Anand Patwardhan’s new documentary, The World is Family, is intimate and epic in scope, where decades of personal history are mapped into national history. It is a sweeping story that prises out humor and tenderness that aren’t the mainstays of Patwardhan’s work. But the political vitality is as urgent and sharp as ever.

Patwardhan has been one of our most courageous chroniclers, constantly examining the political climate not just in terms of the attitudes of the ruling dispensation but also how they are received and transmitted by the people. How the messages of the establishment get absorbed and turned into the kind of stuff that tears people apart and blinds them to hate is perennially under the scanner in his cinema. As the vanguard of our national consciousness, his work rings with fury and severity.

In The World is Family, the plea for harmony has a mellow temper. As much as there is a probing examination of the corroding fabric of a nation, Patwardhan’s family history becomes our entry point into accessing a past that narrates foundational ideas of freedom, the ways of dissent, and its price, as well as a fundamental sense of humanity.  Patwardhan is harking back to several vantage points in our history as he circles key figures who shaped the course of India’s freedom struggle while consistently revealing its connective thread with his own family.

Pattwardhan draws from archival footage stretching back to the 1930s as well as intimate home videos made over years in eking out his sprawling record of a changing nation. It’s a family that chooses to stay tightly connected with the makings of a nation both before and after it gains its independence. The chronicle extends even to his grandparents and most centrally revolves around his parents, Balu and Nirmala, and his two uncles, Rau and Achyut, separated by opposing attitudes to protest, including also his aunt, who memorably, in one of the most rip-roaring sections, exclaims that she is all for nuclear.

A still from The World Is Family (2023).
A still from The World Is Family (2023).

The parents are the show-stealers, their ribbing, warmth, and the ease with which they tease one another hold the film together. If Balu is shyer, Nirmala has the most fierce, acerbic wit that can make a room explode. Her pithy responses to her son’s queries sparked the most laughter at the screening I attended. The film traces her early days at Shantiniketan and the huge influence Gandhi personally had on her. She recalls the sheer devastation she had when she heard Gandhi was shot.

The film tracks the immensely troubled times of the civil disobedience movement and the stakes Patwardhan’s uncles had in it. One preferred underground tactics of resistance, the other Gandhian ideals of non-cooperation. Admirably, the film doesn’t pit one method or principle against the other; it gives dignity to and acknowledges both, though the sanctification with which it views Gandhi might invite polarised opinions. It also wades into the communal riots wrought in the shadow of the Partition, an unforgettably chilling anecdote recounted by Nirmala.

Most of all, there’s great idealism and a sense of exaltation the film bestows on the quest the freedom fighters were on, even as it flags alarm at the sharp descent of the country into thinly disguised fascism. Importantly, Patwardhan pulls into the fold the rot of divisive rhetoric has had on children. His film understands vital truths about children. Children are vividly impressionable, therefore, can be swayed into the side of hate, as well as are capable of casually boldest enquiries into why things are the way they are. This vesting of complex agency to children, recognizing their power to absorb and refract both love and hate, remains one of the film’s strongest direct appeals.

Though the film goes into dark terrain, the gaze remains tender and generous, searching for and focalizing the joy, vigor, and intelligence with which the parents have faced and continue to encounter life, with not so much dourness but always biting repartee, lending the film an enduring charm as well as a heave of profoundly moving moments. In their love and mischievous care for each other and those around them, there’s an unwavering hope and belief in a better, kinder world, one that can take and hurl back a joke or two at life and have an engagement with it that’s both wise and fierce. This is a film that reminds us of the possibilities of love that can be formidable enough in itself to take on, confront, and battle a fractured world.


The World is Family screened at the 12th Dharamshala International Film Festival.

The World is Family (2023) Movie Links: MUBI, IMDb

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