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‘The World is Family’ is Preeminent Indian Documentarian Anand Patwardhan’s Most Intimate Film

‘The World is Family’ is Preeminent Indian Documentarian Anand Patwardhan’s Most Intimate Film

  • The documentary, which will have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival next month, focuses on his parents' lives interwoven with the tumultuous years of India's struggle for independence.

Anand Patwardhan, a sensitive intellectual, social activist, and inadvertent filmmaker, has eloquently highlighted human rights issues through a series of impartial portrayals of human suffering over the past few decades. Back in 1985, Patwardhan honed in on the devastation faced by the 4 million slum dwellers of Bombay in his 1985 film, “Bombay Our City.” In his 1995 documentary “Father Son and the Holy War,” Patwardhan delved into the repercussions of the Babri Masjid demolition. “War and Peace” (2002) captured the protracted India-Pakistan conflict, propelling both nations toward nuclear armament. I distinctly recall being on a flight from Bombay to Huntsville, AL, when breaking news unveiled Pakistan’s nuclear test, leaving me appalled and bewildered by celebratory scenes on the streets of Karachi, where ladoos were being shared as symbols of “victory.”

While many of us have offered our lunch money to those in need, Patwardhan’s unique calling and his innate connection to “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” spurred him to rally the entire student body of his university to forgo meals for a day and direct their lunch money to feed the refugees from East Pakistan pouring into India in 1971—a moment that marked his turning point as a documentary filmmaker. Born and raised in Mumbai, Patwardhan pursued English Literature at the University of Mumbai, followed by sociology studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and a master’s degree at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

I recently had the privilege of viewing his latest film: “The World is Family,” also known as “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.” The film’s mission is to cultivate harmony among the Hindu and Muslim diaspora through the prism of Patwardhan’s personal family contemplations. “The World is Family” serves as a poignant reminder that our shared humanity supersedes our roles as individuals—whether as men, women, Hindus, Muslims, individuals of high caste, or those less privileged. Surrounding us are governments with divisive policies and politics that exploit our vulnerabilities. Patwardhan’s 2018 work, “Reason,” spotlighting the rise of fundamentalism in India, further underscores his social awareness that germinated within the nurturing care of his distinguished parents and extended family, hailing from Bombay and Sindh in British India. His paternal family, including grandparents, uncles, aunts, and even his grandmother, participated actively in the freedom struggle against the British, often enduring imprisonment. His maternal relatives rallied behind Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi during the Dandi march, Salt Satyagraha, and boycott of foreign goods.

This film captivated me with its intimate family anecdotes and candid conversations seamlessly woven in Marathi and English. Patwardhan’s adept editing skillfully unveils intimate facets integral to his narrative. Notably, he does not shy away from sharing profound details: Nirmala Patwardhan remembers one car ride: “He touched my thigh; I believed I was in trouble. However, the Sikh gentleman explained it was an inadvertent gesture, aimed at sparing me the gruesome sight of four headless bodies on the tram tracks, during the massive unrest in Calcutta. 

The film’s power lies in its ability to show more than it tells—a poignant portrayal of aging parents receiving care in the comfort of their homes. Nirmala, Patwardhan’s spirited mother with a penchant for pottery and roots in Shantiniketan, recalls her love story with Bala Patwardhan, a tender young man shaped by strong family values. With an age gap, Nirmala confesses, “He used to think of me as a little kid and dunk me in the sea.” There arose questions about Nirmala’s age, and news of their marriage even reached Mahatma Gandhi—a truly astonishing revelation. Patwardhan masterfully interweaves vintage black-and-white family photographs and archived newspaper headlines, adding nuance and depth to his narration, eliciting the nostalgia and pain experienced during those tragic times. Nothing is off-limits in their shared conversations—be it baby blunders, good looks of a handsome young Nehru, or memories of sipping smooth vodka from wine glasses mixed with Coca-Cola.

Patwardhan points out that neither Gandhi nor the Hindus and Muslims favored partition. Yet, the British permitted only land-owning Muslims to vote in support of partition, thus securing its passage. Humanitarian voices like Pakistani political leader Allah Bakhsh, advocating against partition, were sidelined, and eventually murdered by the Muslim League.

“The World is Family” stands as Patwardhan’s most intimate film, focusing on his parents’ lives interwoven with the tumultuous and violent years of India’s struggle for independence. Through intimate conversations spanning three decades, Patwardhan interviews his parents, other relatives, friends in India and Karachi, who recount their memories of luminaries such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Alla Baksh. Balu Patwardhan’s elder brother, Rau Patwardhan, endured imprisonment for nonviolent resistance akin to Gandhi’s, confined to Ratnagiri jail, while Bapu was incarcerated in Yeravda jail (often referred to as Bapucha Rajvada). Another uncle, Achyut Patwardhan, spearheaded an underground movement under various aliases, eventually passing away alone. 

