Cinestaan takes a look at how farmers have been represented in Hindi cinema through the decades.
Makar Sankranti special: Revisiting the plight of the farmer in films
Delhi, Mumbai - 14 Jan 2021 21:42 IST
The Cinestaan Team
Every year, the pan-Indian festival of Makar Sankranti is celebrated to mark the harvest season. A time of celebration, the festival is celebrated as Lohri, Bihu, Pongal in various parts of the country to give thanks to the Sun God. This is also the time when the Rabi crop is sown, and all toil, for the time being, is over. Thus, farmers and their families come together and light bonfires, partake of sweet treats and offer prayers for an abundant crop.
However this year, the controversial farm laws introduced by the government has cast a shadow over the celebrations as farmers from several parts of the country are protesting against the legislation. They have been contesting the laws since their announcement and after protesting in Punjab for several months, they moved to the capital city where they were stopped at the border. Farmers from across the country have joined hands in solidarity with the ones who have been braving the harsh Delhi winter and have been living on the highway for weeks now. Sadly, the deadlock between the farmers and the government seems to have only intensified.
In films, farmers have been depicted as sons of the soil, who stoically face calamities, severe climatic conditions, evil zamindars and usurious moneylenders. At this juncture, as the farmers of our country are engaged in a historic battle against the might of the government, we delve into history to take a look at depictions of farmers and their concerns in Hindi cinema.
Kisan Kanya (1937)
The first indigenous Hindi colour film Kisan Kanya (Peasant Girl) was produced Ardeshir Irani, a pioneering filmmaker who directed the first Indian sound film Alam Ara (1931) as well as first Persian talkie, Dokhtar-e-Lor (1932).
Kisan Kanya was made using the Cinecolor process. Though V Shantaram's Sairandhri (1933) preceded Irani's film, the former's colourisation process was done overseas. Directed by Moti B Gidwani and co-written by Saadat Hasan Manto, Kisan Kanya starred Padma Devi and Ghulam Mohammed.
The film, whose title translates to 'peasant girl', is centred on Bansari, who is caught between two rival lovers. The film looks at the plight of poor farmers, who are subjected to cruelty by a zamindar but is a critique of the individual rather than the system as a whole. Although the title refers to the woman, the film had very little to do with her. It was met with a muted response.
Dharti Ke Lal (1946)
The maiden film by the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), Dharti Ke Lal (Children of the Earth) is based on three Bengali plays and recounts the fate of a peasant family of Bengal, before and after the Bengal famine of 1943 which claimed millions of lives.
The patriarch of the family, Samaddar loses his farms to an evil zamindar despite having a good harvest. The family, like thousands of other peasant families, moves to Calcutta in search of work. In the end, despite several hardships, the son is invigorated by the possibility of farmers creating a better world for themselves by uniting.
A cry against the apathy of the people, a plea for humanity, and a searing critique of the callousness of the British, the film marked the directorial debut of journalist and screenwriter Khwaja Ahmed Abbas. The stark realism, entrenched with the concerns of society, proved very influential and paved the way for films like Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953).
While depicting the issue of food scarcity, the film also shed light on the lives of peasants, their songs, dances and humour. An advertisement for the film read, “The grand old man of the village, who loved his land more than even life.” Not much seems to have changed today as farmers continue to lay down their lives in the current protest to protect their farms and livelihoods.
Do Bigha Zamin (1953)
A landmark film in Hindi cinema, Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin explored key concerns of the 1950s such as the land mafia rendering farmers landless, the displacement of farmers due to factories and urban and rural poverty. The problems of rural and urban India are as pertinent today as they were seven decades ago.
A farmer, Shambhu (Balraj Sahni) is in fear of losing his patch of land to the heartless zamindar (Sapru) and is forced to seek work in the city of Calcutta to pay his debt. Shambhu becomes a rickshaw puller and tries to raise some money in the heartless city but ultimately, loses his piece of land. The film shows a factory being constructed on his two bighas of land.
In an immortal scene from the film, Shambhu, driven by his desire to earn slightly more money, is goaded by a passenger to race against a horse barefoot on the streets of Calcutta. The laudable realist performance of Balraj Sahni remains the hallmark of acting even today.
Inspired by the Italian neorealist film Bicycle Thieves (1948), Do Bigha Zamin won critical acclaim and made its mark internationally, winning awards at the Cannes and Karlovy Vary Film Festivals.
Mother India (1957)
Mehboob Khan's iconic drama, a remake of his earlier feature Aurat (1940), zeroes in on the resilient Radha (Nargis) who is the rock of her family amid trying circumstances.
Abandoned by her husband Shamu (Raaj Kumar), Radha struggles to free her family of its crushing debt to the merciless moneylender Sukhilala (Kanhaiya Lal). Nargis's towering performance as a mother who must choose between her children Birju (Sunil Dutt) and Ramu (Rajendra Kumar) is etched in the annals of Indian cinema.
