Capturing farmers' protest through the lens of cinema

At the break of dawn, a brand new newspaper is printed in Gurugram. As it is inked, cut, folded and stacked, Gurvinder Singh captures the first shot for the documentary he has been working on. A three times National Award-winning filmmaker, his Punjabi language films have premiered at film festivals in Cannes and Venice. His camera follows the newspaper bundles through the morning mist as they are carried to Tikri, one of the prominent protest sites bordering Delhi. The protesters, mainly farmers from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, demand the withdrawal of the three agriculture laws passed by the Parliament in September, 2020.

Singh, who resides in Chandigarh, had been aware of the agitation ever since the reforms were announced. He closely followed the news as farmers marched to Delhi in November. But, it was the launch of Trolley Times, a newsletter founded by farmers, students and activists that prompted him to participate, using the medium he knows best - cinema. At a time when the printing industry is in shambles, he found it startling that protesters had taken to publishing to help their cause. He has named his documentary after the paper.

Director Gurvinder Singh
Director Gurvinder Singh

At Tikri, Trolley Times is distributed out of a tent. An initiative to reclaim the narrative on the movement, it is written in Gurmukhi and Hindi. The bi-weekly paper had a print run of 2000 copies for its first issue, 5000 for second and 7000 for third. “People come to the stall voluntarily. They are curious,” Singh explains. It can be accredited to the contempt farmers bear for the mainstream media, most of whom have served them with neglect, name-calling, misinformation and propaganda.

Capturing farmers' protest through the lens of cinema

Besides information about the protest, the paper aims to cover its socio-political aspects. One of its pieces narrates how a group of men came to realise the effort that goes behind making perfectly-round chapatis. “Back home, they would ask their wives or mothers to cook up a meal without a second thought when their friends came over. Now they are the ones cooking for women. Observing this, an old man remarked that this is real feminism,” Singh recalls.

He operates with a crew of four, handling the camera himself. They go with the flow, planning their next steps as the protest unfolds. “The idea is to see the protest through the eyes of the newspaper,” he says. On the first day of shoot, the Trolley Times team asked him to find them at a particular pillar under the metro line.

Capturing farmers' protest through the lens of cinema

“It is interesting that all the trolleys have an address now and that address is the pillar number,” he says. A month into filming, he has navigated several bemusing landscapes - trolleys converted into mobile homes and camps set-up in the freezing cold so that people can sit-in for speeches day in and day out. At Tikri, protesters from each village gather among themselves to cook their meals. Whereas, at Singhu, large langars are organised. “Every site has a different energy,” he says.

The politically upfront documentary is a far cry from Singh’s last film, Khanaur. It was a delicate depiction of life in the hills that sought to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. The film was set in his own cafe in Bir. Where Khanaur's filming was aided by familiarity, the unpredictability of the protest poses fresh challenges for Singh. Still, he finds the endeavour satisfying, saying, “It feels great to witness this massive movement as an artist and make sense of it from the point of view of cinema.”

Capturing farmers' protest through the lens of cinema

The lack of freedom to pull-off projects such as this one is what keeps the critically-acclaimed filmmaker away from the mainstream. Although he watches Bollywood films, he simply doesn’t have an inclination towards glamour. “I don’t know whether making a mainstream film can give me independence. If I get to make it on my conditions, I’ll do it,” he maintains.

Singh’s documentary covers strong statements. Personally, he sympathises with the farmers who state that the contentious laws deny them an assured income and make them dependent on the markets, which can be easily manipulated by corporate giants. “Many economists have favoured the laws. But, the most heartening thing is that the farmer leaders have countered every argument thrown their way,” he says. As a filmmaker, however, he doesn’t dwell much on the debate among experts. Rather, he emphasises on how the farmers feel.

During Singh’s rounds on the borders, old farmers often ask him, “How long will it take?” They say, “We are stuck here.” Many men share the sentiment that they have come to get their shahidi. As of 8 January, 2021, there have been more than 120 farmer fatalities caused by freezing temperatures, heart attacks, accidents and suicide. That's approximately two deaths every day.

“People are prepared for any eventuality. They are completely fearless,” he says. After multiple rounds of negotiations with the government, farmer’s unions say that they will accept nothing short of repeal. Most recently, they rejected the Modi government's offer to suspend the laws for 18 months. Singh has cut a teaser from the footage he has collected so far and uploaded it on YouTube with a soundtrack by Madan Gopal Singh. As the protests proceed, the documentary will take its shape.

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