Anand Patwardhan: Film maker as perennial trouble-maker

Anand Patwardhan

Anand Patwardhan is one of India’s best known and most outspoken documentary film makers. He has been making political documentaries for over three decades, pursuing diverse and controversial issues that are at the crux of social and political life in India. He epitomises the activist film maker and has inspired a generation of socially sensitive film makers.

In the world’s largest democracy that is India, and in a country with a vibrant and diverse media that is considered to be among the most free in the developing world, Anand has constantly run into problems getting his films seen on broadcast television. Many of his films were at one time or another banned by state television channels in India and became the subject of litigation by Anand, who successfully challenged the censorship rulings in court.

As his website notes, several of his films have also incurred the wrath of right wing fundamanentalists both in India and abroad. “In keeping with the uneven nature of India’s democratic institutions and its sharply divided polity, bouquets have been accompanied by brickbats.”

I came across a good interview with Anand Patwardhan in the Indian current affairs magazine Frontline, issue for 4 – 17 December 2010. Here are two questions concerning the censorship problems he has often faced:

Ram Ke Naam (In the Name of God), 1991
Q: You have had problems getting clearance from the Central Board of Film Certification for almost all your films, and then later they were not allowed to be screened on Doordarshan. Your films are also not screened on private channels. How do you see this constant struggle with these forms of censorship?

A: Right from the first film, I faced censorship in some form or the other. Even the Janata Party after it came to power refused to screen Waves of Revolution though it was against the Emergency. L.K. Advani was the Information and Broadcasting Minister then. I had added an epilogue which said that the janata raj [people’s rule] that the film spoke about was not the same as [that of] the Janata Party now in power. I also drew attention to the political prisoners still being held in jail. Finally, after media pressure built up, the film was screened on Doordarshan.

Prisoners of Conscience also got into trouble with the censor board, and it took a letter from Satyajit Ray to the government saying that they must not stop a film like this to get the required clearance.

Ram Ke Naam followed the rath yatra of Advani and the violence in Ayodhya on October 30, 1990, when the Babri Mosque was attacked for the first time. It was meant to be a warning to the nation about the rise of Hindutva fundamentalism. I had trouble with the censors initially, but it finally got through in 1992 and then I had trouble with Doordarshan, which refused to show it. Finally, after the film won a national award for Best Investigative Documentary, I was able to go to court and argue that the government cannot give me a national award and yet say that I cannot show the film on Doordarshan, which it had been doing systematically. In fact, whenever any film of mine won a national award, I used it to go to court. I argued that not showing such a film on national TV was a denial of my right to freedom of expression and of the viewers’ right to information.

On these grounds I have won seven cases till now – five in the High Courts and two in the Supreme Court after the government went in appeal. Ram Ke Naam was finally shown on Doordarshan in 1997. The judge ordered that the film should be telecast at prime time.

Stills from Anand Patwardhan (courtesy his website)

Q: Why have you not approached private channels to screen your films?

A: The private media, including television, are not about giving people information. They are run by corporates more interested in providing entertainment. Their news and analysis are restricted to five and 10 second [sound] bites. Their clear mandate is commercial. They will ask, “Where are the advertisers who will endorse your product? Who is going to give the money to show this? Are we going to waste one and a half hours of TV time on issues?”

I have also discovered that even in the private domain there is political censorship. A few days before the Allahabad High Court verdict on [the] Ayodhya [title suit] was due, a private channel approached me to screen Ram Ke Naam. They paid me for three broadcasts but stopped after showing the film just once despite extremely positive feedback from viewers. On inquiring, I was told that the channel was pressured not to show the film by both the Information and Broadcasting Ministry and the TV Broadcasters’ Association. Anyone who watches Ram Ke Naam will realise that this censorship was done to protect the interests of unscrupulous politicians who had used the emotive appeal of Ram for financial and political gain.

The situation today is such that you cannot pinpoint where the censorship is coming from. During the Emergency you at least knew who the enemy was. But now what do you do when every wing of society – whether it’s the legal system, and so on – is complicit in a blanket suppression of facts.

Read the full interview in Frontline magazine, issue for 4 – 17 December 2010

Read TVE Asia Pacific profile and interview with Ananda Patwardhan in 2002

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

One thought on “Anand Patwardhan: Film maker as perennial trouble-maker”

  1. I salute Anand for standing his ground for so long and for doggedly fighting for fairness and equality. In this time many other Indian activists have fallen, bought over or intimidated into silence. Where are the next generation Anands to keep up the struggles?

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