Jang Aur Aman (2001) (aka War And Peace)
“In India, the ideology that killed Gandhiji was once more legitimate. Nuclear nationalism was in the air. The memory of one who opposed the bomb on moral grounds alone had begun to fade.”
Documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan’s controversial War and Peace (2001) could well have been titled War and Peace: Or How I Learned to Forget Gandhi and Worship the Bomb, for the major theme that runs through the film is the disjunction that exists between the past and the present and a nation’s collective (and selective) cultural amnesia with respect to its own past. Shot in four countries – India, Pakistan, Japan and the USA – and over a period of four years following the 5 nuclear tests done by India in 1998, Patwardhan’s film was slammed by Pakistan for being anti-Pakistani and by India for being anti-Indian, while the film’s barrel was pointed elsewhere. Tracing out the country’s appalling shift from Gandhian-ism to Nuclear Nationalism and Pakistan’s follow-up to India’s nuclear tests, Patwardhan examines the role of the countries as both the perpetrators and the victims of a major mishap that is now imminent, taking the Hiroshima-Nagasaki incident as a potent example to illustrate why nuclear armament is not merely a potentially hazardous move, but a wholly unethical one. War and Peace is a film that should exist, even if amounts to only the ticking of a radiometer amidst nuclear explosions, for it calls for a realization that there can be neither a victor nor a finish point in this internecine nuclear race.
Minutes into the film, it becomes evident that Patwardhan’s stance is far from neutral. War and Peace is not a documentary which sets up the dialectics, leaving it to us to resolve the contradictions and come to an ideological stance. It is, clearly, anti-nuclear in its politics. Patwardhan’s editing is deterministic and it pointedly juxtaposes shots of unabashed right wing celebration of the success of the nuclear tests with those of the anti-nuclear protests being squashed by police force. The cross section of people Patwadhan takes for the pro-nuclear arguments consists almost entirely of common folk, far removed from any knowledge of the bigger picture, and the sample he gathers for the film’s anti-nuclear arguments is made up of activists, scientists and cultural icons whose opinions, naturally, seem far more logical than the former group’s. However, even amidst the one-sidedness of Patwardhan’s intent and approach and the near simplification of issues, War and Peace provides a lot for the audience to work with. Part of the pleasure in watching War and Peace comes from the cat and mouse game between the audience trying to pin down the filmmaker to a particular ideology, political side, a nationality or a religion and the director invalidating every such categorization, one after the other.
Eventually, beyond the seemingly-leftist tone of the first chapter, Patwardhan turns out to be an absolute centrist, with humanitarianism (and hence complete nuclear disarmament) being the only ideology he seems to support. One by one, he strips down every artificial façade people have been made to wear, to elevate the movie to a purely human level. In a moving scene, the friend of a Kargil-war martyr, a Pathan himself, tells us that he feels guilty because it was another Pathan who shot his friend. In another, two former generals – one from India and one from Pakistan – recall how futile the previous war was, both politically and personally. Likewise, Patwardhan nullifies every classification based on class, religion, nationality and political leaning in order to recognize people just as people and to acknowledge the existence of each one of them. But, despite the film critical and sometimes cynical attitude, never does Patwardhan assume a stance superior to the people he deals with. War and Peace is as much a personal film as it is political. From the film’s very first lines, Patwardhan ties his story to the history of the country. He goes on to tell us in a somber, disinterested tone, which will stay for the rest of the film: “That our family, like Nathu Ram Godse and his co-assassins, were upper caste Hindus cured me for ever, of any narrow understanding of nation and any vestige of pride in the accident of birth”. With the significance of his own caste questioned, Patwardhan merely goes on to explore if there is any worth in associating one’s name to these man-made trappings at all.
When Mao Zedong told the Dalai Lama that religion was poison, he was, in fact, nurturing another poison called patriotism. Of course, in India, it is undeniable that both religion and jingoism work in union to charge the people up with faux ideologies, no matter which party forms the government. War and Peace investigates this strong synergy within the context of the nuclear race between India and Pakistan. Both ultra-nationalism, with its distorted, larger-than-life definitions of “bravery”, “martyrdom” and “sacrifice”, and religion, which perpetuates a misplaced sense of masculinity with its belligerent iconography and literature, as is elucidated by Patwardhan’s film, seem to operate in conjunction with the free market system to create an environment where might is indeed right. And this explosive mixture of religion, politics and capitalism, as Patwardhan highlights briefly, doesn’t exactly seem unique to India or Pakistan. “For God and Country” reads the American motto on its Air Force Association headquarters. In this regard, War and Peace shares a lot with Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964, alluded to in the film’s first few minutes), where, too, the nuclear superiority was equated with masculinity. In fact, in a panel discussion about Patwardhan’s film, former director-general of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, Lt. Gen. Asad Durrani tells us that the only fear Pakistan has about the nuclear bomb, thanks to the ease of access to it, is that it might go off accidentally!
Patwardhan emphasizes this effacement of the individual to serve national and religious ideologies continuously in the film. People are often photographed, in long shots, as being overshadowed by huge banners of political leaders, by paintings of gods, by commercials of consumer products and, sometimes, by the nuclear bomb itself – both in India and Pakistan (Even during his stay in America, Patwardhan manages to photograph a couple of security guards being dwarfed by a triumphant image of Neil Armstrong holding the American flag on the moon). There is a constant battle between individual conscience and populist opinion throughout Patwardhan’s film (In a noteworthy composition, Patwardhan photographs Raja Ramanna, father of India’s first nuclear program, through a ventilation in the piano that gives us a wheel like figure – the symbol on the Indian flag – imprisoning the man). In a cracking sequence, during a debate on nuclear testing, in a high school in Pakistan, Patwardhan finds a girl, who had just now spoken onstage ‘for’ the bomb, speaking against it. Upon inquiry about this discrepancy, she tells us that she chose a side that would give her more points to speak about and one that would be received well by the majority. It is a remarkable scene, with the politics of both the countries being boiled down into a single classroom, which strikingly underlines the tendency of common folk to conform to the majority in an unstable political climate.
But the real catalyst in this destructive process seems to be the free market system whose agents leave no stones unturned to create and exploit emotional imbalance among people. War and Peace examines how privatized media networks, instead of reassuring people, “brought [Kargil] war into the living rooms” by sensationalizing images of war and selectively filtering truth to evoke a vengeance-driven feeling of nationalism. The FMCG brands promptly followed up with slogans and graphics on their packages so as to reinforce the ruling party’s justification of the war. Even after the war, these firms did not forget to cash in on the remains of the war. “Cadbury’s salutes the heroes of the war”, “Hero Honda presents the 50th day commemoration” and other such commercials flood the Indian TV screen following the war. Extrapolating this set of arguments, in the final chapter titled “Song of India, Song of America”, and taking into consideration the infamous Tehelka scam that exposed the corruption of the Indian defense ministry, Patwardhan raises the question about the consequences of privatizing the defense industry, as it has been done in America. The point that Patwardhan seems to be making with this fabric of arguments seems to be that, in an attempt to ape the west, both India and Pakistan seem to have forgotten their basic necessities while going after a luxury called nuclear empowerment, which turns out to be only detrimental to the development of both countries.
The most unfortunate part about this kind of a system of governance, so the film points out, is that it makes science a culprit to the decisions made on religious and nationalist bases. The fundamentalists, both in India and Pakistan, believe that the A-bomb is a “gift from God” (Hindus and Muslims are seen, literally, worshiping the bomb). Science is transmogrified to serve the cause of religion and the fanatic nuclear race. Every decision is justified using science and mathematics and people, as a result, are reduced to mere numbers. One scientist tells us the casualty due to nuclear radiation is just one in a million. Another one talks about making tradeoffs for a greater cause. Probability theory is exploited to uphold morality and deaths are quantized and neglected in comparison to the superpower status a nuclear bomb might give the nation. General Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan project, as is revealed by historians in the film, decided to use two nuclear bombs in place of one (even when Japan had virtually lost the war) just in order to compare the effectiveness of uranium and plutonium based bombs. By the time this factoid is revealed, Patwardhan’s observation that the minorities – ethnic, social, political and religious – are the ones who end up at the receiving end becomes a universal truism.
Patwardhan’s film is full of humorous moments brimming with great irony. These blink-and-you-miss moments often arrive as establishment shots, cleverly setting up the attitude of the filmmaker in the sequence to follow. Be it of a man cleaning the garden of Raja Ramanna, who is sedately playing the piano inside his house, a miniature cannon placed in his house besides a sculpture based on the Mahabharata war, a set of Nancy Drew books arranged alongside books on Islam in the girls’ high school in Pakistan, a destitute woman sitting indifferently besides the hordes of laymen celebrating the nuclear success or a bunch of puppies and kitten playing in the Gandhi ashram, Patwardhan’s ever-curious camera, even during the most serious of conversations, never hesitates to wander off to make a point of its own. But the remarkable part in all of this is that Patwardhan derives his assertions from reality – from actual objects present in the scene of discussion. Instead of cutting forcefully from one image to another to make an Eisensteinian statement, Patwardhan merely reframes using a gentle tilt or a pan, often with a socialist eye for detail, to highlight the various opposing forces acting on people.
War and Peace could well serve as a fitting documentary counterpart to Haasan’s Hey Ram (2000) – my pick for the best Indian film of last decade. Both are decidedly Gandhian films that examine the deadly confluence of politics and religion (one character in Haasan’s film equates this combination to “sex and violence” in cinema). Where Haasan’s film ends with the murder of Gandhi, War and Peace begins with that incident. While Hey Ram had the present in black and white and the past in colour to reflect the collective loss of memory that the nation seems to be suffering from, Patwardhan’s film presents us the past entirely using monochrome newsreels – both archival and reconstructed – and the present in colour, as if quarantining the past as a work of fiction (complete with a introductory countdown and a projector hum). Both explore the country’s selective renouncement of its own past whereby all the ills of the past are willfully retained and rewarded while the ideology that called for a non-violent and symbiotic way of life is as consigned as foolish romanticism. “This thing skips a generation”, notes one of the residents of Hiroshima, in War and Peace, referring to the effects of the A-bomb toxins on the new-born. This, in another sense, is indeed what both these films hope for – that the younger generation will open up to a past that their elders refuse to acknowledge.