Almost all of Anand Patwardhan’s 14 documentary films, made over a period of 35 years, have a common thread—they have been socio-political commentaries, on political manipulation, the Indian identity, caste and religion. Most of them have also run into resistance from the ruling administration, the censure of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and the reluctance of the national television broadcaster to telecast them.

Most have ended up in courts. All have ended in victories.

Today, Patwardhan, 60, has won multiple awards, can retrospectively say none of his films brought the consequences detractors warned of and can take in his stride the opposition that is likely to come the next time he picks up the camera.

“All predictions of dire trouble were unfounded. My films were shown and there was no trouble because they are eminently reasonable. They do not arouse people to violence; they question and oppose fanaticism and hatred," he says.

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Starting in 1974 with Waves of Revolution, shown underground during the Emergency, to the 2002 film War and Peace, Patwardhan’s documentaries have had predictable trajectories—the CBFC would ask for cuts, the CBFC tribunal or the courts would pass without cuts; Doordarshan (DD) would reject, the courts would order a telecast.

Photo: Natasha Hemrajani/Hindustan Times

“The other problem is the structure of a censor board, whose panel members are chosen by the political party in power." Patwardhan adds that the censor board hasn’t changed its methodology or learnt from the court cases it keeps losing.

It was while studying sociology at Brandeis University in the US in the early 1970s that Patwardhan got involved in civilian action. His university was active in the anti-Vietnam war protests, which is when he began shooting for the first time with borrowed equipment. “I got into film-making by accident, to talk about issues I was involved with, but later, having an audio-visual medium helped in places where literacy levels were low," he says.

He returned to India to work in rural development and education in Madhya Pradesh before being drawn into the Bihar anti-corruption movement, during which he began filming again. “I borrowed a movie camera—a basic home movie type of camera. The footage from that day eventually got made into a rudimentary film that had to go underground because of the Emergency," remembers Patwardhan. The film, Waves of Revolution, was shown on DD in 1978 after the Emergency.

The censor board recommended cuts for his next film, Prisoners of Conscience, in 1978 but a timely letter from film-maker Satyajit Ray helped it get through without changes.

“Since then to now, almost every film gets into problems with the censor board and/or with the national broadcaster. But our films have no meaning unless widely seen," says Patwardhan. “The only way is to air it on TV. At least in the early days, the only TV was DD, which would always reject the films. We would then take them to court saying they are denying my freedom of speech and the public’s right to information."

But the constant battle has neither deterred nor perturbed him. He says: “We have to defend the spirit of the Constitution, which has granted freedom of expression. If you don’t fight for that each time, the state will keep trying to take control. Luckily, judges interpreting this have laid down that when the censors consider a work of art, or book or film, they cannot consider the lowest common denominator—some nut in the audience who is going to get upset about something. They have to conceive of an audience of reasonable people."

What surprised Patwardhan was the reaction in Pakistan to War and Peace, a film that promotes Indo-Pak friendship and opposes the nuclear arms race. Not only was it screened on a business TV channel in Pakistan, this was followed by a dignified debate between Patwardhan, a Pakistani anti-nuclear scientist and two establishment hawks. In India, the CBFC asked for cuts but was directed by the court to pass it with a “U" certificate. It was telecast by DD only after a court order and without any open debate.

“Our media has deliberately avoided any attempt to think about these issues in a rational, scientific manner or in a way that would actually expose the manipulations. Our own nuclear nationalism was born out of a desire to emulate the US, the only nation to have dropped an atom bomb. Our media is equally derivative. It is party to sensationalizing issues and playing the ratings game. The only time I could get any of my films on TV in India was when I won court cases against the national broadcaster. We did that six times. But private channels reject my films because they clearly want a dumbed-down audience that is not allowed to think about real issues; so they reduce everything to 5-second bites," says the film-maker.

During the TV discussion in Pakistan, Patwardhan argued that nationalism, or being a “super patriot", is a “disease of the elite". He explains: “They have solved their food and shelter problem, so it’s not the economic situation they are worried about. They are worried about the next rung, their identity, and how to feel great about themselves."

The issues he has filmed have been varied—for instance, Ram ke Naam (In the Name of God, 1992) was about Babri masjid, Pitra, Putra aur Dharmayuddha (Father, Son and Holy War, 1995) is about the psychology of religious violence as a product of masculinity, while Hamara Shahar (Bombay: Our City, 1985) is about slum dwellers.

Patwardhan says he does not pick subjects, only reacts to situations after they begin to trouble him over time. He takes two-seven years to make a film. There is no script; he just follows his instinct, gathering material, “till the material starts to talk and linkages develop over a period of time".

“I take out the camera only when I am upset enough. I would rather not make films all the time."