The dilemma confronting Natha, the main protagonist of Peepli (Live), which released last Friday in theatres across India, has thrust the farmer and his plight back into the nation’s consciousness—and could signal the revival of interest in cinema based on rural India themes.
We look back at some Bollywood films that focused on rural India, particularly the exploitation of the farmer:
The post-independence period saw many acclaimed films chronicling the lives of farmers, Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and Mother India (1957) being landmarks. Influenced by Nehruvian socialism, both these films depicted farmers trapped in debt, hounded by corrupt, exacting landlords and moneylenders. Driven by fantastic performances, they went on to garner multiple prizes around the world (Mother India was nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar that year but lost by a single vote to Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria). Images from these films have stayed fresh through the years: Do Bigha Zamin’s Balraj Sahni pulling a rickshaw, pushing his body to the limit, prodded by the hope of saving his land; or Nargis’ wail in Mother India as she shoots her son.
Manoj Kumar’s Upkar (1967), set against the backdrop of the 1965 Indo-Pak war and featuring the famous Mere desh ki dharti song, marked the beginning of the director’s Mr Bharat persona. Brimming with nationalism, drama and steadfast righteousness, it went on to top the box office that year, gathering many awards along the way.
Ghulami (1985) challenged our notions of morality. J.P. Dutta directed the film long before he tasted mainstream success with Border (1997). It’s the story of a rebellious son, driven to banditry in a bid to take revenge, unable to reconcile with the exploitation suffered at the hands of upper-class landlords.
Shyam Benegal’s films, starting from his Manthan (1976) to Nishant (1975) and Samar (1999), wove narratives that critiqued the dominant social order while ensuring mass participation and audience sensitization.
The charm of the hinterland began to fade in the 1970s. “There was a time when rural and urban India was looked at as the same. So our films in the 1950s and 1960s revolved around subjects that had to do with both the rural and the urban people,” says Benegal. “Since then, though, and especially after the mid-1990s, with our country’s rapid economic growth, the urban people became more aspirational and so did the films that interested them. The countryside fell of the cinematic map.”
Lagaan (2001) came as welcome relief. Embedding cricket, a national obsession, within a narrative of the exploitation of the weak and the power of human will to counter it, the film went on to become a huge success and won critical acclaim.
Since then, however, films focusing on the farmer’s lot have been few and far between, with half-hearted attempts such as Puneet Sira’s Kisaan (2009). Marathi cinema, though, has seen a revival of interest with films such as Gabhricha Paus (The Damned Rain, 2009), Tingya (2008) and Hapus (2010).
Will Peepli (Live) lead to a similar revival in Bollywood?