Rural unrest in cinema: Time to look back to the roots

Haven’t we had enough of outer space gremlins, assorted ghosts, mafia dons, terrorists, media creeps, disco deewane and small town smarties? Cinema has so much more to show of the Indian ‘reality’

Rural unrest in cinema: Time to look back to the roots
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Khalid Mohamed

Ever since cinema was invented at the turn of the 19th century, there has been an ongoing debate whether films must cater exclusively to that abstract notion of ‘entertainment’ or whether they must reflect at least a vestige of the reality.

As it happens, the most unerasable films have sought to present both elements, outside the world of documentaries of course. Currently, the Indian reality is the unnecessarily prolonged time of over a year taken by the central government to answer the protests of farmers and repeal certain laws.

According to guesstimates more than 60 percent of the nation’s 1.3 billion people still depend primarily on agriculture for their livelihood. For years now, debts and bankruptcies have been driving farmers to high rates of suicide.

Uncannily, in November this year, Tamil film Jai Bhim directed by T.J. Gnanavel, proved to be prescient, vivifying the age-old exploitation of the Irulu Dalit tribe labour force, hired at a pittance by landowners to control the infestation of rats and poisonous snakes in the farm and fields.

Culled from the true life-story of Justice K. Chandru (enacted in a younger avatar by Suriya) who strove for securing justice for the workers, the dramaturgy focused on the helplessness of a pregnant woman (excellently portrayed by Lijomol Jose) whose husband has been arbitrarily imprisoned. Fashioned in the conventional framework of mainstream cinema – with melodrama, stirring dialogue and shock tactics – Jai Bhim highlighted the potential of populist endeavours to blast the lid off deeplyentrenched social inequities.

The question is whether there will be many more such exposes, given the hopefully reformist repercussions of the farmers’ protests. Clearly, documentaries are already in the works, an ideal reference point for which could well be journalist P. Sainath’s documetary Nero’s Guests (2009), which discussed the tragedy of farmer suicides.

Fortuitously there have been recallable attempts to focus on rural unrest, right from the pre-Independence era. Two prominent examples: are Moti Gidwani’s Kisan Kanya (1939), on debt-burdened farmers derived from a story by Saadat Hasan Manto, and K.A. Abbas’ debut-making Dharti Ke Lal (1946) which tracked the Bengal famine of 1943. Unfortunately, these have been largely forgotten since they didn’t find a receptive audience during the tumultuous final phase of the freedom struggle.

Post-Independence, with optimism high, the attempt was to emphasise that the traditional rural system could co-exist with the Nehruvian ideal of industrialiastion. There would be insurmountable obstacles but they could be overcome with resilience and pragmatism, as best exemplified by Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1959), in which a farmer family played by Balraj Sahni and Nirupa Roy, aspired to save their little acre from a mill owner.

Influenced by Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realist The Bicycle Thieves, here’s a certified classic which still rings true. Two years before that, Mehboob Khan had premiered his epic Mother India, in which a single mother combated a lecherous money-lender.

Characters had to be either white (virtuous) or black (evil) then. Going against the norm, Khan presented one of the sons (Sunil Dutt) of the eponymous mother in strong grey shades, thus investing a certain complexity and depth. The director had never been quite satisfied with his earlier offering Mother (1940), and vastly improved the original with Mother India – incidentally its plot premise was to be rejigged within an urban backdrop by the Salim-Javed scripted Deewaar (1975), which created the ‘angry young man’ sobriquet for Amitabh Bachchan.

Literary sources were tapped by Heera Moti (1959) directed by Krishen Chopra. Inspired by a Munshi Premchand story, it narrated the plight of a farming couple (Balraj Sahni-Nirupa Roy) who must save their oxen from a tyrannical zamindar. And there was Trilok Jetley’s Go-Daan (1963), with Raaj Kumar and Kamini Kaushal, also adapted from a Premchand story, which sided with the tillers of the land, embellished with music by Pandit Ravi Shankar.

There is scant information, however, about Hindustan Hamara (1950), featuring Dev Anand and directed by the German filmmaker Paul Zils. It is doubtful whether the print still exists. As the years rolled, farmers for a considerable length of time were presented as heroes with an indomitable never-give-up spirit.


The public favourite turned out to be Manoj Kumar’s 1967 colourful musical Upkar (which amplified prime minister Lal Bhadur Shastri’s ‘Jai Jawan! Jai Kisan’ slogan). After this there was a lull, with the 1970s focusing on vendetta and showdowns, packed if not with Bachchan then with the most marketable actors on the scene.

Intermittently, there have been Dulal Guha’s Dharti Kahe Pukaar Ke (1969), Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan (2001), Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live (2010) and Nila Madhab Panda’s Kadvi Hawa (2017). In the off-mainstream sphere, the two most striking films on the conditions of the rural have-nots, are Satyajit Ray’s Ashani Sanket (1973), a throwback to the Great Famine of 1943 in Bengal during World War II. Ray’s most strenuous work, it has been listed in the New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Films. Shyam Benegal’s Manthan (1976) is also enshrined in memory, with Smita Patil’s bravura perfomance in the retelling of the story of the setting up of a milk cooperative in Anand, Gujarat. It was crowd-funded by 50,000 people who donated Rs. 2 each.

To be sure, there are scores of films on the ‘haq’ of farmers. My aim is not to make a listicle at all. Neither is it humanly possible to access them all. The point is that with the repeal of the farm laws, there’s so much scope for relevant content, today, be it in cinema or on streaming platforms.

Honestly, it’s time to return to the roots.

(The writer is a veteran film critic based in Mumbai. Views are personal)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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