Frames per Second: The long walk home-2

Topics Coronavirus | farm sector | Lockdown

In the very first scene of Zameen chali gayi to kya hoga? (What will happen if we lose our land?)”

The possibility of this calamity descending on the two brothers is alarmingly real — they have been served an ultimatum by a bank to repay a loan or give up their ancestral, agricultural land. When the local MLA and strongman Bhai Thakur (Sitaram Panchal) and his cronies tell the Manikpuri brothers — in cruel jest — that the government gives ~1 lakh to farmers who commit suicide, Natha decides to kill himself.

The anxiety of the farmer losing their land has remained unchanged in the country since Independence (1947). Bimal Roy-directed Do Bigha Zameen (1953) also begins with farmer Shambhu Mahato (Balraj Sahni) facing the threat of losing his land to the local zamindar, Thakur Harnam Singh (Murad). Shambhu owes the zamindar money, the exact amount of which is a matter of disagreement — it is suggested that the latter has manipulated the amount to cheat the illiterate farmer. The court gives Shambhu three months to pay back the loan — or give up his land.

With no source of getting the amount, Shambhu decides to go to Calcutta (now Kolkata) on the advice of another villager.

Watch video.

The arrival in Calcutta is full of anxiety and disorienting for Shambhu and his son Kanhaiya (Rattan Kumar). The traffic is too fast, the people are too apathetic, and their meagre belongings are stolen as they sleep on the streets at night.

This experience is echoed in several films afterwards: The City of Joy (1992), where Hasari Pal (Om Puri) and Kamala (Shabana Azmi) come to the city in search of a better like.

Like Shambhu, Hasari also becomes a rickshaw-puller.

In my last column, I had written about the plight of migrant workers stuck in cities after Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a lockdown — the most stringent in the world — on March 24 to check the spread of the novel coronavirus. Writing for the Mint, Uday Bhatia also took stock of the anxieties of migrant workers in Hindi cinema. As the narrative of all these films reassert, the life of a migrant — some would prefer the term “displaced” — worker is vulnerable even in the ordinary times.

As Shambhu and Kanhaiya settle into the city life, the father carries passengers in his handpulled rickshaws — Deewar a few decades later. As the deadline to pay back the loan nears, Shambhu in a heart-breaking scene, agrees to a race with another rickshaw in a bid to earn a few extra rupees, resulting in an accident. Watch video.

With the number of Covid-19 cases — nearly 14,000 on Saturday — rising steadily in the country, Modi extended the lockdown till May 3. In his address to the nation, the PM apologised to the poor of the country who have been left in the lurch, but ground action has provided little succour to them. In the hours after the PM’s announcement, the police lathi-charged on workers who had assembled at the Bandra station in Mumbai demanding to be sent back home. In other places, too, the highhandedness of the state machinery has been criticised.

Social activists Nikhil Dey and Aruna Roy, in a column for the Indian Express, took the PM to account for demanding discipline from the citizens while not providing “measure to alleviate the distress of those who have lost their dignity and livelihood”. “The rapid spread of hunger, starvation, pauperisation, and destitution, need urgent and decisive counter measures from the government,” write Dey and Roy, adding: “But the government… has failed to show any real commitment to workers and vulnerable groups even while viable options are available to it.” In another column for the same paper, academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta demanded justice for migrant workers as opposed to compassion. Watch video.

The lack of even compassion in official circles — then as now — is depicted in Peepli Live, directed by former journalist Anusha Rizvi, in a conversation between two bureaucrats in the power corridors of Delhi. As debt-ridden farmer Nathu’s declaration of committing suicide sparks a media frenzy and an exchange of barbs between the central and state governments, a young bureaucrat in the ministry of agriculture appeals to his senior to take an initiative.

The senior calms him down, offers him a cup of Darjeeling tea, and tells him what to do: “Set up a fact-finding mission with a retired judge and ask the law ministry to consult the high court. Suicide is a legal matter.” Through the rest of the film, whenever we see these two bureaucrats — like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — they keep telling the media the same refrain: “We are waiting for the high court’s orders.”

The film ends with Natha, presumed dead, sitting at a construction site in a city — a faceless creature covered in dust that many of us are accustomed to seeing beyond the rolled-up windows of our air-conditioned cars. It cuts to a sobering number of how many farmers were forced to leave their traditional work and migrate to the city — the number has only increased in recent times. Data released by the government shows how farmer suicides have also shot up.

As the farm sector is ravaged by the effects of Covid-19 and itinerant jobs in cities dry up, our contemporary Nathas and Shambhus are left with few options. Chhabu Mandal, a 35-year-old migrant from Bihar in Gurgaon, exercised that option and hanged himself on Thursday morning. He was one of the millions of our fellow citizens forced into destitution by a lack of preparedness on the part of the administration.
, was published in February 2020

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