India’s Leading Documentary Filmmaker Has a Warning
Anand Patwardhan spent decades tracking the rise of Hindu nationalism. And now, under an increasingly repressive government, he holds his screenings in secret.
Dec. 1, 2020
In Jaipur one afternoon last fall, the filmmaker Anand Patwardhan sat in a booth outside an auditorium, waiting to screen his latest documentary, “Reason.” These showings, Patwardhan had written to me earlier, were “semi-clandestine” — partly out of a fear of right-wing vigilante groups and partly because, even now, two years after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, “Reason” remains officially unreleased in India. Patwardhan had yet to submit the film to the Central Board of Film Certification, a federal body that routinely demands cuts to Indian movies before awarding them a rating, which is why it is commonly known as the Censor Board. Now Patwardhan sat selling DVDs of his previous films for 200 rupees, less than $3 apiece, besieged by fans asking for selfies at the booth. “I want my films to be seen,” he said. “Money is the least of my worries.”
Over four hours, “Reason” documents how the world’s largest democracy has plunged into a majoritarian abyss since the Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., came to power in 2014, and Narendra Modi was voted in as the prime minister. With testimonies from witnesses to mob lynchings, stories of college students driven to suicide by intense right-wing ostracism and interviews with Hindu nationalists willing to defend the frequent murders of journalists and activists, Patwardhan contradicts the narrative that the B.J.P. routinely projects to the country’s 900 million voters: a story where, under Modi, India is at last starting to fulfill its potential, more than 70 years after independence. A week before the parliamentary elections last year, 16 clips from “Reason” were anonymously posted on YouTube. Watching them I grew afraid, not just for the fate of the film at the hands of the Censor Board but also for Patwardhan.
In one scene, a lawyer representing the Sanatan Sanstha — a Hindu extremist organization linked to four assassinations in the last seven years — openly threatens Patwardhan at a news conference. The lawyer is angry with Patwardhan for attending a protest rally in Mumbai following one of the assassinations. “Why didn’t the police break Patwardhan’s bones?” he asks. The next moment we see a man in a black tunic, filming the scene in the same room, raising up his hands to talk. “I am right here,” Patwardhan says. “If you want to do something you can.” The viewer is left wondering if Patwardhan is next in line to be killed.
“In many ways, this is worse than the Emergency,” Patwardhan told me. He was referring to the 21 months from 1975 to 1977 when Indira Gandhi, then the prime minister, had suspended civil liberties after a court invalidated her re-election, citing corruption. “Things were clearer then. People were put in jails, newspapers were censored. We could resist that. But now our minds have been infiltrated. There is no need for any coercion. We have been conditioned into a false sense of normalcy. Most of us don’t know how bad things are.”
A month after Modi was re-elected, in June last year, the Indian government denied Patwardhan permission to screen “Reason” at a film festival in the south Indian state Kerala. In August, six college students were reportedly arrested in Hyderabad for organizing a screening of another Patwardhan documentary, “In the Name of God.” Across the country, screenings of “In the Name of God” were planned in solidarity against the arrests. In Delhi, members affiliated with the student wing of the B.J.P. tried to disrupt a classroom screening at Ambedkar University. “A group of men barged into the room,” one of the students who had organized the screening, Sruti M.D., told me. “They turned on the lights, shouted slogans and kept saying that the film offended their Hindu sentiments. Somehow the guards made them leave. But they continued kicking the doors of the classroom outside after the screening resumed. It was scary. They cut off the power to our room. We had no choice but to watch the film in the end on a laptop with Bluetooth speakers.”
This is not an unfamiliar battle for Patwardhan. For more than four decades, he has been India’s leading documentary filmmaker, tracking the country’s unraveling from its pluralist post-Partition ideals to a Hindu hegemony. His films have portrayed Mumbai’s slum dwellers, the cruelty of the caste system, the arms race between India and Pakistan, but they remain unseen in large parts of the country because of their inconvenient themes. With almost every documentary he has made, Patwardhan has had to approach a court to ensure it is shown without restrictions. His films have won publicly funded awards at the same time as efforts have been made to limit their viewership. They reflect, both in their reception and content, the schizophrenic nature of Indian democracy.
