Participation, poetry and song: Anand Patwardhan and New Latin American cinema

by Shweta Kishore

The writings of Indian independent filmmaker Anand Patwardhan (1984, 1997, 2012), as well as scholarly engagements with his work (Catherine Bernier 2013, Geeta Kapur 2008) acknowledge cinematic parallels between New Latin American Cinema and Patwardhan’s early film practice and style. In this paper I explore the terms of this cultural exchange as it relates to Patwardhan’s film practice and also to the particular ways in which political documentary in India has adopted, adapted, and even exceeded ideas and theory drawn from New Latin American Cinema. In particular, two key Manifestos of the New Latin American Cinema, Towards a Third Cinema and For an Imperfect Cinema are central to Patwardhan’s cinema; these historically situated documents explicitly separate political cinema from dominant forms of commercial and artistic cinemas.

I begin my inquiry by outlining the historical postcolonial Indian context of state-dominated cultural production and of a period of political instability—against which Patwardhan’s cinema practice originates. I then identify particular intersections between the Latin American Manifestos and Patwardhan’s practice to arrive at a situated understanding of the relation between the Manifestos and their (re) interpretation in the context of Indian social documentary cinema.

Independent social documentary cinema in India has responded and aspired to intervene in the historical conditions of the day. Manju Pendakur (1995) finds in these films “voices of sanity, tolerance, and resistance amidst a cacophony of fundamentalism, fascism, and greed” (Yidff, web). Anand Patwardhan’s, film Waves of Revolution (1975) about the 1974-1975 Bihar student uprisings is widely regarded as an initial example of this mode of cinematic production and a forerunner of the independent documentary movement in India.

Patwardhan (left) recording location audio during the filming of Waves of Revolution.

Indian social documentary filmmakers continue to cite the legacy of Patwardhan’s practice and films as industrial and cultural models for their personal relation with the genre and its political possibilities. While many of the filmmakers have proceeded to develop complex individual expressions of documentary form, the ongoing reference to Patwardhan is significant, for it gestures towards the fundamental role played by the filmmaker in shaping the contours of an emerging political film consciousness.

In this paper I approach Patwardhan’s work from the fact that, according to him, both his critical theorizations (1984, 2007, 2012) and his films’ political, aesthetic and industrial foundations are inspired by radical New Latin American Cinema. Scholarship around Patwardhan’s cinema (Geeta Kapur 2008, Catherine Bernier 2013, Gargi Sen 2012) confirms this resonance between Patwardhan and the Latin Americans since each view cinema as an instrument of social intervention. As well as investigating the intersections between the two practices, I wish to explore the transnational flow of ideas and practices in the area of social documentary cinema and the subsequent interpretation and application of internationally circulating ideas to national realities and contexts.

I base my method of inquiry upon Tom O’Regan’s (2008) formulation of cultural exchange, a process of cultural dispersal that, according to O’Regan, facilitates the “lending and redisposition of cultural materials” from one cultural context to another (262). While this circulation—the giving, receiving and redisposition of cultural materials—occurs in a continuous process, the central debates in film studies turn, according to O’Regan, upon how we “identify its nature”—in other words, how do we identify “the range of cultural exchange practices and processes that are selected for investigation and discussion” (263). The nature of cultural exchange as a process thus does not simply entail a duplication or replication of cultural material in another context but involves processes of adaptation, indigenization, resistance, and appropriation. Here I am interested in the transactions between the ideals of practice, aesthetics and cultural relations proposed by Third Cinema practitioners and the situated set of Indian historical conditions to which Patwardhan’s cinema responds. Volatile political conditions of popular dissent and state repression, institutionalized regimes of documentary film production, and indigenous cultural expressions of resistance allow us to understand and evaluate the processes of cultural exchange between New Latin American Cinema and its adaptation to the Indian context.

In this paper I make two arguments that concern the nature of the social documentary film in India as it was influenced by transactions between Latin American cinema and Patwardhan’s adaptation of its ideas. The first concerns the dimension of documentary film practice and includes methods of conceptualizing the filmmaker’s mode of operation in the historical world, including relations between the self, the other, and social processes. Departing from the predominantly Griersonian modes of institutionalized documentary methods that predominated in India during the 1970s-1980s, Third Cinema offered a method for conceptualizing a direct relation between the intellectual and documentary filmmaker, art and social participation.

