The statistics are chilling. Over a span of 12 years – from 1997 to 2008 – almost two lakh farmers in India committed suicide. Equally well documented are the links between these deaths and the implementation of neoliberal policies in agriculture (see article by K Nagaraj in this issue). The steady move towards corporatisation of agriculture, which began with the Green Revolution of the 1960s, gained further impetus after 1991, as the nostrum of free trade took hold of agricultural policy, leaving farmers with hugely increased input costs even as the prices available for farm produce dropped sharply. Caught in a debt trap and in danger of losing their land – their only form of security – many small-scale farmers were in such despair that they committed suicide, the only way they could think of to escape the situation.
The indifference of the mainstream media was almost as scandalous as the callous policy measures that had led to the suicides. For many years the deaths went unreported and unremarked upon, despite the simultaneous media explosion that was taking place in India. As P Sainath, the first journalist to extensively cover the issue, has pointed out, even today none of the major national dailies has a senior journalist who exclusively covers rural India, and the amount of space devoted to rural affairs remains negligible. No wonder the suicides went initially unreported. However, to blame the media alone would be unfair; contributing to this neglect was the indifference of the urban elites and India's middle classes generally to rural India and the problems of the rural poor.
The media did eventually take notice in 2006, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh finally visited Vidarbha, in Maharashtra, which had the highest number of farmer suicides in the country. There, he announced a package of INR 110 billion for the area, as well as grants of INR 100,000 to the families of farmers who had committed suicide. But subsequent figures show that these measures have had little impact, with deaths continuing to mount. Media interest in the issue rose again in 2008 when Rahul Gandhi, in Parliament, mentioned Kalawati Bandurkar, whose husband Parshuram had committed suicide three years earlier, leaving her to bring up their seven daughters and two sons. Somewhat far-fetchedly, Gandhi invoked Kalawati's name during the debate on India's nuclear deal with the US, saying that signing the agreement would ameliorate the plight of people like her. For a week or two thereafter, Kalawati received saturation coverage, but was quickly forgotten again, as was the matter of farmer suicides generally and the broader agricultural crisis itself.
Satire and realism
It is here that Peepli (Live) scores. Using the often underrated technique of satire, it succeeds in thrusting farmer suicides into the public consciousness with a bang. Two brothers, Budhia (Raghubir Yadav) and Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri), mired in debt, are faced with the imminent loss of their land. The only suggestion the local political bigwig can give them is that one of them should kill himself, so that the rest of their family can avail of the INR 100,000 compensation being offered by the government. The scheming Budhia convinces the simpleton Natha that he should take up the offer; a local journalist overhears the brothers and runs a story on Natha and his impending suicide. By the mysterious processes that guide the media, the story catches the attention of Nandita Malik (Malaika Shenoy), the anchor of a national, 24-hour English-language news channel, who is under pressure to increase her ratings. Off she goes to the town of Peepli, the story appears, and media hordes begin to descend on the village, all set to find (and invent) new angles and pegs to the story – and, of course, to capture the live suicide.
The film is unsparing in its lampooning of the various players. There are the politicians involved, from the local-level fixers to central government ministers for whom farmer suicides are nothing but an opportunity for political gamesmanship; the administrators, implementing meaningless schemes that fail to address the actual problems of farmers; and, above all, the media, which is really what this film is about. In their breathless coverage of trivia and sensation around a real-life tragedy, we are reminded all too starkly of the fare that is served to us on a daily basis, where sensationalism and insensitivity rule. Think of how, for instance, cameras and mikes were thrust into the faces of the shell-shocked families of the victims of the 26 November 2008 attacks on Mumbai, while they were asked about how they 'feel' even as the siege of the Taj continued. Or how we are treated to inanities like 'Amitabh ko sardi lag gayi' (Amitabh Bachchan catches a cold) rolling across the 'Breaking News' ticker at the bottom of the screen.
The film has attracted criticism for trivialising the issue of farmer suicides. Some groups, claiming to represent farmers, are demanding a ban on the film; there have even been criticisms based on the fact that it is produced by megastar Aamir Khan. But these critiques miss the point: Peepli is a satire, and has to work within the limitations of the genre. With excellent direction, pitch-perfect performances by the cast (many of whom are from Chhattisgarh state's Naya Theatre, and were trained by iconic theatre artiste Habib Tanvir himself) and a superb musical score, Peepli scores big, not least because it has succeeded in bringing attention to farmer suicides in a way that more 'realistic' artistic efforts have not.
