The history of battle,” wrote Paul Virilio in 1984, “is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception.” Examining the relationship between war and images, the French philosopher advanced that, through the ages, victory in an armed conflict has always been a matter of perceiving and representing enemies and enemy territories; that, in industrial warfare, “the representation of events outstripped the presentation of facts”. He continues: “Thus, alongside the army’s traditional ‘film department’ responsible for directing propaganda to the civilian population, a military ‘images department’ has sprung up to take charge of all tactical and strategic representations of warfare for the soldier, the tank or aircraft pilot, and above all the senior officer who engages combat forces.”

Virilio’s analysis has only become more accurate with time. A few years ago, MIT developed a camera that can look around corners — an invention that has obvious military application. In March this year, the U.S. Army publicized their goggles that allows soldiers to remain inside their armoured vehicles while being able to see everything happening outside. To be able to see the source of danger without exposing yourself to it — the Rear Window principle — is already a battle half-won. Photography and filmmaking have therefore increasingly been at the centre of contemporary military strategy.

The work of German filmmaker Harun Farocki (1944-2014) has, over decades, thrown light on the profound, multi-layered links between war, photography and cinema. His films echo Virilio in demonstrating how, in modern warfare, terrains are mapped out in extensive detail, combat tactics are thoroughly simulated in software and variables of battle are controlled to such a degree that the actual field operation simply becomes a logistical formality. In such an asymmetric war, the side that controls machine-filmed, amoral and objective images of a region is one that has already conquered it. To see is to capture.

Two films screened at the recently concluded Visions du Réel festival in Nyon imbibe the spirit of Farocki’s work and explore the intersection between images and war with great cogency and rigour.

Directed by Massimo D’Anolfi and Martina Parenti, the Italian feature War and Peace lives up to the ambitions of its lofty title. The opening part is set in a film archive, where researchers study footage from a “forgotten war”: the Italian invasion of (current-day) Libya in 1911. Perhaps the first war expressly filmed for public consumption back home, the clips show soldiers advancing in the desert and or assembled outside captured sites. These films, we are told, played a part in creating the fiction that was unified Libya. As it did elsewhere under various imperial film units, cinema here served as a colonizing force, with the power of writing history residing with those who wield the camera.

The second segment of the film parachutes us into a crisis unit in Italy that helps locate and repatriate civilians and military personnel stuck in war-torn areas around the world. More than a century since the Libya invasion, technology has now democratized image-making. Even the “enemies” have the means to fashion their own narrative through film. Thanks to global media and the internet, these images of war can now be produced, distributed and immediately seen across the world. We observe experts at the crisis unit investigating and interacting with these videos to navigate the chaos of the present. It’s effectively a battle for the control of future history.

Production and control of images of war is also the theme of the third part of the film, set at a French military academy. A new batch of recruits in what Virilio called the “images department” is being trained in the techniques of photography, visual composition, voiceover commentary, live telecast and filmmaking. At the end of the course, a whole combat operation is simulated in the campus for these trainees to shoot and edit into a wide-screen Hollywood-like movie, as though the primary goal of war was to fabricate images, “representation of events” outstripping “presentation of facts”.

War and Peace nevertheless concludes with a reflection on cinema’s power to prevent history from falling into oblivion. As footage of post-war devastation and testimonies of Holocaust survivors wash over reel cans, we realize that while cinema may not have been able to forestall historical tragedy, as Jean-Luc Godard lamented, its true mission may simply be to pick up the pieces, to preserve the memories of the victims of war. And that perhaps is the only way cinema could film peace.

Bellum – The Daemon of War deals with similar ideas as War and Peace, but weaves them into human interest stories. Made by David Herdies and Georg Götmark, the film follows three subjects living at different corners of the world: an engineer in Sweden, an American photographer working in Afghanistan and an Afghan war veteran in Nevada, USA. They don’t meet one another in the film, but their lives are all shaped by war and Western attitudes to war.

