Narratives of the soil

December 20, 2020

As the farmers’ movement picks up, the time is ripe for the once-popular farmer protagonist to make a comeback

Amidst utter chaos, uproar and opposition, farm Bills were passed earlier this year in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament. Thousands of farmers from the Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan have taken to streets and laid siege to Delhi, protesting against the three Bills. Clearly, this has caught the attention of national and international press like never before. But, the farmers of the Punjab have been protesting against the three bills – the Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill – since the summer. The visibility of these protests in the mainstream media only came about after life in the capital was disrupted through road blockades.

The agricultural crisis in India has been brewing for decades now, as subsidies kept declining and debt-ridden farmers, especially those in North Maharashtra, started committing suicide. Ironically, the plight of farmers, or even the mention of rural narratives has been completely missing from the popular cultural canvas. Globalisation has not only created global brands and consumer culture but also left pervasive cultural imprints.

Popular Hindi films played a decisive role in channelling discourses and the kind of moving images one saw on the screen. In India, post-liberalisation, as the working-class protagonists disappeared from the narrative of popular Hindi cinema, the farmer hero of 1950s, of the once booming agrarian economy, disappeared from the imagination of the nation.

During 1990s, popular Hindi films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge (1995), Pardes (1997) or Veer Zaara (2004) — a lop-sided romantic saga between Indian and Pakistani protagonists – did show farming communities to highlight the ‘rich’ and diverse landscape of India, but without any nuanced portrayal of farming communities. These portrayals were used to juxtapose a suave NRI (non-resident Indian), a rural landlord, or ‘benevolent’ farming communities of India, in the case of Veer Zara, as opposed to Pakistan’s ‘ruthless ruling class’. They lacked all the nuances of caste and class equations.

However, historically speaking, popular narratives had not always been devoid of these representations. Post independence, with the popular notion of nation building and the role of agri-economy in it, there was a strong emphasis on farming and rural life in Hindi cinema.

Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen (1953), where Balraj Sahni played a debt-ridden farmer who had to migrate to city in order to pay his debt remains an iconic film. Sahni was also associated with Indian People’s Theatre Association, the cultural wing of Communist Party of India.

Mother India (1957) portrays a lone woman’s fight against village vices, moneylenders and feudal lords. Nargis, who played Radha, transforms from an ‘ideal bride’ to a ‘strong-willed woman’ who fights the system. Released in the same year, Naya Daur (1957) is a Nehruvian critique of rapid modernisation that affected agricultural sector in India.

Indian New Wave cinema also forayed into the territory of the rural while dealing with the isolation of modern life. Inspired by French New Wave, Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (1969) is a brilliant portrayal of urban modern anxieties and isolation. The protagonist, Shome is transformed as a person as he travels to the hinterland.

The Indian Parallel Cinema Movement brought in a nuanced portrayal of the rural agricultural political economy. Ankur (1974) portrays the intersections of class, caste and gender against the backdrop of rural agricultural settings. Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1987) dealt with complexities of colonial violence and feudalism against a similar backdrop of village life in the Rann of Kutch.

Manthan (1976) became the first film that was crowd-funded by half a million farmers in Gujarat. The film was directed by Shyam Benegal and was based on the Dairy Co-operative movement in India pioneered by Varghese Kurien.

This rich and diverse tapestry of portrayals of exploitation and violence within the rural agricultural political economy on Indian film screens, kept the narratives of rural India alive in popular culture.

In recent years, with the failure of the trickle-down economy as well as that of the initial glitz around neoliberal market optimism, precarity has made a comeback on Indian screens.

Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live (2010) is a sharp satire that explores the issue of farmer suicides in India, liberalisation of agri-economy and the subsequent fallout.

However, it is important to add that the contemporary portrayal of precarity in Hindi cinema has been that of urban precarity, where the immigrants from villages struggle on the margins without the dignity enshrined in human rights. As part of this development, young filmmakers Prateek Vats’ first fiction film Eeb Allay Oo documents the precarity of working class in Indian cosmopolitans. OTT platforms have opened avenues for independent filmmakers, who are exploring the socio-economic division in the cities. The recent web series Paatal Lok (2019), for instance, explores the dark life of Delhi’s underbelly and crime while exposing the caste lines, marginality and the indifference of the liberal media.

As farmers’ protest in New Delhi is in its fourth week, with no signs of dissipation, one is left to muse over the impact of this revolution on the minds of the urban upper-middle class and middle-class Indians.

Prominent Punjabi artistes and superstars have shown their unconditional support to the farmers’ agitation while Bollywood remains elusive; other than a few celebrities like Swara Bhaskar or filmmakers like Anubhav Sinha, who have taken to Twitter to express solidarity with the farmers’ movement.

Mainstream Hindi cinema’s response to this movement will determine the credibility of film industry as a creative force. Whether mainstream Hindi cinema is able to capture the nuances of the rural imagination and farming crisis and depict these with integrity in the mainstream will also be a call to validate the political purpose of cinema. The question is whether the mainstream filmmakers will respond to this historic call or not?

Rutuja Deshmukh is a doctoral candidate and a Junior Research Fellow at Symbiosis Institute of Mass Communication (SIMC), SIU, Pune. She is also a visiting faculty of cinema and culture at FLAME University, Pune. 

Narratives of the soil