A week ago I sat in a packed auditorium in Auroville to watch Anand Patwardhan’s most recent film Jai Bhim Comrade. There was no AC or fan for the duration of the film, but despite the growing discomfort, the audience remained, watching scenes unfold that were far more discomforting. For those familiar with Anand’s previous work, there were recognisable trademarks: an invisible documentarist, a serious engagement with big subjects (caste, patriarchy, religious fundamentalism), and an equally serious running time of three hours. For Patwardhan novices it was a testament to his cinematic skills that they withstood both the rigours of the film and the clammy spectators to stay back and discuss their post-film transformations.
Jai Bhim Comrade is a film about the music of Dalit protest movements. It was sparked by the suicide of Dalit poet and singer Vilas Ghogre in 1997, who hung himself in protest after a police firing killed 10 residents in the Ramabai colony in Mumbai. Anand uses this incident as a starting point to investigate the ongoing brutality and oppression of Dalits, while highlighting their music, which serves as a powerful segue between art and politics. Jai Bhim had a gestation period of 14 years, and yet, it breathes—moves effortlessly from frame to frame, over the years and through various gulleys, always connected by the power of song.
Anand tells me he became a filmmaker by accident. As a child, his parents took him to see Robinson Crusoe, which terrified him because he thought everyone in the film had actually died. He refused to watch another movie until Peter Pan, which ultimately broke his cinema embargo. Still, as a young man leading what he calls a ‘frivolous’ life in Bombay, film was not foremost on his mind. It was in 1970, as a sociology student on scholarship at Brandies University in the United States that Anand had his first foray with the camera. His earliest footage is of antiwar Vietnam veterans throwing their medals at a memorial in Washington DC. Other such ‘filming accidents,’ all politically motivated, led him to make his first film, Waves of Revolution, about police violence in Patna, which went underground when the Emergency was declared in 1975.
Fourteen films later, with numerous awards to his credit and countless run-ins with censor boards and courts, Anand Patwardhan can be counted among India’s finest filmmakers. He was recently conferred a lifetime achievement award at the Mumbai International Film Festival, an award towards which he has mixed feelings. “My films are nothing without the causes they speak about and the people they champion,” he said in his acceptance speech. “Today, if I ask myself whether these films really made a difference to the people and the causes they’re about, I’d have to admit that the difference is marginal.”
Still, if the recent audience in Auroville is anything to go by, there is a case to be made for one person trying to be the change they wish to see in the world by using whatever means available to them. Without Anand’s films we would know less about India’s destructive policies towards nuclear weapons and big dams; we wouldn’t see so clearly the link between religious violence and machismo; and we probably wouldn’t have the privilege of knowing the poetry and music of Vilas Ghogre.
The writer is a dancer, poet and novelist.