Fredrik Bruhn, the Swedish engineer, is involved in designing an AI-powered military drone that will take autonomous decisions on bombing a perceived target — a game-changing invention that will eliminate the need for any human intervention in combats. Bill Lyon, the war vet suffering from PTSD, has trouble reintegrating into civilian life and hopes to go back to the front, not just for the money, but also to regain some semblance of normalcy. Paula Bronstein is a photojournalist from the East Coast who covers the aftermath of the Afghan war. We see her directing her subjects with makeshift lighting, wandering the streets of Kabul coaxing children for a pose or signing photo-books at her exhibition back in the United States.

Bellum emphasizes that these are nice people. Bruhn is a doting father and a science enthusiast. Bronstein is empathetic and wants to put a human face to the fallout of the war. Despite his hatred for the conditions in Afghanistan, Lyon too is a loving husband. Well-meaning though they might be, it becomes apparent that their life and work are marked by a certain guilt surrounding the fact of war. This is evident in the case of Lyon, who has seen his friends and colleagues die in the field, but Bronstein’s own activity may not be untouched by a liberal sense of culpability about her country’s interventions in Afghanistan. Bruhn’s efforts to eliminate the human factor of war, too, is an attempt to eradicate feelings of guilt about liquidating an enemy, which, the film’s narrator notes, is the only real restraining force in an armed conflict.

Elsewhere, the narrator remarks that armies don’t use just cardboard silhouettes for target practice anymore, but well-defined human-like figures, such that soldiers find themselves in a situation as close to real life as possible. Lyon drives past a large military facility in Nevada, where a life-size replica of Kandahar was set up. Such hyper-realistic simulation environments, which were the subject of Farocki’s four-part Serious Games (2010), are ultimately designed to blur the boundary between reality and fiction and to have combatants take one for the other.

It’s judgment that defeats us,” says an embittered Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) at the end of his famous monologue in Apocalypse Now (1979). What Bellum points to us is that this judgment, this human fallibility, is the variable that technology seeks to eliminate from the equation of war, seeking to forge amoral killing machines that will, somehow, do the “right thing”. In this mission, these two films show us, cinema will be always on the side of the powerful.


[Originally published at Firstpost]

Anand Patwardhan

Anand Patwardhan 

Anand Patwardhan has been making political documentaries for nearly three decades pursuing diverse and controversial issues that are at the crux of social and political life in India. Many of his films were at one time or another banned by state television channels in India and became the subject of litigation by Patwardhan who successfully challenged the censorship rulings in court. Patwardhan received a B.A. in English Literature from Bombay University in 1970, won a scholarship to get another B.A. in Sociology from Brandeis University in 1972 and earned a Master’s degree in Communications from McGill University in 1982. Patwardhan has been an activist ever since he was a student — having participated in the anti-Vietnam War movement; being a volunteer in Caesar Chavez’s United Farm Worker’s Union; working in Kishore Bharati, a rural development and education project in central India; and participating in the Bihar anti-corruption movement in 1974-75 and in the civil liberties and democratic rights movement during and after the 1975-77 Emergency. Since then he has been active in movements for housing rights of the urban poor, for communal harmony and participated in movements against unjust, unsustainable development, miltarism and nuclear nationalism. [Image Courtesy: Icarus Films, Bio Courtesy: Official Site]

The most acclaimed Indian documentary filmmaker, Anand Patwardhan has been called the Michael Moore of India, although the latter started his career much later than Patwardhan did. The comparison is not entirely unwarranted though. For one, Patwardhan’s political inclination is very similar to that of the Canadian-American. He even admires Moore’s works to a large extent. But of more interest is the commonality between their styles. Like in the films of Moore, the image and the sound counterpoint each other at the most critical junctures. But, unlike in Moore where it’s almost exclusively played out for laughs, this friction is also used to provide highly affecting social ironies or even serve as penetrating summations. Same is true of the dialectical imagery – arrived at though Eisensteinian cutting or, more frequently, within the same shot – in his films. This might sound too crude and simplistic, but Patwardhan’s curious, clear-sighted camera and editing never once call attention to themselves or invite us to marvel their artistry. It is almost as if the sound and the image have independent existence since each of them has its own emotional weight and rumination quotient. At times, the image and sound are linked together by folk (generally recorded directly) or pop songs (official versions), which serve as catharsis for the pent up resentment and tension. Moreover, these folk songs also help illustrate how a community uses its art forms to make a record of its problems and struggles and to develop a sense of clanship among its members to help them go on.

