War and Peace (Jang Aur Aman), from India, is a documentary about the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan—a very personal matter for its filmmaker, Anand Patwardhan, a Gandhian pacifist. Patwardhan would have had India hew to another nationalistic course, but, as he ruefully remarks in looking back on the last decade or so, with the collapse of socialism in India that followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union, “The memory of one who had opposed the bomb [solely] on moral grounds . . . had begun to fade.” Finding one of the world’s most incendiary “hot spots” right in his own extended back yard, Mumbai-born Patwardhan worries about the fate of the world and its people. Out of this concern has grown a noble and compelling film. War and Peace won the prize of international critics at Sydney “[f]or its blending of crusading passion and intellectual rigour, which turns the exploration of a particular conflict into a universal antiwar statement.”
In a pre-title sequence (the credits per se are delayed until the very end), the film begins with Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. This black-and-white archival material (including, I presume, at least one instance of dramatic reconstruction) establishes the frame of reference of national history, to which is conjoined, by way of the soundtrack, Patwardhan’s personal history, which is inseparable from the national context; his voiceover begins by setting the date in relation to his own date of birth two years later. (Throughout the film, we never see the director.) “Our family,” he informs us, “had been immersed in [India’s] . . . struggle for freedom [from British rule], and Gandhiji had been the touchstone for goodness and reason.” Two other remarks forge the connection between Gandhi and himself, nation and individual, at the core of his existence; one exists on different levels as a question, partly answerable, partly beyond answering, and linking Patwardhan as child to the man he has become; the other, giving an indirect answer, stakes out one of the film’s unifying themes. The question is contained in this comment: “The child in me could never stop asking, ‘Who could have done this?’” His “answer” refers to the fact that Gandhi’s assassins included upper-class Hindus. This is momentous for Patwardhan, who asserts that, as a result, he rejected for all time the legitimacy of a caste system that posits superiority in such a group and relegates other people to “untouchable” status. He simply could not put store in an accident of birth, even one that benefitted himself socially and politically; nor could he rely on nationalistic pride as a determinant of right and wrong, for his nation had slain India’s own champion and his activist family’s cherished hero. Documentary imagery and directorial voiceover therefore combine to underscore Patwardhan’s conviction pertaining to the equality of humans and the moral equality of nations. Moreover, solidifying this conviction is the commitment to peace that Gandhi’s example inspired. To establish all this in a mere few moments of introductory material is typical of the wondrous concision of Patwardhan’s filmmaking.
The introduction continues to sketch in post-World War II Indian history, including the fact that by 1962, during the Nehru era, as a result of its “military debacle against China,” India found its idealism “shaken”; “[p]acifism had become ‘the idea that failed.’” Against black-and-white archival material illustrating atomic tests, atomic explosions, and vast scenes of rubble and destruction, Patwardhan expands his range of vision to note the nuclear advances that neutered each vestige of pacifism on the world stage. “America,” his voiceover reminds us, “had begun the ‘Doomsday Game.’ . . . Paranoia that the atom bomb[s] they had dropped on the enemy [Japan, in World War II,] would someday come back to strike home ensured a permanent quest for nuclear superiority.” The Soviet Union, Britain, France and China “joined the nuclear club.” By the 1980s, Patwardhan continues, “there were enough bombs to destroy the world fifty times,” and “[r]adioactive waste from mining and processing, along with thousands of atmospheric and underground tests, polluted sections of the globe for eternity.” The upshot of Patwardhan’s marriage of image and voiceover is this: in our minds, the scenes of destruction we are shown predict the possibility of their expansion to include the entire planet. We ourselves are now “half-creating” the film by virtue of Panwardhan’s directorial strategy.
This brief but packed pre-title introduction advances, now shifting its focus back onto Patwardhan’s home country, India. We are implicitly asked to consider India, therefore, within the context of a world many of whose major powers (including the two superpowers, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.) were committed to a nuclear arms race. In India, the ruling political party, “the predecessor of today’s ruling BJP, declared its love for the atom bomb”—a filmmaker’s sardonic reference to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). In 1974, India also exploded a nuclear bomb, to which fact Patwardhan applies a hint of chilling prophecy based on the example of another nation: “The Soviet Union eventually collapsed under the weight of the arms race, but America, hostage to a privatized defense industry, [still] refused to disarm. In India, the collapse of socialism saw a revival of bigotry. The ideology that had killed Gandhi was once more legitimate. Nuclear nationalism was in the air”—implicitly, like radioactive fallout. Thus the black-and-white introduction to the film has come full-circle, and the title appears: War and Peace. As we shall see, nations will continue to war while activist groups of ordinary human beings protest on behalf of peace. War is the world’s modus operandi; peace, the idea that Gandhi embodied by his advocacy—an idea, though urgently needed, whose time is yet to come.
After the title, we are given a subtitle to Part I of the two-part film: “Non-violence to Nuclear Nationalism.” Part I will center on the regional nuclear arms race with Pakistan that India’s explosion of a nuclear device instigates. Since the British partitioning of India, in 1947, into two independent nations, Hindu-dominated India and Muslim Pakistan, the region has been in conflict. Civil violence and mass exodus, in both directions, erupted when the drawn border found Muslims on the Indian side and Indians on the Muslim side; subsequently, both sides have claimed Kashimir as rightfully their own. Ironically, Gandhi himself supported the partitioning of India that resulted in such bloodshed.
Rather than provide a blow-by-blow description of a fairly lengthy (nearly three-hour) film, let me at least detail some of the themes and stylistic strategies that Part I pursues before turning to the second part, which is no less extraordinary. Both parts of the film proper are in color, suggesting, perhaps, an expanse of possibility between the horrible past in the introduction (Gandhi’s assassination) and the holocaustic future this past may predict by the world’s having gone another way than Gandhi’s, where both this past and possible future are shown in black-and-white. The film is rich in the colors of life, but the introduction, in black and white, glimpses scenes of atomic explosions and the barren landscapes that are the result.
I have mentioned as important unifying themes here Patwardhan’s twin convictions in the equality of human beings and the moral equality of nations. In the pre-title introduction he declares these convictions; in the film proper, he structures his material according to these convictions. Let me explain. In addition to documenting public events, some in support of nuclear nationalism and some opposed to it, the film includes interviews of persons, both Indian and Pakistani, on the topic of nuclear nationalism—on the justice and the likely effectiveness of the regional nuclear arms race. Some of the persons interviewed are politicians, and some are scientists; but most are ordinary people living ordinary lives. Patwardhan zigzags amongst these groups—groups compounded by the two nationalities involved. Structurally and stylistically, then, his film gives each individual equal weight, regardless of his or her class, station, position or nationality; the presentation of the film’s materials, therefore, matches and, cumulatively, turns into metaphor one of the film’s informing ideas.
Witty, also, is the fact that folly creates a single level of humanity for such disparately employed and stationed individuals. We see, in 1998, India’s Prime Minister congratulating his nation’s scientists for designing and conducting nuclear tests in Pokaran, India. We see a blast artfully set in the sculpture of a dove as someone explains the symbolism: “We did [the nuclear test] for peace.” When asked if Pakistan won’t follow suit with nuclear tests of its own and summarily attack Bombay, a man in the street in Bombay, who may have been conferring with someone as foolish as Ronald Reagan, answers that India’s technological advancement will eradicate Pakistan’s missiles mid-air. Of course, Pakistan did conduct its own nuclear tests in response to India’s.
Patwardhan is adept, then, at juxtaposing the arrogance of ceremonial posturing and the agitation of individual human folly, and he is (more crudely) adept at torpedoing some instance of folly with a footnote of scientific truth. Thus on the heels of some citizen’s saying in Pokaran, “There were no losses [from the atomic blasts], and the gain was name and fame. . . . I’ve never heard of the bomb causing cancer or any illness,” Patwardhan proceeds to show a physician who describes the real impact of the bomb tests on people’s health in the area, followed by ordinary citizen corroboration (“knots in the neck . . . people die in two days”), followed by a graphic slide show, presented by peace activists to local children, documenting the “keloids” on human bodies resulting from contact with the nuclear event, such as in the case of those who, despite protective gear, moved nuclear waste. The children’s faces, rapt, take in a catalog of medical horrors—as do we.
The lecturer showing the slides remarks, “. . . the fuel that powers the bomb is produced in . . . nuclear power plant[s]. . . . This ‘peaceful’ atom and weapons atom are peas of the same pod.” This helps develop another theme, on the score of which this film is particularly brilliant: the extent to which the energy-generating nuclear power industry, with its seductive proclamation of the “clean” nature of nuclear energy compared to the “dirtiness” of burning fossil fuels, in fact primarily exists to justify the nuclear bomb industry, in effect legitimizing it through the back door. In the face of this film, those who rationalize a distinction between these institutionalized occurences of nuclear power won’t have an easy time maintaining their false and hypocritical position.
One of the persons whom the filmmaker interviews reflects Indian arrogance. This is Dr. Raja Ramanna, the “father” of India’s nuclear program, who was responsible for India’s first nuclear test in 1974. Impeccably elegant, he explains that, to maintain secrecy, he and the others involved in the first nuclear project decided not to commit anything to paper. Their swell heads kept everything on file. Patwardhan’s camera, ever in witty pursuit of just the right image, finds a miniature cannon lodged on Ramanna’s mantle. This is more than a jab at Ramanna’s warmongering cloaked in the garb of peace; it suggests the hollowness, impotence and insuffiency that Ramanna’s grand manner and practiced self-confidence masks—from the world, but also, probably, from himself. He is so full of himself, so sure of his own superiority. His confession that nothing was put on paper, too, reflects Patwardhan’s theme of deception. This theme informs the context to which Ramanna’s appearance belongs, for his introduction is deliciously sandwiched between interviews of citizens who address India’s lies and deceptions on the topic of its nuclear tests. Just prior to Ramanna’s first appearance, the former head of Khetolai, the village nearest to Pokaran, where the tests were conducted, explains why he relinquished his land to the government: “We were promised water and electricity . . . we were promised the moon.” But they gained nothing and lost their land. After Ramanna’s appearance, the citizen reappears to explain that the government told no one about the nuclear tests; they were told instead that kerosene would be extracted from the land. Another citizen, referring to Mother India, shrugs in defeat: “If a mother feeds poison to a child, what is the child to do?” The crackpot masquerade of war and violence as peaceful pursuits, encapsulated in the blast-filled dove, now is documented historically: the official code for indicating a successful atomic test was “The Buddha is smiling.” Patwardhan returns to Ramanna, who is absorbed in playing classical music on his lavish piano—an allusion to Nero’s fiddling while Rome burned. But more: Patwardhan shoots Ramanna through an ornamental circular design decking the piano; in the next shot, a similar design appears on the flag at the testing site. The visual linkage thus presents the idea that Ramanna, with his fine music, continues to repress the horror he has unleashed. Ramanna can’t see what we can: he’s Dr. Strangelove.
Another theme, related to the government’s campaign of lies and deception, is subtler; it reflects the nature of democratic politics—the need to get the electorate “on board” in order to enhance one’s own electability. It’s extraordinary the way Patwardhan engages this theme. Patwardhan takes us to a Pakistani school room where girls this day are presenting speeches, some in favor of Pakistan’s nuclear tests, some opposed. It’s a kind of debate. One pupil firmly states, “Our atomic tests brought honor and relief not only to Pakistan but to other Muslim nations as well.” But in the informal discussion following the rehearsed speeches the same girl finds the killing on both sides of the India-Pakistan conflict senseless. She finds equally senseless the costliness of the nuclear arms race when so many Pakistanis are without adequate food and water. Patwardhan cannot resist addressing this girl; we hear his offscreen voice ask her why she spoke “for” the bomb in debate when she is actually opposed to the bomb. Her answer: “We chose the stand that will . . . [inflame] passions and make [our side in the debate] win.” Patwardhan: “Our politicians think the same way. [Note the “[o]ur,” grouping together Indians and Pakistanis.] They advocate positions that instigate passions so that they can win [elections].” The moment is electrifying, because Patwardhan’s comparison makes the school room something it hardly ever becomes in the United States: a setting where education and learning actually occur. By drawing the connection between the motives of students and the motives of politicians, Patwardhan consigns the latter to a childish, self-serving category (and sometimes, as here, at great cost to public welfare), while at the same time using the students’ self-knowledge as a basis for helping them to understand better why adults in circles of authority and power often act as they do. The kids are being given a political education right before our eyes.
To be sure, in other instances War and Peace functions as a more conventional documentary, providing the viewer (in written form) with telling facts and figures such as the following:
(1) One missile equals the cost of 15,000 Primary Health Centers.
(2) One missile production facility costs the same as providing drinking water to 37,000 villages. [Villages—not villagers.]
(3) One nuclear submarine costs 30 times the national budget for primary education.
But the Strangelovean image of a missile pushing, pushing forward lightens the conventionality, and in any case a film with so much that’s fresh and imaginative can readily absorb its forays into the more conventional.
There’s still another theme introduced in the first part that’s essential for grasping the film’s motive: the need for activism; the need for people to come together across national boundaries and other divisive categories in the cause of peace. A personal note, again in voiceover, announces what for many of Patwardhan’s crew was a first-time event: “We were about to cross over into Pakistan.” Enemy country. Patwardhan describes “the silver lining in the mushroom cloud”: A few years earlier, “despite official hostility, the Pakistan-India Forum for Peace and Democracy began to organize people-to-people visits across the border [between the two nations].” Although this must be understood in a secular way, such an event—and the border-crossing that the making of the film entailed is itself such an event—offers the hope that the future may be redeemed from what the past seems to predict. If nations pursue war for the sake of their nationalisms, then individuals in the nations are still able to organize and pursue peace. Patwardhan’s isn’t a defeatist film; it’s about the people’s struggle for peace—the opportunity, that is, to join their efforts and their voices to educate their fellow countrypeople as to the hollowness of the divisive stand that their governments exploit. The coming together of people in this way creates a visual metaphor for the solution to the problem of divisiveness. This activist unity must contend with a great deal of opposition from both fellow citizens—Pakistanis for peace were labeled “traitors” for taking what was deemed a pro-Indian stand—and the governments involved. Nevertheless, this unity is inspired by a higher goal, the greater good of peoples and the affirmation of life. Patwardhan remarks, “Far from ensuring peace, nuclear parity destabilized the region,” creating conflict and war, including the 1999 “50-Day War” between Pakistan and India that, because of the war’s television coverage, brought the war “into the living room”—images of “bodies [coming] home draped in the flag,” turning “grief . . . into patriotic fervor,” but also recommitting efforts between official India and official Pakistan to withdraw their hostilities from the brink of nuclear exchange. With what rueful sarcasm he concludes, “Every war is a ‘just war,’ and every enemy ‘the devil incarnate.’”
The second part of War and Peace, perhaps more astonishing than the first, takes us into a deeper understanding of the United States’s infectious role in providing the world with a model of nuclear irresponsibility. Part II takes us into the heart of darkness.
This part of the film is subtitled “The Legacy.” Indian children are being shown a black-and-white film about the U.S. atomic bombings of two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Patwardhan’s voiceover rises to a point of withering irony: “We had become implicated, both as perpetrator and as victim”—an allusion to the Allied side, including India, during the Second World War. Here, again, Patwardhan achieves an elastic sense of history where the past seems to predict a god-awful future. At the same time, he worries that the linkage of past and present is fading from view: the victims of these atomic bombings, whose numbers are reducing with every year, he notes, “remain the conscience of the nuclear age.” Patwardhan’s overwhelming concern is that the immersion of nations in their divisive and contentious nationalisms will drown out the claims of conscience rooted in the horrors of actual atomic war.
Shortly, the scene shifts to Hiroshima’s memorial museum—if you will, a repository of the conscience that Patwardhan has described. Stunning: We have entered the ‘conscience of the nuclear age’—a secular realm that nevertheless seems sanctified by a people’s endurance of the inconceivable holocaust that had been inflicted upon them. The date is August 6, 1998—the anniversary of the B-29 bomber the Enola Gay’s delivery of an atom bomb in 1945. We see children performing music and parts of a commemorative film; War and Peace goes back and forth, here, between present and past, color and black and white. The form thus suggests the intertwining of past and present, and the present riddled by conscience. There is an image of nuclear ruins; the camera withdraws, revealing that what we’re looking at is a model: art as the projection of conscience. There are black-and-white photographs, too, performing the same function as the model. All this is described as “Fuji’s present to the children of India.” The Japanese exhibit thus hopefully allows those who weren’t even born yet in 1945 to bear the burden of conscience that could conceivably help avert another such atomic event in the world’s future.
In counterpoint to this interpenetration of past, present and future, the conscienceless U.S. is contrasted with Japan. We hear the disembodied voice of America, a phone message from a U.S. Air Force official left on the filmmaker’s message recorder: “From our standpoint, it doesn’t make sense for us to sit down with you and talk about the Enola Gay.” Patwardhan is instead directed to “historians.” In effect, the Air Force’s refusal to meet with Patwardhan constitutes a denial of any connection among past, present and future. Moreover, the Smithsonian Institute, manipulated by the U.S. government, is no such repository of conscience as the Japanese museum. Patwardhan’s voiceover, here at its sharpest and most rueful: “Another museum, another history . . . a history that cannot be told.”
Many Americans will recall the flap regarding the 1995 Smithsonian exhibit that was meant to be historically accurate about the U.S. atomic bombings. L. Martin Harwit, former director of the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum, recounts the following: “[We] attempted to display the [Enola Gay] in the context of twentieth-century history. . . . The Cold War was coming to a close, and defense budgets were falling, and [we felt] if we showed the harm that was done to [Japanese] people on the ground . . . and the radiological effects on people, that [this] might turn people against atomic weaponry and, therefore, the industry that produces that weaponry and the means to drop [it].” Noble intention; but this exhibit would be thwarted. Congress would intervene, dictating the exhibit’s transformation, replacing truth with silence and misinformation. It is in this context that the hypocrisy of recurrent U.S. concern that Japanese children aren’t taught the truth about their nation’s aggression in World War II best reveals itself—a point that the film might have made to its benefit.
An historian, Kai Bird, sketches for us the planned exhibit, explaining that it’s understandable that Americans, long propagandized in this direction, believed that “the dropping of the [atomic] bombs saved a million American lives,” when in fact America’s own intelligence revealed that Japan was “on the verge of militarily surrendering, that the Japanese [themselves] understood [that] they were militarily defeated.” The Smithsonian exhibit, Bird discloses, “was going to show the actual intelligence reports that Harry Truman had when he made the decision to drop the bomb.” (Another point that Patwardhan might have made: While Truman publicly insisted to his grave on the rightness of his decision, his papers, after his death, revealed that he felt the opposite was the case; Truman profoundly regretted his decision.) Also, the exhibit was to include photographs of victims. The actual exhibit that Americans saw, however, included neither intelligence reports nor pictures of victims.
Patwardhan delves a little deeper into the Manhattan Project that resulted in the invention of the world’s first atomic bombs. We learn that the military considered this defensive weapon in offensive terms, with one of our allies, the Soviet Union, a potential target along with Japan. It seems that General Leslie Groves, who was in charge of the Manhattan Project, had mischief on his mind beyond bringing a war to conclusion. Indeed, we learn that the American military, despite protestations to the contrary, always intended to drop two bombs, “to test the efficiency of both the uranium-based bomb and the plutonium bomb”—a sidelight so chilling it comes close to associating the U.S. with the cold-blooded detachment of the Nazis it was fighting. Patwardhan also contributes an anecdote of happenstance that subtly links the “just” war, World War II, to the unluckiness that we associate with its predecessor, “The Great War,” World War I. Albert Einstein had drafted a letter to Franklin Roosevelt, explaining the “moral implications” of the atomic bombing that the president was planning, but Roosevelt’s own death interceded. Einstein’s subsequent letter, as well as a petition in the same vein from scientists to Truman reached Roosevelt’s successor too late; the bombs had already been dropped. The upshot is a sense that the world tripped or stumbled into the nuclear nightmare that became part of the war’s legacy.
Highly effective: Patwardhan cuts from the revelation of the military’s intent all along to drop two atom bombs to a bridge in Japan—the site of the first bombing. The man being interviewed recalls, “After the bomb, the river was full of dead bodies [because] people jumped in to escape the heat.” This is followed by a shot of the American Legion building in Washington, D.C., with the inscription “for God and Country.” Patwardhan’s meaning is plain and powerful: the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren’t at all, really, part of World War II, much less the conclusive part, but instead the start of a new war against humanity’s prospects.
In its return to its interview of Bird, the details that the film provides concerning the legislative intrusion into the Smithsonian’s planned exhibit have, for us, a curious, more recent ring. (Again, Patwardhan has interrupted the Bird interview for a treatment of the Manhattan Project in order to express formally the relationship of past and present.) Democratic fascists employ the same tactics again and again, and the congressional assault in 1995 predicts the tactics of the second Bush administration—this time, against Congress and the ordinary citizenry Congress is supposed to courageously represent—by which it “discouraged” debate over the U.S. war against Iraq that, for their own private interests, Bush, Cheney and others had been determined to wage even before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and with which, contrary to the lies Bush treasonously disseminated, Saddam Hussein had no connection, direct or indirect. (Nor was Iraq, unlike the U.S., stockpiling “weapons of mass destruction,” nor was an attack by Iraq against the U.S., using these weapons, imminent—the other two pretexts Bush provided in making his case for war.) Listen to Bird: “Some [U.S.] congressmen and senators threatened to cut off funding to the Smithsonian, attacking the patriotism of the historians involved in the exhibit [emphasis added], and the tenor of the entire debate became reminiscent of McCarthyism, and there would be phone messages on my machine suggesting I should leave the country.” This was only the start; for when it was “foisted on the American people” that the planned exhibit was “an anti-American exhibit[,] . . . there were no politicians up on Capitol Hill willing to defend the intellectual integrity of the museum, Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives.” In short, the charge of being unpatriotic proved contagious, and those who were elected were frightened into a morally reprehensible stance lest they, too, seem unpatriotic.
Especially in light of the exhibit as originally planned, the actual exhibit was something betwixt travesty and tragedy. This exhibit wasn’t meant to educate anyone as to what really happened; rather, it’s jingoistic and warmongering. Patwardhan shows the exhibit’s video conclusion. Religion and politics, the fundamentalist union endangering humanity whatever the region, whatever the country, rears its head. A tele-evangelist (an instance of that peculiarly American conjoining of religion, politics and pop culture) is addressing an enormous audience whose members are each waving a little American flag: “Praise God. These are happy days when we can tell the truth as it should be told, so our children will know what made America the greatest nation on the face of the earth. If you want a great nation, build it on God, like we did.” (The American Legion motto, for God and Country, springs back upon our mind’s eye.) There can be no doubt that the TV preacher isn’t lying; he believes his untruths and misconceptions. In his baseless conviction, he is the pawn of the powers that maintain a shroud of secrecy regarding the Manhattan Project and the horror and misery it spawned. Patwardhan moves us to feel that, similarly, the exhibit’s audiences, that is to say, the American people, likewise are pawns, through this preacher, of the same powerful entities which manipulate him. The film is all the more powerful for conveying this connection, rather than overtly, through the associations wrought by the images and the editing of the combination of these images. (Patwardhan, incidentally, edited as well as produced, directed and cinemtographed War and Peace.)
From the U.S., the film returns to India, as India’s prime minister introduces a gigantic stage show with the theme “Victory to Science.” This “theme” is in fact a charade or, if you prefer, a masquerade; for the theme that Patwardhan finds lying behind the public rhetoric is science as the captive of politics. Of course, this also connects the segment thematically to the one in the U.S. preceding it. (Pieces; how the pieces are assembled. Associations; connections.) The show’s subtitle is “Atoms for Peace”—an oxymoron, this film has already shown us: more than a contradiction in terms, a national deception. Patwardhan’s voiceover underscores what’s being sacrificed in the nation’s rationalized pursuit of atomic energy. Two-thirds of India’s research budget goes to defense, space, and nuclear science; alternative energy is getting less than 1%. Again, it’s a pro-war program, partially—the part claiming “peaceful” uses of nuclear power—through the political back door.
Science: the betterment of humankind. Here is the ostensible theme of the show that the film documents. Patwardhan now cracks the façade of this public display by cutting to another potent consideration of the miseries that nuclear testing has unloosed on humanity. A doctor—only the second doctor from this village—is being treated for cancer. (The healer is himself sick: ironical, to be sure, but, also, suggestive of the depth of the problem—its hold on the human community.) We behold a traveling shot in the darkness of night. We hear a male voice. The man discloses that his father, who worked for the Uranium Corporation of India, died of cancer, as did his mother, presumably from exposure to her husband’s work uniform. The voice materializes; this soul also will probably fall to cancer. Patwardhan’s voiceover: “Every nuclear nation has exposed civilian populations to radiation. All uranium mines are located on lands inhabited by the indigenous peoples of the world. . . .” One such village appears, and on one of its exterior walls we read, “Save us from radiation.”
In the village, workers monitoring nuclear waste are interviewed. About her child, who is afflicted from radiation, a woman says, “God made him like this.” We know better; but the mother’s acceptance deepens what we know to the point of heartbreak.
The film returns to the man who lost both father and mother to cancer. He says, “We had to ask why our elders are healthy and we are not.”
And we are shown more afflicted children, including one whose father calls for media to broadcast incidences of cancer so that helpful state action might follow. The camera remains on his silently suffering child as the man, a father as well to all future children, says, “We may die, but others may still be saved.” Space and time in the film collapse, and India’s deceptions regarding the disastrous human price of atomic testing find a parallel in the American refusal to air the disastrous consequences of its atomic bombings—tests also, it turns out, but on civilian populations. Now we hear the suffering of the child whom a heartbeat earlier we saw silently suffering as the film shifts to an embodiment of India’s (and, by extension, America’s and other governments’) lies regarding the generation of cancers by nuclear tests. A former director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Center insists that not one person in India has ever lost his or her life due to nuclear radiation. Another official—is he lying to Patwardhan or to himself?—implies that the people unambivalently support India’s nuclear program. Patwardhan next references a public event extolling the success of India’s nuclear program. One of the speakers, noting the importance of India’s “economic and military strength,” compares Bombay to “mini-America,” India to America. The United States as the nuclear model that India seeks to emulate is one of the film’s unifying themes. Rather than being a beacon of light denoting freedom, America has become a phantom of darkness denoting power. To attain something like this power on the world stage, India feels it must embrace the darkness.
