Return of the farmer to bollywood

Bollywood has forgotten the Indian farmer,” argued journalist Amit Upadhyaya in a 2016 article.

Published: 03rd July 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd July 2022 03:40 PM   |  A+A-

"Bollywood has forgotten the Indian farmer," argued journalist Amit Upadhyaya in a 2016 article. “Since 1995 India has seen over 3 lakh farmer suicides, according to the National Crime Records Bureau’s reports on Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India. Struggling with an acute agrarian crisis, Maharashtra, the state in which the Hindi film industry is situated, has seen the highest number of such suicides. Yet the industry has not made even 10 films in which the farmer is either a protagonist or an important supporting character since 2001.” (The 2001 mega film he references is Lagaan.)

Though I was but a casual consumer of Bollywood (then as now), not keeping up with trends and shifts in theme and treatment, the compelling question raised by this essay disturbed me. Post-liberalisation Bollywood had clearly no use for the Indian farmer, except as a prop to make the hero look good/find himself/be redeemed. Peepli Live, written and directed by Anusha Rizvi, the 2010 alternative film that went mainstream, was the one shining exception to this trend, going on to represent India at the Oscars. But otherwise, the village and its residents seemed to no longer be of interest to movie-goers, who preferred to watch aspirational romcoms in multiplex theatres, varying their taste only with gritty corruption or crime sagas.

Upadhyaya had interviewed veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal, acclaimed for the classics Ankur and Manthan, for his piece. “Farmers in Hindi films vanished a long time ago, probably after Do Bigha Zamin. My films were the only rural films for a long time...,” he said. (Benegal’s Well Done Abba, a charming film released in 2009, was also set in a village near Hyderabad.) For a country where millions still toil in the fields what a strange erasure this was.

*
Cut to June 2022, post-farmer protest, post-truth, not-quite-post-Covid India: Upadhyaya’s essay returned to me as we were driving into DLF Avenue, Saket, a spiffy mall that stands like a proud sentinel next to two others. (In the 2010s, this triumvirate of malls had converted this neighbourhood, a formerly quiet, leafy part of south Delhi, into a major young-person hangout.) The setting was ironic though, since the movie we were going to watch—Sherdil: the Pilibhit Saga, written and directed by Srijit Mukherjee, with Pankaj Tripathi in the title role—was set in a small, desperately poor village in Uttar Pradesh, where farmer suicide was rife. 

Had the farmer finally returned to Bollywood?

The mall was full of glitzy shops and shiny people; popcorn at the theatre was several hundred rupees for a cone; you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that the food served in the restaurants had a virgin birth. But once the lights went out in the hall, we were transported to the very parts of India that aren’t talked about in such environs. (The last memorable Hindi film to do so was probably Newton). 

Pankaj Tripathi’s character Gangaram is the sarpanch of a small village that is difficult to locate on a map. The farmers here are crestfallen because nilgai and deer from the neighbouring forests—a tiger reserve—have been destroying their crops. Several have committed suicide, and several are on the verge of committing suicide. 

The film opens with Gangaram making his way to a government office to enquire about getting the farmers some kind of compensation—there must be some scheme, somewhere?—but the serpentine bureaucracy of the system is overwhelming. (The conversation between the government clerk and Gangaram is one of the finest moments of the film, crisp, tart, and heartbreaking. Incidentally, according to the NCRB database, while farmers and farm workers are among the communities most vulnerable to suicide, government servants lead in the communities least likely to commit suicide.) 
Defeated, he leaves the Collectorate. 

On the way out, he spots a notice: if anyone is killed by a tiger that strays onto the fields near the reserve, the family will receive a compensation of Rs 10 lakh. Gangaram has always dreamed of being a real hero, “like Bhagat Singh”, someone who saves the day. And so he decides he will die by suicide in order to save his village. (It will require some amount of staging, of course, his remains will have to be brought back and placed in the fields, for which he creates a script and tries to tutor his charges.) Finally, one morning, packing a few rotis in a bag, he sets out into the forest, to be eaten by one of the tigers of the reserve. 

Accompanied by stunning visuals, searing music, great dialogue, and a fine second act by Neeraj Kabi, Mukherjee’s Sherdil leaves a haunting impact on the audience.
*
We live in an upside-down world. Especially after the pandemic, we are inured to death and loss, and even our imaginations seem to have contracted. To tell the story of farmers and their acute difficulties, to cut through the wool with which we have stuffed our heads, in order to carry on, only something absurdist would work (except, of course, the film is based on real-life incidents, truth being stranger than fiction!) Whether Bollywood recognises it or not, by bringing the farmer back to mainstream cinema, through this brilliant narrative strategy, Srijit Mukherjee has corrected an important imbalance.
Watch Sherdil!

Devapriya Roy

roydevapriya@gmail.com 

Author and teacher; her latest book is Friends from College



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