The Tribune - Spectrum

, March 17, 2002

Native wisdom of common man vs machinations of leaders
Ervell E. Menezes

Anand Patwardhan
Anand Patwardhan

ANAND Patwardhan’s War and Peace is easily his best film to date. Well-documented, brilliantly edited and sustaining interest for most of its 172-minute duration it brings out the native wisdom of the common man when pitted against the machinations of the politicians. It was triggered by the macabre scenes of jubilation that followed India’s nuclear blasts at Pokharan in May 1998.

The film opens and closes on the Mahatma or the forgotten Gandhi. In between, Patwardhan weaves his way through a plethora of political happenings, the Indo-Pak relations, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) saffronisation programme and as usual his juxtaposition of events or incidents become his hallmark. After the assassination of Gandhi, he says his dad and uncle withdrew from politics because of the corruption that was setting in.

That is probably the only personal note. Then he goes on to our first nuclear blast in 1974. The place is Pokharan, till then unknown. It is the nuclear blast that put it on the map, but at what a price. Stories of nuclear radiation abound. Folks keep dying of cancer but the authorities will not buy that. The animals suffer the same fate but everyone is deaf to complaints.


A scene from War and Peace
A scene from War and Peace

Then there is the description of how the 1998 blast was kept a secret and Ramana describes how a cow came within a whisker of detonating it before time "by beautifully jumping over the cables". It was as though the cow had jumped over the moon. Ridicule drips as Ramana expresses his sentiments. Of course, he disowns the code name "the Buddha is smiling," it should have been "the flowers are blooming." As though flowers bloom after a nuclear blast?

The scene keeps changing and the common man is prominent in most of the footage, especially when his wisdom is pitted against the machinations of the leaders. His camera covers a wide variety of events as he moves from place to place, not only India but also Pakistan and at times Europe and even the United States. Then Hiroshima is also important as he goes back to that tragic day on which the atom bomb was first dropped and how Washington tries to side-step the issue. If the US thought it wasn’t right for their morale to show the victims of Hiroshima why do they keep repeating Hitler’s atrocities against the Jews hundreds of times?

"The United States is hostage to a privatised arms industry," he has said earlier. After the 1998 blast he says "the ideology that killed Gandhi was back... now we feel we can overcome anything." Cut to Pakistan and they say "until the destruction of India, war will continue". How far is that getting us towards peace? Patwardhan’s timing is impeccable. There is a chant "The mahar (untouchable) served Gandhi and a Brahmin killed him." At the right moment he plays Gandhi’s favourite hymn Rajhupati Raja vi Rajaram and the emotion is sky high.

"Break the masjid, break the temple, but don’t break the heart in which God dwells," chants the crowds and so true it is of the wishes of the discerning person. Cut then to Pakistan where the rabid Islamic fanatics and colouring the Islamic states green and hoping that it will cover the whole world. On the other side, our side the belief is that "saffron will rule the world". How petty. How insular. How bigoted!

Cut to Kargil, the war that seems to have been manipulated, like the Pokharan blast for political mileage. "Grief turned to patriotic fervour... few knew how close we came to a nuclear confrontation," says the script and Patwardhan keeps hitting out at the system. But his best footage is shot in Pakistan where a group of teenage girls speak about the retaliation to the nuclear blast. They are aggressive, defending it, till they realise that force cannot be meant with force. When better sense prevails and Buddha’s saying that "hatred cannot be cured with hatred," one of the girls takes back her words, says sorry, it surely is the high-water mark of emotionalism.

The first part of the film is taut, unblemished. It is only towards the end of the second part that the film tends to drift a wee bit. But for a 172-minute film to keep one engrossed almost throughout is no small achievement. It speaks for the mastery of the filmmaker over his medium. I’ve seen most of Anand’s films from the early 1980s when he made "Prisoners of Conscience" and this is easily his most powerful one. Timely, scathing and thought-provoking. The camerawork is excellent and the sound brilliant. It is all that a documentary should be. Like the American critic Noam Chomsky, Anand Patwardhan has earned for him the reputation of awakening the consciousness in us Indians.

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