The screening in Jaipur was to take place at the end of a leftist writers’ conference. Patwardhan passed me a copy of the conference schedule: “Reason” was not on the list. But it was unofficially understood that at 5 p.m., the documentary would be screened after tea. Five became 6, then 6:30, then 7, and writers were still going on about the grimness of the situation in the country. Barely a month earlier, the Muslim-majority state Jammu and Kashmir was placed under indefinite lockdown and its special status under the Indian federation, which had afforded it a degree of autonomy, was revoked. Local politicians were arrested; phones and internet lines were still cut off; there were reports of thousands of civilians being detained. Meanwhile, in Assam, another border state, nearly two million residents had been stripped of their citizenshipin an effort to identify undocumented migrants. There seemed just too much to discuss.
Sometime after the screening began, the sound system broke down. The audience, until then attentive, quickly exited. When the film resumed after 20 minutes, no more than 10 or 12 people were still in their seats.
“The breakdown was deliberate, you know,” Patwardhan told me later that night, over dinner. For a moment I was reminded of the disrupted screening at Ambedkar University, of men banging doors and cutting off the power in protest. But a country’s slide into intolerance is rarely so dramatic: Norms don’t always collapse overnight; they corrode against the background of everyday life. “No, I meant the sound technicians,” Patwardhan continued, as if reading my thoughts. “I think they forced the interruption. It has been a long day — they probably wanted to go home.”
At 70, Patwardhan is nearly the same age as independent India, and his appearance — long hair, youthful face, leather strap sandals, loose homespun cotton tunics — is at once haphazard and hopeful, not unlike the promise of a new republic. India’s promise was embodied by three founding fathers: Gandhi, with his message of nonviolence, his deep distrust of Western civilization and his distress in his last year, after witnessing the bloodshed of the Partition; Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, a liberal who called dams and power plants the “temples of modern India” and saw industrialization as the best way forward; and Bhimrao Ambedkar, who was born a Dalit — the former “untouchables” who occupy the lowest rungs of the caste system — and rose to become one of the main authors of the country’s constitution, embracing Buddhism in protest against Hindu society’s inherent disparities. Despite their different priorities, the three shared a vision of India that preserved its historic heterogeneity, where secularism meant not an absence of religion from the public sphere but a benign, if sometimes mushy, affinity for all faiths.
Patwardhan grew up a beneficiary of that promise. His father worked in publishing; his mother was a renowned artist and potter. His uncles — one a Gandhian, another a socialist — were frequently in prison during British rule. His aunt had escaped from jail into Nepal and briefly undergone weapons training. According to Patwardhan, Ambedkar had even stayed for a while in their family house. Still, Patwardhan doesn’t recall his early years with enthusiasm. “I was a spoilt child,” he told me, “very frivolous, very privileged.”
Though India’s freedom struggle loomed large in his family life, growing up Patwardhan was oblivious to politics. He studied English literature at Elphinstone College in Mumbai, where he remembers not participating in anything: “I bunked too many classes, spent too much time in the college canteen,” he said. But in 1970, a scholarship to attend Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., transformed him overnight into an activist. “Suddenly I was attending Black Panther rallies, going to jail for anti-Vietnam demonstrations,” he said. Angela Davis and Abbie Hoffman had both graduated not too long before. Patwardhan recalls that two students were wanted by the F.B.I. during his time there. Sundar Burra, a close friend of Patwardhan’s at Brandeis, remembers the insurgent mood on campus. “We had a joke about a certain professor,” Burra told me, “that your grades in his course depended on the number of times you’d been to jail with him.”
After graduation, Patwardhan overstayed his visa to volunteer for the labor organizer Cesar Chavez in California. He returned to India and worked for two years with a nonprofit in a remote village. In 1974, he was asked to film a protest march led by students and farmers against the corrupt Indira Gandhi government. He borrowed two cameras, bought some outdated film stock, recruited a friend as a cameraman and set off for Bihar, still one of India’s poorest states, where the protesters had planned a huge rally.
