They spent all their savings on it. And five years of their lives too. There were nights when they were haunted by what they had seen. For Nandan Saxena and Kavita Bahl, Cotton for My Shroud could not have been just a film that has won many accolades over the last two years, including the honour of being the “Headline Film” at the Investigative Film Week in London earlier this year.
Cotton for My Shroud, which investigates the suicides of cotton farmers in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region is a wake-up call for those who claim that the farmers are doing well in India. This film, which received the Rajat Kamal (Silver Lotus) Award for the Best Investigative Film at National Film Awards, 2011, establishes the couple as film-makers with a conscience.
Kavita worked in the print media for seven years, while Nandan worked for television in news and current-affairs programming. “We took to journalism because we wanted to work for the voiceless and faceless people. But Kavita and I felt stifled in the news environment and decided to walk the path less trodden,” says Nandan.
In 1996, they quit their respective jobs to focus on real issues. The duo started making documentary and poetry films. Their oeuvre spanned the domains of ecology, livelihood, development and human rights. In 2006, the spate of suicides by cotton farmers across Vidarbha shook them badly. Though many saw these suicides as part of an agrarian crisis, for Nandan and Kavita, it was nothing short of genocide.
“Every 37 minutes, a farmer was killing himself. We could not sit and watch the drama unfold from our armchair vantage point,” Nandan says. They started research on the subject and that is when the pieces of the puzzle started falling in place and the thick air of official misinformation was cleared. “We got a window into the quixotic agrarian policy-making and the consequent unfolding of the tragedy in the heat and dust of our villages. And the picture that emerged was frighteningly bleak. This only strengthened our resolve to make a film on the issue,” he explains.
Cotton for My Shroud is an independent, self-funded film. The couple knew that arranging finances would be a pain. “Our bank balance was similar to the fuel-gauge of our car—mostly in reserve. But such was the urgency of the issue that we could not have waited for someone to commission a film to us. We decided to go ahead on our own,” says Nandan. The film project cost them about `25 lakh and every penny was spent by them.
It took almost five-and-half years to complete the film. After doing the preliminary shooting, they came back from Vidarbha and for months were haunted by nightmares. “The wails of the widows and children still echo in our ears. It was difficult to shake it off and get on with the editing,” says Kavita.
Friends advised them not to get so involved and treat it like just another project. But it was easier said than done. The couple sat on the footage for two years. “But it was difficult to bury the ghosts and sweep the film under the carpet as if nothing had ever goaded us to visit Vidarbha. As we started editing the footage, we re-lived the horror that had unfolded before our eyes in 2006,” says Kavita.
Like editing, the making of the film wasn’t easy either.
The police and local politicians of Yavatmaal district did their best to stop the couple from filming the funeral of Dinesh Gugul, who was killed in a police shootout at a cotton mandi. Later, a mob of rioting farmers charged at them at the mandi and almost smashed their camera. But the couple remained undeterred.
To ensure that the film reached a wide and diverse audience, the couple took to alternative structures. Screenings were held by young college students, farmer groups and NGOs and at film-festivals. It was the “Headline Film” at the Investigative Film Week organised by Centre for Investigative Journalism, London, in January 2013. It was screened in The Netherlands last October. The film also features in the “Indian Panorama” for 2012.
Though the National Award was a surprise, Nandan and Kavita believe that their greatest reward shall be when the agrarian policies are farmer-centric again and free from the machinations of multinational corporations.
The sad truth that not much has changed still is something the couple is acutely aware of. “Sadly, the situation of our farmers is still precarious. The ripples created by efforts like ours are up against walls of myopic politicians. We hope one day the voice of farmers shall be heard and together we will put an end to the blood-bath initiated by the policies of the Green Revolution. We hope to escape the scourge of genetically modified crops,” says the couple. Kavita and Nandan are working on three independent films and a short film that has the potential of becoming a feature film.