Ploughing through power

A feature documentary that pays homage to the struggles of farmers

Ploughing through power

“Resistance is an act of public pedagogy.”

— Zainub Verjee,

artist-scholar, 2019


The poignant message of Korean farmer Kyung Hae, who tragically took his own life at a World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) conference in 2003, still reverberates today. His selfless sacrifice drew global attention to the struggles faced by farmers and the adverse effects of trade liberalisation policies championed by the WTO. Across continents, farmers echo a unified chorus, resolute in their quest to reclaim agency and redefine the path of agriculture; to reclaim their voice and steer the course of agricultural destiny.

Two decades later, in 2024, farmers’ protests swept across the globe, from France to Poland, highlighting the adverse effects of globalisation on agriculture. As these protests endured, farmers in India were making a comeback. They protested against the non-implementation of the promises made to them in 2021, following their year-long protest of three contentious farm laws. Despite mounting pressure and the potential loss of support from the vast farmer community, the government shows no signs of yielding. This unyielding comes amid Indian Prime Minister Modi’s bid for a third term in the current national elections, underscoring the high stakes for both the government and protestors in this impasse.

Farming the revolution

Inquilab di kheti [Farming the revolution] is a powerful and evocative portrait that puts into context the grievances of the farmers of the world. Premiered at the recently concluded North America’s largest and most prestigious documentary film festival in Toronto, the jury voted Nishtha Jain’s feature documentary the best international feature documentary. The jury lauded the film for its enduring “cinematic sophistication and indomitable lyrical presence,” highlighting its effective portrayal of the power and persistence of ordinary people. The film was recognised for its deft narrative and visual eloquence in portraying a massive mobilisation of grassroots resistance.

Ploughing through power

The 100-minute Farming the Revolution, Nishtha Jain’s feature documentary, invites us into a realm where defiance takes centre stage, weaving a narrative of extraordinary courage and resilience. Against the backdrop of a Covid-induced lockdown, we are transported to the heart of a monumental uprising, where farmers stand united in opposition to the Indian government’s enactment of three contentious farm laws; and where they fight the state’s war of attrition.

Here, amidst the currents of dissent, we bear witness to a symphony of voices rising in defiance, echoing across the land. Through co-director (and director of photography) Akash Basumatari’s camera, each scene unfolds with a poetic intensity, capturing the raw emotion and unwavering resolve of those who dare to challenge the status quo.

As the farmers’ protests unfold, the documentary – shot over 135 days – serves as a poignant reminder of the power of collective action and the enduring spirit of resistance. The sea of mustard yellow is the revolutionary metaphor. With each frame, we are drawn deeper into the tapestry of their struggle, where every thread tells a story of courage, solidarity and the relentless pursuit of justice.

In the film, the essence of the movement is poetically likened to ‘deep water, silent and quieter.’ This metaphor beautifully captures the profound nature of the cause, suggesting a depth that resonates with quiet intensity. This depth finds its anchorage in the ideological heritage of the Left movement in the Punjab. It is this ideological legacy that infuses the movement with its profound significance, providing a sturdy foundation that guides its path and shapes its identity. We are not surprised to see talks, performances of revolutionary songs and poetry, and access to revolutionary literature present in the farmers’ movement.

Here, amidst the tumultuous currents of history, over half a million souls converge—men and women, young and old, representing a kaleidoscope of religion, class and caste. Together, they forge a new paradigm of coexistence, breathing life into sprawling protest sites that unfurl along the borders of Delhi.

As the three-act narrative unfolds, we journey alongside these courageous souls, navigating the twists and turns of their struggle until, at long last, victory is secured—a triumphant culmination of perseverance, unity, and unwavering resolve.

Immersed in the vérité style of documentary filmmaking, we are transported into a world pulsating with authenticity and immediacy, as if we are mere witnesses to the unfolding events. Jain’s lens remains unobtrusive, delicately observing her subjects without imposing direction. With a keen eye for detail, the camera intimately trails its subjects, capturing their action, interactions, and emotions in a naturalistic embrace. Uruguayan music composer Florencia Di Concilio’s score offers a tonal leitmotif to enhance the cinematic experience and elevate the overall impact of visual storytelling.