My second argument concerns aesthetics and transactions between the political modes of cinematic expression proposed by Third Cinema and ways they might be adopted within a post-colonial cultural and political context. I argue that Patwardhan expands the concept of political cinema by seeing it as a form related to the broader cultures of popular protest. In this way, Patwardhan’s understanding of Third Cinema not only takes into account what Dennis Hanlon (2014) calls its formal Brechtian aesthetic politics, but Patwardhan connects documentary cinema with broader cultures of resistance. Unlike the representational conventions of observational or ethnographic cinema, incorporating popular cultural expression constitutes an integral rhetorical and aesthetic element of Patwardhan’s film narratives.

Latin American cinema

In Patwardhan’s writing about his filmmaking philosophy, he refers specifically to two radical manifestos of New Latin American Cinema. The first “Towards a Third Cinema,” is an essay written by Fernando E. Solanas following the making of The Hour of the Furnaces (1968), a film, according to film scholar Robert Stam, (1990) made “in the interstices of the system and against the system... independent in production, militant in politics, and experimental in language” [253]. A second essay that Patwardhan cites is Julio García Espinosa’s “For an Imperfect Cinema.” According to Patwardhan both documents offer “theoretical positions” that “justify and demarcate the emergence” of a Guerrilla Cinema in the Third World (446). In terms of film models, Patwardhan (2003) has also consistently cited Patricio Guzman’s The Battle of Chile (1975), a film that presented to him the possibility of adopting cinema as a viable means of protest, one, he writes, that “remains etched in my mind” (Patwardhan.com, web). Patwardhan’s early encounters with documentary cinema occurred during the early 1970s, while studying sociology at Brandeis University in the United States, a campus radicalized by anti-Vietnam War sentiment.

While a detailed history and account of New Latin American Cinema is beyond the scope of this paper, I will briefly outline its key ideas as discussed by theorists who have engaged with it in depth in order to indicate broad parallels between the theory of this cinema and Patwardhan’s beliefs and methods. The consolidation of radical national histories of cinema into a New Latin American Cinema Movement is attributed to the 1967 Viña del Mar Festival and the first Encuentro de Cineastas Latinoamericanos (meeting of Latin American filmmakers). According to Ana Lopez, the movement traces its legacy to the national cinemas of Latin American nations that had turned against the commercial products of Hollywood during the 1960s. While the term, she writes, represents an attempt to “impose unity” on a “number of diverse cinematic practices,” the 1960s demonstrates an expansion of nation-based cinemas into a broader Latin American consciousness (311). In 1967 Cine Cubano published a report on the 1967 meeting of Latin American filmmakers that proclaimed the birth of the New Latin American Cinema.

“Despite the diversity of its creators, its nationalities, and its modes of expression, there exists in Latin America a cinema strongly opposed to the denaturalizing marks of Yankee imperialism and its Latin American branches. This is a cinema that is strongly tied to the aspirations and needs of its people, a cinema that has offered a number of proofs of its very serious professional and artistic commitments.” (cited in Lopez, 322)

The two key proclamations from and about this cinema that Patwardhan cites are the subject of analysis by Michael Chanan (1997) who notes a “certain homology” between the two (377). The first is the notion of Imperfect Cinema. This, according to García Espinosa, is unlike the “technically and artistically masterful” cinema because Imperfect Cinema does not seduce its audiences into consumption. According to Chanan this theorization matches Solanas and Getino’s critique of “First Cinema,” a cinema of spectacle, large-scale production and passive consumption. The second homology Chanan notes relates to publics, where both manifestos focus upon the audience of radical cinema, people historically considered backward or uneducated. Looking at that audience in a positive light, García Espinosa (1979) identifies those who “struggle” as the audience for Imperfect Cinema. These "lucid" people” he writes, “are the ones who think and feel and exist in a world which they can change” (web). Solanas and Getino identify a similar audience sector that revolutionary cinema could actively motivate towards political participation. The social sectors considered “backward,” they write, “are perfectly capable of grasping the precise meaning” of cinematic language as long as it relates to “a determinate idea.” Revolutionary cinema they continue, “attempts to make an intervention which impels a response” (56).

