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Interview Punjabi

I want my cinema to reach those who are my subject matter, says National Award-winner Rajeev Kumar

The filmmaker's latest project, Siri, examines the plight of small farmers and farm labourers.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

National Award-winning Punjabi filmmaker Rajeev Kumar uses cinema to examine various social issues. After giving up a lucrative career in television, he was urged to make meaningful films that resonated with the people of the land. His National Award-winning film Nabar (2013) explored the obsession with going abroad that has been seen in Punjab for the past few decades. It effectively captures the lengths to which people are willing to go to start anew in another land. His 2017 film Chamm focuses on the Dalit community in Punjab and was selected for the Cannes Film Festival that year. 

Kumar’s latest project, Siri, examines the plight of small farmers and farm labourers. The title of the film refers to a working partner and sheds light on the relationship shared between the farmer and the labourer, which is far more entwined than that of a master and his worker.

Speaking about the genesis of the film and its inspiration, he said, “A few years back when the farmer suicides had increased exponentially, I thought that we should make an inspiring film that tells people to continue with their struggle instead of resorting to suicide. When we were thinking about all this, we came across research that looked at agricultural labour or siri. The findings of this report were even more alarming. We found that the effect of agricultural policies was far worse on agricultural labourers. We thought that so far we had been focusing on small farmers, but this problem was very grave and that we should talk about this.”

“Earlier, the labourer would get approximately 10% of the produce, but that system has largely been replaced by daily wages. However, the problem is that if a small farmer does not earn through his crop, what will he pay the labourers?”

A still from Siri (2020)

Although Kumar emphasises that the current situation of farmers is the result of policies that can be traced back to liberalisation, the situation has been exacerbated in recent times. The film has gained greater relevance with the farmers’ agitation taking place across the country, but Kumar stresses that this is coincidental. “My cinema is concerned with social issues and I look at the marginalised sections of society. Chamm looked at a Dalit family, while Siri looks at small farmers and agricultural labourers, I have also been concerned about issues of gender, especially to do with Dalit women. We had not planned anything to do with the farmers’ agitation. Rather, this [working on social issues] is a continuous process for us,” he said.

Through his journey, Kumar found that issue-based films like his did not find many takers in traditional exhibition spaces. “I feel that the multiplex audience that has spending power, wants to see only one kind of cinema. They are not interested in serious subjects and want light-hearted stuff,” he said.

This propelled him to find alternative distribution and exhibition channels. Over the years, Kumar has evolved his own model of distribution and exhibition. He said, “When I started making films some ten years back with a short, it was a self-funded project. We wanted the film to reach the audience, so I made a DVD. Alternative cinema, which is closer to reality, needs to reach the people and we felt that our viewers are mostly in villages and we wanted to engage in a dialogue with them so we organised several screenings and kept DVDs at bookshops.” This system enabled him to recover some money and has since become Kumar's preferred distribution model. 

Following this model, Chamm was screened in around 300 villages with a concentrated audience of Dalit women. This model is also effective as the filmmaker stresses the need for the audiences concerned to have access to his films. He explained this, saying, “My dialogue is with mainstream cinema and festival films. I want that my cinema should reach the people who are my subject matter. This is my prime concern. The festival circuit films do not have this concern even though they may have the same or similar subject matter.”

Drawing his legacy from third cinema and the theatre of Gursharan Singh and Badal Sarkar, Kumar is organising screenings of Siri in villages. His next film, Mainu Pyar Kardie Parjaat Kudiye is based on the poetry of Dalit poet Lal Singh Dil and is already complete.

He has also announced that he will be returning his National Award to draw attention to the plight of farmers.