Recent world events have made Anand Patwardhan’s new film War and Peace more attractive for classroom use than it might otherwise have been. A thoughtful critic of Indian society and politics, this prominent documentary filmmaker offers an insider’s view of the historical trajectory leading from the independence and partition of Pakistan and India in 1947 to nuclear competition between the two states today. Patwardhan’s iconoclastic approach offers a noteworthy alternative to the dominant Indian voices heard through the news media.
War and Peace is divided into two major parts and in turn into chapters. Part I begins with Patwardhan’s reminiscence of Gandhi’s assassination, noting that India was already speaking in two voices—represented by Gandhi’s pacifism and the violence that killed him. After a five-minute overview, the film moves to its first major chapter, “Non-Violence to Nuclear Nationalism.” Running approximately 45 minutes, this section of the film juxtaposes the two central themes and players in India’s nuclear drama. A Shiv-Sena festival immediately links extremist (for Patwardhan) Hinduism with enthusiasm for India’s 1998 tests at Pokaran and the political priorities of the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party) led government. Values that Patwardhan has explored in earlier films permeate his framing of the issues. For example, strident nationalism is subtly linked to a search for Indian “manhood” characteristic of fundamentalist Hinduism (see Patwardhan’s 1994 film, Father, Son and Holy War). The inequities of caste and class (found also in his 1995 film, Narmada Diary) emerge through interviews with villagers and tribal peoples living near the nuclear tests. Although Patwardhan’s sympathies are unabashedly with a small peace movement protesting nuclear tests and weapons, the defenders of the government’s policy use phrases familiar to most viewers: “This bomb is only for peace,” says Prime Minister Vajpayee.
The next chapter of the film, “Enemy Country,” follows Indian delegates to a peace forum in Pakistan. Here, interviews with Pakistanis ranging from peace activists to average citizens reflect the range of views found in India. Back in India, “Line of Control” shifts to the conflict in Kashmir. The pain of a family whose son is killed in battle scarcely competes with the patriotic fervor magnified by front-line reporting, television commercials, and a theater production portraying the military drama of a 1999 battle at the Line of Control that divides disputed Kashmir between India and Pakistan.
Part II links local and national politics in South Asia to the international context. “The Legacy” reviews the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki before shifting to the 1995 controversy in the United States over displaying the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian. Returning to India, the film explores the impact of uranium mining on the surrounding population. The final half hour of War and Peace, “Song of America, Song of India,” links Indian nationalism and militarization to a “sell-out” by Indian politicians to an Anglo-Indian definition of economic development. In their search for a shortcut to greatness, Indian elites emulate the U.S., leading Patwardhan to insist that “We are in a fight for the soul of Indian nationalism.”
War and Peace is a long film, and its discursive, occasionally disjointed structure may be frustrating to viewers accustomed to standard documentaries. With so many shifts of mood and themes, careful preparation by the instructor is essential. For students with little background in India, a variety of words need explanation to clarify key points and images, such as Dalit (and caste more generally), Hindutva, (Lord) Ram, and Sufi. In most cases, the pressure of class time means specific segments only are likely to be used, with the risk that linkages made in the film may be lost unless instructors provide context and make time for discussion.
Whether used in part or in its entirety, War and Peace offers a unique opportunity for students to use the Indian experience to explore questions vital to courses in international relations, Asian politics and history, peace studies, and American foreign policy: What is the meaning of national identity? Who benefits and who loses in an arms race? What is the link between patriotism, nationalism, and jingoism in a democracy? Why do so many Asians see globalization as synonymous with Americanization? Used carefully, this film is worth purchasing, especially by larger schools with a variety of curricular offerings.