Whenever the nation found itself in the throes of an ethical crisis, there was one man nudging its people with his quiet activism. Whether it was ‘Prisoners of Conscience’, a historical record of the traumatic period of Emergency in India; ‘In Memory of Friends’ that documented the violence and terror in Punjab; ‘War and Peace’, a documentary journey of peace activism in the face of global militarism and war; ‘In the Name of God’, which focused on the campaign waged by the Vishva Hindu Parishad to demolish the Babri Masjid; or ‘Reason’ on the death of rationalists in India, Anand Patwardhan has raised issues that are at the core of social and political life in India. Journalistic in approach, these films are documentations of our post-Independence history.
The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month
His new film, ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (‘The World Is Family’), premiered at the recent Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Patwardhan’s most personal film yet, it focuses on his parents, “whose family histories”, as TIFF noted, “are intertwined with the tumultuous and violent years of India’s Independence”. He speaks on his latest venture:
How and why did you decide to make ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (‘The World Is Family’) and fuse the personal with the political?
I did not actually decide to make this particular film. My parents were getting old and I didn’t want to lose them. So, since I always had a camera nearby, I began to shoot home movie footage. Over time, our conversations turned to the freedom struggle as both sides of my family had participated in it. The details I learned made me understand that my home movie could be useful to others too.
Your parents and close relatives were foot soldiers in the freedom movement. What were the lessons that you imbibed early on in life?
I was never made to feel that there was anything special about fighting for freedom. In fact, my two eldest uncles, who were the most deeply immersed in the freedom struggle, almost never spoke about their past. At the same time, the value system that made them fight for freedom must have been quietly passed on. I always call myself a second generation socialist, one for whom fighting against religious hatred and the caste system was deeply ingrained.
‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ somewhere reminds of ‘In Memory of Friends’. It melded the past and the present too, harking at the lessons of Bhagat Singh in a world that tried to appropriate him but forgot his life’s meaning and mission. Do you see a parallel too?
The similarity is that in both films, the past comments negatively on the present. In ‘In Memory of Friends’, we see government forces claiming Bhagat Singh as a patriot who fought for Independence, while Khalistanis claim he was a pagdi-wearing practising Sikh who cut his hair in order to go underground. The film quotes the actual writings of Bhagat Singh who wrote ‘Why I am an Atheist’ and many other texts while in prison, awaiting his execution. Similarly, as it has turned out, ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ is also a reminder that the India that our freedom fighters dreamed about is a far cry from the hate-filled, ethically corrupt India that we have become today.
Interestingly, the film’s title was also the theme of the recent G20 summit in Delhi. How did you choose it?
I am stealing back the title from those who wrongfully appropriated it despite representing the very opposite pole of its meaning. ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ is an ancient universalist concept that challenges equally ancient exploitative notions of caste hierarchy. Those who rule today and promote the Brahminical idea of Sanatani Hindutva cannot lay claim to any genuinely universalist ideas. Their idea of universalism is not that all creatures are born equal, but that all creatures should be subservient to a chosen few. In fact, they are now openly wanting to change our Constitution and its promise to deliver Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
What does the film aim to achieve?
I hope it will be a thorn in the flesh of those who are busy re-writing history. Those who sided with the British, those who never fought for Independence, those who instigated communal hatred and violence, those who conspired to kill Mahatma Gandhi will find the film difficult to swallow, but I am hoping they will also find it difficult to suppress.
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