When journalist P. Sainath talks in public—be it in Parliament, addressing political leaders, or to a motley group of Mumbaikars at an auditorium, as shown in Deepa Bhatia’s documentary Nero’s Guests—it is impossible to let the words breeze by. You have to listen, react—even feel guilty. He is an impassioned speaker about India’s agrarian crisis and its unsavoury manifestations. He gesticulates a lot, his voice changes timbre as he describes families who have lost sons and fathers to suicides. He knows how to be heard. One of his friends once told Sainath, and he says this at a public forum filmed by Mehta, “Give us some good news sometimes!”
For the past two decades, Sainath, the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, has chronicled the plight of India’s farmers, the seats of drought, hunger and suicides. Bhatia’s documentary, on the growing economic inequality in our society as seen through the works of Sainath, gives us all the ugly truths. There is no respite from Sainath’s moral voice. But the refreshing as well as inspiring part about his work—and also his rhetoric—is that unlike many commentators and journalists of his stature, Sainath does not speak against a particular political system or party. He is not an ideologue. His pleas for the urgent need to address poverty and hunger at the policy and civil society levels are backed by years of rigorous research and field work.
Survivors: A family in Vidarbha.
Mehta records Sainath in the crumbling bamboo huts of farmers who have committed suicide in Vidarbha, on a train where he travels with rural women who are forced to work 12 hours a day as manual labourers, at his home where he preserves reams of papers about—and hundreds of photographs of—people he has met.
There are parts in the film that seem to be there simply to make those who don’t acknowledge the issues Sainath is talking about look small and inhuman. These parts are sweeping, preachy and affected.
But Nero’s Guests is a must-watch. Sainath’s subjects must be heard and seen.
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