Another singular aspect of Patwardhan’s cinema is his attention to dialects, language and speech patterns. Although there must have been considerable amount of luck in making many of these observations, the amazing consistency with which these nuggets steal the speeches they appear in makes this an ostensible trademark of the director.  A chief nuclear scientist believes, albeit with a modicum of humour, that the numerous berserk cows did not spoil the nuclear test because they are sacred. A well-off, educated urban businessman, who has, along with his wife, resorted to religious methods for having a child, tells us (among other atrocities) that Hinduism is extremely liberal and broad minded in comparison to Islam and that “women cannot be divorced very easily”. An atheist (or secular) speaker of the Left uses the term “Lakshman Rekha” to denote the poverty line. This scrupulous attention to representation extends also to the visual language. Mass media, especially mainstream cinema and popular television (shows and news – rather interchangeable really), make regular appearances in Patwardhan’s films and are used to highlight their regressive influence. Although the working methods that he has developed over time bear an unmistakable authorial stamp (save for two rather ordinary short films), Patwardhan claims that he does not believe in deliberate stylization and that there is no conscious aesthetic in his films. In fact, the only cinematic influence that he mentions in interviews is that of Imperfect Cinema (Patwardhan’s films are certainly works of Third Cinema and his essay on The Battle of Chile (1977) is an illuminating read). So it should of little doubt that his politics is what informs his aesthetics.

In a way, Anand Patwardhan could be called the child of Karl Marx and Karamchand Gandhi. If there is one vein that runs throughout Patwardhan’s filmography, it is the attempt to suitably wed class consciousness with nonviolent methods of problem solving. In that respect, all his films could be seen as efforts to demonstrate that this marriage is not just chimerical utopianism, but a practical possibility. He has been criticized for taking sides, for not presenting facts with objectivity and, plainly, for not giving the ‘other’ side a fair hearing. Surely, there can be few qualities more repulsive than non-committedness, neutrality and pseudo-objectivity in a political documentary for you can’t be neutral on a moving train. But then that doesn’t mean films such as Patwardhan’s are propagandistic or, worse, merely personal preferences, worldviews and opinions. His filmmaking is defined by curiosity and compassion rather than didacticism and judgment. Patwardhan’s allegiance is not to any geography, religion, ideology, language or class, but only to humanitarianism (for the lack of a better term), although, ironically, that stance dictates much of his politics. Through the films, it becomes evident that it is not an hatred towards the ruling class, but a genuine concern for the underprivileged that characterizes his cinema.  Witness to this attitude is the fact his central interest remains – and this has given birth to the best sections he’s ever done – in the struggles of the oppressed than the acts of the powerful. All his films, in one way or the other, are celebrations of (or pleas for) nonviolent forms of resistance. (He places Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, B. R. Ambedkar and Salvador Allende on the same pedestal.) It is as if, for him, the struggle itself is more important than the end result. These films testify to the filmmaker’s belief that a struggle for human rights need not necessarily entail dehumanization of oneself, that, to borrow Gandhi’s oft-used quote, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”.

(NOTE: As usual, there are gaping holes here which will be filled once I see those missing films)

Zameer Ke Bandi (Prisoners Of Conscience, 1978)


Prisoners of ConscienceShot on grainy 16mm stock that embodies the spirit and theory of Imperfect Cinema that Patwardhan so cherishes, Prisoners of Conscience (1978) captures a particular facet of the tumultuous years following the declaration of emergency by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in June, 1975: political imprisonment. Through first hand accounts, the director presents details of the appalling brutality of prison procedures and the classism that permeates them. Patwardhan’s major lament is not against Indira’s policies per se, but the very act of holding political prisoners without trial (That the film clearly points out that the situation did not improve much even after Janata Dal came to power testifies to its “nonpartisan” quality). What was unique about the widespread resistance to this political ploy of Indira Gandhi was that it was highly democratic in nature, with participation by both the secular Left and the Hindu-based RSS (a marriage quite unimaginable now), both workers and students, both citizens and immigrants and both radical Maoists and nonviolent Gandhians. Using the various interviews of people from each of these groups, Patwardhan attempts to examine and evaluate his own political leaning by trying to uncover socialist strains in Gandhian philosophy and the possibility of having a nonviolent base for Marxist thought. In additional to his ideology, it is also Patwardhan’s directorial style that seems to have (more or less) found its bearings in Prisoners as is evident in the therapeutic use of folk songs, the ironic cross cutting between Republic Day celebrations and prison proceedings and the general hesitation to be overly acerbic or coldly academic.

