The collective forces of history merge seamlessly with the minutiae of domesticity in veteran documentarian Anand Patwardhan’s new film, The World Is Family (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam), a deeply personal and masterful cinematic essay that pays homage to the principles and ideologies that his family bequeathed to him.
Known for his incisive and sustained examinations of contemporary India’s most contentious socio-political questions Patwardhan turns the camera inwards this time around and profiles his parents, uncles and their friends and associates while probing crucial aspects of India’s freedom struggle and its aftermath.
The World Is Family, which premiered on Sunday at the 48th Toronto International Film Festival, combines the intimate and the universal, the specific and the general, to craft an acute portrait of a turbulent period of history seen through the prism of one extended family with roots in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra and Hyderabad, Sindh (now in Pakistan).
The film documents the immediacy of family ties alongside the tumultuous events that led to India’s Independence. The filmmaker’s parents, uncles, aunts, family friends and even his grandmother took active part in the fight against the British. His father, Balu Patwardhan, jokes: “I am the only one (in the family) who never went to jail.”
Patwardhan’s eldest paternal uncles, Rau and Achyut, plunged into the independence movement when Mahatma Gandhi launched the Salt Satyagraha in 1930. But the two Ahmednagar siblings took divergent paths towards the same goal – Rau adopted non-violent Gandhian methods and spent many years in jail; Achyut operated underground using different aliases and resorting to revolutionary means to fight the British rulers.
Post-Independence, the two men turned away from politics and walked out of history. The World Is Family, as it tells the story of Balu Patwardhan and his celebrated ceramist-wife Nirmala mostly through their own voices, brings to light the contributions of a few other lesser-known figures of the Indian freedom struggle.
Patwardhan’s maternal grandfather, Bhai Pratap Dialdas, a businessman and philanthropist, frequently hosted the top leaders of India’s struggle of independence, in his home in Hyderabad, Sindh (now in Pakistan), besides lending them financial support in other ways.
In Pratap Dialdas’ circle of friends was Allah Baksh, the chief minister of Sindh, who opposed the Partition tooth and nail, returned his knighthood, was stripped of his post, killed in broad daylight soon thereafter and reduced to a footnote of history. Patwardhan’s mother mentions the name, triggering the filmmaker’s interest in the forgotten man.
With a voiceover narration by Patwardhan, who frequently appears on the screen especially in scenes with his parents, the film has his father, mother, uncles and acquaintances reminiscing about Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar and other freedom fighters.
The 96-minute documentary, produced, directed, shot and edited by Patwardhan, addresses the anti-war, anti-fundamentalist concerns of all his earlier films. The World Is Family recalls the voices of sanity that spoke out against the plan to carve the subcontinent into two countries and alludes to the horrors of the Partition riots.
The World Is Family also emphatically underlines the power of the subcontinent’s shared cultural and social heritage to transcend differences of nationality, religion, caste and gender and serve as a bulwark against divisive politics aimed at exploiting the susceptibilities of the people.
In an exceptionally well edited film, Patwardhan knits together candid interviews and conversations (filmed over three decades in English, Marathi and Hindi) with relatives and friends in Mumbai and Karachi (as well as a particularly illuminating encounter in Ahmednagar with a group of young boys after a communal clash and a Q&A session with school students after a screening of his anti-nuclear arms race film War and Peace) to yield a treasure trove of anecdotes.
The World Is Family uses archival photos, newsreel footage, home videos and newspaper headlines overlaid with a minimalist, to-the-point narration to enumerate the beliefs that inspired his family to respond to Mahatma Gandhi’s call for action.
The film abounds in recollections of relatives and friends, with a few highly entertaining ones shared in Karachi in 2003 by the daughter of Feroz Nana, a close friend of his maternal grandfather. Patwardhan’s visit to the city as part of a people-to-people peace movement also takes him to Hyderabad to see his mother’s childhood home, Maitri House, all of 60 years after she first met Balu Patwardhan there for the first time. The building is now a hospital. It is at least “something useful”, the filmmaker says to the chief surgeon’s son.
Patwardhan had to overcome his own reluctance to film before embarking on this project. He shed his “reticence”, he avers, only after a heart surgery and encephalitis left his father with a speech defect. The film follows him in the last decade and a bit of his life. His spirit is intact. The wise and witty (often self-deprecatingly) raconteur in him livens up the film.
As do the quips of his wife, a spirited woman who studied at Kala Bhavan in Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan under the tutelage of, among others, Nandalal Bose and went on to become one of India’s foremost potters travelling the world and working with leading exponents of the art.
The first sequence in The World Is Family is from 1999. Octogenarian Balu and Nirmala are out on a morning walk. Patwardhan’s voice tells us that his mom, 12 years younger to his papa, made her husband promise that he would not die before him.
They sit on a bench in a park watching a laughing club session. In response to a question from his son, Balu says: “I have laughed my way through life. I don’t have to practice laughing.” An underlying strain of humour runs through the film. It stems from verbal exchanges between
Patwardhan’s papa and mom as also from their occasional broadsides aimed at the filmmaker.
They play cards, they argue, they have a go at each other and they share lighter moments amid the chores of an ageing couple’s life, but what stands out in this piercingly no-limit, warm portrait of a son’s relationship with his parents is the bonding that holds them together as a family of freethinking individuals thriving on agreeing to disagree.