Intrigued by a social media post in 2017 about a farmer who sold several quintals of onion for minus 300-odd rupees, filmmaker Yashowardhan Mishra decided to investigate.
“It was Kafkaesque. A farmer had sold his produce, and where he should have earned something he instead paid cash to the buyer,” the 27-year-old recounts.
A week since it was released on stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra’s YouTube channel, Mishra’s short film Mandi has now received over 4.2 lakh views. A gentle probing of agriculture produce purchase mechanisms, the film follows a father-son duo to the mandi, the marketplace, to tell the story of lakhs of onion and vegetable farmers who have suffered dramatic price collapses in recent years.
Their produce is to fetch rock-bottom prices, and once transport costs and other market charges are added to the receipt, the farmer actually leaves poorer than he came.
While the year-old film has won praise on the film festival circuit, including a silver award at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, Mishra says the comments section of the YouTube channel has been more heartening.
“As a society, we need to find more empathy. We need to talk about these things, not brush them under the carpet,” he says. “Even a single farmer’s suicide should shake our conscience.” He decided to locate all the action inside a wholesale market for agro-commodities after visiting markets and noting the absence of any respect for the labour of the agriculturist. Despite knowing he will have a wider audience for a Hindi film, he chose to make it in Marathi, the language of his original research on the subject, and the more authentic language for the subject.
In its 10-minute run-time, the film shows layers of nuance, the little boy’s hopefulness when he climbs aboard the onion truck, his dreams of joy in the big city, discarded farm produce rotting on the floor of the mandi, the trader’s quick-fix offer of help through a moneylender, the child’s sudden and sad coming of age.
When he watched it, Kamra was struck by the realistic portrayal of an aspect of the current agrarian distress. “The performances are great and it’s so authentic, in a language that’s not a pan-India language but the story still resonates,” Kamra says. “We wanted to see how the audience reacts to it emotionally.”
Mishra found Kamra’s channel an ideal fit, as a curated collection of unabashedly political messages. Having made Mandi on a shoestring budget from a small grant and a film on the Malvani hooch tragedy before that, Mishra is now working on a television series, a political satire.
Films have to reflect their wider social milieu, he says, and adds, “If there were a hundred more Mandis, there would be so much more conversation about these issues. It’s unfortunate that we have become a nation of Tik Tok videos.”