In Jadugoda, tests for radiation are being conducted. This is science seeking to detect the consequences of what other science has wrought, sandwiching the nation’s lies in between. (Form everywhere in this film expresses content.) We see children, their legs and feet covered in sores from radiation; we see other children running and playing. Wisely, Patwardhan doesn’t precisely juxtapose the two series of children. (I would have found such a juxtaposition intolerably cruel.) More tests for radiation levels—radiation counts—intervene. Still, one group of children reflects on the other. How long will the sick children live? How long will the healthy children remain healthy? Is the healthy group the cancer-ridden children’s wishful projection? The running children make childhood seem sturdy; but we know better. It’s precarious—here, specifically, because of the levels of radiation to which the children (along with their parents) are routinely exposed. Once again, Patwardhan has moved us, his audience, into a position where we are participating in the film, “half-creating” it with our questions and concerns.
The sound of applause might be doubling as an ironical tribute to the children who, running and playing, have thus far eluded the murderous grip of radiation. Literally, it is for another speaker at yet another public program. In this instance the speaker is a defense scientist named Abdul Kalam. He refers to the “Song of America” that inspires India and dreams of there being someday a comparable “Song of India.” All this is in reference to India’s nuclear ambitiousness—the key, Kalam and others feel, to India’s future rise to its destined greatness. Kalam impresses me, at least, as a bug-eyed madman—someone in striking distance of the fanatic cultist that Eduardo Ciannelli played in Gunga Din (George Stevens, 1939). Patwardhan notes that Kalam was subsequently elected India’s president. If Kalam is a madman, then, he is an epic madman, one who fires up the aspirations of many of India’s people. His dreams of a nation’s glory aren’t his dreams alone.
What is it about nationalism? Whence comes this national disease? In the case of India, it is all about what India hopes to be and perilously fears it might not become. In the case of the United States, it’s all about what the U.S. hopes it is and, cognizant of history, perilously fears it might not always be. American complacency and arrogance mask the gargantuan fears that drive the nation. Currently, George W. Bush is proving himself a self-righteous punk whose one public gift is his ability to exploit those fears relentlessly. Unelected (he was appointed to the presidency by a politically motivated U.S. Supreme Court), Bush embodies something horrible that heretofore his nation has largely skillfully repressed: the specter of fundamentalism, the collapse of the separation of church and state on which the nation was founded. (Interestingly, one of the leading outcrops of fundamentalism in America prior to Bush, one that skirted the line separating private activism and officialdom, was the Ku Klux Klan.) Bush’s illegitimate presidency, therefore, enables us to appreciate better the fundamentalist tyrannies that hold other of the world’s nations in their grip. One doesn’t have to be religious to be a fascist (in fascism, the state can become its own religion), but the fundamentalist Bush is the first fascistic American president. Or, rather, his is the first fascistic American presidency. (While FDR’s attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court at the very least skirted fascism—the “spin” would be that Roosevelt was “thinking outside the box,”)—Nixon’s Watergate activities were something else: simply, criminal.)
As a long shot of a nuclear test blast turns into a closeup, Patwardhan’s voiceover reasserts itself: “The first decades of the nuclear age saw over 500 atmospheric tests. Scientists estimate [that,] in the next 2000 years[,] five million people will die from radioactivity released into air and water from these tests.” Patwardhan also addresses underground tests since the banning of above-ground tests: “No site can contain its poison forever.” For once, the United States followed India, backing out of the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty after India had done so.
An Indo-American event is now documented, generating one of the film’s signature (because thematically determined), and most brilliant, images. Shot from the rear, a couple enters the hall where the event is taking place. The man is in Texan garb, including a generous black hat; the woman is in traditional white Indian garb, covering nearly all of her. Spectacularly comical, and frighteningly to the point, this image helps unify that considerable aspect of the film relating India’s aspirations to the American model of wielding power uncaringly of the consequences. The film lives to show this image, which is slipped in so seamlessly that it scarcely draws attention. However, the shot generates a ripple that defines the film. For a moment, Patwardhan’s film achieves the clarity of Antonioni and Godard.
We are further reminded of Godard when the mise-en-scène displays a poster, in this case announcing “The Indo-American Way.” When Patwardhan’s voiceover notes India’s impetus to find a “shortcut to greatness” that it hopes the example of America will provide, I, as an American, responded somewhat differently than Patwardhan intended—naturally. Patwardhan, of course, is referring to the better example that India itself provided India: the way of peace promoted by his hero, Gandhi. (Not my hero: Stretching his virtuous philosophy to the point of its becoming a fault, Gandhi legitimized the Holocaust by celebrating Jewish deaths that would, he felt, impress the world’s hearts and minds. My less abstract mind considers to the full the Jewish lives that were lost.) However, I interpreted “shortcut” in terms of reduction—the reduction of American prospects and ideals. In the end, none of this matters, because Patwardhan’s puny America more or less corresponds to my sense of a reduced America.
