Satyabrata Ghosh recounts his memories of the films of Anand Patwardhan and the particularly torrid early summer of 1992, where the effect of television images broadcast by the state news channel would be negated by those stored on a VHS-brick that the writer lunged with himself through the lanes of a city on fire.
I came to know about Anand Patwardhan in 1988. In those days Chitravani used to be the hub of people who discussed on nothing else but cinema. It was there Bombay, Hamara Shahar (1985) was screened. The mostly clever juxtaposition of candid shots and interviews of slum-dwellers whose colonies were bulldozed. Two things stayed with me – one was the flamboyant Julius Rebeiro, the then Commissioner of Bombay. He coldly detailed his mission of cleaning the city. Nothing mattered to him, even the lives of children. The other shot that haunted me was a slum-dweller – a woman in mid close- up against the backdrop of their jhuggis, in the process of being razed. She was and she poured her wrath onto the lens,
Koi hal hai tumhare paas? Tum to sirf foto khichke naam kamaoge!
No one responded from the back of the camera. It keeps rolling for more than 20 seconds – we see her anger transmit through the screen into our heart. Later Ranjanda (Ranjan Palit), who took the handheld shot, told me that it was one of the defining moments from the process of making the film for him. Having been taught to obey the director, he waited for Anand’s response. There was none. So he continued to roll and register the emotion. Most importantly, Anand retained the entire footage in the edited film. (When Ranjanda became an ace photographer and documentary filmmaker, he always showed reluctance to cut a shot immediately after the testimonial of the respondent subject is over. He lingers on and lets the moment of eruption go straight into the viewers’ mind. See Voices from Balliapal.) To those rebel minds of the 90s, Anand Patwardhan was a champion (he still is). True to his soul, his camera roves in places where it matters the most.
I remember the complexities he brought out in one of his later films: Una Mitra Di Yaad Pyaari (IN THE MEMORY OF FRIENDS) where we see the Khalistani supporters vociferously vent their jingoism while quoting Bhagat Singh. This is juxtaposed with the shots of rural Punjab overlaid with a recitation of Bhagat Singh’s writings. Anand never takes a rigid stand while filming a particular project. So he records all possible views related to the issue. It is at the editing stage Anand uses his sharp mind to make the audience see the politics that compelled him to make each of his film with great risk. This became more evident when I saw Ram Ke Naam for the first time. The early months of 1992 were really fraught with anxiety for most of us. Almost every day, Doordarshan broadcast images of kar sevaks from various parts of the country, marching on towards Ayodhya. The battle cry to erect Ram Mandir over the land occupied by Babri Masjid was in the air. We were confused, we were afraid. But Anand was doing his job. He moved alongside the kar sevaks, who followed Lal Krishna Advani in his Ram Chariot (which had, by the way, been engineered from an air-conditioned Toyota van). From atop this assemblage, Advani would disseminate his hate-filled speech among the rural, suburban and urban masses, while provoking them to be the part of the new Hindutva upsurge.
In Anand’s film, we see testimonials of different kinds. There was one so-called kar sevak who in an inebriated state blabbered on about his pride with being Hindu. What touched most of us was an old man – the priest who straightaway accused the politicians of playing a dangerous game.
And what a game it was! The entire nation and the world were to be appalled on 6th December 1992. We saw the kar sevaks on the top of Babri Masjid, armed with hammers, axes and an intention to demolish the structure to the ground. India was under curfew. It was the first one that I experienced and I am afraid it will not be the last one. What disturbed me was the extent of the rumour that went around at super-sonic speed. We heard that two-thousand Hindus being butchered in Beleghata, and in no time Taltala turned into a war zone. Friends were busy collecting razors from barber shops as a means of self-defence (so that slashing others’ necks be justified). I was offered one but I refused to accept it. Instead, I was roaming around the city with a VHS copy of Ram Ke Naam. Most probably I borrowed it from Ranjanda if I remember correctly. I went to my friends’ home and talked to them and their parents.
I was surprised to see how hatred spewed from the elders’ mouths, especially those who came from East Bengal during and after the Partition. I could see their mouth frothing when they talked about the atrocities they or their near ones had been subjected to. I had nothing to argue, nothing to claim, but to ask a desperate question: Do you want to adopt the same cruelty that you were once a victim of?
They were angry. I mustered up courage and requested them to see the film I was carrying. They reluctantly agreed as they love me and often indulged my excesses. So I saw the film with them, late into the night... If I remember correctly, there were seven instances of different homes where reason prevailed over emotion. Whether it made any difference or not, I am not sure.