Following the experience of making his first underground film, Waves of Revolution (1975), in a synthesis of the radical ideas of Third Cinema and Imperfect Cinema, Patwardhan (1984) outlines his concept of Guerilla Cinema, which has as its primary purpose social reorganization. Differentiating Guerilla Cinema from the neutral approach of “objective” or “sociological” films, he contends that this cinema recognizes that the world is “divided into classes” and seeks to “expose the injustice of the system” (447). Patwardhan (1984) was to relate the Guerilla aesthetics of his early films to the conditions of their production; the imperfect quality is a trace of the “trials and difficulties” that the film and the movement faced in a hostile environment of state led violence and arrests (456). Utilitarian aesthetics, contends Patwardhan (1998), were necessary only “to tell the story” whilst his aesthetics nonetheless consisted of a range of modernist, avant-garde and experimental uses of sound, music, montage, archive and still images (Raza and Kumar, web).

Patwardhan’s writing about film aesthetics depicts clear homologies with the beliefs of Third Cinema, particularly its relation between aesthetics and ideas. Solanas and Getino dismiss the notion of pure beauty as a revolutionary ideal for art, dismissing it as “idealistic aspiration,” and Patwardhan too conceives of aesthetics as the formal expression of ideas in the service of action, instead of an end in itself (49). In addition, he expands on this aesthetic and enriches it in both cultural and cinematic ways. However, before I talk more about Patwardhan’s unique and influential cinematic style, I proceed to trace out some of India’s contemporary history that provides both the subject matter and the political context for his films, the conditions of their making, and the forms of political address towards its audiences.

Patwardhan and cultural-history 1970-1980

The decade of the 1970s during which Patwardhan began his filmmaking career witnessed what is widely considered one of the most blatant and autocratic exercises of power by a democratically elected state leader. On June 25, 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended the civil rights and constitutional liberties of all citizens guaranteed by the constitution of India. During this period of Constitutional Emergency, democracy was brought to a halt, conferring upon Indira Gandhi the power to rule by decree. Political theorist Sudipta Kaviraj finds that the real reason for the suspension of civil rights was a “most serious challenge” to the leadership of Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party posed by the Bihar based movement against state corruption, also known as the JP Movement (195).[1] [open endnotes in new window] The actions and political foundations of the JP movement form the subject of Patwardhan’s first Indian documentary film Waves of Revolution while the repressive conduct of the state during the Emergency forms the subject of his next film, The Prisoners of Conscience. Filmed during the height of protests during October 1974-March 1975, Waves of Revolution is shot using a regular 8mm and Super 8 mm and later a borrowed Bell and Howell 16mm camera with donated film stock. At the beginning of the film Patwardhan outlines the social objective of the film:

“to capture Bihar at the moment of its awakening after 24 years of famines, floods and silence” (WOR, film).

The media landscape partially was responsible for the silence against which the film militated. During the 1970s, India had only restricted spaces of screen production, which traditionally subordinated image making to either state institutions or the industry’s market demands. I will discuss the ways in which at this juncture state control over documentary film production governed any historical representation of the period of constitutional emergency. A vital aspect of domestic policy, the production of documentary cinema was the responsibility of the Films Division of India, an institution under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, directly under the command of the high-ranking civil servant, the Chief Producer. Annual film production output and content were jointly determined by the central government in consultation with state governments, departments and ministries. These consultations took into account the priorities of the central Five Year Plans, events of national importance, and political exigencies. In her discussion of these films and their post-colonial nationalist context, Srirupa Roy terms these films the “handmaid of the national state” where the state is presented as the “key agent” in the process of “national becoming” (38).

Aesthetically and socially, the documentaries produced by the Films Division are a continuing chapter in the Griersonian tradition of public service documentary. Camille Deprez (2013) traces the foundations of the Films Division (hereafter, FD) as an institution to a Griersonian belief in the positive social function of art. Under the leadership of independent India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, FD performed as an institution of symbolic nation building, which Deprez says “appropriated Grierson’s notion of integration and consensus,” rather than individualism (155). The translation of this symbolic belief into practice can be seen in the mechanical ways that FD interpreted its creative remit. As an example from this period, Section III of the 1974-1975 Annual Report of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting outlines the main aims of FD: “to use the medium of film to disseminate information,” “to focus attention on the country’s life,” and “to bring about enlightened participation in the affairs of the nation and objective appreciation of facts, events and personalities” (35).