Patwardhan is straightforward, preferring “a decent, tolerant, humane India”—a Gandhi’s India—to the “uncertain, insecure, frustrated nationalism” of the current India. Again, he prefers Gandhi, not the United States, as an inspirational and formative example for India. I agree.
The film winds down with images of mock combat: the preparation of Indian soldiers for war against an enemy that is armed with nuclear weapons. The implication is that the whole society is submerged, in effect, in what might be described as nuclear thinking. In Pakistan, there is a call for Jihad—“holy war.” (Before you dismiss the idea as an abomination, consider the Crusades—and then, please, dismiss the idea.) Patwardhan’s voiceover: “The [atom] bomb is a godsend for holy warriors on both sides of the border.” Patwardhan, who throughout the film plays with the English language the way a jazz musician plays with musical notes, delivers here perhaps the film’s signature utterance.
There is no end in sight, for India, to all that this film stands against. Patwardhan next shows some official who insists that nuclear testing by India is necessary in order to develop the long-range capability of its nuclear weapons. “China,” he blithely announces, “is our next possible enemy.”
Possible enemies; Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair and George Dubya should be able to relate to that.
The next passage of the film addresses nuclear armament sales, to India and elsewhere. The U.S. accounts for nearly half of the world’s arms exports; France comes in second, with something like 10%. The United States: anything for a buck. Some of us Americans, no matter how quickly we are labeled “unpatriotic,” feel that—I am paraphrasing, out of context, the nineteenth-century British poet Alfred Tennyson—we were born to higher things.
One of the film’s finest movements follows. Crowds, including children, are gathered and gawking at battleships on display in the water. People are looking forward to the security they imagine that India’s nuclear capability will bring them. Missiles are now their gods. Defense Minister George Fernandes extols patriotism. Patwardhan’s patriotism explains that, in 1974, Fernandes denounced India’s first nuclear explosion. He found it being done at the expense of India’s plentiful poor, who could have used services and assistance paid with the money that India’s nuclear commitment took from them. Fernandes’s change provides an index of the road that India has traveled.
A hidden camera exposes arms deals in progress.
The hoped-for “Song of India” materializes: “We are Indian” is a lyric.
This juxtaposition is meant to imply that Indian state corruption derives from India’s insistent nationalism. However, using the U.S. again as its formative and inspirational model, India thinks the solution to this corruption is the privatization of the defense industry. Once again with withering irony, Patwardhan says in his voiceover, “Listen to the Song of America.” It’s the national anthem of the United States. Patwardhan doesn’t mince words about it, calling it “the song of global arms trade, where war is profit, where enemies are reinvented, where religion and patriotism are names of the greatest danger the world has known.” Not for India! is Patwardhan’s underlying prayer. We Americans might be thinking: Not for my America!
The film ends, beautifully, in Japan. It is night. Lanterns float in a river in commemoration of the U.S. bombings of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—people; people not at war; ordinary people. The medium shot of the lanterns becomes a closeup as a dirge plays on the soundtrack. So many thoughts that lie too deep for tears!
This is the end of the original film. Since then, Patwardhan has added an epilogue. It is perfectly silent. September 11, 2001. Images: the bombing of the Trade Center’s Twin Towers; Bush; Osama bin Laden. Patwardhan quotes Gandhi: “[T]he machinery of governments hides the hearts of one people from another.”
We worry, too, that the machinery of governments exposes in exaggerated and deleterious form the hearts of one people to another.
Critic Richard Phillips finds War and Peace insufficiently taking capitalism to task for the promotion of nuclear weaponry. He is certainly correct, in a certain light. As I’ve stated, this isn’t an overt film. I hope I’ve disclosed enough to suggest that Patwardhan does take capitalism to task. Really, the issue of difference, I believe, is whether one interprets nationalism as a function of capitalism, or vice versa. Actually, I think that Patwardhan has this exactly right in terms of the example at hand. His nation. India.
This is a tremendous film.*
*India’s Censorship Board went ballistic against it, demanding a stupendous number of cuts. Patwardhan appealed to India’s Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor, forcefully saying that freedom of expression needed to be upheld and that nothing in the film constituted a threat to India’s national security.
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