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India’s Leading Documentary Filmmaker Has a Warning

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.”

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