2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 57, summer 2016
Participation, poetry and song: Anand Patwardhan and New Latin American cinema
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. 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” . 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). [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).
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.
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 . 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). 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.
1. Jai Prakash Narayan or J.P. writes Norman Palmer (1975) “is a veteran Gandhian apostle of non- violence who enjoys perhaps the highest reputation of any prominent Indian for absolute integrity and selflessness. He re-emerged into the political arena in early1974 as a champion of student-initiated protest movements in Bihar and challenged Mrs. Gandhi to test the popularity of her party and her "corrupt" government through the electoral process”(96). [return to text]
2. According to Mestman, through the Cine Liberación, Solanas and Getino were to film the testimony of Perón for screening in Argentina as part of the political work supporting his return from exile in Madrid.
3. Vilas Ghoghre committed suicide in 1997 following a series of violent attacks on Dalits in his residential colony in Mumbai. Anand Patwardhan’s film Jai Bhim Comrade (2012) is a political examination of caste relations that led to this extreme step. Constructed without narration the film instead includes songs performed by a contemporary Dalit political group, Kabir Kala Manch. The production and exhibition of the film is further evidence of the filmmaker’s personal form of filmmaking (see Bernier, 2013).
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