With judicious use of voice-over narration and intermittent sound bytes from television reports, the film delicately propels its narrative forward while preserving the spontaneity and unpredictability of real-life moments. Niraj Gera’s sound design completes the aural experience. Through this artful balance, Jain crafts a cinematic experience that is both immersive and redolent, inviting viewers to bear witness to the raw beauty and complexity of the human condition.

Journeys amidst


This documentary is not a reportage of the farmers’ movement per se. Rather, Jain’s interests and focus are on the power equations in contemporary India, especially on women and labour. She is not interested in the ‘system’ but the ‘life world’ of the human condition she investigates. This is precisely what is evident in her body of work–––Gulabi Gang, Golden Thread, 6 Yards to Democracy, Proof and City of Photos.

Her narrative structuring is intricate, much like the stories she chooses to tell. In Farming the Revolution, she centred on three characters—the young farmer, the leader and the two sisters—and through these protagonists, she seeks to unravel the reasons behind their presence. That contextualises the movement while the protagonists serve as signifiers.

Conscious of the politics of image making and self-representation, complexities of social hierarchies, women’s emancipation, and workers’ struggles, the director reflected, “As I contemplated how to depict the year-long farmer protest, involving hundreds of thousands of workers, I realised that no single farmer could convey the collective experience. Hence, it had to be a composition of characters. Through a diverse cast – including women, men; the old, the young, landless and wealthy individuals – the farmers collectively crafted a symphony over one year. Therefore, the film couldn’t focus on just one character.”

One such character you see at the outset is Gurbaz Sangha, a 26-year-old farmer from the Punjab, who once considered migrating to Canada like his peers. Having heard the chatter and conversations about the farmers’ movement, he decides that at the least he can join. Guiding his faithful tractor along a winding path stretching 400 kilometres to Delhi, he joined a swelling chorus of voices that echoed across the nation’s vast expanse. What began as a solitary pilgrimage soon built into a formidable movement, drawing together over half a million men and women from every corner of the land.

However, amidst the protests, he discovers himself, embracing new roles—cooking, building shelters, managing stages and fostering camaraderie. Later in the film, within his tent, we see that a profound brotherhood forms, revealing the tender side of these men forged by the movement’s challenges.

Invoking the glorious Sikh history and calling farming a noble profession, we hear the voice of Joginder Singh Ugrahan, a titan within the movement’s ranks. Thundering “oppressive kings have to be challenged and defeated,” Ugrahan, embodies a revolutionary spirit that burns bright. With unyielding resolve spanning three decades, he has laboured tirelessly to unite farmers, landless labourers, women and the youth. Eschewing the constraints of electoral politics, he champions a bold creed: governments must serve the people, not subjugate them.

Ugrahan evokes memories of Lee Kyung Hae, the revered South Korean farmer and activist celebrated for his unwavering advocacy for small-scale farmers worldwide.

Against the backdrop of a nation in lockdown, the protest enclaves that blossomed outside Delhi became more than mere encampments – they emerged as vibrant bastions of resistance, where principles of coexistence were redefined; and women stood shoulder to shoulder as equal partners in the political struggle. Day after day, these courageous protesters, relegated to the margins of mainstream attention embodied India’s diverse and unconquerable spirit.

Amidst the growing movement, Veerpal Kaur, aged 34, emerges as a committed farmer-activist, her essence interwoven with the cause she champions. Alongside her elder sister, Beant Kaur, they have embraced the protests as their calling; their allegiance unwavering. With deep roots in the farmers’ unions, they serve as beacons, rallying women from their community with a steadfast resolve. As if attuned to the echoes of the venerable Urgahan’s counsel, the leader’s voice resounds, its tender tones urging and inspiring: “This struggle, stripped of the essence of women, would only possess half its vigour, half its vitality.”