Just after he had transformed the footage of the protests into “Waves of Revolution,” his debut, Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency. Patwardhan cut the film print into two or three pieces, smuggled them abroad with different friends and then secured a fellowship to McGill University in Montreal for a master’s degree, where he managed to reassemble the film. Away from the country during a period of authoritarian repression, he traveled across North America and Europe, showing the film to universities and film clubs, raising awareness about the collapse of democracy back home.Patwardhan (center, with camera) filming “Waves of Revolution” (1974).Raghu Rai/Magnum Photos
At underground screenings of the film in India, audience members had to be individually vouched for. If discovered, Patwardhan wrote later, “at best … the film would have been confiscated and at worst, jail for all those present.” Most documentaries in India were then produced and distributed by the government, Soviet-style, so the idea of a director going around screening his anti-establishment offering was at once both risky and appealing. Sanjay Kak, a fellow filmmaker, remembers attending a screening of a Patwardhan documentary 40 years ago. “Anand arrived with a 16-millimeter movie projector,” Kak told me, “and a stack of newspapers to cover up the windows of the screening room. I thought, Who is this man traveling with a projector to show his own film?
In India, the Modi years are often spoken of as an “undeclared Emergency.” But something more enduring, a fundamental reimagining of the nation as a homeland for Hindus, appears to be afoot. The country’s roughly 200 million Muslims are, in this narrative, seen first as suspects, then citizens. They are accused of killing cows for meat — many Hindus consider the cow sacred — and cornered in public places to prove their patriotism. Muslim men are beaten up over Facebook posts and blamed for everything from the country’s “overpopulation” to luring away Hindu women through marriage. Many cities and landmarks that reflect India’s Muslim heritage have been renamed. Some school textbooks now glorify Hindu myths and paint the subcontinent’s Muslim rulers in a barbaric light. Incendiary WhatsApp rumors mislead the country’s overwhelming Hindu majority into viewing themselves as somehow under siege. Hate crimes against Muslims as well as other minorities have gone unprosecuted for years. Dissenting artists and academics are told to “go to Pakistan” if they don’t like the way things are.
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The rise of the B.J.P. and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or R.S.S. — a militant organization devoted to making India a Hindu state and its minorities second-class citizens — has also been accompanied by mounting attacks on freedom of expression. Publishers have been pressured to withdraw books critical of Hindu figures. Reporters have been harassed, silenced with spurious criminal cases and in some instances killed. Policemen have gone on rampages inside university campuses. More than 50 writers and filmmakers, including Patwardhan, have returned their state awards in protest. A few weeks ago, the government passed an order to regulate online news and streaming content, stoking fears of more censorship.
“Reason” tries to cover every aspect of this traumatic transition, the wanton displays of coercion and cruelty that increasingly characterize what Modi’s supporters gleefully call the “New India.” The larger story Patwardhan tells in the film is of a revival of the psychosis of Partition, when the subcontinent was divided by the British into India and Pakistan along explicitly religious lines. More than one million people died in the resulting violence, and, according to some estimates, more than 15 million were displaced. Democracy in India was never quite robust — Ambedkar thought the Indian soil was “essentially undemocratic” — but never before have all its organs seemed so fragile. The liberal opposition is weak, undecided and of two minds about being perceived as hostile to the B.J.P.’s bellicose nationalism. Newspapers, bound to the government for advertising revenue, have suppressed stories critical of Modi and the B.J.P. Skeptical news anchors have been arbitrarily pulled off the air. TV networks that refuse to toe the line have been investigated for laundering money from abroad. Bank accounts of human rights organizations have been frozen. Citizens have been jailed for lampooning Modi online. Activists are routinely scorned as traitors. Policemen have falsely implicated victims of right-wing violence. Bollywood celebrities tend to stay silent, fearing censorship and reprisals before a big release. Any decision that the government takes is spun overnight on television and social media as an expression of the popular will, the logic being that Modi won the parliamentary elections, not once but twice.“Reason” (2018).From Anand Patwardhan
“Reason” is structured around the murders of four Indian activists, all of whom appear to have been targeted for their resistance to Hindu orthodoxy in some way. Narendra Dabholkar, a former physician, campaigned against regressive Hindu superstitions in villages; Gauri Lankesh, a journalist, was a vocal critic of the B.J.P.; M.M. Kalburgi was a scholar who had spoken out against the practice of worshiping Hindu idols. All three were shot point-blank with the same caliber pistol; the shooters, in all three cases, were men who were seen escaping on motorcycles. But the heart of “Reason” is Govind Pansare, a lawyer and communist intellectual, who was assassinated early one morning in February 2015.
