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October 05, 2009

Films chart despair of India's farm suicides

by Prachi Pinglay

After drinking pesticide out of sheer desperation, poverty-stricken farmer Nandu collapsed. He did this on screen in front of an audience at a packed multiplex cinema, which issued a collective gasp.

Nandu is just a character in a recent Indian film about farmer suicides. But his tragic fate has been a reality for thousands of farmers across India. For the first time, this dark aspect of Indian rural life has made it to the big screen.

Most Hindi films are glossy, glamorous, super-cool and predominantly filmed in Indian or Western cities.

In the past few months several films in the Marathi language - depicting the often terrifying problems facing farmers - have been released in the state of Maharashtra. The state is home to the glittering city of Mumbai but it is also a state where thousands of farmers have killed themselves in recent years.

This is particularly acute in the Vidarbha region, known for growing oranges and cotton, but which is prone to drought and has witnessed many farmer suicides over failed crops and mounting debts. The central government has announced loan waivers but thousands of families across the area have been affected.

Where Bollywood films relentlessly focus on the positive side of things, films about farmer suicides made on limited budgets by relatively inexperienced directors are by any stretch of the imagination commercially unviable. Yet they have won critical acclaim at national and international film festivals.

Movies such as Tingya [the name of the child protagonist], Gaabhricha Paus (The Damned Rain), and Goshta Choti Dongraevadhi (Small Story as Big as a Mountain) deal with the subject of life as a farmer with depth and simplicity.

Mangesh Hadawle's Tingya is a story of a seven-year-old boy who refuses to part with the family bullock which has to be sold to a butcher due to financial problems. The story unfolds from a child's perspective and shows the helplessness of his parents as they are unable to justify its sale, especially after the animal has grown up with Tingya and is his friend.

Satish Manwar's The Damned Rain is about a family living in fear because the head of the family - who is distressed but also resilient - shows signs of wanting to commit suicide.

Nagesh Bhosale's Small Story as Big as a Mountain depicts two close farmer friends dealing with the vagaries of nature and Indian bureaucracy until one of them commits suicide and the other takes on the system.

The filmmakers wanted to highlight the real stories of farmers who they have have known closely.

"It is a collage of what I have seen and experienced. It is important to have a vision as to what you want to say through the film. I had this story in my mind for at least three or four years before I could actually find a producer," Mangesh Hadawale says.

The filmmakers waited for the right producer and have spent their own money in order not to compromise on the story.

"We made this film with like-minded people who put in their own money. We made two films - one an out-and-out commercial film and simultaneously we shot this one. We made this film without expecting any profits. It was important to make it so we did," says Nagesh Bhosale, a co-producer.

The Damned Rain was the only Indian film to win a distribution grant of 15,000 Euros from the Hubert Bals Fund at the Rotterdam Film Festival, without which even the limited release the film managed would have been difficult.

After being rejected by 42 producers, Mr Hadawale was vindicated when the film not only did well commercially but also won numerous awards including a national award for the child actor.

These films show understanding of the region, rural life and agricultural knowledge. Not only are the characters based on people known to the writers but many scenes are based on real life incidents like villagers putting up the entire village for sale or farmers getting cheques for only 30 or 40 rupees in Small Story as Big as a Mountain.

"We have shown what has actually happened to farmers," says Mr Bhosale. "Life has been extremely trying for them for several years now. That is why the older character in played by Nilu Phule keeps warning of an earthquake - we don't know if it is a real one or a social one."

While some films show hope, some warn of worse times. The filmmakers are divided on whether the films will change anything but are convinced about one thing - the story needs to be told.

Mr Hadawale feels that if globalisation can reach every corner of villages by way of "soft drinks and chips, why should the stories of these villages not reach the globe?"

The films speak of nature or rains as the mighty one, capable of changing their lives overnight. The farmers, though, are dependent on the government and its loan schemes and are shown to be wary of political developments and corrupt administrations.

"The situation has gone out of control for the system as well. Now unless something drastic happens, the condition of farmers is not going to improve. At the most these films will generate some discussion and awareness," Satish Manwar says. "But that is not going to change much. A complete overhaul is required which may or may not happen. It is important to study the situation psychologically as in The Damned Rain to see what happens to a family that lives in fear."

This sentiment is echoed by Vijay Jawandia, a well-known farmers' activist.

"People watch these films and it is nice that the issues are being discussed. However, the farmers are caught in such vicious cycles that one is not sure if debates and discussions can help without serious action by the government."


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