Anand Patwardhan’s War and Peace was released in 2002, and its presentation of escalating nationalist posturing – aka the arms race between India and Pakistan – was incredibly apposite. Over a decade later, WMDs in Iraq may not be the hot-button topic they were back then, but the Bharatiya Janata Party has returned to power in India and international debate surrounding nuclear armament continues to rage; this pulsating and sprawling documentary thus retains its potency. Both a personal perspective and a clear-eyed and acutely focused examination of the internal and external effects of India’s scramble for arms, for Patwardhan it begins in the aftermath of Mahatma Ghandi’s assassination.
“The memory of one who opposed the bomb on moral grounds alone had begun to fade,” the director narrates, setting his stall from the off. His wide-ranging examination of his country’s nuclear testing and the bristling one-upmanship with Pakistan that provoked it takes him from villages like Khetolai in Rajasthan, to Karachi and even Hiroshima and The Smithsonian. He captures the tears of an elderly Hibakusha (one who survived the A-bomb) alongside the lamentable lot of Indian peasants whose lineages have been compromised by the inevitable radiation from the Pokhran tests of the 1970s. There are pointed juxtapositions throughout, both between footage of opposing sides of the argument, and in contrasting traditional Indian musical interludes, infused with peace and hope, against irreconcilable imagery of the rolling war machine.
“All lies,” declares one politician when confronted about the claims of cancer and other heinous effects of radiation. But Patwardhan’s interrogation of the political class is largely intended to illicit this response. It is the common people of both India and Pakistan that he is interested in giving voice to, and despite some less equitable moments – footage includes the burning of an Indian flag in Pakistan, and the haranguing of a peace march in India – the mood is presented as largely reconciliatory. Through a debating session in a girl’s school the film seeks to encapsulate the proliferation of nationalist hatred. After a speech in which a young girl extols the virtue of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, she begs Patwardhan’s forgiveness; she had just chosen the side of the argument that would score her the most debating points.
Whether it is fame or infamy seems to matter little: “now the whole world knows where India is” proclaims one politician during a rally. And the people cheer him on, buoyed by a sense of religious union and national opposition. The bomb, asserts Patwardhan, is a godsend to holy warriors on either side of the border. In one instance, he aims his spotlight on a particular political figure who has gone, since the 1970s, from socialism to patriotism; poverty has been shunted from the agenda in favour of jingoism. Returning to where he started, Patwardhan ends with Ghandi’s proclamation that the only way to avoid the impending doom is through the non-violent method – War and Peace is a rousing and affecting argument in support of this advice, and a grave reminder that it is far from being followed.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson