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 the assassinations.
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 ideologies.
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 rationality.
Reason was shown at the London Indian Film Festival 2019 on June 22 and 23 and the The Bagri Foundation London Film Festival 2019 on June 20 in London and continued until July 8 2019 at cinemas across the UK.