Nishtha Jain’s Documentary

‘Farming the Revolution’

Narendra Pachkhédé

What is a life in a protest movement? Nishtha Jain answers that question with her feature documentary Farming the Revolution, the winner of the coveted Best International Feature Documentary award at the 2024 HotDocs Festival on May 3 in Toronto.

The jury lauded the film for its enduring “cinematic sophistication and indomitable lyrical presence,” highlighting its effective portrayal of the power and persistence of ordinary people. The film was recognised for its deft narrative and visual eloquence in portraying a massive mobilisation of grassroots resistance.

Capturing the 16-month-long farmers’ protest, one of the largest and longest mass protests in contemporary India–Farming the Revolution–Nishtha Jain invites viewers into a realm where defiance takes centre stage, weaving a narrative of extraordinary courage and resilience. Against the backdrop of a COVID-induced lockdown, people are transported to the heart of a monumental uprising, where farmers stand united in opposition to the Indian government’s enactment of three contentious farm laws and fight the state’s war of attrition.

In the film, the essence of the movement is poetically likened to “deep water, silent and quieter.” This metaphor beautifully captures the profound nature of the cause, suggesting a depth that resonates with quiet intensity. This depth finds its anchorage in the ideological heritage of the Left movement in Punjab.

With judicious use of voice-over narration and intermittent sound bytes from television reports, the film delicately propels its narrative forward while preserving the spontaneity and unpredictability of real-life moments. Niraj Gera’s sound design completes the aural experience. Through this artful balance, Jain crafts a cinematic experience that is both immersive and redolent, inviting viewers to bear witness to the raw beauty and complexity of the human condition amidst the changing of seasons and brutality of life in a protest tent.

The screen brims with a palpable sense of community and conviviality, unapologetically weaving in the intricate political backdrop that emboldens the farmers’ determination. Jain’s lens remains unobtrusive, delicately observing her subjects without imposing direction.

Against the backdrop of a nation in lockdown, the protest enclaves that blossom outside Delhi became more than mere encampments; they emerged as vibrant bastions of resistance, where the principles of coexistence were redefined, and women stood shoulder to shoulder as equal partners in the political struggle. Day after day, these protestors, relegated to the margins of mainstream attention, embodied India’s diverse, unconquerable spirit. Together, they forge a new paradigm of coexistence, breathing life into sprawling protest sites that unfurl along the borders of Delhi.

For one thing this documentary is not a reportage of the Farmers’ Movement per se. Rather, Jain’s interests and focus are on the power equations in contemporary India, especially on women and labour. She is not interested in the “system” but in the “life-world” of the human condition she investigates.

Conscious of the politics of image making and self-representation, social hierarchies, women’s empowerment, and labour movements, the director chose not to centre the year-long farmer protest around a single character.

Certain women command attention with their formidable presence. Among them is HarinderBindu, the admired leader of the Indian Farmers’ Union (BKU EktaUgrahan), whose spirited efforts mobilise women and marginalised Dalit labourers. Her lineage is etched with tragedy as her father fell victim to the separatist forces–Khalistanis–during the turbulent 1980s.

Jain’s journey as a filmmaker has been marked by encounters with various people’s movements. From her ventures into Bastar, a tribal region in Central India, in 2009, where her camera and footage were confiscated by authorities on the third day, to documenting the Dalit uprising in Una in Gujarat, in 2016 and the student uprising in 2017, each experience has left an indelible mark on her cinematic repertoire. While these episodes may find their place in a future essay film, her approach to filmmaking remains rooted in experiential storytelling, necessitating an intimate and non-transactional connection with her subjects. Despite the presence of several other filmmakers, each gaining unique access to tell their story, Jain believes that together, all these films could portray a more holistic picture of this larger movement with an equally large political spectrum.

It was Jain’s wish to capture the essence of the ShaheenBagh movement–in the winter of 2019-20, ShaheenBagh, a working-class Muslim neighbourhood in southeast Delhi, rose as a beacon of resistance against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)–in a documentary but faced obstacles in finding a central character amidst government crackdowns and subsequent disruptions caused by events like the Delhi riots and COVID lockdown.

However, Jain’s HotDocs win propels her film forward to more competition, perhaps including the Oscars’ limelight, redirecting focus from war narratives to the farmers’ struggles that shape people’s food system.

(Narendra Pachkhédé is a critic and writer who splits his time between Toronto, London and Geneva. Courtesy: The Wire, an Indian nonprofit news and opinion website. It was founded in 2015 by SiddharthVaradarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, and M.K. Venu.)

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Vol 57, No. 1, Jun 30 - Jul 6, 2024