SYNOPSIS: The large amount of suicides by farmers in India, has had a huge impact on the rural community, but the matter has not been taken up by the authorities or the media. Journalist P. Sainath makes it his business to increase awareness of the fate of the victims (both the farmers and their families) by publishing their stories in the daily newspaper The Hindu. This is unusual, because “Not a single newspaper in this country has a correspondent working full time on poverty.” In other words, in the eyes of the Indian elite, 70% of the Indian population is not newsworthy. Such overwhelming poverty is apparently too confronting for the readership. “Is it a sin to be a farmer?” asks one destitute man in desperation. Sainath uses the suicides to address the issue of the huge wealth disparity in India. Filmmaker Deepa Bhaita follows him from indigent farming families to well-attended lectures. The driven and well-informed journalist repeatedly exposes the distressing lack of social justice in India and the hypocrisy of neoliberalism. He paraphrases Tacitus for his somewhat apathetic highly-educated audience: Nero burned prisoners to provide light at night. His guests stood alongside and watched.
Nero’s Guests is built around a series of lectures and articles written by P. Sainath, rural affairs editor of the renowned Indian daily, The Hindu for over 30 years. Sainath has been deeply involved with rural and agricultural issues in India, authoring several books, including ‘Everybody Loves a Good drought,’ winner of the 2007 Ramon Magasasay Award. Sainath’s investigative approach and compelling commentary on the events that unfold in the film instil the film with lucidity and passion.
Over the last fifteen years, the Indian government has systematically cut support to Indian farmers in the form of subsidies, minimum guaranteed pricing and low-cost loans in a bid to make them ‘competitive.’ With trade policies demanding that Indian farmers compete in global markets, the agricultural policies have seen a paradigm shift from supporting the notion of selfsufficiency to income generation and hence ‘cash’ cropping. As subsidised fertilizer, water and power have all slowly disappeared, Indian farmers now purchase these inputs at market prices. However, they are not guaranteed a minimum purchase price for their products and, as the market is open to international vagaries, Indian farmers often find themselves unable to recover the cost of their inputs from the sale of their produce. In such cases, farmers usually borrow from local moneylenders. Experiencing continued poor returns, staring insolvency in the face and unable to provide for their families, farmers all over India are taking their lives every day.
The view among the entrenched elite – that corporations and industry propel growth – has led to direct competition between agriculture and industry. The battleground is land. Fertile, arable land used for farming is being acquired by industry all over India – further contributing to the ruin of agriculture and farmers.
While the issue of inequality in global trade is a complex macro-economic problem faced by a large section of the global population, the film captures the micro-effects of such policies on families and individuals. Poignant sequences are constructed around Sainath’s visits to families in which recent suicides have taken place. In a deeply moving segment, the family of a dead farmer sits facing the camera; his wife, daughters and young son. His daughter reads a poem written by her father, a farmer-poet while the camera captures the raw, externalized sorrow of the family. Time and again, Sainath enters these homes and talks to grieving families. In quiet sequences, the camera observes the family members, their eyes, their faces and the silence that descends on the home after the tragedy. On one level, this is an uncomfortably intrusive situation, but Sainath’s impetus propels the audience to examine the causes of the tragedy and seek answers instead of merely eliciting sympathy.
The filmmaker positions her subjects as dignified, articulate and resilient even in the face of blatant injustice. While the issue of farming and agriculture is usually populated by male voices, Bhatia frequently finds female subjects who reveal the emotional toll of economic insecurity. Sainath boards a train carrying migrant female workers from their homes to their workplace. Interviews with several women reveal that they put in twentyhour days to earn a meagre living at the cost of neglecting their children. They realize that their children do not even know them and yet they have no alternative but to continue.
Sainath pulls no punches when he comments on the disconnect between the policy-makers and the ground reality of life as a migrant labourer in India. He associates the changes occurring within the Indian economy with the distorted global trade regime enforced by the World Trade Organisation and the current oligopolistic structure of international food trade where tremendous power is concentrated within a few corporations. This has translated into sustained degradation in food security between nations, while bringing small-scale farmers to the brink of annihilation. Using coffee as an example, Sainath illustrates the extreme instability in prices caused by the concentration of market power and, ultimately, the altered pattern of coffee farming in the world to favour larger corporate profit.
The film criticises the apathy of the national media and the elite within India towards the unfolding crisis within the food sector. While cotton farmers are taking their lives, unable to repay $800 loans, a hundred kilometres away, over five hundred journalists cover ‘India Fashion Week” in Mumbai, where models tread the catwalk wearing expensive cotton garments. In candid sequences, the participants and audience justify their wealth and demonstrate their ignorance while clinging on to their mantra of the trickle down effects of wealth. Parties are held to remove poverty, and the arrogant belief that the rich are inherently superior is rife. The film successfully shows the ever-widening gap between the glowing, corporate India Inc and rural India, paying the price of ‘development.’
The issue of farmers’ suicides has been largely seen as too difficult and something of a dampener on the festivities around India’s recent economic successes. The commercial and state-run media have ignored it.
Bhatia’s creative approach to the subject is embodied in Sainath, who is not only a commentator but also as a character in the film. Observational sequences of him at work position him within the discourse as a powerful and articulate voice with the ability to catalyse action within the ranks of politicians and bureaucrats. As an academic lecturer, he inspires youth and sparks the imagination of his audiences. In a commanding sequence, his audience is moved to tears as he recounts tales of his journeys to the villages where suicides have occurred.
Nero’s Guests is an unequivocal portrayal of a nation where an elite – pursuing an agenda prescribed by international agencies with little commitment to Indian realities – dominates national interest. It comes as a reality check against the celebration of dizzying economic growth rates and the burgeoning consumerism that claim to be the face of modern India.