The husband-wife duo Nandan Saxena and Kavita Bahl, armed with a camera and “an iron soul”, set forth to Vidarbha to film the stories of farmer families who had lost their sons, brothers and husbands to suicides due to mounting debts, to render visible the issues of the marginalised small farmer and bring back into focus the forgotten stories of Vidarbha's farmer suicides. Their film “Cotton for my shroud” was screened last week at Suchitra Film Society. “Since 1995, a quarter of a million Indian farmers have committed suicide, most of whom were cotton farmers from Vidarbha in Maharashtra,” inform the filmmakers.
The couple began filming “Cotton For My Shroud” in 2006 when Vidarbha had recorded the highest number of suicides. They were supported in their endeavour by Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, an NGO actively involved in advocacy on farmers' issues.
The suicide of a farmer wasn't just another statistic for them, but a precious life lost due to faulty government paradigms. It took them almost five-and-a-half years to put the film together. “It was difficult to bury the ghosts and sweep the film under the carpet, as if nothing had ever goaded us to visit Vidarbha. We owed a lot to the people who had opened their hearts and hearths to two outsiders in their moment of grief. We could not betray their trust. As we previewed and digitised the footage, we re-lived the horror that had unfolded before our eyes in 2006,” write the former journalists in an email interview.
In “Cotton…”, the line “If one farmer kills himself, we can call it a suicide. But when a quarter of a million kill themselves, how can the government call it suicide? It is genocide,” reveals that justice delayed is no less a crime. “Torn between aggressive marketing of supposedly ‘better varieties' of transgenic crops by the State and his traditional wisdom of low-cost and eco-friendly agriculture, the farmer is forced to buy BT cotton, which results in an unending cycle of debt.”
The couple hold the government, multinational corporations and even certain sections of the media responsible for the condition of the cotton farmers in Vidarbha. “The farmers felt betrayed by the government extension agencies that are supposed to guide the farmers, they feel violated by the multinational corporations that are poisoning their land with chemicals, and genetically modified cotton seeds that do not live up to the tall claims made by Monsanto. They have lost respect for the media too for they feel that most of the media has been bought over by powerful politicians and multinationals.”
“Cotton…” won the Rajat Kamal for the Best Investigative Film at the 59th National Film Awards. But the government-funded Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF), the couple inform, chose not to show it. They had even organised a special screening for parliamentarians at the Constitution Club, for which they had invited the parliamentary standing committees on agriculture and rural development.
“Only Basudev Acharya had attended the screening; the other MPs were too busy to watch it.” Nandan and Kavita faced many daunting challenges while filming “Cotton…”. “The shopkeepers and agents of Monsanto-Mahyco were hostile but could not do much to stop us. The police and the Guardian Minister of Yavatmaal district did their best to stop us from going to film the funeral of Dinesh Gugul at Village Mendoli. He was killed when the police opened fire at the farmers at the Cotton Mandi at Wani, on 6 December 2006. We argued with the police officers, but the seasoned, shrewd police-wallahs sent us to the Mandi where an angry mob of farmers charged at us and almost smashed our camera. We were asked to meet the Guardian Minister at the Circuit House. As soon as we entered the Circuit House, a curfew was clamped at Wani. We finally reached Mendoli, defying the curfew.”
The couple has contacted schools and colleges to screen the film and attempts are being made at translating “Cotton…” into other regional languages. “We are trying to raise some contributions for making the Marathi and Hindi versions of the film to take it to the villages where we filmed. There is a demand for Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Odiya versions as well.”