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Talking against the revolution

IN POPULAR IMAGINATION, Punjab is the land of agrarian abundance, picked for its fertile promise by the harbingers of the Green Revolution. And to date, it provides for the bulk of India’s food needs. But within a decade of the revolution, seeds of agrarian crisis had begun to sprout in the land of promise. Anwar Jamal brings forth the yield from the darker side of Punjab’s paradox in his Harvest Of Grief.

Like the film explains, the Indian farmer has always been struggling with debt. What differentiates this climate of death is the cumulative nature of this debt, coupled with receding opportunities for him to pay up. At the heart of shrinking opportunities are the policies of the Revolution that are challenging the existence of small farmers, in the absence of laws to protect them against utter desolation. But the State is committed to these policies in a way that makes it impossible for critical feedback to be integrated into their rigid implementation.

And there cannot be feedback more critical than 40 to 80 suicides per village in certain areas. Jamal’s camera takes us into the living spaces of the dead, baring the catastrophic consequences for the families of the deceased through artful frames, that portray their testimony as well as their silence. His eye is intrusive but never vulgar, like the tool of an artist chipping only to carve meaning. He distills the grief of his subjects, letting us in on their helpless plight, humanising what is otherwise mere numbers on a broadsheet.

The choice of the accompanying folk music etches the plea of the forsaken as only their own songs can. The film focusses on the emotional core of the outcome, contextualising it with the essential theory of the problem, but steering clear of the pitfalls of didactics. The central force of Jamal’s visual document is directed towards the state machinery, that is rigging figures to deny the suicides and their cause, depriving Punjab of the little relief the Centre provides.

In a moment of entrenched irony, as relatives of one of the hundreds of farmers who have leaped into an irrigation canal, wait to recover his body, this central force is overwhelming. The State might remain fortressed, but there is hope in one filmmaker’s impassioned attempt to move us enough to want to make a difference to our own people.

Originally published in Tehelka.

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