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Mecca of art

Galli grit at Tate

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Anand Patwardhan's controversial films being screened at Tate Modern, London show that the politics of protest transcend national borders, time and space.

India's smug politicians, lathi-wielding policemen, gritty slum-dwellers and self-absorbed elite have made their way into the Mecca of art. London's Tate Modern is screening the radical political documentaries of noted Indian filmmaker Anand Patwardhan.
Patwardhan's cinema, grounded in the reality of contemporary India, is in stark contrast to the abstract forms of art displayed at Tate Modern. He does not believe in art for art's sake. His art, activism and films are indistinguishable.

He propels his audience into the rough and tumble of contemporary India with such dexterity that one can be forgiven for forgetting entirely about the man behind the camera and focusing, instead, on the politics of everyday life unfurling on screen. While politics takes centre-stage in Patwardhan's cinema, his form and technique often go unnoticed, and his aesthetic architecture is virtually invisible, points out writer-filmmaker Kodwo Eshun of the Ottolith Collective, co-curating Patwardhan's retrospective at the Tate Modern.

Patwardhan's cinema, which lays much emphasis on the politics of protest in India, is being screened in London at a time when Britain's culture of protest is on the wane. As political activity recedes from the streets, it is being revived in public art galleries such as Tate, says Anjalika Sagar of Ottolith Collective. The changing nature of protest in Britain is mirrored by a similar process in India that Patwardhan has captured on screen. While street protests form a part of Patwardhan's cinema in the India of the 1970s and early '80s, he talks of how the country now aims at prettifying its metros and silencing voices of protest. Both Mumbai and Delhi have outlawed street protests and confined protesters to a tiny area.

In his film, Bombay: Our City, on the brutality of slum-demolitions, a woman slumdweller glares into camera and asks Patwardhan to stop filming the poor as he can do nothing to help them. Patwardhan retains the moment because "it reminds both filmmaker and audience of the voyeurism inherent in films that focus on the misery of others. It forces us to introspect. " That the same woman loved the finished film after seeing it at one of the many screenings held across Mumbai's shantytowns was a bonus, but it never reduced the original chastisement.

The life and death of dalit poet and singer, Vilas Ghogre, forms the thread that binds Bombay: Our City (1985) with Jai Bhim Comrade made 27 years later. Patwardhan's 14 year opus on the oppression of dalits opens with Vilas's song from Bombay: Our City. Then the film abruptly freezes to tell us that Vilas committed suicide in 1997 after 10 dalits were killed in a police firing. They were protesting because their statue of Babasaheb Ambedkar had been garlanded with footwear.

Patwardhan has maintained political and financial independence as a filmmaker by not seeking co-production or corporate and NGO grants. Costs are kept to a minimum and the distribution earnings of each film are recycled into the next one.

Patwardhan's films show 40 years of history largely through the eyes of India's poor and marginalised. They explore the complexity of the Emergency years, militancy in Punjab, communal violence and India's nuclear tests. He records the parallel and almost simultaneous rise of neoliberalism and the rise of the religious right, both of which grew in the 1980s and came into their own in the early 1990s.

Art, for Patwardhan, is that which transcends time and space. His films have done both. A young woman from Argentina was initially daunted at the thought of watching a film on India, a country she knew so little about. On watching Patwardhan's films, she realised how similar his narrative was to the situation in her own country.

While the events recorded by Patwardhan are local, and specific to India, the concerns they raise transcend national borders. "You cannot fight for human rights or the protection of the environment in only one part of the world, " he says. "Globalisation has come to mean the global exploitation of resources and labour by multinationals. It must be fought by citizens who share the idea and the fact of a resistance that is equally global. "

Reader's opinion (1)

Dev cJan 23rd, 2014 at 16:40 PM

ANAHITA, WELL WRITTEN

 
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