India’s film scene is perhaps better known in the UK for the glamour of Bollywood than for the hard-bitten reality of social documentary, but that could be about to change with Portraits of India, a BFI weekend devoted to India’s leading documentary film maker Anand Patwardhan. Catch four of his best at the BFI from February 23-25, including Jai Bhim Comrade, the savage critique of India’s caste system critically acclaimed at last year’s Sheffield Docs Fest.
Hotly anticipated are introductions to each film from Patwarden himself, as well as a live in-conversation event: a rare glimpse inside the world of a legendary filmmaker. Speaking to the Lambeth Weekender, Patwarden describes his documentaries as ‘a corrective, as an alternative view’ to the one provided by television news. “Most people forget what they see on the news precisely because it bombards them 24-7”, he says. “The documentary watching experience is quite different.”
Targeted by government censors and shunned by state-funded TV networks, Patwarden’s controversial work takes on the thorny politics of a turbulent, changing India. Father, Son and Holy War and its companion piece In the Name of God investigate the demolition by Hindu nationalists of a sixteenth century mosque in Ayodha. “Just today I received hate calls”, remarks Patwardhan. “[In the Name of God] had just been screened in Hindu fanatic territory in Uttar Pradesh”. Ending the series is War and Peace, an anguished, polemic lament over the rise of nuclear nationalism in India. “I would love to engage with my critics rationally, says Patwarden, but there are people whose very existence is threatened by such an exercise”.
Music is an important feature. “Music is never used as a background score”, he says firmly. “It takes centre stage”. Patwardhan has made experimental music videos, and two of these will be screened during the weekend. MTV-aired Ribbons for Peace contrasts saccharine lyrics with violent images of mushroom clouds and nuclear protests, while We Are Not Your Monkeys mixes poetry and street theatre in a riot of sound and colour.
Mounting calls for social justice in recent weeks could fuel Indian interest in the political activism of documentary film, but Patwarden is hesitant. “Documentaries in India remain in the margins”, he says, before allowing a glimmer of hope: “being able to show my films abroad affirms their value, so people in India cannot ignore them”.
Portraits of India is on at the BF, Belvedere Road, SE1 8XT, I from February 23-25. Admission: £5.25 – £10.00, joint discount available.
Jai Bhim Comrade, Feb 23 at 2.30pm
Anand Patwarden in Conversation Feb 23 at 6.20pm
In the name of God/We are not Your Monkeys Feb 24 at 3.50pm
Father, Son and Holy War Feb 25 at 6.10pm
War and Peace/Ribbons for Peace Feb 25 at 6.00pm