwardhan relates the song in his film to the volatile history of the student resistance movement in a democratic nation-state. At the same time both films function as poetic exposition where music imparts the political framework against which to interpret the still and moving images.

“Who will come forth today against corruption and face the repression of the ruling class… Have mountain cliffs ever stopped the onslaught of storms and can guns succeed in stopping the onward march of youth… O youth, the revolution has come to your door” (Patwardhan’s film)

Recorded on a cassette recorder and sung by the student members of the revolution, these lyrics are from the first song in Waves of Revolution. The scratchy texture of the choral ensemble is mixed together with the stirring sounds of collective cheers and clapping from a public rally. As Patwardhan dubs each verse, a public speech of Jai Prakash Narayan fades in, explaining the origins and political thesis of the movement, and Narayan utters the eponymous title of the film. The multilayered rhythmic sonic-scape of synch and non-synch sounds, of strategic rhythmic juxtapositions of speech, music, spoken words and verse, creates an internal logic that is largely autonomous of the visual. The visual track functions as exposition to outline the chronological monthly progression of the movement during the previous year, visualized through newspaper reports, still images and observational footage of street level demonstrations, often superimposed and edited together using quick dissolves.

Departing from conventions of empirical indexicality between documentary image and sound, Patwardhan’s images are linked conceptually to the central ideas behind the lyrics. As the song builds in its political intensity with lyrics offering more concrete visual metaphors of public action, the images too intensify in emotion; and as in Alvarez’s Now, images of street demonstrations, are intercut with police repression of peaceful protest. Patwardhan’s arresting still image of three policemen poised to assault an unarmed protestor parallels almost symmetrically Alvarez’s image of horse-mounted police with raised batons. In Patwardhan’s final sequences as the song mentions the figures of past revolutionaries—“It is martyrs like these that have protected the honor of the land”—images show the protestors arriving at the gates of the Parliament House in New Delhi (Waves of Revolution). This song that historicizes the movement allows Patwardhan aesthetically to expand storytelling beyond conversations and interviews to sensory modes that encapsulate deeper political theorization of the ideology behind the social movement. Although the song embodies the political spirit of the movement, Patwardhan does not disclose the identity of the singers, perhaps a testament to the period’s volatility.

Among Patwardhan’s early films, the music of Bombay, Our City stands as one the clearest amalgamations of cinema, music and political thought. It features Leftist Dalit poet-singer Vilas Ghogre of the Mumbai-based troupe, Avhaan Natya Manch, a radical cultural group that performed political theatre and music in Mumbai’s textile mill areas during the 1980s. Accompanied by musicians on a traditional dholki drum and a tamborine in Bombay, Our City, Ghogre sings about the “tragic story of the labour classes” in the midst of working class areas and slums (Translation, author).[3] To the rhythm of the drum in the first of several narrative sequences, Ghogre describes the farming classes’ history of exploitation. “The landowner earned while we sweated,” he sings. “Usury drove us from the village to the city.” With each narrative appearance, the singers recount the historic oppression of sections of the working classes—construction workers, textile mill workers, laws enacted against slum dwellers. Finally towards the end of the film, the singers exhort the workers to unite,

“Forget caste and creed… with the strength of the union demolish the parliament of lies… let us give a revolutionary call to end our troubles…bring such a day to pass O brothers”

Ending each verse with a crescendo, they pose the question “Why is this so?” to which comes the resounding chorus, “Because it's a feudal rule brother, it's a false rule brother, a feudal rule brother, a false rule brother.” Placed in sequence following the interviews of slum dwellers who testify to the illegal actions of the demolition squads, the song’s verses directly connect these experiences to the exploitative feudal patterns of land distribution that lead to current deprivations.

The song’s style and performance provide a vital glimpse into Patwardhan’s approach of directly correlating protest cultures into the documentary as an innovative aesthetic element. Unlike the use of song as a cultural artefact that is selectively presented as an example of its artistic excellence, Patwardhan uses song as a vital element of the narrative. In visualizing and editing each performance sequence, Patwardhan emphasizes its interactive nature to evoke an affective narrative about working class solidarity. In its musical arrangement, the song invites participation from its working class listeners. The structure of the song incorporates rhetorical questions and in an uncomplicated chorus, each line ends with the word “brother,” establishing a symbolic emotive connection with the listeners. The lines are arranged to a simple rhythmic beat and repeated to encourage listeners to join in. Through its aural qualities of lyricism and poetic metaphors, the song builds an affective bridge with audiences. As a storytelling element, in the absence of narration, the song functions as poetic exposition to historicize the conditions of the urban poor within a broader political framework of Marxist economic theory.

Unlike the unidentified singers of Waves of Revolution, Ghogre and his accompanists are given considerable narrative space and their song forms the meta-voice of the narrative. Since the members of this troupe belong to Mumbai’s working classes and the further oppressed Dalit (formerly Untouchable) groups, the poetry and music of Ghogre and his ensemble comprise what García Espinosa describes as “popular art,” an art where producers and consumers do not occupy reified roles; instead “the creators are, at the same time, the spectators and vice versa” (6). The singers enact the surrogate voice of the filmmaker and also are the interlocutors of the historical memory of the social actors. In this light, visually Patwardhan accords them a heroic status, often zooming in to Ghogre’s face as he sings, and at other times, filming the group of singers in iconic low angle shots, framed against the sky. At one point, in a remarkable piece of political visualization, the camera pans away from the singers to reveal the relational spatial panorama in which they are located. Composed almost geometrically, in the background stand Mumbai’s gleaming new high rises; in the foreground, we see a row of brown, dusty shanties, separated symbolically and physically in the middle ground, by a still blue Arabian Sea. As a transitional device, the songs allow the filmmaker visually to move between the immediate location of the slum through the wider space of the city and the nation, in such a way that the narrative can make intellectual linkages between the local events and the nation-space.


Other transactions between Latin American Cinema and Indian documentary cinema continued to occur in dispersed and scattered sites over the decades of the 1970s, 1980s and the 1990s. These include the private VHS circulation of The Battle of Chile, the popular visit of leading Cinema Novo filmmaker Nelson Pereira Dos Santos and the public screening of Tent of Miracles at the 1978 Madras “Filmotsav” Film festival, and some years later, the screening of Cuban political cinema at the 1987 New Delhi “Filmotsav.” The films, the directors, and the political theory of New Latin American Cinema were significant cultural materials for Indian filmmakers during these decades. In focusing specifically upon Anand Patwardhan’s works and practice, I hope to achieve a two-fold objective:

Indian filmmakers’ material and conceptual exchange with New Latin American Cinema forms an important historical and cultural site from where to view the ways in which documentary cinema, instead of continuing upon its inherited trajectory of Griersonian, state-sponsored, public service documentary, has come to be adopted more as a mode of political expression. In Indian filmmaking to come, congruence between filmmaking and social activism would characterize the works of the Mediastorm Collective, Amudhan RP, KP Sasi, Meghnad and Bijju Toppo and many others. Reworking documentary aesthetics to turn it away from purely cinematic concerns to a space of political visualization that combines local cultural expressions with documentary aesthetics has also opened up new possibilities of political collaborations between communities, filmmakers, and other artists.