Pansare had been active in progressive movements against caste and other discriminatory Hindu practices in the western state Maharashtra. Patwardhan first met Pansare in Mumbai, when he stopped the police from disrupting the screening of a documentary on Kashmir. “The next time I heard about him,” he told me, “was after his death.” The brazenness with which Pansare was murdered — he and his wife were shot outside their home, again by men on a motorcycle — had convinced Patwardhan to start working on “Reason”: “I knew right away I had to make a film.”
The day after the screening in Jaipur, Patwardhan was in New Delhi. He was showing a longer cut of “Reason” on the campus of South Asian University. Seated among the professors and students in the audience that afternoon was Mohammad Sartaj, a technician in the Indian Air Force who is also interviewed in “Reason.” Five years ago, Sartaj’s father, Mohammad Akhlaq, was lynched by a mob outside his home in a village in Northern India on suspicion of eating beef. From 2015 to 2018, a Human Rights Watch report estimates that vigilante cow-protection groups killed more than 40 people across the country, most of them Muslims, often with tacit support from policemen and Hindu nationalist leaders. One of the men accused of Akhlaq’s murder is the son of a B.J.P. member; another was given a public funeral after he died in detention. His coffin was draped in the Indian flag.
Not far away from South Asian University is Birla House, the mansion outside which Gandhi was assassinated in 1948 by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu Brahmin who claimed that Gandhi had sided with Muslims “at the expense of the Hindus.” In “Reason” Patwardhan connects the conspiracy to kill Gandhi with the recent murders of Akhlaq, Pansare and many others, inspired as they all were by the same ideology. Patwardhan knows that many Hindu nationalists still condone Gandhi’s murder. Godse had once been a member of the R.S.S. — his family maintains that he never quit — and many members of the B.J.P., including Modi, began their careers as R.S.S. volunteers.
When it comes to Gandhi, the party has traditionally opted for a strategic doublespeak. In 2003, under a B.J.P. government, a portrait of V.D. Savarkar, a Hindu nationalist who was charged as a co-conspirator in Gandhi’s murder but not convicted, was unveiled in a hall of the Indian Parliament. In the midst of the 2019 elections, one B.J.P. candidate asserted that Godse was a “patriot.” But Gandhi’s international stature is too immense for the party to clearly state its views. In October 2019, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth, The New York Times published an Op-Ed by Modi with the headline “Why India and the World Need Gandhi.” Reading it, I remembered a question Patwardhan repeatedly asks right-wing activists in “Reason”: “Tell me, who killed Gandhi?”
As far as I could find out, Patwardhan has never married or had children. He guards his privacy fiercely. When I asked Patwardhan once about his personal life, he told me about a filmmaker who had made a documentary about him some years ago: “I told him anything inside my house is out of bounds.” I got the message.
Simantini Dhuru, a filmmaker and education activist who has worked with Patwardhan for more than 30 years, told me that his friends and colleagues frequently worry for his safety. “Because Anand is now better known,” she said, “it is easy for him to be identified by those who won’t shy away from violence.” Dhuru had been present at that news conference in “Reason” where a lawyer representing the Sanatan Sanstha had suggested the police should break Patwardhan’s bones. “Those guys recognized Anand and noticed him in the room,” she said. “That remark was made precisely because Anand was there. It is scary in the long run to think that they know him and have marked him out for what he does.”“We have been conditioned into a false sense of normalcy.”Bharat Sikka for The New York Times
Patwardhan himself didn’t seem too worried. He became nervous, in my time with him, only when we talked about finding a bigger audience for “Reason.” In between the screenings last year, he went back and forth on a decision to submit it to the Censor Board. I, too, wondered about his chances of getting a certificate. His odds didn’t seem great. Prasoon Joshi, the current chief of the Censor Board, had worked in the publicity blitzkrieg that first brought Modi to power in 2014. More than 300 films were banned in India from 2014 to 2016. Then again, Patwardhan had always seen this stamp of approval as a “suit of armor.” “Once I get a certificate,” he said, “it turns every attempt to prevent screenings of my film unlawful. Think of the students showing ‘In the Name of God’ around the country — legally the certificate puts them on the right side.”