Hamara Shahar (Bombay, Our City, 1985)

Bombay, Our CityBombay, Our City (1985) is a devastating account of the slum clearance operations of the Bombay Municipal Corporation in 1984, in which encroachments by rural immigrants were systematically removed to make way for skyscrapers and to prettify the city. Patwardhan interviews residents of the slums, industrialists in the city, officials at the municipality office and middle class citizens of the city, all of whose words provide a unique insight into the issue. Occasionally, the film falls prey to an unrefined Marxist impulse wherein the director includes images of bourgeois tea parties and yacht races for no reason other than to provide contrast. But then, this sudden shift of gears also seems justified when we witness a group of upper-class folks – the city’s police commissioner included – discussing how to fight this “evil” of encroachments through martial training of youths. What is really extraordinary about the segments involving the slum residents is how remarkably aware these people are of their surroundings and of the numerous forces that bind them. A terrific song compiled by the local theatre group, which forms the spiritual backbone of the film, details the government’s injustices with great humour and pathos. Equally piercing are the testaments of the evicted (One of them says “Instead of removing poverty, they’re removing the poor”, alluding to Indira (and Rajiv) Gandhi’s populist slogan for eradicating poverty). Finally, Bombay, Our City also presents Patwardhan finding his own place as a filmmaker and an activist. One of the slum dwellers accuses Patwardhan of exploiting their misery for artistic gains while the Right accuses him of romanticizing the working class. The director, however, remains the humble inquisitor.

Una Mitran Di Yaad Pyaari (In Memory Of Friends, 1990)

In Memory of FriendsIn Memory of Friends (1990) finds Patwardhan in Punjab covering communal clashes between Sikh and Hindu fundamentalists during the Khalistan Movement and the subsequent endeavours of secular parties with Marxist associations in reinstating peace in the state. The subject of In Memory is both philosophically and politically complex (primarily due to different parties holding power at the state and central levels), for the demand for a separate state based on religion is, as Patwardhan remarks, both purely democratic and against democracy. At the focal point of the film is the figure of Bhagat Singh, freedom fighter and revolutionary whose image has been appropriated and manipulated by each political group to suit to its own ideological agenda. The Sikh separatists claim Bhagat Singh was a religious man whereas the right wing extols his nationalism. Even those who remain neutral about him seem to consider him as some sort of an antithesis to the nonviolent Gandhi. This starling rupture between the past and the present – the reality and its image – informs the central structuring device of In Memory. Interleaved with footage of interviews with the secularists, the separatists and the relatives of Bhagat Singh are passages in which Bhagat Singh’s posthumously published jail writings are recited by a narrator (Naseeruddin Shah) which clearly indicate that he was not only a staunch socialist and an atheist who believed that widespread class consciousness was the only way out of communal wars, but also that he deeply admired non-violence. Like all the secular teachings of Sikhism, Bhagat Singh’s beliefs, too, seem to have vanished into the past.

Ram Ke Naam (In The Name Of God, 1992)

