Howdy, Modi

Patwardhan's "Reason" at VIFF; Gods, guns and goondas in "World's largest democracy"

Freedom of speech à la Hindutva. Image: Anand Patwardhan

Anand Patwardhan’s Reason screens 6 p.m. tonight and again tomorrow at 11:15 a.m. in VIFF’s Vancity Theatre.

Go see this film.

But pee first; it’s 218 minutes long.

Not easy viewing, either. Its intertwined themes – India’s caste and class oppression, religious obscurantism, Hindu supremacism (Hindutva), murderous rabble-rousing, “deep state” conspiracies and cover-ups, “fake” versus real news, “cow vigilantism”—all require a fair bit of background to sort out and link up, although Patwardhan, to his credit, provides the needful as he goes along. Nor does he shrink from shockingly graphic portrayals of Hindutva violence and the martyrdom of its victims.

Yet the film is well worth your time and attention, both for the intrinsic importance of India and as a case study of electoral democracy’s worldwide malaise. So see Reason while you can, for to view it in a public theatrical screening is an increasingly rare privilege these days.

Completely unavailable in India itself, except in samizdat or vivisected into 16 instalments on YouTube. And even in the U.S., the film has been shut out of some prestigious campuses (I’m looking at you, Columbia), where the Hindu supremacist regime of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has made aggressive “soft power” inroads.

Modi was lately fêted by his American confrère, Donald Trump, at a 50,000-strong “Howdy, Modi” rally in Texas. And just last week, on Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, Modi took to the New York Times Op-Ed page to hypocritically eulogize India’s founding saint, who was assassinated 72 years ago by the BJP’s ideological forebears.

Assassination remains very much a favoured Hindutva debating tactic, along with lynching, torching, bombing and beating. The backbone of the film’s narrative comprises four drive-by murders – of a superstition debunker, a Communist lawyer/agitator, a progressive academic and a crusading journalist – that occurred like clockwork yearly 2013-2017 while Reason was filming. Patwardhan profiles all four, highlighting the heroism that earned them martyrdom.

He himself is on the same web-circulated hit-list that they were, with his face X’ed out in red. But he declines police protection, rather relying on the bullet-proof shield of his Brahminical caste and filmic notoriety (nearly a score of much-lauded lefty documentaries, shorts and music videos dating back to 1971) – all the more reason to lend your support by attending Reason at VIFF.

Not that India’s religious right reserves its ire for celebrity critics only. Some of the most heart-rending footage in the film is of the charred corpse of a Muslim boy burnt alive for the purported offense of courting a Hindu girl. Or a family of Dalits (casteless underllings once called “untouchables”) being thrashed by an upper-caste Hindu mob just for exercising their traditional (and despised) job of skinning a dead cow’s carcass.

Or a Dalit PhD candidate hanging himself after his university capriciously cancelled his (and his wider community’s) prospect of academic advancement. Or a village torn apart when provocateurs lead a mob to lynch its sole Muslim family for the “crime” of having beef in its fridge.

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