But while Mother India highlighted the plight of the rural community in a newly independent India, in present times, not much has changed for the farmer. In 2018, a National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) survey showed that about 52% of farmers are indebted. The decades haven't been kind to the Indian farmer, who is still struggling to rise out of poverty.
Manoj Kumar donned the director's hat with Upkar, an ode to the slogan 'Jai Jawan Jai Kisan', which was coined by prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. The actor played the virtuous Bharat who remains in his village to tend to the soil while his brother Puran (Prem Chopra), goes abroad for educational purposes. When Puran returns, he is only interested in his share of the land while his dutiful elder brother seeks to placate him.
According to Bharat, farming is a way of life, a worldview that he reinforces by singing the quintessential pro-farmer patriotic song 'Mere Desh Ki Dharti’. But while Manoj Kumar showcased the inherent nobility of those who tend to the land, his character is more than just a farmer, even willing to sacrifice his life for the country as he goes off to fight in the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war.
Ironically, the farmers of Nangal Thakran, the village where Upkar was filmed, are not officially identified as farmers and therefore don't qualify for government subsidies.
Ankur marked the debut of one of the finest filmmakers in the country, Shyam Benegal. In this film, the director's incisive vision presented India with it warts and all. The intersection of caste, class, gender oppression through masculinity in the film makes it immensely powerful. These aspects were seen in the feudal casteist structure of a village. While Ankur was based on an incident from the 1950s, the film held up a mirror to an increasingly urbanizing India of its feudal, casteist interiors where change arrives slowly.
The film marked the debut of another stellar artiste, Shabana Azmi. Incidentally, the actress grew more courageous with her roles, and her social and political consciousness blossomed as the years progressed.
Ankur captures the extent to which the repercussions of patriarchy, casteism and class oppression impact a poor low-caste farmhand. As the years have progressed, Ankur feels even more progressive. The zamindari-like class structures have changed form. Even as the farmers and agricultural labourers have become a forgotten people in a neo-urban society, oppression continues. Riddled with casteist and religious patriarchy, India has turned away from the villages in its deep interiors where Benegal's cinematic debut carries more relevance than ever. That, in itself, is a sad story.
The 1977 Shyam Benegal classic was truly a film by for farmers. Based on the iconic Milk Revolution that shaped India’s agricultural independence, it was produced by the Amul co-operative and funded by lakhs of dairy producers across India, becoming the first crowdfunded Indian film. The stellar cast, comprising Girish Karnad, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Smita Patil, who were all in their prime, added to the magic of the script, which was written by the fiery playwright Vijay Tendulkar. Benegal, as the face of the Indian cinema’s indie movement, created a film that reflected the zeitgeist and the progression and drive of a changing Indian village and its awakened farmers. Its heroes were abandoned wives, milkmen and poor cowherds, who came together to fight for their right to earn a decent living.
The film marks an epochal moment when Hindi cinema broke free from the shackles of traditional producers driven by box office numbers. Upon its release, its producers, the dairy farmers, piled into trucks and thronged theatres, underlining its success. For a farmer of that generation, with the choice, agency and power to shape their own story, the actions of a generation trolling each other on social media must seem pathetic. For them, power came with a united effort towards changing their village, district, state, and through it the nation. Forty-three years on, farmers have taken it upon themselves to bring change. There might be a few filmmakers watching for inspiration.
Ashutosh Gowariker’s iconic drama is largely recognized as a period film about cricket since the film features an improbable match between British administrators and a ragtag local team from a North Indian village led by Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) in the 19th century.
But deep down, Lagaan is the story of desperate farmers at the mercy of callous imperial overlords during the British Raj. Already reeling under a terrible drought, they are burdened by taxation (which translates to ‘Lagaan’ in Hindi), an infamous bone of contention between the Crown and its colonies. Hence, they have no choice but to accept the offer of the supercilious British army officer Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne), who agrees to exempt the villagers should they manage to beat the Brits at their own game.
Though the film takes place more than 100 years ago and the sun has long set on the British Empire, economic deprivation, drought and the indifference of officials are not far-removed from the Indian rural population's experience.
When Bhuvan’s team wins the match, against all odds, it is freedom from crippling land taxes that is the villagers' cause for celebration more than anything else.
Peepli Live (2010)
Farmers committing suicide due to debt has become routine news since the past few decades. Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live seeks to sensitivize viewers to this stark reality while lampooning the worst tendencies of journalists and politicians.
The film is about a poor farmer Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri) who decides to end his life because he is unable to repay a loan and believes, in the long term, his demise would serve the interests of his fellow villagers.
After a local reporter learns of his intentions, a media circus is spawned and the nation, especially the political class, becomes obsessed with Natha’s upcoming bid to end it all.
Peepli Live delves deeply into the sorry situation of farmers albeit in a satirical way. However the dark humour doesn't diminish the seriousness of the topic at hand. Apart from its deft handling of the subject matter, the film also boasts some realistic and grounded performances
It’s been more than a decade since the film was released but one only needs to open a newspaper to see that nothing much has changed.