‘The Battle for Banaras’: Cinema du Reel Review

Director Kamal Swaroop captures the immensity of India’s 2014 general elections.

Indian politics can be as vast and diverse as the country itself, and clearly just as complicated. That seems to be the main takeaway from The Battle for Banaras, a sprawling documentary study of the 2014 general election as seen from India’s most holy city, where current prime minister Narendra Modi waged a massive campaign to win over local voters skeptical of his political track record and religious affiliations.

Not always easy to follow for viewers unschooled in the nation’s colossal electoral system, where racial, social and ethnic tensions are channeled through dozens of candidates from all walks of life, director Kamal Swaroop’s ambitious effort does a better job depicting the sheer human forces at work in the world’s largest democratic contest (815 million people were eligible to vote that year). Filled with vivid sights and sounds of a fascinating place at a pivotal time, but never quite informative enough to make all the issues at hand comprehensible, the film should see additional festival screenings after stops in Dubai and the Cinema du Reel in Paris.

The Bottom Line

An engrossing array of sights and sounds, though one that’s tough to follow.

Banaras, now known as Varanasi, is located along the banks of the Ganges and is famous for its many stone steps leading down to the river, where Hindus from all over the country arrive to perform traditional bathing rituals (known as the puja). Swaroop and cinematographer Riji Das use the picturesque setting as a backdrop to depict the tumultuous campaigning that lead up to the elections of April-May 2014, when the right-wing BJP (Indian People’s Party) and its controversial Hindu nationalist candidate, Narendra Modi, captured over 30 percent of the vote, aligning with other parties to form the largest majority government in 30 years.

Swaroop claims he was inspired by writer Elias Canetti’s 1960 study Crowds and Power to make a film that would depict how the masses in India behave at election time, showing how candidates cater to popular demand through packed street rallies, mediatized religious ceremonies and other displays of public power and affection.

Modi — who ran for Varanasi’s parliamentary seat — certainly seems to be an expert at mass hysteria, swooping into town every so often by helicopter to worship at various local shrines, then making a stump speech before a huge crowd decked out in his party’s orange-colored paraphernalia. While he remains highly criticized by locals, many of whom support alternative candidates such as anti-corruption advocate Arvind Kejriwal, there seems to be no stopping Modi’s emergence as a Hindu populist adept at shaping the public to his will (and often using social media to do so, although the film never acknowledges this crucial aspect of his campaign).

The opening sequences feature lengthy conversations along the Ganges between Swaroop and a political expert, though it’s never entirely clear what the major stakes are in the upcoming elections, nor which candidates represent which factions (left or right, Muslim or Hindu). This often makes Battle difficult to get immersed in from a political perspective, though analysis does not necessarily seem to be what the director is after. Rather, he attempts to show how Indian democracy is very much about harnessing an impoverished and sometimes unruly population (of 1.2 billion as of 2013) to conquer through numbers, rather than through ideas.

To that extent, the film truly takes on meaning when Swaroop and his team plunge us into the heart of demonstrations occurring throughout the city as election day nears, with candidates making their way across town in slow-moving motorcades flanked by thousands of fanatic supporters of all ages — supporters whom Modi, the son of a Gujarat tea seller, often acknowledges by wielding his signature peace sign.

As a pure exercise in mass cinema, the rally sequences are fascinating to watch and captured by DP Das in colorful, gorgeously framed compositions that convey the election’s amplitude, while scenes set along the Ganges contrast political customs with religious ones as hundreds of worshippers pray both day and night. If The Battle for Banaras doesn’t fully explain what the world’s largest war for votes is being fought over, it does show that in order to win, size may be all that really matters.    

Production companies: Mediente International Films
Director: Kamal Swaroop
Producer: Manu Kumaran
Director of photography: Riju Das
Editor: Shweta Rai
Sales: Mediente International Film

In Hindi, English
133 minutes