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When the farmer became invisible in Bollywood

There was a time when farmers and their struggles had a pride of place in Hindi cinema. But just when did the plowman's tale lose that space on screen?

We never know what the man, wearing a worn coat, dhoti and a petrified expression, has left behind.

Kaun hai wahaan?
Naya hoon, gaon se aaya hoon. Pyaas lagi hai.
Gaon ke kuaan, taalaab sookh gayein hain kya, jo yahan chala aaya? Chal bhaag yahaan se.

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(Who’s there?
I’m new, just arrived from the village. I’m thirsty.
Have the wells and ponds in the village dried up? Go on, run along.)

The classic Jagte Raho (1956) opens with these lines. At the receiving end of the harsh inquisition is a poor villager newly arrived in the city, seeking a better life. We never know what the man, wearing a worn coat, dhoti and a petrified expression, has left behind. What we can surmise is this: if his village was adequate to his needs, would the peasant have come to the city, filled with heartless gatekeepers?

If I were to be fanciful, I could be tempted to draw comparisons between that lone peasant of the ’50s, whose story we are still powerfully drawn to, and the present-day protesting farmer at the Singhu-Tikri-Ghazipur borders: both being kept at bay, both voices blowing in the wind. Some of these new-age farmers have moved far ahead from that long-ago comically-attired figure who spent an endless night in the Sombhu Mitra and Amit Maitra-directed film, searching for water to quench his thirst. In 2021, smartly-tailored jeans and jackets, not a badly-fitted coat and dhoti, and pizza along with roti, is on display in a few quarters of the protest sites. And what some of this vocal, demanding-their-rights lot has done is to bring back the “farmer” to the fore, a figure Bollywood sadly forgot, erasing it from popular imagination.

If you were to draw an agrarian map of post-independence Hindi cinema, a memorable clutch of ’50s films would go straight to the top. Apart from Jagte Raho, starring Raj Kapoor in the lead with a wonderful Chaplinesque air — exaggerated eyebrows, shabby clothes-growing-progressively-more worn, fear building with each inimical interlude — there was Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957).

The conflict between the sheher and the gaon played out in these films through the easily relatable figures of the poor villager, the evil zamindar and the wily moneylender who acted as an ungodly bridge between the two: the illiterate farmer could easily be fooled into giving up his small parcel of land through the machinations of the sahukaar, which would benefit the man whose greed always outstripped his needs.

These films were doused with poverty and deprivation and precious little cheer. Balraj Sahni’s Shambhu is forced to undergo unspeakable horrors in the city to earn the paltry sum that would wrest back his do bigha zameen. Nargis was only 26 years old when she played the iconic Radha in Mother India, wife to a despairing farmer and mother to two grown sons. But we looked past her prosthetic wrinkles to admire her grit and determination to hold on to her land. Suffering, famine, drought, hunger was the hapless villager’s fate, and Hindi cinema, through countless iterations, cemented the connection of the poor farmer, the moneylender, and the zamindar, and this troika became, in and of itself, a trope.

Jaagte Raho

Most candyfloss musicals, the dominant genre of the ’60s, had no place for sad survival tales. In the real world, a strong push in the late ’50s and ’60s towards a “green revolution” had created higher, more productive yields, and, at least in some parts of north India, farmers had begun prospering. This should have ideally lent itself to a shift in the portrayal of rural areas. But by this time the gap between the gaon and the sheher had become vast and cities had become magnets for migrants from all over the country.

Colourful plots sent shehri babus to the picturesque gaon in order to romance ghagra-clad belles, managing to leach out all socio-political nuance in the process. It was Manoj Kumar who turned into a saviour, following through on Lal Bahadur Shastri’s famous “jai jawaan, jai kisaan” slogan, when he directed and acted in Upkar (1967), in which he plays a farmer and a soldier. In short, a complete patriot: farmers had a duty to feed the nation, and soldiers to protect it. “Mere desh ki dharti sona ugle, ugle heere moti,” sang Bharat Manoj Kumar, hoisting a hal on his shoulder, just like Mother Radha India had done. And the film broke box office records.