During 1974-1975, while the student movements in Gujarat and Bihar gathered force and veteran socialist and freedom fighter JP Narayan joined the widespread national protests, representational media came under strict central control. Writing shortly after the end of the Emergency, Rudolph and Rudolph (1978) conclude that during the Emergency

“pluralist representation was anathema to state sovereignty and the common good, Mrs. Gandhi attacked pluralist representation head on by characterizing it as license…” (385).

The way the FD films depicted the causes and effects of the Emergency provides a clear way to distinguish Patwardhan’s critical cultural position in relation to state controlled regimes of documentary representation. Instead of maintaining the self-proclaimed “objective appreciation of facts,” the FD films respond frontally to the agitating sections of the nation. Under the “Major Campaigns” listed in the 1974-1975 I & B report, the government harnessed Films Division to promote “National Integration” through cinematic means. This was achieved, continues the report, through films that,

“…stressed the importance of maintaining social harmony and peace, and depicted the suffering caused to the poorest sections of society…through the eruption of communal tension or in the course of extra parliamentary agitations.” (2)

During this period, filmic output from the Films Division contributed visually to constructing the narrative of the Emergency as a period of strong leadership and rapid social development. These films include Naya Daur/New Era (1975, S.N.S. Sastry), We Have Promises to Keep (1975, S.N.S. Sastry) For You and Me (1976, J.S. Bandekar) Help Them, Help You (1976, B.G. Devare) True Stories (1976. S.P. Ganguly) The New Wave (1976, Chandrashekhar Nair). Along with nation-wide programs introduced by Indira Gandhi during this period, these cinematic narratives present the Emergency as a period of discipline, order and accountability in the process of building a stronger nation.

Patwardhan’s Waves of Revolution and Prisoners of Conscience (1978) that cover the same historical period and terrain, on the other hand, offer a critique of the Emergency that led to the incarceration without trial of 100,000 people (182). Patwardhan filmed and edited these works at great personal risk of arrest and torture. Dennis Hanlon (2012) offers an extensive description of the production process of each film and views them as examples of “urgent cinema,” one technically imperfect but politically exigent. Both films bring into the public domain the voices of those officially denounced as traitors on account of their participation in the protest movement. At the same time, each film offers a broader political analysis of the events and offers ways of thinking about the events in the political context of the Gandhian histories of non-violent resistance and non-cooperation, and the democratic provisions enshrined in the national Constitution.

For the Central Board of Film Certification (hereafter CBFC), exhibition of both the films threatened political volatility, prompting a decision to restrict their exhibition, subject to a series of cuts. Patwardhan screened the films clandestinely for a period of two years until 1977 when following the end of the Emergency and a change of government, the films were granted an “Unrestricted” certificate for public exhibition. The actions of the Censor Board, in its role of cultural regulator, and Patwardhan’s subsequent response to this form of repression brings to light the determinedly public dimension of his cinema.

Censorship has haunted Patwardhan, forcing him to confront the dictates of bureaucratic power in a constitutional democracy for eight of his films. Seeking to minimize the socially disruptive potential of Patwardhan’s films, the Censor Board has routinely demanded the removal of scenes that it believes, “have an adverse effect on the minds of the viewers,” an observation it made with reference to Father, Son and Holy War (Patwardhan, 1995), a film about patriarchy and religious fundamentalism. The acts of censorship, while demonstrating an authoritarian exercise of power, also reveal Patwardhan’s view of political cinema not only as a subjective experience but as an agent of collective consciousness. His decision to seek censor clearance to enable the public exhibition of his films on national television—in an environment where private circulation beyond the purview of censorship is the dominant mode of documentary exhibition—is a gesture of wider cultural significance. In this goal of social reorganization, Patwardhan’s struggle for public exhibition depicts his efforts to exceed the confines of spaces assigned for cultural circulation such as film clubs and film festivals. He wants to address, in Shankar Menon’s (1985) eloquent terms, “all in authority, high or low, the elected, the selected, the clerk, the entrepreneur, the singer and dancer” (Patwardhan.com, web).