The latest nonfiction epic by Indian veteran Anand Patwardhan scooped the top prize at the world’s biggest documentary festival.
As Pauline Kael remarked about the recently deceased Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, Reason (Vivek) makes most other current documentaries “look like something you hold up on the end of a toothpick.” Only the third film by Indian maestro Anand Patwardhan in the current century, this teemingly detailed four-hour epic exhaustively examines the rise of right-wing Hindu extremism through the bloody prism of politically inspired killings over the past half- decade.
Having premiered in an even more marathon 261-minute version at Toronto, Reason was cut down to its current running time for its European bow in the main competition at IDFA where it scooped the top prize. While on paper something of a tough sell in terms of duration and subject matter, the film — divided, in a small-screen-friendly manner, into eight episodes and an epilogue — is accessible and often surprisingly fast-moving. A further minor trim could be beneficial, but even in its current form this stingingly topical indictment of crude, resurgent nationalism, with its obvious connections to events elsewhere across the globe, may see Patwardhan reach wider audiences than before.
Given the current climate in his homeland, however — where arch-conservative Narendra Modi has been Prime Minister since 2014 — most screenings there are likely to be of a samizdat variety. Indeed, Reason itself constitutes an audacious and even hazardous direct intervention into the violently torrid world of Indian politics by longtime activist Patwardhan, a crusading 68-year-old evidently undaunted by the brutal silencing of other prominent and veteran leftists in recent years.
Patwardhan, who narrates in a measured and patient manner in tandem with exposition-relating onscreen texts, has long used cinema as a means of journalism, reportage and analysis. As long ago as 1992 he warned — via what is probably his best-known film, In the Name of God — that India risks abandoning its secularism and the constitutional religion/state separation. This is exactly what many prominent voices on the right have been unequivocally advocating since before India’s independence in 1947: a key figure whose name and image recurs throughout here is V.D. Savarkar, who originated the idea of “Hindutva,” Hindu supremacy as a means of defining the Indian nation.
Savarkar was acquitted after being charged in connection with the killing of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, an assassination whose shock waves reverberate through many of Reason‘s episodes. His rehabilitation and elevation to something akin to national-hero status is paralleled with the network of right-wing and reactionary organizations that Patwardhan details. These range from Modi’s ruling BJP party to various affiliated student groups to the shadowy Sanatan Sanstha cult, founded and operated by a “secretive hypnotherapist” out of an ashram in Goa — this establishment shown via repeated long-lens images that reinforce the idea that something unsavory is going on within its walls.
Patwardhan never makes explicit accusations connecting such organizations with the assassinations that punctuate Reason‘s four hours; rather, he seeks to vividly sketch in the febrile, polarized political background against which such bloody events can take place. But there’s no mistaking the righteous anger that powers his elaborate polemic, an articulate defense of rationalism against what he sees as a dangerous tide of superstition and intolerance. In contrast to Savarkar’s perfidy, he lauds B.R. Ambedkar, a contemporary of Gandhi who was particularly critical of Indian society’s carefully stratified “caste” system.
The evils of caste are a recurring theme throughout Reason, with Patwardhan particularly concerned with the social injustices that continue to be suffered by the lowest of the low, the Dalits — whose resistance to oppression was the main subject of his previous release, 2011’s 200-minute Jai Bhim Comrade. Formerly known as the “untouchables,” the Dalits were long excluded from the education system and still tend to perform the meanest, filthiest of labors.
This general concern for social ills is balanced alongside the very specific roll-call of murder victims which provide Reason with its strongest narrative spine, beginning with the 2013 shooting of Narendra Dabolkhar — a doctor who founded the “ANIS” Anti-Blind-Faith movement — and continuing with the assassination of octogenarian Govind Pansare, a leading Communist, two years later. The shadow of these two deaths, related in the first episode (“Slaying the Demons”), hangs over all that follows, as Patwardhan compiles on a geographically and thematically eclectic lament for the ills of his burgeoning populous nation.
His passionately personal style owes nothing to prevailing documentary-cinema trends, and might strike many as unsubtly old-school, as when audio of gunfire is used to indicate assassinations. He semi-animates photographs, incorporates many dozens of newspaper headlines and extracts from TV news bulletins (many of these channels accompany such reports with wildly dramatic background music). Talking-head interviews abound, interspersed with vivid reportage from the streets where excitable gatherings of nationalists prove rich sources of parroted party-line propaganda.
Patwardhan works as his own editor here: the eight episodes are of unequal length, ranging from 14 minutes (the third section, “Legacy”) to nearly an hour for the sixth part, “Fighting to Learn, Learning to Fight.” The latter’s laborious detailing of how and why caste-critical Hyderabad student Rohith Vemula committed suicide in 2016, and the aftermath of this death, threaten to bog the picture down just when it should be picking up in its final stages. Conversely the penultimate section, “Terror and Stories of Terror,” which delves into atrocities in the mid-2000s, relies too heavily on the testimony of two interviewees, a former police inspector and an anti-terrorism prosecutor, and could profitably be expanded.
But eighth episode “Fathering the Hindu Nation” and the brief epilogue detailing yet another politically connected killing — this time of a woman, journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh in September — are, crucially, among the strongest parts of this monumental film. They see Patwardhan tying up all the various strands of a film that often feels like a downbeat catalogue of woe, and somehow managing to conclude on a cautious but persuasive note of optimism.
Production company: Anand Patwardhan
Director/screenwriter/editor: Anand Patwardhan
Cinematographers: Simantini Dhuru, Anand Patwardhan
Composers: Sachin Mali, Shahir Nikam, Shital Sathe
Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Feature-Length Competition)
Sales: Anand Patwardhan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In Hindi, English, Marathi, etc.
No Rating, 240 minutes