Mainstream Hindi cinema in the ’70s was marked by the coming of the all-purpose Amitabh Bachchan, who could do everything, action, romance, comedy. If it hadn’t been for Shyam Benegal and Ketan Mehta, the village would have disappeared. Benegal’s Ankur (1974)-Nishant (1975)-Manthan (1976), and Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1987)-Bhavni Bhavai (1980) gave us grim stories of rural oppression filmed on real locations, which got brief theatrical stints, in total contrast to the houseful Bachchan-fuelled song-and-dance filled dramas, which did not stop running.

And, with that receded the khet-khaliyaan ki kahaani, coming up only occasionally, when the leading pair had to prance in mustard fields. The farmer was gone, as was the soldier, neither an aspirational figure for post-liberalised India, moving rapidly towards malls and multiplexes, MBAs and million-dollar salaries. Rural areas, seen as backward, where progress went to die, were of no interest to the Indian who wished to acquire the Non-Resident tag as speedily as her foreign degree.

It took Ashutosh Gowariker to bring back the gaon with a bang with his 2001 period saga Lagaan. Keeping in tune with changing times, though, the director was smart enough to create characters that were no pushovers. Led by Aamir Khan’s canny Bhuvan, the feisty farmers showed the British their place, good and proper, and escaped paying the punitive lagaan (taxes).

Film star Raghuvir Yadav (right) in film PEEPLI LIVE.

But Lagaan’s massive success did not translate into an en masse return to rural tales. Gowariker himself followed up with his contemporary Swades (2004), but this time his focus was firmly on NASA engineer Mohan Bhargava (Shah Rukh Khan) who travels to a village, ensconced in a swish caravan stocked with mineral water, in search of a loved figure. The villagers stay in the background: the story is not about them, it is about the earnest, well-meaning Mohan, and his learnings.

In 2010, Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli [Live] took a huge leap and caught up with the farmers of India, where the numbers of suicide were growing at an alarming rate. (It wasn’t the first; just a year before, the Marathi language Gabhricha Paus had waded into similar territory). Failed crops, running out of cash, rising loans, all the things that Bollywood had ignored for so many years, came leaping out in the village of Peepli. As the brothers Natha and Budhia, played brilliantly by Omkar Das Manikpuri and Raghubir Yadav, talk about how suicide is the only way out of grinding poverty, tossing the who-will-do-the-deed coin among themselves, we are in black comic territory, where being dead can provide life.

There’s no doubt that Bollywood has failed the farmers, like it has so many other deserving constituencies. One of the reasons could be that almost none of the filmmakers have any stake left back where they came from. Or, even if they do, they are fragile and can be snapped without any personal cost. In that sense, we have all abandoned our roots: we are all aliens in our own land the moment we cross the borders from our pampered cities to our left-to-fend-for-themselves villages.

Dev Singh Dhillon, in Anurag Kashyap’s 2009 Dev.D, returns after studying in London to his village of prosperous sugarcane mills. We see the ganne ke khet, tubewells, godowns, the markers of rural spaces. The fields become the site of young romance and rebellion, and that’s where the story of the modern-day Dev, Paro and Chanda starts. It’s the kind of place where the urban and rural collide, becoming “rurban”, a real place with real people, instead of the faux small towns that flashy Bollywood has been invested in for the past two decades.

Why has this space — so distinctive, so full of weight — been so hard to imagine and explore? Why has it not been mined by sharp, aware filmmakers to showcase tales of those who grow the food we eat, who’ve acquired the mobility and the education to go where they will, and demand that they be heard? Farmers wearing jeans, and eating pizza? Why not? Aren’t the movies meant to be full of sugar and spice that make everything nice?

 

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