Patwardhan has faced censorship in India from the beginning of his career. “Prisoners of Conscience,” a documentary he made just after the Emergency, was cleared for release only once the celebrated director Satyajit Ray wrote a letter to the Censor Board. “In the Name of God” was held up, apparently, to preserve law and order. For another film, “Father, Son and Holy War,” which is split into two parts, the Censor Board issued each half a different rating. For “War and Peace,” an overview of the nuclear tests in India and Pakistan, Patwardhan was initially asked to make 21 cuts.“In the Name of God” (1992).From Anand Patwardhan
Procuring a certificate is just one hurdle: In a country where documentaries seldom enjoy theatrical runs and cable channels opt to screen popular Bollywood films, he has had to sue India’s public broadcaster, Doordarshan, to show most of his films. One case stretched on for 10 years. Patwardhan can become obsessive while recounting his legal difficulties, as though not wanting to forget what he has lived through. “You have to be a filmmaker,” he has said in many interviews, “and then you have to be a lawyer as well.”
Frustrated by the certification process, many Indian documentary filmmakers give up on their dreams of a sizable audience. Patwardhan has persevered, I suspect, for the same reason that he sells DVDs of his films for less than the price of a paperback: a belief in the political efficacy of documentary making. And yet, in their encyclopedic ambition, Patwardhan’s films frequently transcend their political purpose and now seem like alternative histories of their time. Together, they map a trajectory of India from the Emergency to Modi: from the gradual undoing of the country’s pacifist principles, its uncertain turn toward strife and resentment, to its legacy of untold suffering as well as resistance. In “Waves of Revolution,” Hindu Brahmins tear up their holy caste threads at a protest rally, as if to break free of centuries of exploitative hierarchies. A Muslim widow in “Father, Son and Holy War” cannot come to terms with her Hindu neighbors’ refusal to shelter her and her husband during a riot. In “Bombay Our City,” perhaps one of the best documentaries ever made on a city, a homeless woman forbids Patwardhan from interviewing her. “You will record our voices on tape, but can you do anything for us?” she asks him.“Bombay Our City” (1985).From Anand Patwardhan
“Can you do anything for us?”: This is a question that animates Patwardhan, for he sees his films as just one aspect of his lasting involvement with their subjects. When “Bombay Our City” won a national award in India, he sent a homeless woman to receive the prize. “Slums were being demolished in Bombay when I heard that my film had won an award,” Patwardhan told me. “So I pretended to be sick and sent her to tell everyone what was going on.” Later, he went on a hunger strike demanding that the residents of another razed slum be rehoused.
Patwardhan lives in a rent-controlled apartment in Mumbai, a city that bears the stain of Hindu nationalism in its name. When the Shiv Sena, a nativist party, was elected to power in the region in 1995, in alliance with the B.J.P., one of its first steps was to rename the colonial city. Just three years earlier, in 1992, Hindu-Muslim riots broke out all over India, and the Sena was later indicted on a charge of spearheading the killings of hundreds of Muslims in Bombay, as it was then known. Patwardhan told me a story to illustrate the extent of hysteria in the city around that time. Many Hindu residents were apparently so convinced that Muslims from abroad were planning to overrun Indian shores that they would stay up all night guarding the city’s beaches.
Patwardhan’s apartment is not far from a beach and doubles as his office. “All my films are made like home videos,” Patwardhan told me, sitting in his living room. “I produce, direct, edit, do most of my own camerawork.” The Shiv Sena’s headquarters are not far, nor is the sprawling Shivaji Park, where, until recently, the Sena’s leaders delivered televised tirades every fall against Muslims and other minorities. (Many of these speeches are recorded in Patwardhan’s films.) Over 10 days every summer, many pilgrims crowd the adjacent seafront to immerse effigies of the Hindu god Ganesh. Local environmentalists have long campaigned against this practice because it takes years for the plaster statues to dissolve. “Reason” contains a video, made by the Sanatan Sanstha — the organization linked to the assassination of Govind Pansare and other activists — directing Hindus to ignore the environmentalists’ pleas and sink their Ganesh idols “only in flowing water.”
