Documentaries on the Indian farmers’ suicides

Capturing the despair of agrarian lords


April 13, 2020

/ By / New Delhi

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Documentaries on the Indian farmers

Number of farmer suicides have been rising dramatically in India

Indian farmers have been the subject of many films, with most big label productions romanticising their lives. However; a few documentaries have actually shown their lives; burdened by unpaid debts and damaged crops; leading to thousands of suicides each year. We bring you some of the most notable films on the issue.

There is pin drop silence in eastern Maharashtra’s Vidharbha region. A wave of despair and helplessness has taken over the villagers. As the duo of two filmmakers approach them and they realise that the entire region is dotted with a dramatic number of farmer suicides. A similar story of unpaid debts and crushing poverty seems to have played out in not one, but every family in the village. With no signs of hope, many farmers here committed suicide. As the documentary proceeds, it can be clearly seen that the farmers were pushed to end their lives due to callous attitude of the government and extreme exploitation of the farmers by various multinational giants. The story was duly captured in Cotton for my shroud, a documentary made by Nandan Saxena and Kavita Bahl, which also won a National Film Award for Best Investigative Film.

The film raised the issue of the plight of small and medium farmers of India in face of an onslaught of monopolistic practices of companies supplying genetically modified seeds or insecticides and pesticides. However, even eight years later, little seems to have changed on the ground for the poor farmers. The number of suicides by indebted farmers has continued to rise over the years. As per the official data, more than 14000  cases of farmer suicide were reported from Maharashtra alone, in 2016. Though the official records haven’t been updated since then, the situation doesn’t seem any better.

“With the introduction of hybrid seeds, the ownership of the seeds went the from farmer’s hands to the global corporate giants. Even the chemicals such as insecticides and fertilisers are under their control. And when the farmers, who are already the victims of skyrocketing prices of agrarian commodities seek support from the government by raising the price of agriculture products in the market, they get nothing but disappointment in return,” shares Nandan Saxena, the national awardee filmmaker who has been making documentaries on farmer’s plight for quite some time now.

To educate the audience about the situation and sensitise them towards the agony of farmers in India, some filmmakers, including Saxena, took it upon themselves to document the reality. However, unfortunately, to be a documentary filmmaker in India is not a bed of roses. From funding to getting a platform for screening the documentary, some or the other challenge awaits their journey.

“There is no market in the country for documentaries and there are no avenues for screening them. One of my documentaries that got national as well as international awards, Cotton for my shroud, didn’t get any platform for screening. Not even Doordarshan was ready to screen it,” says Saxena.

The prolonged silence of mainstream cinema on the issue over a long time now, is also distressing. “Film makers today from mainstream cinema have found out that the formula to make money nowadays is not to address the problems or issues, but to sell the audience lollipops, so that they can forget their stress temporarily while watching the film. Most of them have turned merely into money making machines,” further adds Saxena.

Some of the soul stirring documentaries on the subject are listed below.

Nero’s guests (2009)

Neros’ Guests is one of the first Indian documentaries on the subject

Nero’s guests is one of the first Indian documentaries which raised the subject of farmer suicides in India. A powerful report by senior journalist on rural affairs, P Sainath, the documentary focuses on the Vidharbha region of Maharashtra, which is one of the worst affected areas, when it comes to farmer suicides. The documentary takes a dig on the unfavourable government policies and also raises issues such as the diversion of water for factories of leading brands and a forced mass migration of rural population into the cities. The 55 minute long English documentary questions the prevailing social justice scenario in India.


Candles In The Wind (2013) 

The documentary focuses on the lives of farmer widows

Candles In The Wind is a powerful documentary that probes into the policy-induced non remunerative agriculture and the dramatic rise in farmer suicides. The documentary takes the viewers to the families of farmers who committed suicide in Punjab. The farm widows who retaliated the politics of domination are particularly in focus. “I was completely shocked to find that each and every house in districts like Bhatinda and Mansa had a case of farmer suicide and not just one; there were houses where two to three farmers had committed suicide because of the debt trap,” says Nandan Saxena, one of the directors of the film. The 52 minutes long documentary received a special mention in the National Film Awards (2013) and was also screened in the Thessaloniki Film Festival that happened in Greece the following year.

1000 feet under (2016)

It is based on the drought-prone villages of Maharashtra’s Marathwada region

A powerful documentary, 1000 feet under takes the viewers to the agricultural setups of Nagpur, Yavatmal, Nanded, Beed and Aurangabad regions of Maharashtra’s drought prone Marathwada division. Varun Bansal, the director, has presented the situation with some hard-hitting statistics coupled with the interviews of those affected. The documentary has some insightful interviews with the family of suicide victims, natives, local NGOs and news reporters. Issues escalating the agrarian crisis such as water crisis have also been shown. The English documentary is 45 minutes long.



Saayam (2017)

It has a 70-year-old farmer in the lead role

Saayam is a short Tamil film that takes us to Tamil Nadu after the Jallikattu protests of 2017. An R Arivu directorial, the documentary is set in the drought prone area of Kanjanayagapati. It focuses on the issue of debt trap and has a 70-year-old farmer Marudhamutu in the lead role. Through the narratives of Marudhamutu and his grandson, who solely depend on farming for earning their bread, a documentary gives a better understanding of the challenges which often remain unvoiced. The film has some very powerful dialogues and was well received by the critics. The 13-minute-long documentary concludes with the message- If you ate today, thank a farmer.

Mitti: Back to the roots (2018)

It focuses on the major farmer suicide belts of India

Mitti: Back to the roots is a Hindi docudrama by film maker Anshul Sinha that focuses on the agrarian crisis in the farmer suicide belts of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Punjab. The 115 minutes long film has been made under the guidance of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture’s executive director, G V Ramanjaneyulu and focuses on several issues including pesticide poisoning and land grabbing, with main focus on farmer suicides. It is a crowdfunded project with financial aids from Australia, Korea, US and India. The film had nine screening in the US and as many as 25 roadshows in India. “Among the many observations we have made through the film are the unviability of organic seeds and how BT seeds have a severely low output and financial loss. Cotton farmers are among the worst affected,” says Sinha.

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