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.
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