However, for the sisters, the protests represent more than just a battle against oppressive farm laws; they embody the sprouting of a new, egalitarian consciousness. Originating from Bhatinda, Veerpal quits her job at the local mall owned by the Indian business magnate Ambani to join the movement. Together with her sister Beant, they proudly stood as members of the left-leaning farmer union BKU Ekta Ugrahan. In their household, the ideological currents flow strong, with cousins entrenched in left-wing organisations, their collective stance a testament to their resilience and unwavering conviction.

Certain women command attention with their formidable presence. Among them is Harinder Bindu, the admired leader of the Indian Farmers’ Union (BKU Ekta Ugrahan), whose spirited efforts mobilise women and marginalised Dalit labourers. Her lineage is etched with tragedy, as her father fell victim to the separatist Khalistanis during the turbulent 1980s.

Similarly, the diminutive figure of Jasbir Kaur Natt, representing the Punjab Kisan Union, captivates the protestos, as she stands on the platform of Bahadhur Garh Railway Station. Addressing a predominantly male audience of farmers, she delivers a heartfelt update on the tragic events unfolding at Lakhimpur Kheri—a lasting image etched in the mind.

As the movement surges forward, it transcends its agricultural roots, rallying support from diverse sectors of society, including industrial trade unions. With echoes of historic anti-colonial struggle, these protests symbolise a continuum of resilience and unity across generations. Against formidable odds, the unwavering resolve of the farmers yields an unexpected triumph, underscoring the enduring strength of collective action and human determination.

It is also a moment of resolution for the characters. Shunning his Canadian dream, Gurbaz Sangha declares: “I choose to become a farmer.” The two sisters then head back to their villages and actively encourage women to organise and engage in these movements. Joginder Singh Ugrahan, reflecting on the agitation’s successful outcome, shares a redeeming moment with a fellow farmer, “We are working for the next generation.”

Curating the tale of


Her journey as a filmmaker has been marked by encounters with various people’s movements. From her ventures into Bastar, a tribal region in Central India, in 2009, where her camera and footage were confiscated by authorities on the third day, to documenting the Dalit uprising in Una in Gujarat, in 2016 and the student uprising in 2017, each experience has left an indelible mark on her cinematic repertoire. While these episodes may find their place in a future essay film, her approach to filmmaking remains rooted in experiential storytelling, necessitating an intimate and non-transactional connection with her subjects.

Upon her return to India in January 2020, the filmmaker was drawn to Shaheen Bagh’s core. In the winter of 2019-20, Shaheen Bagh, a working-class Muslim neighbourhood in southeast Delhi, rose as a beacon of resistance against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Led predominantly by women, the protest demanded the act’s repeal, alleging discrimination against Muslims and challenging India’s secular values.

Though arriving after its onset, she documented its essence briefly before government crackdowns on activists ensued. Amidst the chaos, she discovered that many filmmakers had already begun their explorations of the unfolding narrative. While she harboured a desire to craft a film that would capture the movement’s spirit, she understood the necessity of anchoring the story around compelling characters.

Jain said, “I would have loved to make a film about the movement, but a story has to be told through characters and before I could find my protagonist, the government started to arrest activists. And, soon after, the Delhi riots and Covid lockdown brought the movement to a halt.”

“However, with the farmers’ film, despite the presence of several other filmmakers, each time found unique access. Together all these films could tell a more holistic picture of this large movement with an equally large political spectrum,” she explains.

In a way, Farming the Revolution becomes the vehicle that carries Kyung Hae’s prophetic message for all: “My warning goes out to all citizens that human beings are in an endangered situation. That uncontrolled multinational corporations and a small number of big WTO members are leading an undesirable globalisation that is inhumane, environmentally degrading, farmer-killing and undemocratic. It should be stopped immediately. Otherwise, the false logic of neoliberalism will wipe out the diversity of global agriculture and be disastrous to all human beings.”

The author is a critic and writer. Currently, he splits his time between Toronto, London and Geneva

Ploughing through power