In The Name Of GodIn the Name of God (1992) chronicles the immediate and historical events leading up to the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh on 6 December 1992, when thousands of Hindu fundamentalists barged into the mosque premises and started bringing down the structure. Characteristically witty with a very keen eye for tragicomic ironies (The camera casually photographs an eatery named “Shriram Fast Food” as we hear public speakers, mounted on hired trucks, advertising the divinity of Lord Ram), Patwardhan examines the classism that exists within these communal forces (in the form of castes) and charts both the strategies of the then-oppositional Hindu groups, one of whose leaders had undertaken a nationwide propagandist tour, and the efforts of the secular Left in mitigating the communal agitation that seemed to have gripped the country like a plague. Unlike most rationalists, he chooses to view religion not as an entity fascist in its very conception, but as one which is molded by the ideology that propagates it. This is reinforced by the numerous segments featuring with Pujari Laldas, the official priest at the temple inside the mosque premise and a Hindu liberation theologian, the honesty and conviction of whose words suffuse the film with an earnestness and compassion so crucial to sociological filmmaking. But perhaps more than anything, In the Name of God is an elegy for the city of Ayodhya – a city caught unawares by external polarizing forces, its identity erased and reconstituted and its people made to live in perpetual fear.

Pitra, Putra Aur Dharmayuddha (Father, Son And Holy War, 1994)

Father, Son And Holy WarA twin to In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy War (1994) is less topical and more contemplative a film than its predecessor in that it attempts to study primeval and deep-rooted social issues with the bloody aftermath of the Babri Mosque demolition as only the backdrop. The central thesis of the film contends that religion and mythology – whatever be their flavour – construct and propagate a skewed sense of masculinity and bravery that is predicated on violence and hatred, which deems non-violence as an impotent principle and which is only exacerbated by most of modern consumerist advertising and certain sections of the mass media. Furthermore, Patwardhan suggests, it is the same texts and practices that define femininity as whatever masculinity isn’t, with passive acceptance, chastity and servility being its prime virtues. The film argues, presenting archaeological evidence, that this was not always the case and that, at the danger of sounding too simplistic, this worship of violence and destruction – in place of fertility and proliferation – started when man learned to domesticate and own animals and settle down. Equally sweeping are its other assertions that attempt to cover of number of social phenomena (including the popularity of WWF and on-screen violence, in general), which runs the risk of decontextualizing the key argument of the film. True, that all these facets are only deeply intertwined, but the film is so ambitious and loosely structured that it almost ends up proving otherwise. These observations would find greater strength and coherence in the director’s decidedly superior work, War and Peace.

A Narmada Diary (1995)

A Narmada DiaryA very pertinent film about the social conditions in the third world – especially after the advent of globalization – A Narmada Diary (1995) sits well alongside works such as West of the Tracks (2003) and Up the Yangtze (2007) in the sense that it chooses to document on film – for us and for posterity – what would otherwise be relegated to the footnotes of most mass media. Co-directed with activist Simantini Dhuru, the film tracks the struggle of an indigenous population (Narmada Bachao Andolan/Save Narmada Movement) living on the banks of river Narmada against the Sardar Sarovar Dam project, which would result in their displacement and massive land submergence. There is a sense of watching history in the making as the group congregates for planning, organizes non-violent protests, confronts key officials responsible for the construction of the dam and exhibits a singular integrity of purpose, further evidencing Patwardhan’s heartfelt admiration for Patricio Guzmán’s masterpiece. Although the Save Narmada Movement is generally known to be led by Medha Patkar, Patwardhan and Dhuru avoid the pitfall of making a hero out of her and building a film around an exceptional individual’s actions. Instead, true to the spirit of this struggle, the directors present her as a key player in a movement organized and executed by the local populace en masse. Additionally, A Narmada Diary is also a personal struggle for Patwardhan as a filmmaker. Like the rebellion, his work stands as the direct antithesis to the pro-dam government propaganda films that make their appearance throughout the picture.

Jang Aur Aman (War And Peace, 2001)

War and PeaceWar 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 always pointed elsewhere. Tracing out the country’s appalling shift from Gandhianism to Nuclear Nationalism and Pakistan’s follow-up to India’s nuclear tests, Patwardhan examines the role of the two countries as both perpetrators and 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 atomic explosions, for it calls for a realization that there can be neither a victor nor a finish point in this internecine race. It is, without doubt, Anand Patwardhan’s masterpiece. [Read full review]

[To The Children Of Swat, From The Children Of Mandala (2009)]

Jang Aur Aman (2001) (aka War And Peace)
Anand Patwardhan

“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.

War and PeaceDocumentary 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.

War and PeaceWhen 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.

War and PeacePatwardhan’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.