Anwar Jamal has made films with socio-political themes that make one think. His first and only feature film, Swaraaj – the Little Republic, based on a real-life incident in Tamil Nadu in which a lower caste woman was killed for ‘daring’ to take water to her locality from a higher caste area, earned much acclaim across 45 international festivals apart from winning the National Award for the Best Film on Social Issues. He has produced or directed a number of award-winning films from issues ranging from the Narmada dam controversy to a ragpicker’s dream to set up a cinema hall in his village. Even as he is preparing for his next feature film The Survivors, Jamal has just made Harvest of Grief, a searing documentary on farmers’ suicides in Punjab, something that the state government refused to acknowledge. After its premiere in Delhi sometime back, it was recently screened to much appreciation at London’s Nehru Centre. Jamal talks with Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari on what led him to make this film:
Where does the genesis of this film lie?
The 67-minute film explains that. Even as suicides are taking place, the Punjab government refuses to admit that they are happening. My film focused on farmers’s suicides in the dry district of Sangrur. They are committing suicide because of indebtedness arising out of high costs of water, mechanized farming, indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, rapid soil depletion, rising seed prices and the vice-like grip of loan sharks. Suicides by famers are fast becoming the norm, leaving in its trail widows and orphans grappling with an uncertain future.
How did you decide how you will tackle the subject?
Apart from obviously focusing on the core issue, I also have taken a comprehensive view of issues like gender, health and environmental destruction which are the consequences of the Green Revolution in Punjab and the impact of globalization on small-time farmers. The government does not want to accept the fact that the state’s farmers are killing themselves due to mounting debts and the rising cost of cultivation. The film tries to bring this tragedy out before the people. I must add that former UN official Rasil Basu, who has produced the film, has provided all the support that was required to realise such a project.
But Punjab has always been projected as a land of success.
Yes, Punjab has been blessed with agricultural abundance and is a land of plenty. But now it has turned into a land of plenty of grief. The state government does not want you to know that Punjab’s farmers are killing themselves, driven to despair by mounting indebtedness and the rising cost of cultivation. My film brings out the stark dichotomy of a once propsperous state whose farm output is still second to none, but where small and landless farmers are being pushed to the brink of grinding poverty. The Green Revolution has pushed Punjab agriculture into the red. The countryside is bleeding and its proud farmers are wilting.
What was the reason for using a lot of poetry in the film?
Yes, I have used poetry by Baba Farid, Kwaja Ghulam Farid, Shah Hussain, Amrita Pritam and Sultan Bahu, which have been sung by Pathane Khan, Rekha Raj and Gyandeep. The poetry used makes the film really poignant, as while they were originally written as a paean to loved ones, now it ironically reflects the pain of the farmers and their families.
How did you carry out your research for the film?
I and my co-scriptwriter Saibal Chatterjee carried out a two-year-long research, which included visiting Sangrur district several times to speak to people. We spoke to widows and other members of seven bereaved families in which at least one member had committed suicide. We also have presented some farmers who attempted suicide by consuming pesticides but somehow survived, and what they say brings out how desperate they have become. We have also spoken to agricultural scientists, government officials and grassroots activists to present the scientific evidence about the ill-effects of over usage of fertilizer and other relevant issues.
How do you plan to take the story forward?
I am already planning to make another documentary on the issue of land ownership in the country, which is the root cause of many problems. I hope Harvest of Grief convinces the government to take up the issue of farmers’ suicides as a serious problem. There have been up to three studies on these suicides, but the government is yet to accept that this is happening. Inderjit Singh Jaijee, Chandigarh-based human-rights activist and former MLA, has told us on record that around 40,000 farmers committed suicide in the state since 1988, but official statistics claim that only 132 farmers’ suicides have taken place in the past five years, and most of the suspected suicides are attributed to natural causes or alcohol and drug abuse.