Living Room with a View

Aug 24, 2012, 08:11 IST | Asha Mahadevan

Two documentaries were launched on DVD recently, making them more accessible to the public. Do the people have the stomach to see harsh reality, warts and all? Filmmaker Anand Patwardhan thinks they do

Bollywood movie launches on DVD are now, a regular event. It is rare though for DVDs of documentaries to be launched with much fanfare. That’s why it was refreshing to see an event specially organised to launch two documentaries by filmmaker Anand Patwardhan. These are ‘War And Peace’ and ‘Bombay My City,’ two of his better-known documentaries. The launch was held at Churchgate’s Oxford Bookstore on the evening of Wednesday, August 22.

Anand Patwardhan (l) and Naseeruddin Shah at the event
Screen time: Anand Patwardhan (l) and Naseeruddin Shah at the event. Pics/Bipin Kokate

Patwardhan said that he was “very thrilled” that the DVDs of his documentaries are being launched. He took great pains to personally set up the screening of clips from his films – whether it was connecting the laptop to the projector or ensuring the sound quality was right, the silver-haired director did it all himself, giving credence to his “very thrilled” sentiment. His excitement was palpable then and when he said, “For the first time, the documentaries will have an all-India reach. I have been making documentaries for 40 years now and the biggest hurdle has been distribution. People haven’t had a chance to watch the films.”

Ratna Pathak Shah
Presence: Ratna Pathak Shah against a backdrop of books

The filmmaker added that he had tried distributing his documentaries on his own but now that he has corporate backing, he hopes his work will be accessible to a wider audience. He also expressed his gratitude towards his friends Naseeruddin Shah and Naseer’s wife, Ratna Pathak Shah, who were present on the occasion. “They have always supported my work and I am thankful to them for being here,” Patwardhan said to much applause from the audience.

Halfway through his speech, the mike gave way. Technical glitches were a huge part of the event. The emcee had to do without a mike when he had to introduce chief guest Naseeruddin Shah, and the veteran actor had to do without one when he addressed the audience immediately after Patwardhan did. Ratna stayed rooted to her chair while Naseer walked up to the centre of the room for his speech.

Of course, being an experienced theatre actor he projected his voice with just enough aplomb so that the people gathered in the small room could hear him without having to strain or shut their ears. Naseer didn’t take up much of the audience’s time since he believed it was Patwardhan’s evening “and we should watch his work”.

Good friends
Naseer did talk about his association with the documentary filmmaker. “There was a time in the ’70s when I was starting out as a film actor and I would say yes to anybody who was making a film without songs and didn’t cater to the formula. Thirty-seven years later, there is only one filmmaker who I would say ‘yes’ to without question and he has never asked me to do anything for him. That’s Anand Patwardhan.

I have to say that apart from the tremendous admiration for him and the work he continues to do, I am here as a friend who wishes him well. Anand and I have been friends for a while. We share common interests, apart from films, like tennis and cricket and a fondness for green vegetation. For me what’s most significant about Anand’s work is that he makes documentaries out of choice. I think the impact of feature films is limited. Somewhere, telling the story gets in the way of what you are trying to say. If films have any power to affect people’s minds, they are documentaries.”

After Naseer spoke, a clip from ‘Bombay My City’ was screened. The film was shot between 1983 and 1985 when the city’s name had not been changed to Mumbai and talks about slum dwellers’ plight as the government strived to demolish illegal slums.

In the clip, a slum woman speaks about how one day, out of the blue, a police van arrived with a demolition vehicle and brought down their homes. She also alleges that a male police officer twisted her hand and abused her, yelling, “Why do you have so many children?” The spirited slum woman recalls how she replied saying, “If we didn’t have any children, where would you come from?” There were mutters of agreement from the audience that mainly consisted of SoBo residents and the media.

In another clip, a slum woman carrying a baby on her hip laments that the houses were brought down during the start of the monsoon. “After the monsoon, we are willing to go away from here, but let us have shelter during the monsoon,” she pleads. She also tells the filmmaker who is behind the camera not to take any photographs of her and her people. “You take our photos, what will we get? The government is not going to listen to us. Don’t take photos of poor people, sir,” she says.

Patwardhan began screening his second clip, this one from ‘War And Peace’, when the sound system shut down abruptly. He got down on his knees, changed the necessary cables and had it running again. It was humbling for all of us sitting comfortably in our chairs to watch the filmmaker try to get things going.

The DVD cover of ‘War And Peace’ has the tag line, ‘Banned by Censor, passed by Court’. The clip was just two minutes long while the documentary is longer than two hours but it made a strong impact. Patwardhan takes us to Mechua village, in present-day Jharkhand, where radioactive waste from the reactor nearby is submerged in the same pond in which the villagers bathe. When a few of the more alert tribals of the village tried to make their fellows aware of the problem, they were shunned.

The reactor employed many locals who feared that they would lose their jobs if their community members protested against the plant. They changed their minds when many of them developed cancer and their babies were born deformed. One of the children shown is a young boy with stick thin limbs and only one eye. The tribals complain that when they take their protest to urban areas, they are branded traitors, as these reactors will help make nuclear weapons to protect the nation. “What kind of protection is this?” a villager asks.

“We are a community where there used to be just a handful of diseases in our parents’ time. Now we have diseases which neither the doctors nor the healers know how to cure.” It also shows a scientist who insists that there has been no death from radioactivity in the country. Then he goes on to say how what is important to do is a ‘cost-benefit analysis’. One now knows the reasoning behind the tag line.

After screening these clips and a few from his other documentaries, Patwardhan discussed the footage with his audience. When asked if he has seen any change in the situation of the slum dwellers in the 27 years since he made the film, he said, “Nothing much has changed. There are more homeless people now than earlier. What you can say has changed is perhaps the rhetoric of the elite. When I interviewed them in the ’80s, many were blatantly against the slum dwellers. Now maybe they are not as open about it. But the feelings are the same and they are still considered an eyesore.”

The talk veered to how these slum dwellers actually own property worth crores and how they are encroaching on others’ land. “Who is encroaching?” asks Patwardhan. “Nariman Point is reclaimed land. How can you build high-rise after high-rise when there is not enough water? How can a family have five cars? Who is actually encroaching?” That’s when a person in the audience piped up and added her bit, “Nariman Point is actually named after the person who spent his entire life fighting against the reclamation of the land.” Only historians can verify the truth of that statement and we’ll leave it to them to debate upon it.

When asked whether he thinks there is an audience willing to face harsh realities, watching his documentaries, Patwardhan said, “My experience of showing films at various places has shown me that audiences are receptive. Nobody has walked out of a screening. The belief that documentaries will not hold audience is wrong. The real difficulty is that the people

who control cinema space do not have faith.” In response to another question, Patwardhan remarked, “I don’t make documentaries to win awards. I make documentaries on those subjects which disturb me.” Choosing a subject can be a tough task but Patwardhan believes, “If you make something in depth, you are more universal than if you try to be universalistic in your issues.” He added that he has never been scared of the dangers of filming documentaries about sensitive subjects. “I never let the fear get to me. The person who is scared of risks is the one who falls prey to them.” Amen. 

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