Anand Patwardhan’s mother, Nirmala—a beacon of progressiveness—captivated me. Hailing from Hyderabad, Sindh, she belonged to an affluent family and dwelled in the esteemed “Maitri House,” frequently visited by dignitaries and politicians. Nirmala’s journey traversed the sultry Indian subcontinent by train, using ice slabs for cooling. Her educational sojourn led her to Rabindranath Tagore’s Shanti Niketan school in Bengal. A skilled potter, Nirmala traveled the world, connecting with fellow artisans and artists. Even in her final days, her yearning for pottery persisted. Balu Patwardhan captured her heart despite initial reservations due to their age difference. They bonded over shared altruism and embarked on a love marriage. 

Patwardhan takes us on a stroll down memory lane, where Hindu-Muslim friendships blossomed. I’m reminded of my father’s family in Lahore before India’s partition—a time when households freely shared meals, celebrated festivals, and engaged in poetic gatherings (mushairas). However, the times changed, as divisive politics sowed seeds of animosity, leading opportunists to exploit vulnerability for personal gain. It’s distressing to hear Nirmala’s friend recount desperate attempts to sell furniture on the sidewalk to fund their escape, but the unimaginable horror of bodies mutilated and strewn across the streets remains haunting. My own father’s family had to abandon their homes due to this orchestrated tragedy, manipulated by the callous “divide and rule” policies of the British. Their experiences remained stifled, unable to be openly shared.

Patwardhan astutely points out that neither Gandhi nor the Hindus and Muslims favored partition. Yet, the British permitted only land-owning Muslims to vote in support of partition, thus securing its passage. Humanitarian voices like Pakistani political leader Allah Bakhsh, advocating against partition, were sidelined, and eventually vanquished by the Muslim League. Throughout the film, Patwardhan continually reminds Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan that pursuing peace collectively is in their best interest. Otherwise, it is a disaster waiting to happen. To quote a participant in the film, “I welcome nuclear power. Let’s use it to eliminate tension in one blast!”

I vividly recall watching black-and-white newsreels preceding feature films in cinema halls and on television, government-produced snippets that were informative yet limited. However, experiencing “The World is Family: Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” has been a revelation—an homage to Patwardhan’s departed parents and a resounding wake-up call to those who might dismiss the Vedic maxim, “our world is our family.” Patwardhan’s adept storytelling captures numerous poignant moments—father and son seated back-to-back in an “unnatural” pose, his mother receiving an award with a gracious smile, a display of intricate handmade pottery, and a casual cigarette accompanied by compensatory breathing exercises.

Patwardhan himself makes appearances in the film, stepping into his maternal grandfather’s home, the now-transformed Maitri House, serving as a hospital in Pakistan. He gazes at ornate ceilings, studies tiled walls, and presents the ancient Indus Valley seal. A poignant moment emerges as a Pakistani surgeon talks warmly with Anand’s mother over the phone, inviting her to visit her ancestral home. However, the same surgeon, when speaking to Mrs. Patwardhan, expresses his inability to travel to India, citing his age as the constraint.

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The film invites reflection on our own aging parents—Patwardhan extensively documented their graceful transition through the passage of time, reminiscing about their vibrant youth. Every frame exudes a tender sentiment, highlighting India’s cherished tradition of caring for the elderly. Many scenes evoke memories of my own experiences with aging parents. I vividly recall celebrating my mother’s birthday each week as Alzheimer’s stole her ability to remember, just to witness the radiant smile on her face. 

Patwardhan also humorously captures the essence of his parents’ personalities, recounting instances such as his mother’s teasing of his father’s habit of locking the restroom. His father quipping, “Why should I exert my own brain when someone with a better brain is using hers?” These interactions evoke my own parental recollections—adoring glances, minor disagreements, and affectionate gestures exchanged in their twilight years.

Patwardhan’s mother wished to pass away before her husband, unlike my mother who didn’t extract a promise from her husband to outlive her. After my dad’s passing, she spent her days marked by a red bindi on her forehead, living within the fog of Alzheimer’s, regularly inquiring, “How is dad? Did he eat? Does he miss me?” The film sparks contemplation about the possibilities for those of us residing away from India—what choices will we have for end-of-life care? What facets of our active lives will we miss the most? Will we possess the courage, like Balu Patwardhan, to vote even in our nineties, selecting the “least bad” option? These musings motivate me to take action, ensuring that every avenue and level of human rights is safeguarded. 

“The World is Family: Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” has been officially selected for the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, and I have a strong feeling that Anand Patwardhan’s exceptional craftsmanship will garner the accolades and awards it rightfully deserves.

 With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published hundreds of poems, movie reviews, book critiques, essays and contributed to combined literary works. Her two books are My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.

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