Other States

Showcasing Maharashtra’s rural milieu like no other filmmaker

Son of the soil: Filmmaker Santosh Ram.  

The world according to indie filmmaker Santosh Ram is a very different one as seen through the eyes of his more privileged counterparts.

Mr. Ram, the son of a humble schoolmaster from Udgir in Latur district, has showcased Maharashtra’s rural milieu and its hardscrabble lives with a sensitivity and realism like few others.

After failing to get through the entrance exam to the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), he learnt his craft by watching classics screened at a National Film Archives of India (NFAI) film appreciation course.

His latest film Prashna (‘Question’), a deeply thought examination of the lives of a seasonal sugarcane labourer couple and the problem of schooling faced by their child as a result of this migration, has been making waves in niche film festivals across the globe.

Drolly dubbing himself an FTII ‘canteen pass-out’, Mr. Ram finally broke through with Vartul (Circle) in 2009 – a stunning 18-and-a-half-minute documentary that won 13 awards across India and put him on the Indie filmmaking map.

The film has being selected for screening in 21 national and international film fests, most recently at the UNICEF Innocenti fest in Florence, Italy, and the London Migration Film earlier this week, while bagging no less than 14 awards in different categories including writing and cinematography.

Prashna is about an illiterate sugarcane labourer who uses her native intelligence to teach her child while coping with extant socio-economic and caste problems.

Child marriage issue

The idea for Prashna first came about in 2011, when Mr. Ram decided to tackle the problem of rising child marriages across the State.

“Given that this phenomenon was especially noticeable in the Marathwada and Vidarbha regions, I accordingly visited some of these places and began researching and found a number of heart-rending stories. It was during this research that a related problem of education of these children took hold. Child marriages and schooling intertwined when I started studying the migration of sugarcane workers from the Marathwada into the urban parts of Maharashtra,” he said.

There are around 10 -15 lakh sugarcane workers in Maharashtra and of these, the problems of women workers, especially single women workers who are known as ardha koyta (literally ‘half sickle’), are strikingly complex as they get only half the payment as opposed to what couples get, Mr. Ram observes.

The migration of these sugarcane farmers, who leave their homes in the Marathwada to work in the sugar heartland of western Maharashtra, ensures that their children are deprived of proper schooling for long stretches of time.

“As a result, these sugarcane workers focus on getting their daughters and sons married off before they reach the ages of 13 and 16 respectively as they then would be eligible to be paid more or become full koyta (full sickle) as known in the colloquial. Either way, this leaves very little prospects for their education,” Mr. Ram says.

He notes the challenge in Prashna was to show multiple stories and different, though intertwined issues in a lucid yet realistic manner in barely 24 minutes.

Mr. Ram’s ‘stock company’ is drawn from the drought-stricken parts of the State. His selection and deployment of a crew of amateur actors acting alongside real subjects harks back to the techniques pioneered in Italian neorealist classics like Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema (1947), Vittorio de Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1948), Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948), and legendary Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955).

This is not to say that Mr. Ram sacrifices entertainment on the altar of serious artistry: quite the contrary, for he is a firm believer that the social message should go hand-in-hand with entertainment.

“I have never pigeon-holed my works into ‘art house’ or ‘didactic message films’. Given that there were made for, and by, people who have themselves experienced major problems and obstacles, my films are accessible to all,” Mr. Ram said.

Budgetary constraints

The severe budgetary constraints meant that shooting had to take place with the actors living night and day among actual sugarcane labourers, absorbing their processes.

“It was a real risk for me as a director. Alongside these inexperienced actors, we shot this film with the actual sugarcane workers in Chungi village in Solapur district. We would shoot all day with the cane workers, have lunch with them and continue shooting well into the night as they were loading the trucks,” Mr. Ram says.

Mr. Ram says funding for his films come entirely through donations by friends with steadfast faith in his art.

After his breakthrough film Vartul in 2009, Mr. Ram experienced three bitter, disillusioning years in Mumbai where he reminisces knocking in vain on doors of production houses.

“It eventually dawned that there is no open-door entry for the likes of us. Every Assistant Director whom I saw used to come in a car of his own. I felt that I could not continue in this place where my output, which would have been mediocre anyway, would have been stifled by rigorous conformity to the system,” he says.

Brilliant creation

Determined not to compromise on his art, he returned to Udgir and produced yet another brilliant short, ‘Galli’ (The Lane).

With Prashna, this ‘Indie celluloid boondocker’ has tackled yet another important and rarely addressed topic, and treated it with a mastery and passion that would put his more privileged counterparts in the shade.


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