Veteran Indian documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan takes on the case of the relatively recent political killings of rationalists in Reason. The film is clear in its voice and its form supplements its content. Much as it calls for a nation guided by reason and the film is told in such a way that it questions what it deems to be getting in the way of the development of rational thought in the country.
At the outset, the film notes the deaths of critics of casteism.
In 2013, the assassination of Dr. Nerendra Dabholkar, a physician from
Maharashtra and founder of the Anti-Blind Faith Movement, which is critical of
Hindu superstitions; in 2015, the assassination of Senior Communist Party
leader and author Govind Pansare. Both were critical of extreme right wing
religious groups. In 2015, M. M. Kalburgi, a rationalist voice from Karnataka, who
was lobbying for the “Anti-superstition Bill” and was equally critical of
superstitious beliefs, was also assassinated. All three were killed with the
same modus operandi: shot by men riding in motorcycles. Reason intercuts footage of religious fundamentalists commenting on
Despite the film following the deaths of such rationalists
and religious-state critics, it is clear that it isn’t following any one
person, but is instead capturing a flow of history. While the killings were
captured as its “subject”, the film also expands its discourse through further
questioning of events. It is shown that the killings do not only concern those
who died, but whom were they fighting for. Underscored in the film is the still
rigid class system of Caste, whose violence is supported not just in actuality
by state forces, but also ideologically, by their religious mouthpieces.
This emphasis on class politics is strongly pronounced to
its presentation of footage of extreme right-wing groups. The Rashtriya
Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), one of India’s more prominent religious-nation
advocate-volunteer group, is exposed by the film through news and archive
footage as being linked to a series of failed terrorist attacks. The film
exposes politicians and people from the Upper caste supporting the RSS: reasoning
out that just because some of its members died of a failed bomb attack, it doesn’t
mean that it was the RSS that planned the attack. The statements are countered
by further footage of the same people not condemning the failed attacks as
wrong. This is where Reason ensures that
the notion of personal responsibility is being put to question, in favor of their
call for structural/organizational accountability. This goes beyond
investigative journalism and is probably the film’s highest artistic
achievement – that it is able to capture something beyond human sentimentalism.
This is where Reason’s final test of
commitment to rational thought is passed. On the surface, the film might seem
to present a conspiracy theory, but both footage and editing put the
relationships under such rational scrutiny that one needs to think through it structurally.
Reason’s expository clarity is balanced with its obviously high artistic ambitions. Patwardhan’s essayist approach to documentary, with his hybrid use of actual and archive footage, may not be new. But what elevates his artistry is its unwavering commitment to its own raison d’etre. Patwardhan proves what most of the greatest documentary filmmakers have proven over the century: that a political position supplements fully the chosen form in ways that make the material stronger than a distanced one.
The film’s artistic merit does not lie in the harmony of its
elements, but in its further complication of them. The soviet conception of the
montage, as pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein, provides better expository quality
through the visualization of conflicts of any kind. Reason’s abstract conflict is clear: it is at war against blind
faith. This is heavily pronounced in its prologue as footage of Dr. Dabholkar
explaining the difference between science and religion is shown.
At some point, Reason
addresses the concern of Dalit student activist Rohith Vemula, expressed in his
last letter before he took his life, that never was man treated as a mind. The
film follows ideas, but not in a merely floating notion of it, but in its very
concrete. Men and women in the film are not mere images or representation, but
are bearers of ideas, and these ideas live not just in their bodies, but in
their practices. We can contrast the dynamics of protests in the film.
Patwardhan chooses to show how both Marxist activists and Religious extremists
conduct their protests. The former, with mixed caste, with various colors, with
significantly large number of Dalits, workers and peasants, and coupled with
police abuse; the latter with saffron flags, mostly from mid- to upper-caste
coupled with police support. The bodies are as real as they are, but its emphasis
on the contrasts through editing shows also the distance between two
Reason is a
film which has the discursive power that can only be harnessed by someone who
has mastered the film medium alongside participation in a certain political
struggle. Perhaps Patwardhan’s latest film can also serve as a master class to
the kind of filmmakers who address something immediate while possibly situating
their work within a larger historical reality without losing discursive
clarity. Beyond its artistry, is of course, its cause, which goes beyond
advocacy to an actual commitment to something as humanly necessary as
The Bagri Foundation London Film
Festival 2019 celebrates a decade of bringing the best new South Asian
films to the UK, with 5 cities, 25 venues and 25 specially curated films. It
starts on June 20 in London and continues until July 8 at cinemas across the
UK. Watch the festival trailer here.
Epoy Deyto has been writing about films and anime since 2009 and has recently moved his writings from Kawts Kamote to Missing Codec. He’s currently taking his Master’s in Media Studies (Film) at the UP Film Institute.