New Delhi: Ashutosh Gowariker’s much-feted, Oscar-nominated 2001 release Lagaan has one more distinction to its name. It was the last big mainstream Hindi film featuring on-screen farmers. The fact that it was set in 1893 and was primarily about cricket did dilute that positioning a bit though.
Since 1995, India has seen over 3 lakh farmer suicides, according to the National Crime Records Bureau’s reports on Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India (ADSI). Struggling with the acute agrarian crisis, Maharashtra, the state in which the Hindi film industry is situated, has seen the highest number of such suicides. Yet the industry has not made even 10 films in which the farmer is either a protagonist or an important supporting character since 2001.
“Farmers in Hindi films vanished a long time ago, probably after Do Bigha Zamin. My films were the only rural films for a long time,” said veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal, who made the rural classics Ankur and Manthan in the 1970s.
“There are few cinemas in rural India and urban people, by and large, don’t seem to show any interest in rural India, particularly in the entertainment media. There are very few rural subjects, unless it’s for an exotic effect. The subject matter is hardly ever rural as it used to be in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s,” added Benegal.
India boasts of over 8,000 screens with a screen density of 6 per million people, compared to 23 per million in China and 126 per million in the US, according to a KPMG-FICCI Indian Media and Entertainment Industry 2016 report.
The majority of the 8,000 screens are in urban centres with multiplexes adding up to about 2,000 screens.
Post Independence, with the nascent notion of nation-building, there was a strong emphasis on village India and farming. This was codified in Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri slogan, “Jai jawan, jai kisaan” (Hail soldier, hail farmer). But over time, as the economy grew less dependent on agriculture, the farmers lost their relevance too.
“If you look at it, you won’t find too many soldier films as well,” said filmmaker Navdeep Singh, director of last year’s much-acclaimed NH10. The statement rings true in the current hyper-nationalistic public discourse.
But what changed from the mid-century for the country to arrive at this stage?
Filmmaker Atul Sabharwal’s Aurangzeb was indicative of the exploitation of the rural community at the hands of real estate barons. Sabharwal makes a fundamental point about the profession itself. “Farmers themselves are not interested in continuing farming as a vocation. The reason could lie in many government policies. Cinema is just a reflection of that. No more farmer films is like no dacoit films. Neither are the villains or heroes in Hindi films portrayed as industrial tycoons anymore,” he said.
Classics from the ’50s like Mother India featured strong zamindar (landlord) characters, mostly serving as antagonists. With changes in government policies, the zamindar sahib went into oblivion as a more formal financing sector replaced them. And with the disappearance of the antagonist, the protagonist also lost its place.
Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan believes the representation was phased out because the village is not the centre of the imagination anymore. “Even the opposition between town and country has disappeared. At one level, the agricultural scene is a failed setup for all its majority. It’s this area of drought, so it’s a place of the ‘defeatist’,” he said.
A closer look at the current crop of international cinema shows there aren’t too many rural stories there either. “In the Hollywood of the ’40s, there were still rural or semi-rural stories. But today, even Hollywood and Europe have forgotten a whole section of people,” added Singh. In the glut of superhero and action movies, there seems little interest in making films like The Great Depression-based The Grapes Of Wrath.
Benegal, however, makes a distinction between Hindi cinema and other regional cinema. “Rural cinema has not yet vanished from regional cinema, especially in languages such as Tamil, Kannada and Telugu,” he said. Marathi cinema, too, over the last decade, has seen a resurgence of films set in villages about the rural community with films like Deool, Gabhricha Paus and Jhing Chik Jhing finding some success.
The Hindi film industry has also produced films like Swades, Pardes and Gori Tere Pyaar Mein, but the villages in these films either lack nuance or they serve as a redemption point for ‘lost’ urban characters. In that context, Ketan Mehta’s Manjhi: The Mountain Man was a rare film in that it is able to humanize the villager by focusing on an aspect of his life that goes unnoticed—romance.
Yesteryear star Dilip Kumar acted in films like Ganga Jamuna and Naya Daur. An Aamir Khan, for his part, has done Lagaan and produced Peepli Live. But does the next generation of superstars have it in them to pull off a villager or are they too metrosexual for that?
Waning audience interest in anything other than rom-coms or action films has been a huge setback to diversity in Hindi films. “The audiences who go to see films usually want to see the social nature of things that are slightly higher than their own. Cinema becomes an area of wish-fulfilment,” said Benegal. And that assumption is enough to drive away any interest from producers towards such subjects.
Popular culture remains a signifier of subjects that are still part of larger social goals and the elimination of the rural community from it deepens the divide in the nation. “If you look at court battles for bullfights (Jallikattu), it was a fight to sustain the agricultural set-up and imagination. You know it’s declining which is why every symbol becomes important. A lot of local politics would sustain the agricultural domain. But as part of the national and global scene, agriculture just doesn’t exist as part of the imagination. To a certain extent, even village life has become aspirational. So, it’s a failure of the village imagination and disappearance of the villager as an iconic character,” said Visvanathan.
Recently, writer Javed Akhtar said that he is working on “a script about farmers’ problems” and has taken the “premise from an urban point of view and how a modern person gradually understands” the issue.
Meanwhile, farmers in different parts of the country will continue to struggle and lament the lack of a newer generation of classics like Do Bigha Zamin for their representation in popular culture.