It can be argued that Peepli (Live) is not really a film about farmer suicides, but rather a satire on the media. After all, director Anusha Rizvi and co-director Mahmood Farooqui earlier worked for NDTV 24×7. For better or worse, the film would probably have worked equally well if the issue of farmer suicide had been replaced by some other. As critics have pointed out, it does not give a sense of the political economy of farmers' lives that drives them to commit or attempt to commit suicide. Not that it needs to, of course – doing so would amount to placing a burden on the film that it could ill sustain without losing its snap and drive.
Stark versus propaganda
To understand the harsh realities of agriculture in today's India, one would have to turn to more 'realistic' films. An outstanding example is the Marathi production Gabhricha Paus (This Damned Rain), a dark film with black-comedic aspects, set in Vidarbha in Maharashtra, the region which has seen the maximum number of farmer suicides. The film begins with a farmer hanging himself from a tree on his farm. His neighbour, Kisna (Girish Kulkarni), is himself growing increasingly depressed due to his failing crops and his mounting debt. Kisna's wife, Alka (Sonali Kulkarni), worried that her husband is going to go down the same road as their neighbour, tasks their six-year-old son, Dinu (Aman Attar), with keeping an eye on his father. Dinu dutifully follows Kisna everywhere, even when he goes to the fields to defecate. Meanwhile, much to Kisna's annoyance, Alka is engaged in a desperate effort to keep up Kisna's spirits, making delicacies that he likes and being annoyingly solicitous of his welfare.
Kisna's attention, meanwhile, is focused on the impending monsoon. He scurries around, buying seeds and other requirements for the farm, pawning Alka's jewellery to do so. But the rains eventually fail, and the meagre crop is taken by the moneylender, leaving Kisna worse off than before. Undaunted, though, Kisna takes another loan to dig a borewell on his land to free himself of the vagaries of the monsoon. But the borewell does not work to its capacity, and Kisna finds himself even deeper in debt – as the film moves towards its inevitable conclusion.
Gabhricha Paus is a stark portrayal of the trap in which poor farmers can quickly get stuck, with uncertain rains, ever-rising costs and non-remunerative prices for their produce. First-time director Satish Manwar, himself from Vidarbha, succeeds in weaving an effective narrative that informs without being pedantic. His film is embellished with effective performances, particularly by Girish Kulkarni and Aman Attar, the latter of whom excels as Dinu. Despite her best efforts, however, Sonali Kulkarni fails to convincingly portray a poor rural woman. This is a minor blemish, and the needs of the box office must sometimes rule; as it is, the film had huge distribution problems, and the absence of a big name such as Kulkarni would have made things worse.
Is the crisis in Indian agriculture, as depicted in Gabhricha Paus, a problem that can be corrected by economic measures – by, for instance, subsidising their input costs, giving more remunerative prices for their produce, or better irrigation facilities? Or, rather, does the issue go deeper? I Want My Father Back, a documentary directed by Suma Josson and released some years back, starts with the farmer suicides in Vidarbha, and goes on to emphatically state that mono-cropping, genetically modified seeds and free markets for agricultural produce are nothing less than a homicidal conspiracy between global agribusinesses and the state with a goal of exterminating small-scale farmers. While the film does make some valid points, and it cannot be gainsaid that agriculture is facing a deep ecological crisis, the propagandist nature of the film would be off-putting to nearly all, including the converted.
There is little doubt that mono-cropping, excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides, and the phasing out of indigenous seeds are the central reasons behind the crisis in India's (and others') agricultural sector today. Technological improvements can only stave off the problem for some time, but a genuine shift is needed that includes a return to organic farming – if a sustainable system of agriculture is to be developed. Yet to make this point effectively in a documentary, one needs to have some dissenting voices, if only to allow them to stick their feet in their mouths.
Dark allegations about darker motives and conspiratorial games add little to the credibility of the narrative. For example, was there really no need to urgently increase yields in the late 1960s, as the film alleges? Furthermore, the film gives the go-by to the aesthetic requirements of the medium, resulting in a static camera pointed at a series of talking heads (all on one side of the ideological fence), with a few visuals to illustrate their points. While the Michael Moore style of documentary filmmaking is not to everybody's taste, at least it manages to hold almost any viewer's interest. It certainly does help to keep in mind that one is making a film, not churning out a propaganda pamphlet, however true the statements in the pamphlet may be.