It is impossible to forget the iconic sequence in Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen (1953) in which the rickshaw-puller Shambhu (Balraj Sahni) is forced by his heartless client to race his hand-pulled vehicle against a horse carriage. That race is emblematic of the degradations heaped by the ugly, brutal city on a hard-working peasant, reducing him to the level of an animal. Fast forward nearly 60 years to Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri) in the latest Bollywood release, Peepli [Live], and here is another degraded farmer, losing his humanity and being reduced to a mere object of curiosity under the steady, omnipresent gaze of the TV cameras and crews that descend on his village from the city for the live coverage of his proposed suicide.
In the nearly six decades since the Roy classic was made, India has become a very different place, moving from socialism to the unabashed capitalism of the post-liberalisation era. And yet it’s remarkable how little has changed for the onscreen Indian farmer.
Balraj Sahni’s Shambhu in Do Bigha Zameen
Shambhu needs to repay the zamindar’s debt to reclaim his two bighas. Unable to break the cycle of penury in the village, he moves to Calcutta to become a rickshaw-puller. But the disillusionments get worse and he decides to return home—only to find a factory on his treasured plot. This was the classic tale of the rural-urban divide that has been told many times over in cinema post-Independence. It pitted rural innocence against the westernised modernity of emerging cities, spoke of migrant peasantry and dramatised the conflicts between the agrarian and the industrial economy.
Stills from the Mother India
Mother India (1957) mythologised the survival of the peasant woman, Radha (memorably played by Nargis), in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Confronting starvation, storms, floods and Sukhilala, a lecherous moneylender, she literally carries the plough on her fragile shoulders through the film. Manoj Kumar’s Upkar (1967) highlighted the urban-rural schism yet again, expressing the concern that adversity would force peasants to desert their lands to move to the cities, and that the nation would be the poorer for that.
And then the farmer suddenly disappeared from Hindi cinema as rural settings became mere backdrops for dacoit dramas like Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) and Sholay (1975). He did resurface briefly in Lagaan (2001) to champion the cause of the underdog with a feelgood game of cricket rather than to plough fields. Recently Kissan (2009) looked at how farmers are forced to sell their lands to rich businessmen, Summer 2007 (2008) focused on a group of urbane, reckless medical students squaring up to the issue of farmers’ suicides in the Vidarbha region and Marathi film Gabhricha Paus, The Damned Rain (2009) spoke of the tragic inevitability of farmers’ suicides with a bittersweet touch.
Stills from the Marathi Gabhricha Paus
Peepli takes all of that further, and also takes us back to square one; it marks the thumping return of the classic peasant of ’50s and ’60s cinema, albeit in a contemporary mode. The devious zamindar from Radha and Shambhu’s world has metamorphosed into the exploitative bank in Natha’s life. An unpaid loan means that his only possession might soon be put up for auction by the bank. The only way he can save it and his family is by committing suicide, which will fetch him government compensation of Rs 1 lakh. Then the media storms his world, bringing the sharp flavour of the loud, chaotic, frantic and anarchic 2000s into this classic rural setting; an in-your-face, intrusive media that decides to capture every move of the deadpan Natha, including his morning ablutions.
Director Anusha Rizvi’s rough-and-real style, with liberal doses of sharp black humour, is quite different in tone from the gentle humanism of the Bimal Roy-Mehboob Khan brand of story-telling. Villagers put up a fair to cash in on Natha’s suicide, and city-slickers surround him, not just the aggressive, sensationalist media, but also opportunistic local leaders and ministers who want to use him as an election card. (They are the real fools and the idiots of the piece.) Some of the situations Rizvi creates are delightfully absurd and farcical. A Dalit leader gifts Natha a huge television set, while a babu hands out a ‘Lal Bahadur’ (a hand pump in bureaucratic parlance). The electricity and water, however, are missing and so he has use for neither. It’s an India that has several welfare schemes for the poor farmer, from the Indira Awaas Yojana to the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana, but none of them are of any practical help. Despite being way below the poverty line, it’s a chore for Natha to even get a bpl card. These moments make you laugh out loud, and yet also break your heart at the situation of the millions of Nathas spread across many Peeplis.
But, the modern, edgy filmmaking notwithstanding, the basic concern of this film is no different from that of a Do Bigha Zameen or an Upkar: the marginalisation of the agrarian economy at the cost of industrialisation. Just like Shambhu, Natha has the piece of land he owns uppermost on his mind. The first line he utters in Peepli is: “What if we lose our land?” And while farmers in Peepli might speak of using American seeds and techniques, their helplessness in the face of drought is no different from that of a farmer in a ’50s film, even if the language used is more pungent and frank. “Na bhoosa na paani, g***d mein gayi kisani,” says a character in Peepli earthily. Roughly: farming, up yours.
What really underscores the commonalities, though, is the way the film ends. Even as the Peepli story dies out for the media, Natha himself has little choice but to die in Peepli and be reborn in the grime of Delhi as a labourer. He has to fast-forward through the growing rural- urban divide to become the ultimate faceless dispossessed of our cities. He has to become, in fact, the born-again Shambhu of Do Bigha Zameen.
It’s something to think about: why, despite changing times, situations, concerns and contexts, does the strife and the struggle of our onscreen farmer remain so much the same?