Bharat Mandol, a peasant, lies on the grass gasping for breath as his guts hang loose from a wide gash in his abdomen. There are people rushing about and a hand reaches out, trying to stuff his innards back. It fails and Mandol’s stomach is finally tied up with a cloth.
Those in the audience who manage to sit through this film without turning away respond in horror to the footage from the events of 7 January, when cadres of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—the leading constituent of the Left Front government in West Bengal—clashed with villagers in Nandigram, where the state government was trying to acquire land for a special economic zone (SEZ).
While forced land acquisition for industrialization in West Bengal has stoked national political ire, it’s also whipped up a creative business for documentary film-makers across the country. Mandol’s images were recorded by Pramod Gupta, and is part of his film Development At Gunpoint.
About seven such films on the strife are criss-crossing the country and being screened in select community halls, foreign high commissions, universities and colleges, and also at the places that are subjects of the films themselves. They capture the blood, gore, the raging debate and the protests that have peppered the year-long crisis rendering landowners landless.
Film-makers Ladly Mukhopadhyay and Ananya Biswas, have two films—Whose Land is It Anyway? on the Singur protests and This Land is Mine—on the Nandigram crisis. They are hoping to recover a part of their Rs4.5 lakh investment in the film with sale of the video and digital compact discs that have been priced at Rs125 and Rs150, respectively.
“We are trying our best to push the sales of the discs and have managed to sell only about 150 of them,” says Mukhopadhyay. But, he says, the “film was made from a position of social commitment, rather than a business proposition”.
Mukhopadhyay and Biswas have shown their films in Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, Gorakhpur and Allahabad. Students from Jadavpur University to Delhi university have seen the films. And the duo are sending the films to several international film festivals, including that at Strasbourg and United Nations Association Film Festival to be held at Stanford University, California.
“It was a shaking experience,’’ says Sandip Singh, general secretary, Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, who has seen about four films on Singur and Nandigram in the past four months. “It is very shocking that Marxist leaders interviewed in the films are talking of compromising their ideology for the sake of development.’’
The issue of farmland acquisition for SEZs started simmering in 2006, when two ambitious zones involving 35,000 acres were earmarked in Maharashtra. But what captured national attention was the protests and police action at Singur, 50km from Kolkata. That’s where Tata Motors Ltd is setting up a plant to make India’s cheapest cars, priced at Rs1 lakh. Nandigram, some 160km from Kolkata, where a chemical hub was proposed, has provoked politicians and farmers alike and is the subject of a high-court directive asking the government to back down.
Somewhere along the way, a graphic portrayal of protestors’ guts spilling out after police action and sexual assaults on women in the guise of mob control has found a place on film. Still, some film-makers have steered clear of the violence and focused on the economic fallout of the displacement of farmers to pave way for industrialization. And not all are in it for the money.
Atul Pethe’s film, SEZ: A Prelude to Anarchy, was commissioned by a Pune-based non-governmental organization, the National Centre for Advocacy Studies.
Pethe tries to explain the concept behind these zones, the binding clauses they come with, and who will be affected and who will stand to gain.
“My film was a factual presentation that was aimed at educating activists and villagers,” he says. The bilingual film, shot in Marathi and Hindi, has been in circulation since September.
Pethe, who prefers to identify himself as an independent film-maker and not an activist, says the film has been privately circulated and is not being sold as that would mean it would have to be certified by the censorship board.
Sampath Kale, a campaign support member of the Pune Centre, says members have distributed about 1,000 copies of the film for free and allowed copies to be made.
Some film-makers in Kolkata have funded their films from their own savings, engaging friends as crew and working with borrowed equipment or hiring them at minimal costs.
Gupta, for instance, says he is not very concerned whether it will make money. His film, on a disc, is being sold for Rs100, with students getting a 50% discount.
“We are only trying to recover the cost of the compact disc,” he says, and plans to channel any profit booked on the sale to private welfare efforts going on at Nandigram. “There can be no copyright on such films. How can we claim ownership portraying the situation at Nandigram?”
His film has been screened publicly at least 10 times in the 15 days since he completed it.
Dayabati Roy, a researcher by profession, felt compelled to make her first film on Singur, Right to Land, and followed it up with another on both Singur and Nandigram, In the Name of Development.
“The protesters were arguing their case so strongly, I felt the need to bring out the debate,” she says. Roy has screened her films in several places and copies are selling for under Rs100. She has already sold 150 copies.
Another film-maker, Sudanshu Sekhar, who also made two films, again on Singur and Nandigram, titled, For the Sake of Development (part-I & II), is also selling his movie for Rs100.
Some of the film-makers are also sharing footage, such as Gupta and Pethe. And the very government that stands accused of the atrocities has had a peek too.
“My film has been screened at Allidmuddin Street (which houses the state headquarters of the CPM),” claims Mukhopadyay.
West Bengal industries minister Nirupam Sen says he has not seen any film on the subject. In Maharashtra, Pethe’s film has been sent to every member of the state’s legislative assembly and Parliament, says Kale.
But there are critics, even among the traditional supporters of the landless.
“The television channels have already poisoned the minds of the people, what more can these people do?” asks Robin Deb, member of the state committee of the ruling CPM. Commenting on the films being screened at film festivals abroad, he says: “If it is in their culture to do negative propaganda of their homeland, let them.”