Films have always been a lens to our society, a means for our realities to be reflected and our voice to be heard. While agriculture hasn’t been the most popular subject for filmmakers to explore, the topic of food has been making a comeback in numerous shows and films. In a time when humanity as a whole is fighting for food security and inequalities are leading the cultivators of our land to take their own lives, it’s important to pause and understand the crux of the problem.
While life on the farm isn’t quite how it’s depicted in movies, we present a list of Indian films, including documentaries and short films, that explore the world of agriculture, and shed light on various aspects of the politics of food:
Nero’s Guests (2009)
A powerful documentary directed by Deepa Bhatia, Nero’s Guests was one of the first comprehensive films to tell the story about India’s farmer suicides, as unravelled by journalist P. Sainath, former Rural Affairs Editor at The Hindu. It brings to light the clear inequality in India’s agrarian crisis, and the conditions faced by farmers, especially in the Vidarbha region, that forces them to commit suicide because of debts caused by unfavorable government policies. The documentary reflects a reality that the mainstream media conveniently ignores.
Do Bigha Zamin (1953)
Do Bigha Zamin, the revolutionary 1953 film by Bengali director Bimay Roy based on Rabindranath Tagore’s Bengali poem Dui Bigha Jomi, tells the story of Shambhu Mahato, who owns two acres of land in a small village that has been badly affected by famine. The film focuses on Shambhu’s plight, as he gets entangled in the web of a zamindar’s debt when he refuses to sell his small land holding for he sees the land as his mother. The black-and-white film is known for its unforgiving portrayal of the bleak realities of feudal system and its impact on farmers. What is even more sinister is to notice the film’s parallels and relevance even in 2019, where even 62 years, the situation for situations has still not improved.
Mitti: Back to the Roots (2018)
Filmmaker Anshul Sinha’s docudrama Mitti (originally made in Hindi) focuses on the country’s agrarian crisis, pesticide poisoning, land grabbing, farmer’s suicide and many other grey areas within the farming sector. From questioning how public policy has played against farmers and remained unchanged since 1928 to how the food we eat is making us sick, it uses real-life stories to show the audience what is wrong with our approach to the farmers bringing the food on our table, who deserve so much more than what they are getting from this country.
The Living Seed (2015)
Watch this sensitively made film by Tadpole Artists Collective to understand indigenous wisdom at its best. It captures the work of Navdanya, a pioneering NGO from India that has been promoting biodiversity conservation, seed freedom and fighting for the rights of farmers for nearly three decades. The film talks about the future of farmers and agriculture, and the politics of food, and focuses on the positive living economy through a series of films called The Living Films. The films are based on the testimonies of farmers, seed savers, agronomist and scientists from across India, as well as from indigenous farming cultures abroad.
In the Lap of Pacha Mama (2005)
Produced by Deccan Development Society’s Community Media Trust, run by women farmers who double up as film-makers, the film tells the story of a search for ecological spirituality. The film follows a farmer-to-farmer knowledge-sharing exchange where eight Sangham farmers from the Deccan drylands of Andhra Pradesh visit the indigenous Quechua people’s farming communities in Peru to learn from them. In the Lap of Pacha Mama beautifully depicts the spiritual experiences during the cross-cultural dialogue that deepen the group’s bond with mother nature, while seeing traditional knowledge as a form of wealth.
This short film by Jason Taylor for The Gaia Foundation, highlights the work of Dr Debal Deb, a pioneering ecologist who has been working with traditional farmers in eastern India to conserve indigenous seed diversity for over two decades. Debal and the farmers of Odisha and West Bengal have together saved 920 varieties of rice, which are stored in community seed banks for future generations. The film follows the construction of a new seed bank in Odisha, built with French architect Laurent Fournier. The seed bank acts as a sign of hope in the fight for food security and conserving our country’s rich biodiversity.
Directed by James Becket, the successfully crowdfunded film The Seeds of Vandana Shiva, is the first and only film to tell the story of the remarkable Gandhian eco-activist and agro-ecologist Vandana Shiva, a former physicist who became the world’s most powerful opponent to agri-corporate Monsanto, and a rock star of the international sustainable food movement.
The feature-length documentary takes us through the story of the daughter of a Himalayan forest conservator who went on to become a modern-day revolutionary, who has been fighting for over 40 years to prevent climate change, deforestation, loss of species, water wars and most importantly, standing at the warfront to defend the farmers who feed our society. The film is important because Shiva articulately and scientifically presents an alternative world, one where ecological agriculture restores biodiversity, organic seed freedom, healthy soil, fresh water and clean air.
