Saturday, October 10, 2009

War and Peace

Yesterday we had a film screening of the anti-nuclear documentary film "War and Peace" at TIFR. Its director Anand Patwardhan was present and spoke about the film before and after the screening. He last came to TIFR many years ago to screen "Ram ke Naam", his documentary about the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation and the subsequent demolition of the Babri Masjid.

On this occasion as on the previous one, I was struck by a number of things. Patwardhan is by his own admission a "dissident" and an activist who speaks for the poor and the marginalised and against ethnic, religious and political divisions. He is one of the most eloquent of his kind and unlike a lot of dissident activists, I found him persuasive and was moved by his empathy and concern for humanity. He isn't content with the sort of government-bashing and industry-bashing that regretfully provides pre-fabricated speeches for a lot of other activists.

However he can be harsh (and who am I to complain about that?). In the question period, one of my colleagues challenged his claim that today wind energy generates more electricity in India than nuclear energy. But another colleague confirmed that the claim was correct and the first person quickly retracted. Now Patwardhan had caught his prey. His exact words to the challenger, as I recall them, were: "If I'm right about this, and you're a scientist, shouldn't you have known?". Ooooooo.... And yet, a valid point.

Now about the film. Patwardhan is a very talented documentary film-maker, truly outstanding in fact. His camera angles, editing, choice of subjects are superb. He has the unique and powerful ability to trash a person by pointing his camera at them, asking a simple question (or sometimes saying nothing) and letting them make bigger and bigger fools of themselves. My opinion of L.K. Advani was formed by seeing Ram ke Naam in the 90's. Using only his own words, the film made clear that he was a deeply divisive person who would willingly harm the nation for his own political agenda.

Advani doesn't feature in War and Peace but various other people manage to put their foot firmly in their mouths while Patwardhan's cameras are rolling. Pramod Mahajan speaking at an election rally, Pakistani and Indian fundamentalists addressing people or just talking to the camera, and a bunch of people including former Atomic Energy chiefs and also former President Abdul Kalam, all manage to come off as too obsessed with either sectarian agendas or delusions of grandeur to care about the common man and woman. All this was counterposed with moving impressions of villages and peasants affected by the Pokharan tests or by radiation from mines. While the big guns gave a poor impression, the peasants interviewed spoke wisely, thoughtfully and eloquently about their fate. The movie disturbed me deeply and I'm grateful for that.

One of the observations I found most convincing in the film (this is something I've always believed) is that to get people to fall into line with a political agenda, myths and stories have to be created and cultures have to be glorified on one side and defamed on the other. We are all familiar with the myth of the good, honest, God-fearing United States of America innocently working for its own betterment in a world full of deceitful, hostile countries that are jealous of its success or just wish to harm it for unknown reasons. I would guess most educated Indians have laughed at this sort of claim, but only when it comes to the USA. Patwardhan provides persuasive reasons to believe that exactly the same view of ourselves is being formed in middle-class India, and he calls it "nuclear nationalism".

I'm constantly horrified by how many young people fall for this sort of myth-making. Not less than three of them asked Patwardhan essentially the same question: nukes may be bad but, surrounded as we are by evil Pakistan and murderous China, what can poor innocent India possibly do but defend itself?


Sandip said...

Exactly! Thnx for writing this!

Arati said...

Thank you for the excellent blog.

Anirbit said...

It is interesting to see the wide dispersion in opinions that this film has managed to excite!

Starting from the opinions expressed by you in your article to my point of view in my blog to the range of comments I heard from the audience during and after the show!

I doubt whether there is a consensus about the movie.

Sunil Mukhi said...


Thanks for the comment. I went through your blog. While we may not agree on everything, I found several points I agree with. Particularly your point 5, where you essentially point out the "post hoc ergo propter hoc" fallacy in the context of cancer and deformities due to nuclear radiation (the fallacy is that B happened after A, therefore B happened because of A). It's important to establish causality.

There's also one aspect of your comments where my point of view differs from yours. You were disappointed that the filmmaker did not approach the topic of his movie in a particular way. Of course you are within your rights to argue this, but I would counter that this movie (or any movie) does not aspire to be the last word on the subject. I would judge it based on what it does (or attempts to do) rather than what it doesn't. Your comments could well provide a template for the next movie (or article) on the subject!

Finally, why worry if there is a consensus about the movie... there's a debate, which is already a good thing.

You didn't provide a link for people to read your blog posting, so if you don't mind I'll put it down here: Kaleidoscope.

Deepak said...

Yes the film raises many disturbing questions. Personally, the most disturbing to me being: the progress of modern science, to which one thinks of devoting his life to, does it stand in contradiction with the interests of the common people?