Patwardhan seemed unfazed about living in the neighborhood. When I asked if Pansare’s murder had made him more cautious, he deflected my question. “You have to understand all this frenzy has been whipped up,” he said. “Things weren’t always like this. It is only in the mid-’80s that Hindutva” — the aggressive brand of Hinduism promoted by the R.S.S. and the B.J.P. — “became resurgent.” Until the Emergency, the R.S.S. stood more or less discredited in India because of its perceived involvement in Gandhi’s death. But the discontent against Indira Gandhi’s misrule helped to revive its image. The B.J.P., formed in 1980, went from winning just two seats in the 1984 parliamentary elections, to 85 in 1989. Since 1996, it has consistently been one of the two largest parties in the Indian Parliament.Patwardhan filming on the streets of Mumbai in 2019.Bharat Sikka for The New York Times
The proliferation of right-wing ideas in India didn’t quite happen in a vacuum. Successive centrist governments had reversed decades of quasi-socialist economic policies, opening up a vast gulf between the rich and the poor. And as India’s economy grew in the 2000s, secularism came to be perceived as another failure of the left. “Jai Bhim Comrade,” a film Patwardhan shot over 14 years, begins with the suicide of Vilas Ghogre, a singer, a Communist and a friend of Patwardhan’s, who in his last moments had felt it necessary to reclaim himself as a Dalit. The need to understand the death of a friend becomes, in Patwardhan’s hands, a deep dive into the country’s original sin — caste — and the ways in which a culture of upper-caste dominance, coupled with the limitations of representative democracy, has only worsened the inhumane divide after independence. A sanitation worker in Mumbai tells Patwardhan that he is forced to ferry basketfuls of human waste regularly on his head. His employers won’t buy him any protective equipment; he makes less than two dollars a day. The B.J.P. has successfully co-opted many Dalit leaders and representatives over the years, while also fueling atrocities against the community. More and more Dalits, disillusioned by the absence of credible alternatives, have voted for B.J.P. candidates. In a prescient moment in “Jai Bhim Comrade,” we see Modi, then the chief minister of the state of Gujarat, stepping onto a stage dressed as a Hindu god. “Speak for us Hindus,” his supporters chant, “and you’ll rule over the whole country.”
The demolition of the Babri mosque marked a decisive turn in the rise of Hindutva in India. The presence of a medieval-era Mughal dome in the temple town of Ayodhya — considered the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram — was indicative of the subcontinent’s syncretic history and was no doubt for that reason an affront to Hindu nationalists. The mosque had been under litigation since 1949, when images of Ram were covertly placed inside. For years, the R.S.S. claimed that the Mughal emperor Babur had built the mosque by destroying a Hindu temple on the site. In the 1980s, Hindu hard-liners began insisting that a temple had to be built on the plot of land where the mosque stood. Soon, L.K. Advani, then the leader of the B.J.P., was traveling across the country, accusing the government of “appeasing Muslims” and asking Hindus to mobilize around the mosque. What was essentially a property dispute reopened the wound of Partition and became a fault line running through the republic. On the morning of Dec. 6, 1992, Hindu mobs razed the monument. More than 2,000 people were killed in the violence before and after the storming of the mosque.
“In the Name of God” records much of that grisly story. The film ends just before the mosque is brought down, moments after a Hindutva activist tells Patwardhan that Godse was “absolutely right” to kill Gandhi. The week that I was in Mumbai, in November last year, the mood in the country was tense: India’s Supreme Court was to finally announce its verdict on the disputed ownership of the site of the mosque. One morning I dropped into Patwardhan’s apartment and found a video crew from a news website interviewing him about the dispute. A celebrity stand-up comedian had posted “In the Name of God” on his YouTube channel, and suddenly Patwardhan was in demand for a film released nearly three decades ago.
The verdict was announced on Nov. 9, a Saturday. The court ruled that a Hindu temple was to be built on the site, while recognizing the destruction of the mosque itself as a criminal act. Modi made a few conciliatory gestures on Twitter. But lawyers outside the Supreme Court campus in New Delhi celebrated with cries of “Hail Lord Ram!” In Mumbai, fireworks went off all night in a Hindu neighborhood near my hotel.