The classic Shyam Benegal Hindi film Manthan is famous and beloved for multiple reasons. The film was inspired by the pioneering milk cooperative movement of Verghese Kurien, and was co-written by him and Vijay Tendulkar and is set amidst the backdrop of the White Revolution of India. It was also the first ‘crowdfunded’ film of India, with 5,00,000 farmers donating Rs 2 each to ensure it was made. Benegal’s film traced the journey of Amul, and the baby steps taken to make baby formula, and how the farmers turned India into the largest milk-producing country in the world. The film won the 1977 National Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi, along with millions of hearts!
Peepli Live (2010)
Anusha Rizvi’s powerful film Peepli Live is a much needed wake-up call for society to learn about the realities of our farmers. In a situation where 3.2 lakhs farmers have committed suicide in the last 20 years and every 30 minutes, a farmer takes his own life, this satirical film forces people to understand the roots of the problem without being preachy. It follows the story of Natha, a poor farmer from the village of Peepli, who is on the verge of losing his loan because of an unpaid debt. He considers ending his life so that his family can receive money as part of a government program that aids the families of indebted farmers who have committed suicide. When local politics and the media get wind of this, a series of chaotic events ensue.
‘If you ate today, thank a farmer’ is the message behind the Tamil short film Saayam, directed by R Arivu following the Jallikattu protests of 2017. The film depicts the heartbreaking story of a grandfather and his grandson, who make their livelihood by farming. Through powerful dialogues that bring out out the plight of the farmer, the emotional film highlights the struggles of the Indian farmer and their families. Watch it to respect and feel the pain of these farmers, who work day and night to put food on our plates but die in vain because of these looming debts that they are unable to pay off. The film was shot at Kanjanayagapati, a drought-prone area in Tamil Nadu with 70-year-old Marudhamuthu, a farmer in real life, in the lead role.
Maa Nanna Raithu (2018)
With LB Sriram in the lead role, Maa Nanna Raithu, directed by young Telugu filmmaker Kavirat Bharadwaj, revolves around a father asking his sons to do farming as inheritance. It makes the viewer think twice about the legacy of farming – which is being given up by younger generations to pursue “greener pastures” offered in cities. The film encourages people to go back to their roots, and to appreciate what our farmers do for us, if not practise farming ourselves.
A documentary made by a group of students from Kishinchand Chellaram College, Mumbai, Uprooted brings to focus the lives of the farmers of Yavatmal district in Maharashtra, the epicentre of the Vidarbha farmer suicides. Directed by Talib Chithiwala, the film highlights the issue from the farmer’s viewpoint, and talks about the many factors like debt, draught, irrigation and public policy, among others, that have led to the deplorable state of affairs. The film aims at creating awareness about this multi-pronged issue, so that society can find plausible solutions to alleviate the farmer’s situation.
Samaksham (Before You) by Dr. Aju K Narayanan and Anwar Abdulla, is a Malayalam feature-film produced by the Mahatma Gandhi University (Kerala) that talks about the importance of organic farming. The film centres around the proposed mission of the JAIVAM project initiated by the University, a unique literacy drive to reestablish people’s connection with the soil, agriculture and their ecosystem. By highlighting the ill effects of chemical farming, it urges the viewer to switch to a nature-friendly organic, simple, healthy and happy way of life.
Bangarada Manushya (1972)
Bangarada Manushya, the Kannada classic by Siddalingaiah, revolves around the story of Rajeeva (played by Rajkumar), who visits his sister in the village only to find that her husband’s dead, and the family in need of financial help. With the help of the village head, he retrieves the land owned by his family, and begins cultivating it, resurrecting 25 acres of barren land. One of the longest-running Kannada films in the history of Sandalwood, the film had such a deep impact that hundreds of audience members returned to their villages to start farming. The film is popular for bringing out the farmer’s love for Mother Earth in poignant ways, showing the power of co-operating farming, and establishing the role of technology in farming for the first time on the big screen.
Forest Man (2013)
“You have to cut me first before you cut my trees” – Jadav Payeng
Forest Man by William D. McMaster tells the story of Jadav Payeng, who since the 90s has been planting hundreds of trees on the Majuli Island in Assam to save the island, which is threatened by rapid soil erosion. The film takes the viewer into Payeng’s life, and reveals how he turned a once barren land into an oasis, with more trees than New York’s Central Park. The man is a real inspiration for anyone working or wanting to save the soil, and our land. The film won Best Documentary for the American Pavilion Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014.
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