Now that Narendra Modi has reaffirmed his connect with the electorate, the most telling moment in Anand Patwardhan's award-winning documentary 'Reason', a four-hour expose of the Hindutva brigade's 'Akhand Bharat' designs, comes very near to the end, during the epilogue.
It is September 2017. Massive public protests are on in Bengaluru following the gunning down of Gauri Lankesh. Men and women carrying angry-worded placards and pictures of Gauri move slowly but defiantly through a wide public road shouting slogans and singing revolutionary songs. Large cutouts of Gauri are everywhere.
As the protest passes by a petrol pump, far to the right of a large horizontal cutout of Gauri, and nearly hidden by the tall columns of the pump, is Narendra Modi. All of a sudden, as if he had just caught sight of Modi, Patwardhan tries to get a closer view. The Prime Minister's face is on some promotional ad. There is just a hint of a smile, a sly look of pity. It was as if the man on the advertisement instinctively knew how futile all this chest-thumping in the name of Gauri Lankesh is. Patwardhan quickly cuts away.
Setback for Patwardhan
Had someone seen 'Reason' before the Lok Sabha results were out, the film could have inspired visions of a gathering anti-Modi uprising. But to watch it after Modi had won such overwhelming approval is like watching the re-telecast of a match that was predicted to be close. All the sacrifices and the plucky fightbacks that Patwardhan has so painstakingly documented now seems in vain.
Patwardhan begins in Maharashtra, with the killing of Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, then moves to Dadri in Uttar Pradesh where a 52-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq is lynched on the suspicion that he had stocked beef in his refrigerator, and from there he turns west to Gujarat where Dalits rise up as one against upper caste violence.
Then he shifts to Delhi to capture the inspirational resistance mounted by the students of JNU. Whether Patwardhan intended this or not the film seemed to suggest that there was no way Modi was going to withstand the accumulated force of all these minor revolutions.
Learn from the RSS
The filmmaker concedes defeat but is still hopeful. “There is no need to be depressed. We have a long battle ahead of us,” Patwardhan said. “We have to take a leaf out of their (the right wing's) textbook. After the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, they became so unpopular. They were looked upon with disgust and were constantly beaten up that they had to go underground. But they managed to push their ideology slowly, and see where they are now,” he said. “I am saying this as a compliment,” he said, laughing.
A puzzling question
It is this in-your-face wry humour that he uses to devastating effect in 'Reason'. He once pokes his camera into a group of charged up ABVP students of JNU and asks them to name one RSS leader who had gone to jail. Their leader fumbles for a moment and then come up with a name. “Veer Savarkar,” he says.
"Give me one more,” Patwardhan persists. The ABVP guy thinks very hard and finally answers. “I know there are more but right now I can't remember the names,” he says and quickly gets away from the camera.
In another instance, in what is quite a naughty touch, Patwardhan shows a clipping of the Prime Minister speaking about Rohith Vemula's suicide for the first time. “The motherland has lost a son,” is what Modi says. Being the terrific orator that he is, Modi does not utter the line just like that. He gives it a dramatic build up.
He pauses mid-speech, purses his lips and moves his head this way and that suggesting that he might break into tears any moment, and then speaks the line, his baritone infusing the line with the right depth of feeling. But the pause is a bit too long, and the drama too amateurish, that when the Prime Minister finally says the line it sounds more funny than profound.
Another time, the film shows a press conference conducted by Sanatan Sanstha, a right-wing organisation accused of the murders of Dabholkar and Pansare. One of the Sanstha members, in an outburst of anger, wonders why the police had not broken the bones of intellectuals like Patwardhan who had accused his outfit of murders. Soon, there is a commotion at the back where the cameras are crowded. Patwardhan emerges from behind his camera and asks: “I am right here. You can do whatever you want.” The Sanatan member goes blank for a moment.
Fear of dissent
The BJP has clearly managed to outwit the narratives the likes of Patwardhan had put forward but still the party has an abiding fear of dissent. The Centre had refused permission to the Chalachithra Academy to screen 'Reason' at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival. But, to the Academy's credit, it went to the High Court and secured permission to screen the film on Wednesday, the last day of the festival.
“Usually I fight my battles alone. This time it was the Chalachithra Academy that took the matter to court,” Patwardhan said, grateful. “But even the High Court relief does not go too far. I can show the film only at this festival, which means I will have to go to court again to screen it elsewhere. I have spent more time in courts than in making films,” he said.
'Reason' documents the crude manner in which the Hindutva agenda was sought to be pushed through during the first Modi tenure. But the film also unearths startling things about the right-wing onslaught.
One is the suspicious activities of Sanatan Sanstha. Patwardhan exposes the secretive group's Nazi-like preference for a pure Aryan race. The way its elusive founder and leader J B Athavale, who is seen as Krishna incarnate by followers, behave with pre-pubescent and adolescent girls can provoke uneasy questions. “Why were 2900 condoms found inside the building of a religious sect like Sanatan,” asks a woman who lives near the barricaded Sanatan Sanstha headquarters in Maharashtra.
More damning will be Hindu right wing's links to terror. In a sense, 'Reason' is Patwardhan's riposte to Modi's rhetorical poser during the 2019 Lok Sabha campaign whether a Hindu can ever be a terrorist. It is another matter that Malegaon blast accused Pragya Singh Thakur, who has still not been fully exonerated, has found a place in the Indian Parliament.
Savarkar vs Gandhi
The film, through the testimonials of top police officers like S M Mushrif and legal luminaries like Sainal, suggests that Hemant Karkare, the head of Mumbai Anti-Terrorist Squad, was not killed by Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists from Pakistan during the 2008 Mumbai blasts, as is widely believed, but by right-wing elements within the country.
In the last part, there is a moment when home minister Amit Shah, while releasing a book on Veer Savarkar, ridicules non-violence. “When there was too much of non-violence in our country, Savarkar stepped in,” he says. Savarkar, incidentally, was one of the accused in Mahatma Gandhi's assassination.
It is not just Pragya Thakur who has found a place in the Parliament. The film shows how, after the BJP came to power, a huge portrait of Savarkar was unveiled right opposite that of Mahatma Gandhi's inside the Parliament hall.