The next morning when I met Patwardhan, he looked crestfallen. “First of all, this is not a victory for Hindus,” he said. “There are many secular Hindus like me who never wanted the mosque to be destroyed or a temple to be built. For us, it’s a disaster.” I asked him if the judgment had made him reconsider his plans to release “Reason” in India. If the Censor Board refused to certify the documentary, was he confident that the courts would again come through for him? “I have to weigh my options,” Patwardhan said. But in an op-ed he wrote for an Indian newspaper several weeks later, he seemed to have made up his mind. “On Nov. 9, 2019,” he wrote, “those who had demolished our national monument, effectively causing the deaths of thousands across the subcontinent, were legally granted the very objective of their crime. Secular democracy was finally laid to rest.”
For a brief moment, Patwardhan’s fears turned out to be premature: Around the new year, millions across the country protested a new citizenship law widely seen as discriminatory against Muslim refugees. In scenes straight out of a Patwardhan film, women camped out on streets day and night in the cold. College students held up portraits of Gandhi and Ambedkar to policemen. In city after city, Indians gathered to chant the preamble to the country’s Constitution.
But then came 2020, with more horrors. In February, on the eve of President Donald Trump’s visit to India, sectarian violence on the streets of New Delhi left more than 50 people dead, most of them Muslims. In March, in response to the pandemic, Modi declared a nationwide lockdown, so far the world’s biggest — and arguably the harshest — with less than four hours’ notice. People were beaten up by the police for so much as stepping outdoors. All but essential travel was banned. Millions of migrant workers, stuck without wages, food and shelter for weeks in cities, were forced to trek home to villages hundreds of miles away in the heat. Journalists reporting on the situation were intimidated or arrested. After an outbreak at an Islamic conference in New Delhi, Muslims were accused of carrying out “corona jihad” and spreading the virus across the country. Posters prohibiting Muslims from entering appeared overnight in some neighborhoods. There were reports of hospitals discriminating against Muslim patients.
I watched Patwardhan’s films again in self-isolation: They seemed to be now documenting not the past but intimations of the present. The country had changed too much since I first met Patwardhan in Jaipur. Scenes that I had safely relegated to history books just months ago now seemed like timely portents. The man who praises Gandhi’s assassin at the end of “In the Name of God”: Didn’t he stand vindicated by the Babri mosque verdict? The grieving Muslim widow in “Father, Son and Holy War”: Would she now be treated unfairly in a hospital? The homeless woman in “Bombay: Our City”: What was she doing to survive in Mumbai’s deserted streets? The Dalit sanitation worker in “Jai Bhim Comrade”: Was he walking home to his village, hungry and hopeless, at this moment?
The last time I talked to Patwardhan, he was reluctantly quarantined inside his Mumbai apartment. It was June. The lockdown had failed: India had surpassed Britain, Italy and Spain in the tally of cases to become one of the worst-affected countries. Every morning there were reports of overcrowded hospitals and desperate migrant workers starving on the roads. “I feel so helpless watching all this on TV,” Patwardhan told me. “I should have been out there recording these scenes, but I’m not able to do that.”
The protests against the citizenship law had been a galvanizing moment for Patwardhan. Indians from all walks of life, as he saw it, had briefly come together to assert their idea of an inclusive nation. “I remember feeling extremely hopeful,” he told me. “For the first time in many years, I thought, I can retire as an activist, because younger generations were doing amazing work.” But while the country was largely distracted by the pandemic, the Indian police arrested many students and activists involved in the protests. Courts stopped functioning at full capacity during the lockdown, which meant that bail and acquittals were practically out of the question. “To put them in crowded prisons at this time,” Patwardhan fumed, “especially when the virus is spreading everywhere?”
In August, Modi laid down the foundation stone for a new temple to be built at the site of the Babri mosque. Flanked by priests in saffron robes, he performed Hindu rituals and declared the date to be just as important as the day of India’s independence. Weeks later, a special court acquitted 32 people, including L.K. Advani, of crimes relating to their involvement in the demolition of the mosque. After 28 years, the court ruled that the razing was not “preplanned”: There wasn’t enough evidence of a conspiracy.
Patwardhan told me last year that it was becoming difficult to distinguish between Hindutva and Hinduism. “The line will keep getting blurred,” he warned, “as long as Hindu nationalists stay in power.” When we talked on the phone in June, I wondered if he felt a similar foreboding about the country as well, that someday it might be difficult to recall that India had once been a diverse republic. “I am making that argument in ‘Reason,’” he said. “This is why we need documentaries. At least they help keep some memories alive.”