Panjim, 24 Nov 2017 11:58 IST
The film touches upon farmer suicides subtly and asks a crucial question, 'Will the compensation last a lifetime?'
Tales of the poor do not make for easy viewing, but turning a blind eye to their plight is an option only for the stone-hearted. Farmer suicide is a grave issue in India, particularly in the state of Maharashtra. A recent report in The Hindu newspaper said that over 1,000 farmers committed suicide even after the state government announced a loan waiver. The issue is widely debated in the media, too, but you wonder when this will all end.
I must confess that had anyone told me earlier that Manouj Kadaamh’s Kshitij: A Horizon touches upon the subject of farmer suicide, I would have given it a miss. Not that I am insensitive to the farmer’s plight, but a sense of helplessness leaves me numb. To my good fortune, I was assigned by my office to watch the film, and what an experience it turned out to be.
Set in a remote, barren village in Maharashtra, Kadaamh’s Kshitij is the story of a poor student Vasanti (Vaishnavi Tangde), fondly called Vachhi by her family. Vachhi attends the local government school and has a keen interest in education. She also reluctantly helps her father Shripati (Upendra Limaye) collect cotton. Shripati is deep in debt, having mortgaged his humble dwelling to a heartless moneylender Raghu Sahukar (Manoj Joshi) to dig a well.
A drought results in zero harvest and poor Shripati is increasingly worried how to repay the loan when he can barely manage to pay back the mounting interest. True to type, Raghu Sahukar shows no mercy.
Left with no option, the frustrated Shripati accepts his brother-in-law’s offer to migrate to Kolhapur where they can work as labourers in a sugarcane field. Vachhi does not want to leave, fearing that she will miss out on a year in school. But her father hears none of it, and dissuades her from studying at all. He thinks education is good for nothing.
Dejected, Vachhi obeys her father but does not give up on her books. Before leaving her village, she tells the school principal that she will study on her own and return for the final examination in April.
Though he gets a job in Kolhapur, there is more misery in store for Shripati. He fears being duped as the labour contractor will only pay once the work is completed, but with no real choice Shripati takes the risk. However, the poor farmer is livid when the cheating contractor objects to Shripati easing his workload by pressing Vachhi into service. Shripati will now get only half his wages for the days Vachhi aided him. Fearing her father Vachhi hides her schoolbag in the mud. Watching her in that scene reminds you of a dog hiding a bone.
Kadaamh has filled his film with many such gripping, engaging sequences. The story is backed by a fertile screenplay that yields the desired fruit. The film also has outstanding performances, with child artiste Vaishnavi stealing a march over everyone else. So convincing is she that you wonder if she has experienced similar trauma as Vachhi.
Though the films are poles apart, Vaishnavi rekindles memories of Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe (2016) actress Phiona Mutesi. Vachhi's is no rags-to-riches story, but Vaishnavi shares the same passion as Mutesi. For a first-timer, she shows no signs of nervousness and slips into her character with remarkable ease and intensity.
Limaye, an established actor in Marathi cinema, delivers a riveting performance, bringing forth the frustration and anger of Shripati. What else would you expect from a man who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders? Though usually rude, Shripati displays a rare affectionate side when he takes a thorn out from his daughter’s slipper.
Kadaamh doesn’t go overboard with the issue of farmer suicides and has nicely woven the father-daughter story around the critical issue. The only time we see the issue being talked about in detail is when fellow farmers moan the suicide of one of their own. One farmer says a suicide helps family members get Rs100,000 as compensation. The expression on Shripati's face suggests that he is, perhaps, thinking on those lines, but a wise old man trashes suicide as a solution. “Will Rs100,000 last a lifetime?” the old man says. We can only hope our farmers are listening.
From story to screenplay and dialogues, Kadaamh has kept the storytelling simple. The countrywide problem of farmer suicides will help the film get a pan-India appeal. More than farmer suicides, however, Kshitij is an inspirational film that enriches you as a person. Watch it, for it is a study of life.